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The business case for inclusive leadership

People are the most important resource a business has and managers are vital in getting the best out of employees. We hear it time and again from CEOs, business leaders, academics and employees themselves. And this is what inclusive leadership is all about.

Over the past 18 months Opportunity Now has been working with Shapiro Consulting and five employers – BAE Systems, the British Army, Citi, Fujitsu and HM Revenue & Customs – on a piece of action research into inclusive leadership and how to embed it into an organisation. We have published our report and a five-point framework for businesses who want to implement inclusive leadership.

So why do we need inclusive leadership? Inclusive leaders get the best out of all their people – male and female, from all backgrounds and of all ages – while ensuring their organisation is able to compete in a changing business environment. Leaders need to be adaptable to manage agile workplaces of the future, and create cultures that leverage diversity for competitive advantage, to the benefit of business and stakeholders alike.

Our research in 2011 showed inclusive leadership has huge benefits for individuals and organisations – over 80% of survey respondents who had worked with an inclusive leader were more motivated, productive, loyal to the organisation and more likely to go the extra mile. Meanwhile, businesses with inclusive leaders were 70% more likely to have captured a new market in the previous 12 months and 45% more likely to increase market share. Inclusive leaders are also effective at breaking down the barriers to progression experienced by many women and minority groups.

There is a strong business and moral case, but more than anything it makes business sense. The problem is this: there simply aren’t enough of them. Inclusive leaders learn from other inclusive leaders or from working with people from different backgrounds to themselves, but this process needs accelerating.

To help organisations do this, we developed a five-point framework that sets out how to develop and embed inclusive leadership. The framework does not need to be used in a linear way; it is flexible to adapt to what your organisation already has in place and the challenges it faces. The five points of the framework are:

• Vision – set out why inclusive leadership matters to your business and set achievable targets

• Lead – build a group of sponsors or champions from across the business

• Develop – put inclusive capabilities into the core of management and leadership

• Embed – make inclusive leadership sustainable by embedding in day-to-day process

• Evaluate – track impact and ensure accountability at senior level

If inclusive leadership is going to succeed and real change take place, it needs to be positioned at the core of what it means to be a successful leader in your organisation. Our research found a culture shift like this doesn’t happen overnight, and we need this transformation to be driven by those at the top setting out why it is important and acting as role models for change.

However, it also needs to be pushed from the middle by managers. For them to buy into this culture change, senior leaders need to be able to answer the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ The answer is getting the best out of all of their team, and senior leaders need to set out why this supports the delivery of their business objectives.

Developing and embedding inclusive leadership is an ongoing process. It requires courage, innovation and resilience to progress. We understand that employers are at different stages on their journey and that it may seem like a daunting prospect, but it’s key to making the most of the talent available.

Laura Swiszczowski is research manager at Opportunity Now and co-author of the report and five-point framework