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Diversity and inclusion post-COVID: be fearless in the face of opportunity

Creating a sustainable, diverse, and inclusive culture requires effort on multiple fronts. Most importantly, creating a diverse leadership culture has to be deliberate — a continuous action until it becomes second nature. This article is the fifth and final blog in a series written by D&I thought leader, Maureen Frank.
Maureen Frank headshot.
Maureen Frank - Guest Contributor

Written by guest blogger Maureen Frank, Chief Disruption Officer at Emberin, and Diversity & Inclusion thought leader. Maureen challenges leaders and organisations to get real about diversity and inclusion. She has mentored over 35,000 people worldwide and has a passion for women in leadership and inclusive career development. Her approach to diversity and inclusion is challenging and unique yet simplifies a complex discussion.

Recently, I committed to having one hundred virtual coffees with leaders and diversity and inclusion experts from around the world. As a result, I have been having some interesting conversations. My main question is:

What will the pivot in diversity and inclusion look like in a post-COVID world?

This article is the fifth and final blog in a series of thoughts, drawing from these conversations, my research, and hands-on experiences supporting leaders to be more inclusive during the lockdown.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read the other articles in this series:

“L&D is a powerful enabler of business performance. Companies whose leaders welcome diverse talents and include multiple perspectives are likely to emerge from the crisis stronger. In short: diversity wins, now more than ever.” - McKinsey

For business executives the world over, the next few months may prove to be a defining moment in their careers. They must not only protect the health of their employees and customers, but also navigate far-reaching disruption to their operations, plan for recovery, and reimagine their business models for the new normal. 

Companies that maintain or increase their L&D output during a downturn are less likely to be penalised in the aftermath. So, when leaders and companies reaffirm their commitment to L&D, they can make gains in five key domains where, according to my research, L&D frequently makes a significant difference to an organisation’s performance. These are:

  • Opportunity 1: Winning the war for talent
  • Opportunity 2: Improving the quality of decision making
  • Opportunity 3: Increasing customer insight and innovation
  • Opportunity 4: Driving employee motivation and satisfaction
  • Opportunity 5: Improving a company’s global image and license to operate 

Innovation is more business-critical than ever

The global response to COVID-19 has amplified the importance of innovation. We have seen striking examples of creative and novel thinking in response to unprecedented challenges. We have also seen that innovation is not an optional extra. All companies in all industries need to apply an innovative mindset to their work to survive.

As such, earnest diversity approaches are one of the strongest tactics leaders can employ. There are several challenges, though.

Currently, employee engagement is at its lowest ebb. However, there’s growing evidence to indicate a diverse and inclusive workforce increases motivation and improves productivity. Diverse teams, diverse brains, and diverse conversations result in more creativity!

But why? Admittedly, trying to brainstorm solutions when there are many different viewpoints can feel counterproductive at first. But, this is precisely the type of environment where innovation flourishes. When you have many different opinions coming together, you may have a tough time initially. However, eventually, the brain works harder and gets a better result. That’s a winning formula!

Walking the path of diversity and inclusion may feel like the road less travelled. But by creating psychologically safe places, new and different ideas have space, time, and freedom to germinate and grow.

Inclusion is critical for fostering innovation and agility 

The full economic impacts of COVID-19 are not yet clear. With entire industries being brought to their knees (aviation, hotels, and restaurants among them), companies that can reimagine their businesses in the new post-crisis environment will win. As a result, many companies will have to develop new ways of working, new products, new services, or even entirely new business models.

People from diverse backgrounds who bring new ideas and perspectives will be crucial to these efforts. Companies with a culture based on trust, collaboration, and inclusion, in which all employees feel comfortable speaking up, are typically those where the best ideas emerge. Conversely, companies with cultures based on fear or groupthink most likely won’t be agile enough to pivot in the post–COVID-19 landscape.

According to McKinsey, diverse teams are more innovative. Such teams are also better at anticipating shifts in consumer needs and consumption patterns that make new products and services possible, potentially generating a competitive edge. 

Building inclusive leadership capabilities

Creating the capabilities and skills needed for inclusive leadership is vital. However, this is something that doesn’t come naturally to all of us. Why? Because inclusive leadership takes effort. It’s hard work because you have to interact with — and relate to — people who are not like you.

Creating a sustainable, diverse, and inclusive culture requires effort on multiple fronts. Most importantly, creating a diverse leadership culture has to be deliberate — a continuous action until it becomes second nature.

As McKinsey notes, “the experience of diversity winners we have studied has shown that if companies deploy a systematic approach to L&D and don’t fear bold action to foster inclusion and belonging, they are most likely to reap the rewards.” I believe that now is the time to be even bolder. 

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