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Our new CEO, Peter Howarth, looks at what makes an inclusive leader and delves into how his own experiences in life and work have helped to shape his approach.

My personal perspective on inclusive leadership

If you spend more than a couple of minutes searching the internet using the phrase ‘inclusive leadership’ you will find that there are 4 qualities of inclusive leaders. Or is it 5 principles. Or 6 C’s (and you can also have just 3 C’s if you prefer). Or maybe you could stretch yourself to the 7 traits. It seems that no leader needs more than 7 positive attributes, and no less than 3.

I have been in leadership roles of one sort or another for about 20 years now. I’ve come to believe there’s only 1 trait that is really important. Be yourself and be prepared to learn. OK, so maybe that’s 2!

When I think back to the person I was in my first leadership role, I would never have thought that I would be capable of running a market-leading and wonderfully engaging organisation, like Inclusive Employers.

I didn’t have the skills, confidence or ability to engage with people from a rich variety of backgrounds with a range of different learning styles.

Yet here I am. Embarking on the most exciting part of my career, having gone through the most rigorous interview process of my life (by far). I feel lucky enough to work with a group of people who are driven by purpose, are exceptional at what they do and are shaping the conversation around their passion, -inclusion – in the UK and beyond. So how did I get here?

“I believe there are some guiding principles that will give any leader the best chance of being inclusive.”

Download our inclusive leadership factsheet to learn more
Peter Howarth smiling

Be yourself

There is now plenty of research available, including from the British Psychological Society and the American Psychological Society as well as many leading academics, that personalities change over time. We used to believe that personality was set in stone, but that myth seems to have been well and truly debunked.

I have changed. Of that I have no doubt. In my case, the trauma of losing my only daughter to sepsis in April 2014 changed my personality fundamentally. Most of that change felt entirely negative over the first couple of years after Pippa’s death, but as I started to rebuild my life, I realised I had something I really hadn’t had before. Perspective.

Yes, work is important and even in the new post-pandemic world of hybrid working most of us still spend more time interacting with our colleagues than with our families. But what I gained through the death of my little girl was a clear and unshakable belief that the most important thing in life isn’t work. It’s having a perspective. It’s maintaining work-life (or should that be life-work?) balance. It’s also having enough energy to do something for yourself or your family – cooking a nice meal, going to the gym, socialising, attending evening classes or just taking the dog for a walk.

All of that starts with being happy with the person you look at in the mirror every morning. It’s building relationships and understanding we are all different and that every one of us brings value. Going to sleep knowing that you have done your best during your day and that you have given everyone you have interacted with in the day, your colleagues and valuable customers, your undivided attention when you are with them (virtually or in person) and that you have ‘done the right thing’ for your organisation and everyone in it (more on that later).

It’s all about perspective. Because perspective gives you balance.

Now I wouldn’t wish anyone to have to go through what I did to gain perspective, but I don’t believe you have to. Just take a step back and reflect on your day, week, month or year. We all know when we don’t have balance but it can be hard to change habits, especially work habits which have often built up over many years. Hard but not impossible. Ask your partner, ask your children or ask your friends or relatives. They will tell you. But then comes the difficult bit – you need to listen. And act. There’s no magic wand for that bit, but I believe anyone can change if they really want to. But that is often a very big ‘IF’.

Be prepared to learn

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the sort of person who quotes pithy phrases. But I am very lucky that I now have a wonderful new partner and so I regularly read this which sits proudly on a wall:

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

We all get things wrong. I still remember vividly after less than 3 months in my first ever leadership role in 2001 my then boss taking me aside and saying to me ‘You need to stop throwing grenades’. His way of telling me to stop exerting the authority of my role and to be more respectful to the experienced managers in my team. That was lesson one, and one that I will never forget. There have been many more along the way. Some positive and gratifying, some frustrating and some that I would rather forget. But I don’t forget any of them, and they all inform how I treat people and how I behave in (and out) of work.

How to improve team engagement

I do believe there are some guiding principles that will give any leader the best chance of being inclusive. I believe following these will also make them successful, especially in a people centric business. Will these give their organisation the highest financial returns? Possibly. Will they make the organisation a better place to work? Absolutely. Will they improve team engagement and culture? Without a doubt.

  1. Be honest and open. Be honest and open. People want one thing in their leaders: authenticity. It helps build trust and psychological safety. Put your efforts into developing people, talking to customers or improving business performance. It is a gratifying and constructive way to spend your time
  2. Share company performance – good and bad. People want to know what is happening in their organisation, even when it isn’t going quite to plan. So, tell them. And if things aren’t quite going to plan then share what you are doing about it and how they can contribute. In my experience you get a lot more support and engagement from a group of people who feel informed.
  3. Listen – an underrated skill, especially from those people who have been promoted into leadership roles partly because they can inspire people and ‘hold a room’. Being inspiring is all well and good when you are delivering company results, but most of the good ideas in any organisation don’t come from the Boardroom. They come from the people who talk to colleagues, customers and suppliers all day every day so if you aren’t listening to the team I believe you are missing out on the greatest source of innovation your organisation has to offer.

The world has changed beyond recognition since December 2019. Most of 2020 was terrible for everyone. But it also changed the world of business for the better. People refused to tolerate command and control as an acceptable way to manage, bad corporate behaviour got called out and employees realised that there was a better way to work. However much the leaders of big corporates want to get their employees back into the office (and that really is a lot!) that time has gone. The days of command and control as the best way to run business are gone and the days of inclusive leaders coming to the fore are here. And I, for one, say ‘hoorah’ to that!

Grow your team

When you become an Inclusive Employers’ Member you grow your I&D team.

Your account manager works with you to understand your goals, your challenges and achievable next steps.

Do you need more support for your inclusive culture to thrive?

Learn about membership today

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