Many corporate leaders talk about the importance of an inclusive culture. And the benefits of diverse organizations with inclusive cultures accrue not only to the people hired and promoted in those organizations, but to the organizations themselves.

Unfortunately, though, many organizations do not follow through. DDI’s 2023 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report found a drop in the number of women in leadership positions since 2020.

DDI also found that “companies that have allowed DEI efforts to languish are seeing a significant business impact”—effects that include “weaker business performance, lower bench strength, lower engagement, less ability to meet customer needs, and more.” These “underperforming" companies have lower numbers of women and minorities in their “high-potential pools”—a leadership “bench” where promising employees are prepared to move up.

The differences in performance between diverse and lagging organizations touch on several crucial areas. Companies with more diverse leadership and leadership benches are four times more likely to “have leaders who understand and act on changing customer needs and perspectives,” for example, and more than three times more likely to be able to engage and retain top talent.

L&D role in nurturing inclusivity

Building and sustaining an inclusive culture requires buy-in—and effort—at all levels, particularly the C-suite. There are ways that L&D teams and learning leaders can have an impact, though.

Support competence, not confidence

Work cultures often “falsely equate confidence—most often, the type demonstrated by white male leaders—with competence and leadership” according to HBR. These cultures may reward this show of confidence, even if accompanied by incompetence—while they “punish white women for lacking confidence, women of color for showing too much of it, and all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable.”

To address inequities in leadership, organizations, with the determined participation of learning leaders, must address biases that unfairly penalize women and minorities and that support and nurture competent leaders, regardless of their leadership style or shows of confidence.

Ensure all learning materials are inclusive

According to Jess Jackson, who developed TorranceLearning’s CREW program (Cultivating Racial Equity in the Workplace), “designing inclusive courses reflects an ongoing and iterative process conducted in collaboration with stakeholders to assure that the company’s inclusion initiatives are fully supported.” Jackson wrote a checklist and guidance for evaluating L&D work and corporate culture—including tips for building in a commitment to improving inclusivity.

Immersive learning

Some organizations are finding that immersive training using virtual reality is an effective way to raise awareness, engage learners at all levels, and even change attitudes.

PwC, for example, found that “Three-quarters of learners surveyed said that during the VR course they had a wake-up-call moment and realized that they were not as inclusive as they thought they were.”

L&D teams can advocate for and create anti-bias and inclusivity training that includes realistic scenarios. This training can foster allyship and enable learners, including leaders at all levels, to “experience different scenarios and outcomes based on the decisions they made when faced with unconscious bias.”

Train managers and potential managers

Women and minorities are unlikely to advance to senior leadership if they never make it to middle management. Yet for every 100 men promoted form entry level to manager, only 87 women are; and only 75 Latina women, according to the 2022 Women in the Workplace report. Despite making up only a third of entry-level employees, white men occupied 61% of C-suite and 58% of senior VP-level positions in 2022.

Championing training for front-line managers—and ensuring that diverse candidates are tapped for the “high-potential pools”—can contribute to addressing the imbalance.

Train senior leaders

Organizations that successfully implement DEI programs and sustain inclusive cultures feature leaders who “have strong interpersonal skills, including empathy,” according to the DDI report. These skilled leaders value their employees and build trust as part of how they do business.

Leadership training and development should emphasize the soft or “power” skills that modern leaders need; ironically, these are skills that tend to be characterized as more feminine or be exhibited by female leaders.

Train everyone

Younger employees overwhelmingly say they want training and advancement opportunities; professional development, upskilling, and lateral and upward internal career moves are essential tools in retaining workers at all levels, while also helping identify and nurture future leaders.

Invest now for inclusive current and future leadership

Learning leaders can play an important role in strengthening and diversifying the leadership bench.

The Women in the Workplace report warns, “If companies don’t take action, they won’t just lose their women leaders; they risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too. Young women are even more ambitious, and they place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace” than senior women leaders who are leaving companies in pursuit of better opportunities.

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