Umar Zamman in session

How to encourage inclusive leadership in the HE sector

Published on 06 December 2018
Umar Zamman

Umar Zamman is Director of People & Organisational Development at Bishop Grosseteste University, UK - an ACU member institution.

The ACU held its 8th HR in HE Community Conference in Canada at the University of Waterloo in September 2018. The conference brought together HR practictioners working in higher education from across the Commonwealth and beyond, to examine the theme 'Universities of the Future: Global Perspectives for HR?'. Here, Umar Zamman, Director of People & Organisational Development at Bishop Grosseteste University, UK – who spoke at the conference on inclusive leadership – shares his experience.

Being new to the higher education sector I have been on the look out for good practice on inclusive leadership - and didn't really come across much. I am passionate about the inclusion and diversity agenda and thought it may be useful to share my thoughts on what I believe is an inclusive leader, the benefits of being one and the role of HR in supporting inclusive leadership. There is a lot of evidence to prove that diversity works and that it is good for business — not just from the ethical standpoint, but from the perspective of a company's bottom line. According to the McKinsey & Company report "Delivering through Diversity", companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity at the executive level are 33 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. And essentially the same goes for gender diversity, with companies in the top quartile for gender diversity being 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.

What is an inclusive leader?

Barack Obama, someone I hugely admire as a leader, is quoted as saying "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the one we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek". In my view, inclusive leadership is to be aware of your own biases and references, to actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform better decision making, and to see diverse talent as a source of competitive advantage. The question is, are HE organisations looking for these qualities in their leaders?

Whether knowingly or not, organisations generally hire people that look the same, sound the same and come from the same background. We are all guilty of making judgements on someone's talent based on our views of how they appear, sound or behave. A focus on inclusive leadership aims to quash this unconscious bias, making your business diverse and, in the process, opening it up to all the clear benefits that come with diversity and inclusion. Essentially, if your university desires higher staff productivity, satisfaction and engagement then it needs to become more diverse, and in order to become more diverse you need inclusive leaders to inspire change from the top down.

Four characteristics of an inclusive leader

So here are my thoughts on four key characteristics of being a truly inclusive leader.

  • Empowerment: Enabling direct reports to develop and excel.
  • Humility: Admitting mistakes. Learning from criticism and different points of view. Acknowledging and seeking contributions of others to overcome one's own limitations.
  • Courage: Putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done. Acting on convictions and principles, even when it requires personal risk-taking.
  • Accountability: Demonstrating confidence in direct reports by holding them responsible for performance they can control.

Outlined below are specific actions that leaders should take responsibility for such as:

  • Scheduling meetings at times which ensure maximum participation.
  • Invite everyone to contribute to discussions.
  • Monitor who attends social events and find out why some don't.
  • Try where possible to have diverse teams and enable diverse views to be expressed.

How we can you inspire inclusivity?

Now that you've established the qualities that you need to look for and foster in inclusive leaders, the next step is to put this knowledge into practice. The core qualities are the ability to:

  • Relate – go out of your way to relate to people and make them feel comfortable.
  • Adapt – to be able to adapt your style to the audience and not the other way round.
  • Develop – to develop your people every day, no matter how small or big, develop, develop, develop!

So how do you do this? Well getting buy-in from the rest of your team, and having them understand the importance of inclusive leadership, can be tricky, but it's absolutely essential for success. Change agents can be found throughout an organisation, but a key element for sustained commitment and success is of course the leadership at the top. I believe that inclusive leadership leads to inspirational leadership and getting these inclusive champions on board is essential to embedding inclusive leadership behaviours.

So what is HR's role in being inclusive, and in challenging and supporting inclusive leaders?

HR professionals play a really important role in ensuring that leaders are supported through inclusive policy development and implementation. True inclusion in the workplace encompasses both the way we act and the way we think. But all people have personal biases, prejudices and perhaps cultural expectations. Is there anything HR can do to help an organisation achieve this type of thought revolution to help create an inclusive environment?

An inclusion initiative is important to lay the framework for a change to an inclusive workplace, as well as its ongoing sustainability. As HR works to implement such an initiative, it should seize opportunities to demonstrate more inclusive thoughts to managers and others. It's important to do more than simply tell managers what they are required to do. They need to be coached to understand how changing the way they think is in line with the organisation's goals, values and expectations of them as leaders in the organisation.

For example, point out that making accommodations is often less expensive than not making them in the long run; show how a manager's approach to accommodate, directly supports the inclusion initiative and the organisation's values; explain how feeling supported in the workplace makes employees feel more loyal to the organisation, more engaged in what they are doing and more productive.

Of course, inclusive thinking isn't just limited to making accommodations. Ideally, it's integrated into the organisation's work and culture. For example, considering whether job descriptions include abilities that indicate inclusive thinking, or if managers are encouraged and provided with training to develop skills and awareness that directly support inclusion. If employees complain managers don't want to hear their ideas, work to support managers to understand how varied opinions and solutions contribute to the team's knowledge and may be the catalyst for an innovative process or product. By infusing this type of inclusive thinking and respect for individual differences into daily actions, HR helps set the example and lead the organisation toward successful inclusion.

Being a champion for inclusion, wherever I go I will try to talk about it, be that when driving the people and OD strategy, talking about recruitment and selection or using inclusion to understated our future customers. Inclusive leadership for me is about having the passion to get the best out of people and sometimes that will mean having difficult conversations. I started with Barack Obama and finish with pertinent a quote from Michelle Obama who said "Find people who make you better" - something all organisations should aspire to when choosing their workforce, especially good inclusive leaders, who really need to be leading from the front to guarantee inclusivity becomes the heartbeat of the organisation.