3 Actions for Successful Inclusive Leadership

Inclusive leaders are essential to success. Research shows that they directly enhance company performance and culture. To build a successful culture predicated on inclusion, a Kincannon & Reed report has pointed out the steps in three key areas that the inclusive leader must take.

February 23, 2024 – The jury is in: inclusive leadership is successful leadership. According to a recent Kincannon & Reed survey, food and agriculture industry executives indicated that critical leadership characteristics in executive recruitment and engagement include emotional intelligence (74 percent) and diversity, equity and inclusion (77 percent).

The growing interest in diversity expectations from employees, customers, and shareholders is well-founded: companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) generate significantly more revenue from innovation than those with below-average diversity. The case for inclusivity is formidable, but so is the challenge of getting started. The majority of diversity is under the surface, and unique differentiators like values, preferences, and background are harder to identify than gender, ethnicity or age. Understanding the needs of each team member requires a different mindset and approach.

To build a successful culture based on inclusion, Kincannon & Reed identified the steps in three key areas that the inclusive leader must take:

1. Self-Reflection.

“First, understand yourself,” the Kincannon & Reed report said. “Self-reflection provides an inner compass that helps identify where you are and points toward growth.” Kincannon & Reed has seen great examples of inclusive leaders in our interactions with executives and have noticed some similar traits among the best. Research from Harvard Business Review confirms these traits distinguishing inclusive leaders from others:

  • Visible Commitment: They articulate an authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable, and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  • Humility: They are modest about their capabilities, admit mistakes, and create space for others to contribute.
  • Awareness of Bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots and flaws in the system and work hard to ensure a meritocracy.
  • Curiosity About Others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and empathize to understand those around them.
  • Cultural Intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  • Effective Collaboration: They empower others, value diverse thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

These specific traits, when practiced, strengthen a leader’s emotional intelligence (EQ), according to the Kincannon & Reed report. “The higher the EQ, the better the communication, connection, and emotional navigation – the better the leadership.”

When visibly committed to diversity and aware of other cultures, systemic issues, and their own bias, inclusive leaders better understand how people feel judged, included, and excluded, the Kincannon & Reed explains. “When collaborative and curious, inclusive leaders work to ensure every member of their team is valued, treated with respect, and receives what they need to thrive,” the study said. “When humble, inclusive leaders create a safe environment where trust can be regained after mistakes, and where team well-being and retention increase. The inclusive leader is no unicorn: anyone can cultivate these traits. No matter the starting point, powerful leadership externally begins with deep assessment internally.”

Related: What CHROs Need to Know About DEI Moving Forward

Kincannon & Reed says to start with these three steps:

  1. Ask yourself meaningful questions: Are all your team members forthcoming, or are some withdrawn? Do you experience communication difficulties? Do you attribute these difficulties to someone’s character? There is more diversity within groups than between groups, so the list of reflection questions can be long. Start with a few questions every day to build awareness.
  2. Identify areas of growth: Everyone will have them, but few will look at these areas as opportunities for inclusive leadership. Once you’ve identified your biases and behavioral patterns, identify how far you need to tip the scales back to fairness and equity.
  3. Get support: Surround yourself with people and resources who will help you uncover blind spots, stay consistent with intentional learning, and celebrate your growth. From personal diverse advisory boards to local resources, make a growth plan that works for you.

Through self-reflection, feedback, and learning, Kincannon & Reed explains that leaders can cultivate foundational traits for inclusive leadership. Uncovering priorities, preferences, and biases allows leaders to build a safe environment where every team member can thrive, the firm says.

2. Building an Inclusive Team Culture.

However, awareness is not enough. “Reflection provides the compass, but team input supplies the map of where everyone is, and how to lead them toward inclusivity,” the report explains. “And a thriving, diverse team culture begins with inclusive hiring practices. Top candidates have many opportunities and little tolerance for unhealthy company culture. Uncovering these biases is essential for attracting and retaining the best.”

The Uncertain Future of Diversity and Hiring
Diversity has had it rough lately. First, there were cutbacks due to the economy and then came the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action. That was followed by a cohort of Republican attorneys general issuing a letter to Fortune 100 CEOs questioning the legality of some DEI efforts. The main issue for the moment centers on quotas, a topic which was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court ruling banning affirmative action at universities, according to a recent report from Korn Ferry. Though the ruling doesn’t apply to the private sector, the attorneys general are raising questions.

Kincannon & Reed notes to leverage these steps to uncover biases and ensure inclusion during the hiring process:

  • Prioritize the counsel of an external specialist to both assess and build equitable hiring practices that are built on DE&I principles.
  • Gather and review anonymous feedback from teams to determine whether employees feel current hiring practices are inclusive, pay is fair, the work environment is equitable for all, and that metrics important to your DE&I strategy are included.
  • Work with HR staff and appropriate stakeholders to make improvements where needed on an ongoing basis.

But what about your current team? “Today’s convergence of multiple generations in the workplace creates a variety of management preferences, desired development opportunities, and motivations,” the Kincannon & Reed report said. “Baby Boomers prefer talking in person or on the phone. Younger generations prefer texting and planned calls. Boomers value loyalty while Gen X values quality of life, and so on.”

Related: The Evolving Role of Chief Diversity Officers in Shaping DEI

The report also noted that leaders who want to create an inclusive culture must understand the differences driving their diverse and multigenerational workforce for higher retention and performance. “The answers to these questions provide a more complete picture of your team’s needs and how you can support them,” the study said. “And leveraging these answers will empower you to create a healthy work culture that attracts and retains leaders.”

To explore your team members’ needs, Kincannon & Reed says to ask these questions:

  1. What motivates you?
  2. How can I empower you to do your best work?
  3. What is your preferred management style?
  4. Do you like to be recognized for good work? If yes, how so?
  5. What are your overarching career goals?
  6. What professional development opportunities would you like to pursue?
  7. What diminishes my credibility as a leader?

3. Step Three: Create an Inclusive Company Culture

To become an inclusive leader, Kincannon & Reed says that you must be able to unify diverse teams towards a common goal and track company progress. The firm explains that your company values and purpose will be imperative throughout this process. A company’s values should be all-encompassing no matter the circumstance.

“They should be applied to hiring criteria, daily decision making, and even assessing whether current employees are a good match for your company,” the Kincannon & Reed report said. “To ensure company values are as inspiring as they are instructional, start with a company-wide culture survey that is executed by external consultants. If resources for external partners are unavailable, provide certainty that input shared is kept confidential and not tied to any individual, unless they want it to be attributed.”

Research from Harvard Business Review offers a framework for addressing and strengthening the way your company communicates your vision, mission and values. Your vision should be aspirational and paint a picture of the significant impact for which you are striving. The mission should be an action-oriented statement that describes the daily focus that will turn your vision into reality. And your values should serve as a guidebook or instruction manual for all employees.


If an employee is clearly misaligned with company values and expectations and does not make swift and drastic improvements in performance and attitude, termination of employment is necessary, according to the Kincannon & Reed report.

“When leaders and managers are equipped to address toxic behaviors and set clear expectations, they build a healthier work environment for all – one that fosters greater talent engagement, retention, performance, and innovation,” it said. “From the culture it builds to the revenue it brings, inclusive leadership is successful leadership. To prioritize inclusivity in the workplace, establish and communicate a clear vision, mission and values, ensure all employees understand expectations and are provided resources and an action plan. Establish hiring practices that are aligned with diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities, and track progress over time. Finally, manage company culture by proactively training, promoting inclusive leadership, and swiftly addressing toxic employee behavior.”

Related: Navigating the Road to Diversity

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor; Lily Fauver, Senior Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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