"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture. This article is co-written by Tracey Steiner, NRECA senior vice president, education, training & events, and Michelle Rinn, NRECA senior vice president, human resources.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have increasingly become an imperative for any organization that wants to thrive in a rapidly changing and more complex world. Being able to leverage the full scope of diverse talents among your employees is seen by many accomplished business leaders as critical to driving innovation and ensuring business success.

For cooperatives, the principles and values in our business model align well with a focus on DEI. In particular, voluntary and open membership speaks to our mission of serving everyone in our communities without bias. Our shared co-op values include equity and equality. This gives co-op a leg up on other businesses—if we are thoughtful and intentional about how we bring these principles and values to life.

While there may be challenges along the way, developing an organizational culture that values DEI starts with a commitment from the organization's leadership. This article is the first in a two-part series that will explore the key foundations for inclusive leadership and fostering an inclusive culture.

How Do You Describe an Inclusive Leader?

In past articles we have explored what makes a great leader, and our Electric Cooperative Employee Competency framework outlines the competencies needed by supervisors and managers, including senior leaders. So, let's start with what we mean by inclusion and inclusive leadership.

It is important to note that while several themes emerge, there is no single accepted definition of inclusion or inclusive leadership. For purposes of this article, we will frame inclusion as the culture or environment that results from an organization's policies, norms and behaviors aimed at ensuring that everyone feels welcomed, respected, valued and enabled to succeed. With this broad definition, we encompass both the written and unwritten rules of “how we do things" in an organization and do not limit the concept to traditional traits of gender, race, ethnicity and age. We will instead recognize that generally all people share similar desires to feel respected and included, have opportunities to learn and grow and make a positive impact in their work and their community.

Consulting firm Deloitte refers to three elements of inclusion: 1) fairness and respect, 2) value and belonging, and 3) confidence and inspiration, which are accomplished through “Six Signature Traits" of inclusive leadership. We can paraphrase Deloitte's six signature traits as follows:

Commitment: A commitment to diversity aligns with the leader's personal values such as fairness as well as a belief in the business case for diversity.

Courage: Courage means that an inclusive leader is brave enough to challenge others to understand how their behaviors impact others as well as being humble regarding their own strengths and weaknesses.

Cognizance of Bias: An inclusive leader is aware of both personal and organizational blind spots and shows the ability to self-regulate to ensure fairness.

Curiosity: Curiosity refers to an open mindset coupled with a desire to understand and appreciate how others view and experience the world.

Cultural Intelligence: Cultural intelligence shows itself in cross-cultural interactions where an inclusive leader demonstrates understanding of cultural differences by adapting and using appropriate verbal and nonverbal actions.

Collaboration: An inclusive leader fosters diversity of thinking on teams to achieve effective collaboration by first assembling teams with diverse members and then empowering all team members to contribute.

Korn Ferry, another well-known global consultancy, has used their database of more than three million leadership assessments to arrive at an inclusive leader profile that centers on five traits:

  • Authenticity (which echoes Deloitte's commitment and courage traits).
  • Emotional resilience (is a rough approximation of cultural intelligence).
  • Self-assurance (overlaps with courage).
  • Inquisitiveness (maps closely to curiosity).
  • Flexibility (includes elements of cultural intelligence and collaboration).

Korn Ferry adds five competencies or “disciplines" to these traits to describe an inclusive leader:

  • Builds interpersonal trust.
  • Integrates diverse perspectives.
  • Optimizes talent.
  • Applies and adaptive mindset.
  • Achieves transformation.

Again, there is no one “perfect" definition, but looking to these models and other resources, a clearer picture starts to emerge.

What Exactly Does an Inclusive Leader Do?

Deloitte's six traits and Korn Ferry's traits and disciplines of inclusive leaders both align well with the DEI competencies and key behaviors in NRECA's Electric Cooperative Employee Competency framework for supervisors and managers. The DEI competency is defined as developing and nurturing an inclusive workplace that leverages the talents of each person and promotes cultural awareness among staff members. The framework describes these key behaviors:

  • Helps others increase their awareness and acceptance of individual differences. These may include actions such as offering diversity training and actively setting an example by inviting diverse viewpoints and directly challenging biased remarks or practices. Leaders can demonstrate acceptance by actively listening and reflecting back to an individual that their viewpoint has been heard and will be included as a consideration when making decisions.
  • Engages in collaborative and mutually beneficial working relationships with people regardless of their individual differences. For instance, an inclusive leader resists the natural urge to listen to colleagues who share the same personal traits (e.g., same interests, college or sports team) or viewpoint and deliberately seeks out colleagues who are different from them or have a different perspective. Spend time with colleagues you don't know well to learn more about their passions and skills.
  • Builds teams that leverage the inherent diversity and strengths of individuals. It starts with the manager appreciating what individual staff members bring to the table in deliberately creating a team that has a diversity of viewpoints. Then, creating a team environment and operating norms where individuals feel safe to speak up, respectively discuss and explore alternate ideas and incorporate those ideas into the final results.
  • Modifies communication and behavior based on an understanding of individual differences. This can include actions as simple as replacing words like “guys" or “fellas" in addressing staff with more inclusive terms such as “team" or “colleagues." Think about what the individual's personal preferences and communicate to them based on those preferences. The Golden Rule states that you should treat others the way that you would want to be treated, while the Platinum Rule shifts the focus a bit and says that you should treat others the way that they want to be treated.
  • Recognizes and communicates the value of diverse perspectives. For example, a manager may introduce a project team by noting that Sam's long tenure at the co-op will provide a valuable historical knowledge of the co-op's procedures, whereas Mia, being a new hire after years at a small IOU in a neighboring state, can bring a new perspective.

For the CEO and Senior Leaders:

  • Establishes equitable organizational policies and procedures that support the recruitment, development, and retention of a diverse, high quality workforce. This could include a review of talent management and HR programs to identify opportunities for mitigating potential bias in employment decisions. (In part 2, we'll talk about some of the policies and procedures that can be leveraged to support DEI.)
  • Champions policies, procedures and values that encourage awareness and acceptance of diversity. Put another way, this behavior is about ensuring that the cooperative is walking the talk on DEI. Leaders should demonstrate caring and concern for all employees, not just those with whom they have stronger personal connections.
  • Fosters an environment of inclusion, where diverse thoughts are freely shared, respected and integrated. To demonstrate this behavior, leaders need to be genuine in inviting, considering and acting on the thoughts of others. They also must work to create trust and psychological safety for all team members.

Are YOU an Inclusive Leader?

Whatever you choose to call them—skills, traits, competencies or something else—they all are manifest in a leader's words and actions. Certainly, many other models and definitions exist, but research them and you will see a fair degree of overlap and alignment. This means that as a starting point to assessing your own mastery of inclusive leadership, you can use the above as a checklist and ask yourself how well (or perhaps how often) you demonstrate these traits and behaviors.

It all begins with commitment. Just by reading this short article you have taken an important first step in becoming a more inclusive leader.

Want to learn more? Be on the look out for Part 2 of this article. In the meantime, you may want to explore these resources:

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 29-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions, then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education, Training & Events in 2012.

Michele Rinn is NRECA’s senior vice president of human resources. She leads the development and implementation of talent management and rewards programs to ensure NRECA attracts, develops and retains top talent to achieve the association’s strategic priorities and serve the nation’s electric cooperatives. Those responsibilities include recruitment, training and development, employee relations, compensation and benefits, and member workforce programs.