Back in the ’90s, I worked at a Wall Street firm where there were only a few women in top leadership. I was excited to have a seat at the table in the big boardroom but it didn’t take me long to figure out that most of the important business was actually being conducted elsewhere -- on the golf course or in the men’s locker room of the posh athletic club near the office. I was not a part of those gatherings and I didn’t really want to golf with the guys, but I was concerned about not being a part of key discussions.

The good news is that our CEO took me seriously when I pointed out this dynamic. After that, he went out of his way to make sure I was included in informal business discussions in ways that made sense for everyone. While at that time we didn’t use the words diversity and inclusion, I was lucky my CEO understood it didn’t matter if I had a seat at the table if I wasn’t truly a part of the conversation. 

Diversity and inclusion are both critical elements of a healthy workforce culture, but what is the difference? Someone once told me that diversity is the what, and inclusion is the how. While diversity is about representation, understanding and valuing differences, inclusion is about creating procedures, policies and behaviors to ensure all workers’ differences and needs are taken into account so that everyone can feel included and supported. That starts from the top.

Leaders are essential in creating an inclusive culture. A recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The Key to Inclusive Leadership” cited research that found that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included. The article went on to say this really matters because “the more people feel included, the more they speak up, go the extra mile, and collaborate — all of which ultimately lifts organizational performance.”

I asked local leaders to answer this question: “What is one of the most important characteristics of an inclusive leader?” Here are their responses:

Ahmed Agyeman, director, Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families at Des Moines Area Community College: Cultural competency is an integral part of leadership as the leader is able to effectively interact in cross-cultural situations and integrate many voices into discussions and decision-making. The culturally competent leader possesses the knowledge, attitude and skills needed to create genuine relationships that lead to a sincere effort to include missing perspectives and viewpoints.  

Meghan Cassidy, SVP, chief human resources and diversity officer, Corteva Agriscience: A quality I value is empathy. Empathetic leaders put themselves in others’ shoes. They don’t sit idly by when their people feel excluded, disadvantaged or disrespected. They lean in, challenge the status quo and take action. Ultimately, that’s what all of us must do – act on our empathy -- to create the inclusive cultures we want to be part of.

Alejandro Hernandez, dean, College of Business and Public Administration, Drake University: Treat all people with genuine dignity. I learned this from my grandfather. He had an uncommon ability, especially for someone from a class-conscious country like Chile, to humbly connect with all kinds of people and show them the same respect and admiration no matter their station. I try to live up to his example. 

Kate Hightshoe, certified diversity professional and assistant vice president and diversity officer at QCR Holdings Inc.: Consistently leading by example is one of the most critical trademarks of an effective, inclusive leader. It’s recognizing the impact and influence leadership has to the overall success of any organization and modeling the mission, vision and values through action. It’s not just making sure everyone has a seat at the table, but that all those with a seat have a voice.

Heather Schott, diversity, equity and inclusion manager, Krause Group: Inclusive leaders listen for opportunities to include. They actively listen and learn -- both professionally and personally. Unfortunately, there are no simplified checklists or cheat sheets for building diverse, equitable and inclusive teams. It takes work and dedication to shift mindsets. Leaders who do well in this space are agile, open and constantly incorporating their learnings into their work. 

I was fortunate at that Wall Street job to have a leader who cared, listened, understood my concerns and was willing to find ways for me to be included. At other companies, I had leaders who did not model inclusive leadership and I saw firsthand how that negatively affected attitudes, and  retention. As our state, markets, customers and talent become more diverse than ever, inclusive leadership will be a key differentiator within successful companies.



Are you an inclusive leader? Cultivate these traits

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The Key to Inclusive Leadership,” research indicated that inclusive leaders share a cluster of six signature traits. Our local leaders weighed in:

Commitment. Says Agyeman: “An inclusive leader leads to change their organization’s inclusive cultural mission. Their actions are less about what they say ... but action focused -- what they do. Their commitment has to be intentional, ongoing, consistent, systemic, meaningful and measured with milestones.”

Humility. Great leaders admit they don’t know everything, and many leaders are on a journey when it comes to inclusion. Schott counsels: “Be willing to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone, allowing you to learn a new perspective.” 

Awareness of bias. “Inclusive leadership begins with self-awareness,” says Hightshoe. She advises leaders to “know thyself — one’s biases, background, experiences, worldview, attitudes, prejudices, beliefs, values. And more than anything else, know your own blind spots.”

Curiosity about others. The ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and to truly consider their experience and needs distinguishes inclusive leaders. Schott advises, “Find a person most different than you and ask them to reverse-mentor you.”

Cultural intelligence. “Leading inclusively means bridging the gap between your own expectations and where other people are coming from to generate alignment,” says Hernandez, pointing out that not everyone is at your organization for the same reason that you are. He advises leaders to use their cultural intelligence to “meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.” 


Effective collaboration. To drive change, it’s essential to collaborate with colleagues, customers, suppliers and other partners. Cassidy says at Corteva that starts with “listening and learning through respectful dialogue, even when we disagree.” She encourages leaders: “Create a big tent and invite everyone in.”