A recent talk I attended titled ‘Innovative Leadership’ spiralled into a debate and long conversation about diversity and inclusion. It spoke of the old way of leading; being egotistical, hierarchal and doctorial. It spoke of the rise of the introverted leader, those who aren’t loud and eager to prove they know everything, but those who support, coach and hold important one to one relationships. They talked of true, curious listeners who are happy to be challenged and recruit people because they are different instead of the same.
They used loads of great words: adaptability, authenticity, active listeners and great communicators (awfully summed up as ‘soft skills’), to describe the innovative leaders of this generation. They called them inclusive and innovative because this type of leader creates the space where innovation can just happen.
As Business of the Year 2017 in the First Women Awards, Capgemini take diversity and inclusion pretty seriously, and as ASE practitioners it’s also at the forefront of our mind. It is a subject I personally find fascinating but more fascinating is how diversity agendas still don’t have the success and traction they deserve even when correlation between diversity, innovation and leadership seem obvious.
Read any good book: Messy, How Ideas Happen, HBR on Collaboration (to name a few) and you don’t have to look far to find the evidence to support the conversation and growing narrative around inclusion and innovation.
Diversity needs to be seen, heard and acted on
This HBR article about personality profiling argued that diversity isn’t about what gender you identify with, the colour of your skin or your country of origin. It argued that embracing cognitive diversity is what makes great ideas happen. Cognitive Diversity is about embracing differences and being OK with the fact that people think, see, hear, feel and process their surroundings differently to you. That joy in embracing different perspective is embedded in the well-established MG Taylor Vantage Points model or the NLP Perceptual Positioning exercise that helps people see things differently thus making it easier (in the ASE world) to work through problems with empathy and make the right (albeit difficult) decisions thus leading to innovation.
What does style of leader have to do with innovation and diversity?
Leaders who genuinely care about their team and their work shine. It means something to their subordinates. The speakers on this panel believed those who were authentic and passionate, those who helped develop others, were the ones who created teams that excelled.
These leaders not only brought their true selves to work, they allowed their team to be their true selves too (embracing diverse cultures and thinking). What’s more, they were open to fail. And with this they didn’t just talk the talk, they walked it too.
They showed vulnerability* by admitting failure and taught their teams that this is OK. It also models the behaviour you want to see in others and psychologically opens their mind to the idea they have a safe place to play. If you have a safe place to play with ideas with passion, it is no wonder innovation thrives.
I could talk about the research that supports this for hours, but you’d get bored of reading. The point is, corporate culture has to change. And changing culture has to come partly from the top.
All talk no action makes stagnant businesses
It was only a few weeks back I was in an event where 99% of participants were white males in their 40s - 50s. Having worked for the same organisation for years, they were the same men who had created the problem we were looking to fix and I couldn’t help but be curious about how to ensure they didn’t use the same thinking to try to solve it.
If you are a leader, what are you doing to embrace diversity? Be honest, are you paying lip service to inclusion? How well do you really empower your teams? How are you supporting diversity of thought (or shutting it down because you know the right answer)? What behaviour do you model and how can you tweak that to inspire self-directed innovation and problem solving?
*showing vulnerability is just one (successful and proven) way to build relationships and an inclusive culture