Inclusive Leadership – Why & How

Executive Coach Jane Storer explores the need for change in how organisations and leaders find ways to build more inclusive cultures.

“We are all in the same storm, even if we are not in the same boat … some of us are in yachts while others are in decrepit rowboats with holes in the bottom”¹

The coronavirus storm posed an existential threat to our society, and for those workers who were not on the front line providing key services the instruction was unequivocal – stay at home.  With their teams either furloughed or working from home, the focus of most leaders has been on good crisis management coupled with clear communications and guidelines. Done well, this has provided stability and continuity during lockdown, and a sense that we are weathering the storm together. In a recent survey, 81% of respondents agree that their company “has a responsible approach and is behaving in an exemplary manner during this crisis.”2

Inclusive Leadership- Why and How

The balancing act of being parent, teacher, carer, chief cook-and-bottle-washer whilst also working has been widely acknowledged and flexible working has become the norm for many. But of course, this balancing act is even harder when you feel like you are in a decrepit rowboat with holes in the bottom.  One of the guilty pleasures of endless Zoom calls is seeing into other peoples’ homes and their ‘real’ lives, but for anyone who doesn’t want their home on display because it reveals an aspect of their lives they don’t feel comfortable sharing, this intrusion highlights the privilege which some – but not all – enjoy.  Looking around a yacht is entertaining; looking around a rowboat is humbling.

Just as the country was coming to terms with life in lockdown, a second storm hit: the horrendous killing of George Floyd and the subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has exposed the vast inequalities that systemic racism perpetuates – both here in the UK and around the world. Our collective compassion has been heightened by heart-wrenching stories of the most vulnerable members of our community during these two storms, which I think has led to a heightened understanding/empathy for how racism impacts the livelihoods of Black and minority ethnic people. Anybody who claims to have had a ‘blindspot’ about racism before simply cannot ignore it now. We have read the corporate statements promising change, and we have applauded the corporate donations to good causes, so now is the time to take action in the arenas where we have influence and control – our places of work.

That these two storms have hit in such quick succession drives a compelling need for fundamental change in how organisations plan to address the ethical issue of racism and the logistical issue of agile working. Research of 1500 working parents recently revealed that 63% of respondents believe their employer will be more open to remote, flexible or agile working.³ Anecdotally, coaching clients are telling me that in-house surveys reveal that, while working parents are voting for the flexibility of working from home several days a week, younger and less privileged team members are voting to return to the office. This is a new team dynamic, in which colleagues will be dispersed in different locations, potentially never all in the same space at the same time. To tackle these two challenges simultaneously, leaders are considering how to build more inclusive cultures.

Miller & Katz (2012)4 define Inclusion as: “a sense of belonging; feeling respected, valued and seen for who we are as individuals; and a level of supportive energy and commitment from leaders, colleagues, and others so that we – individually and collectively – can do our best work”.

Businesses desperately need everyone to do their best work – individually and collectively – to rebuild and thrive in the economic turbulence that lies ahead!  Which poses the question: why would any leader not want to create an inclusive culture?

Complex issues tend not to have Best Practice Playbooks to follow, and some leaders may well have depleted energy levels right now, so seeking support and expertise is the first step to addressing the next ‘unprecedented’ phase of this journey. Coaching offers great support during times of change. Coaches are skilled at working with uncertainty and supporting their clients by focusing not just on the here and now, but on the longer-term goals and aspirations they have for themselves and their organisations.  Hawkins and Turner5 suggest a framework for coaching:

  •  Who does this work serve?
  • What do those people value about you and what do they need you to develop?
  • What do you need to step up to?
  • What would you regret in two years having not explored in coaching now?

This framework encourages coaching clients look to the wider system and to think about everybody that they lead, support, buy from, sell to, and impact. It prompts the need to check assumptions by asking profound questions and listening to understand. It helps to define a better future which then acts as a route map for the coaching client and their team. Coaching provides support and challenge to build courage, resilience and accountability along the way.

Inclusive leaders demonstrate inclusive behaviours and inclusive processes.

Inclusive behaviours include: encouraging open discussions and listening deeply to individual team members; developing empathy for their lived experience; respecting their hopes and fears; being open-minded so they can bring their whole selves to work without covering up aspects which ‘don’t fit in’; inviting new perspectives and putting them into practice; building trust and collaboration in pursuit of the team’s overall purpose; team building events with wide appeal; ensuring remote colleagues are both seen and heard; regularly checking in and reviewing goals, challenges and progress.

Inclusive behaviours cost nothing – and will form the foundation for ongoing change.

Inclusive processes include: recruitment criteria which remove bias and focus on competencies; work allocation which provides learning and growth opportunities for everybody on the team in a fair and equitable way; development reviews which are based on agreed parameters and which exclude opportunities for favouritism; promotion decisions which recognise the value of diversity at every level of the organisation; sponsorship which ensures support and advocacy for the least well-connected.6

These require input from a wide range of internal voices and expertise to rewire the system if/when required.

This may not be plain sailing. But to build resilience and deal with inevitable setbacks, having a trusted coach “can create a space for self-reflection at the level of a person’s core values, beliefs and motivators, to find what they need in order to embrace inclusion.” 7

It takes a storm to shake up the status quo, and all the old habits that supported it.  Rebuilding after the storm provides an opportunity to reflect on what is worth holding onto, what needs to change, and what resources are needed to galvanise the change. Inclusive leaders ensure everyone has a safe journey and a smooth landing, regardless of whether they started in a yacht or a rowboat.


1.     Jana, T –  May 2020
2.     Ipsos MORI – A Brave New World? ,June 2020
3. , June 2020
4.     Miller, F & Katz, J -The Inclusion Breakthrough, 2012
5.     Hawkins, P & Turner, E – Systemic Coaching Delivering Value Beyond the Individual, 2020
6.     Kepinski, L & Nielsen, TC – Inclusion Nudges Guidebook, 2020
7.     Harris, L – Diversity Beyond Lip Service, 2019



Jane Storer is an Executive Coach with the The Executive Coaching Consultancy and can be reached at



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