What is Inclusive Leadership?: Key Learnings from February’s CPO Dinner

On Wednesday 15 February, we held a Chief People Officer Dinner where Nicky Costa and Julio Bruno talked about their experiences and lessons in successfully driving change and innovation through HR.

The dinner was a great opportunity to hear from leaders about how HR is the key to connecting C-Suite leaders to employees, and learn how Inclusive Leadership has a direct impact on the wellbeing of employees and company culture more generally.

Some of the themes discussed included the key to productive relationships between CEOs, CFOs and CPOs, keeping employee passion and culture alive amidst mass redundancies, and making sure that your advocacy is not seen as all talk.

How to work alongside a CEO and CFO as partners for driving change

In their conversation, Nicky and Julio spoke about the key to productive relationships between CEO, CFO, and CPO. They talked about how HR leaders bring the knowledge of the company into the C-Suite and point out that the role is a group function; essential to bring the employee view into consideration when it comes to working on strategies and visions for an organization.

HR leaders are able to understand the business as a whole, and this is a great asset to work alongside CEOs and CFOs. Nicky and Julio emphasized that CPOs and HR Leaders should be the antidote of the ‘yes person’ in the leadership team, and as defenders of employees, they need to be assertive on decisions that can impact the workforce.

Nicky and Julio also spoke about the importance of being great storytellers and how that is important to drive organizations forward. From experience, they stated that CEOs usually find it difficult to take risks and make changes to the business, and this is where CPOs come in; they are able to provide a narrative that will help the leadership team visualize the journey that the company will take, while also being mindful of the employee experience.

Keeping culture and employee passions alive against the backdrop of change

The topic of keeping culture alive was also brought up, and the question of how to build culture in a time where flexible and remote working is becoming more popular is still being asked. Culture matters in the workplace because it gives employees a sense of belonging and connects them to the business and their colleagues.

In 2020, the pandemic had put a spotlight on HR and it is happening again as a result of large layoffs and restructuring. Nicky and Julio explain that inclusive leadership is all about having a narrative; this is also advantageous in keeping culture and employee passion alive. Through all these challenges, leaders can use storytelling to highlight the company’s core values and benefits, and call out inconsistent behaviors that don’t fit in.

With mass redundancies, employees are losing trust within their companies, resulting in an impact on culture. In times of crisis, CPOs can be pioneers at writing the rules, ensuring that they are prioritizing employees’ wellbeing in the process. Nicky and Julio also advise that HR leaders should reach out to trustworthy professionals who have the knowhow you are looking for when putting forward innovative policies and solutions.

Inclusive Leadership: what it is, and how to embody it in everyday actions?

Nicky and Julio also touched upon Inclusive Leadership. They stated that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is often seen as a tick box exercise. Over three years ago, many companies invested heavily in hiring diverse leaders in order to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion, however without any precedent in inclusive initiatives, this became nothing more than virtue signaling.

And indeed, with downsizing, companies are now getting rid of DEI departments, roles, and budgets.

Reasons for this include:

  • Organizations seeing DEI functions as a ‘nice to have’ rather than core functions, such as sales or finance
  • They are operating on a last one in, first one out policy and DEI roles have been the most recent functions to be added into the workplace

These layoffs are also disproportionately affecting diverse employees and harming diversity; especially since roles such as HR, recruiting, and marketing often make up 20 percent of cuts, and those are usually made up of more women and diverse talent.

What companies need to realize, Nicky and Julio added, is that DEI roles are in place to protect diverse employees, and losing them will risk a company losing its soul and values. If organizations don’t internalise the idea that its workforce must reflect the makeup of its clients and consumers, there is a huge problem.

So how can leaders start to create inclusive workplaces?

Nicky and Julio advise to start the work internally. HR Leaders must uncover their own biases and take accountability. Accountability is the key when it comes to planning for DEI. It should also be a part of KPIs and rewards for a company’s senior leaders; passing that accountability down throughout the business and with partners.

Leaders should also implement an inclusive recruitment process that helps levelling the playing field for diverse talent, as well as ensuring that policies are in place so a candidate’s opportunity is not derailed by one senior stakeholder’s unconscious bias. Objective, performance-based criteria, competency-focused interviewing, panels rather than single interviewers, and taking independent feedback from each interviewer, should all form part of best practice for assessing candidates.

Inclusion needs to be much more than an initiative. It needs to be an ongoing strategic business priority that is woven into all parts of a business. It needs clear plans, accountability, and resources, alongside the implementation of company-wide training programs and workshops to identify and eradicate potential biases at play within the recruitment and onboarding process to create tangible system change.

Continuing the Conversation

Our appreciation goes to Nicky and Julio, and to everyone who attended and contributed their opinions and experiences. Audeliss has been supporting organizations with diversifying senior leadership for over 11 years, and if you would like to talk to us about your approach to diverse executive search, please get in touch.