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The Secret of Inclusivity

In a world where diversity is a reflection of the global talent pool, inclusivity becomes the key to effective leadership. In this interview, Sally reveals practical strategies for leaders to overcome unconscious bias and cultivate inclusive behaviors.

Many organizations work on rooting out unconscious bias with good intentions, but this can make it harder to foster cultures where people can build collaborative relationships across gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual divides. 

That’s the view of Sally Helgesen, who has spent 35 years working with women around the world to advance their careers and is described in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership. Here, she tells us more.  

You say that diversity is neither the problem nor the goal. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Diversity is not a goal. It is the nature of the global talent pool. It defines who is available for hire. Inclusion is the means by which this talent pool is most effectively led because those who have historically been outside the leadership mainstream are those most likely to be unsure that they belong. 

How can well-intentioned efforts to root out unconscious bias hold organizations back?   

First, inclusive bias training seeks primarily to address people’s thoughts. It can provide insights but rarely offers a path for moving forward by identifying specific actions or behaviors demonstrating inclusion. It’s mostly ‘aha’ moments, without the ‘now what?’. 

Second, it can be very painful and discouraging for people to hear what their colleagues may be thinking or know the details of their family’s bias against people like them. This therapeutic model may be helpful to the individuals who gain insights, but it does not serve collegiality among team members. 

What other triggers might undermine our ability to connect across divides?  

Visibility is a major trigger. People who are poor at gaining visibility, claiming their achievements, and being noticed are often triggered by those who are good at it, dismissing them as showboats and telling themselves a story about how nice they are. Those who are good at visibility are often triggered by those who are not, dismissing them as not being players, not ready for prime time. Other key triggers include the words ‘it’s not fair’ and humor, communication styles and how we build and leverage our networks. 

What are the key inclusive behaviors that business leaders should look to foster?  

A key inclusive behavior is investing in colleagues’ development: finding out what they aspire to, identifying how you might help them, and asking what you can do to be of service. Suggest networks they might want to join, offer to introduce them to people and be on the lookout for honors or awards for which you might nominate them. 

It’s also helpful to look beyond the usual suspects when inviting people to a meeting: who might benefit from being included? Who might learn from attending? Seat them in the center, the front of the room, or at the table instead of putting them in the back, as often happens. 

Honor people’s time, making it clear that you know they are busy and avoid overloading them with extra work. Push back against robotic bureaucracy requests that can consume frustrating hours for employees. Remember Peter Drucker’s rule that a manager’s first job is always managing up: protecting people from unreasonable demands that float down from higher levels.  

How can business leaders do this effectively? 

Create a culture where people are comfortable asking for help or clarification by doing so yourself. Be honest and frank about what you do not know.

Your credibility is not vested in having all the answers but in whether people believe what you say. You also want to make sure that when mistakes are made, you identify the lessons that can help move everyone forward. Above all, avoid a culture of blame.  

Where are we on the journey to inclusivity compared to the turn of the millennium? 

Before the millennium, senior leaders (female, people of color) often hesitated about joining employee networks because they feared doing so would tag them as, for example, “a woman, not a leader.” This reluctance has mostly vanished. 

I have observed substantial and sustained progress since the year 2000. Global companies today recognize the reality of a diverse workforce and have, for the most part, made significant adjustments to their policies, increased funding for diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives, and are far more likely to hold leaders to account for progress. Many have adjusted how they assess performance and identify candidates for promotion in ways that root out biases that were formerly unrecognized.  

There is still room for improvement, however, but by applying the principles in my book, companies can elevate their inclusion game and create a workforce that exemplifies solidarity rather than division.  

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Rising Together

Sally’s latest book, Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace, suggests strategies to build more inclusive relationships, teams, and workplaces and is available in all leading bookstores.

Read it here


Sally Helgesen


Sally Helgesen, cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, is an internationally best-selling author, speaker and leadership coach. She has been inducted into the Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame, which honors those whose ideas have shaped the field of leadership worldwide. She is also ranked number 3 among the world’s thought leaders by Global Gurus. Her previous book, How Women Rise, co-authored with legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women as they move forward in their careers. It became the top-seller in its field within a week of publication and rights have been sold in 22 languages.

She is also the author numerous other books, including The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, hailed as the classic in its field and continuously in print since 1990, and The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, cited in The Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time and credited with bringing the language of inclusion into business. For over 30 years, Sally has delivered leadership workshops and keynotes for companies, partnership firms and associations around the world.

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