Inclusion is not an illusion, but it needs work - D&I leadership lessons from the tech sector

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett April 22, 2021
Becoming an inclusive leader rests on a number of leadership traits and qualities. It also requires commitment, which needs to manifest itself as concrete goals and targets.


While it may be a frequently-stated truism that ‘change comes from the top’, what is not necessarily so clear are the leadership qualities and traits that make such change possible, particularly when addressing Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) issues.

According to Perrine Farque, founder of D&I consultancy and training provider Inspired Human and author of ‘Inclusion: The ultimate secret for an organization’s success’,  what much of it boils down to though is attitude.

This attitude is based around the idea that everyone has their own unique strengths and value to add, which is why it is so important to build a workplace community that feels accessible to everyone and makes them feel like they belong, are seen, heard, respected and valued - no matter what they look or think like. But in order to create this kind of environment, leaders need to display certain characteristics, says Farque:

It’s about being an active listener, which is a very simple trait but so rare, and being willing to continually learn and improve and proactively challenge your own biases. But it’s also about being humble and vulnerable. If someone says ‘I don’t know what the answer is – what do you think?’ it makes it much easier to relate to them, which generates trust. And for employees to be engaged and bring their full selves to work, trust is vital.

Other qualities that Andreina Orta Barrerra, HR business partner at business analytics software and services supplier SAS Spain, believes are significant include curiosity, not just about oneself in order to develop self-awareness, but also about people from other cultures and backgrounds, particularly if the organization operates globally. She says:

Having inclusive leaders is important. It’s not just about leaders though – you have to create inclusiveness from lots of different angles. But they are very important as they’re role models, and they’ll be the ones making the recruitment and promotion decisions. So ultimately, if they don’t have an inclusive mindset, all your processes will end up being biased.

Valuable development activities here include cross-cultural and unconscious bias training as well as experiential work around the idea of privilege.

Also useful is hosting awareness-raising events to mark specific occasions, such as International Women’s Day, as they can “open a door and spark a flame”, as Barrerra puts it. This year, for example, Farque gave a presentation to SAS Spain on imposter syndrome and the impact it has on individuals.

How to avoid the D&I pitfalls

But given its young workforce, the tech industry faces a particular challenge, especially in the start-up space. The issue is that many leaders and managers, who are often in their late-20s and early-30s, have not benefitted from management or leadership training or experience. Farque explains:

It’s a misconception that Millennials are naturally better managers because they don’t have a command-and-control approach and often have more awareness of inequality issues than older executives. What I see frequently is young leaders being put in charge of a team who haven’t done it before or maybe only once, and while they have very good digital skills, they don’t know how to manage people and build trust. There’s an entire generation of managers who manage through Slack and instant messaging tools, with no face-to-face interaction or one-to-one contact. There’s no basic layer of social niceties and it creates a very toxic environment, which in turn damages retention as employees don’t feel heard or listened to.

Despite this difficult situation, Farque believes there are four basic principles that organizations can follow to improve their diversity and inclusiveness - no matter what the age of their leaders. The first is about being “intentional”, which includes clarifying why D&I is important to the company and articulating that in the corporate mission statement and across the business. As Farque says:

As soon as I hear the phrase ‘we’re a very inclusive organization’ by those that aren’t members of underrepresented groups, the red flag goes up. There’s nearly always a gap between what leaders think and what people in underrepresented groups feel. So the most forward-looking organizations, such as Facebook and Google, constantly invest in D&I as an ongoing process, while those saying they’re inclusive typically have one woman or person of colour on a team. It’s dangerous as it leads to complacency. I’ve never come across an organization that didn’t have more to do.

The second principle involves following in the footsteps of companies, such as Nike and McDonalds by linking executive compensation to D&I performance to encourage commitment. Although such moves are currently rare in the tech industry, particularly outside of the US and in the small-to-medium enterprise space, UK-based Isotropic Systems is an exception to the rule here.

John Finney, the satellite terminal provider’s Chief Executive has been working with Farque since last October to create a more inclusive organization. He believes that “getting in advisors who talk straight” is vital, particularly as being the “white, middle-aged man” in charge means he is “not likely to be aware of all the issues”.

The importance of target

Just as important though is making it clear to the wider workforce that he and his leadership team have made a commitment to D&I, which includes, in his case, linking diversity hiring targets to compensation in order to incentivise people to take the matter seriously. The aim here is to double the number of people of colour and triple the women in the organization over the next few years. At the end of the first quarter of this year, female representation stood at 21% compared with an industry average of 19% and People of Color at 25% compared with an industry average of four percent. 

The next step in creating an inclusive organization, meanwhile, is to set goals for retaining diverse hires, an approach that is “rarely” implemented, Farque says:

Most employers don’t see it as an immediate issue. They think it’s good to hire diverse people but don’t think beyond it. So they don’t connect the dots and set people up for success by rewarding and promoting them, mentoring and sponsoring them and giving them stretch assignments. And then they wonder why turnover and retention is a challenge.

As Isotropic is currently working on possible measurement approaches, Finney describes it as a “work in progress”. But he has already introduced a number of other measures to proactively create the company culture he desires.

For example, during the recruitment process, a number of “situational judgement” tests, which include one with a D&I focus, are used to provide insights into candidates’ attitudes to ensure they are a good culture fit.

Regular surveys and assessments are employed to take the workforce’s emotional temperature, and company-wide working groups, including one on D&I, have also been set up. Their aim is to “improve the company from a number of different standpoints, with feedback as to how we could do better coming from the ground up rather than being imposed by the leadership team”, Finney explains.

SAS’ intention, on the other hand, is to set up an HR analytics team this year to both provide the business with better insights into its people and enable the HR function to become more data-driven. Such insights will be used not only to understand how well members of minority groups are faring within the organization, but also as the basis for setting key performance indicators (KPIs) - which, as Barrerra says, “are important if you want to see change happen”.

The fourth and final principle for creating an inclusive company, however, is taking on diverse suppliers. Again, although adopting this approach is not common outside of large enterprises, Farque advocates devising goals around “what good looks like to you” to give the business something concrete to work towards.

My take

I have to agree with Farque that ultimately the biggest organizational change tends to come about as a result of senior executive commitment. As she points out:

As a leader, you have to think of yourself as a change agent and acknowledge that accountability starts with you. It’s about commitment so it doesn’t just end up as good intentions over the short-term. Transformation takes on average about three years, so people can’t be complacent. It’s a process of continual learning and change.


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