While the accounting profession is making strides in its attempts for greater diversity in the workplace, it’s not going to matter if accounting leaders do not work on the inclusivity part of the equation. Staff’s thoughts and opinions once they have settled into the office matter greatly when it comes to retention. In this episode of CPA Conversations, we talk to Mike Fetzer of consulting firm Culture Factors to find out the benefits of inclusive leadership and how individuals can best develop this important skill.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
The accounting profession has come a long way in its attempts to become a workplace that is committed to diversity, but diversity will not be enough if accounting leaders do not also take strides at being inclusive of their staff's thoughts and opinions once they have these individuals in place. To talk about what it takes to be an inclusive leader and the benefits it brings for accounting firms, today we are with Mike Fetzer, vice president and managing principal for consulting firm CultureFactors.
For people who are unfamiliar with the concept, what to you is inclusive leadership?
[Fetzer] When we first started researching inclusive leadership, we found a number of similar yet slightly different definitions. Since that time, even more definitions have emerged. So our goal really was not to come up with yet another definition, but really determine which of the existing definitions had what we would call a solid theoretical grounding as well as scientific evidence to support it. The model of inclusive leadership we eventually adopted was based on the work of researchers from San Diego State University. They have an institute for inclusiveness and diversity in organizations over there. We've actually since partnered with them on adding some more research to the pool, if you will. All that said, and really to answer your question, to me, inclusive leadership focuses on creating a culture where differences between people are valued and appreciated.
And also where contrasting opinions and perspectives are encouraged. Not just allowed, but encouraged. Really kind of the crux of our definition of an inclusive culture or inclusive leadership is one where the employees have a sense of both uniqueness and belongingness. Uniqueness in the sense that they're perceived as being distinct from others on their team, or work group, or organization. That they bring some differences to the table that are really respected by other people. And belongingness is a sense that you're supported and cared for by your peers and your teammates, and that you really have a sense of being accepted and valued.
What would you say are the most immediate benefits to a team or an organization when leadership is inclusive of its talent?
[Fetzer] Other benefits are your approach to problem-solving will change, because you're able to look at multiple perspectives, or you're able to draw on multiple perspectives. You'll be surprised at how much other people contribute when they're enabled and motivated to do so, and that kind of in turn helps your process around the problem-solving aspect. There's always things that come up that some people might not have experience with, but others might. That's kind of where that magic happens is you're drawing on that collective experience and wisdom. Lastly, we kind of tell people that it'll open more doors for you. You'll discover new and better ways of doing things, or you'll probably discover new things that you can do that you might not have thought about before. This is relevant to any level or any type of organization. Having that inclusion or inclusive culture really gets you to maximize what your employees have and really allows you to be your best, and be the best leader that you can be. That's a good question. There's actually a growing body of research on this. Some of the work that we've done is, but mostly the work of others, and really what we've seen over the past, I would say eight or 10 years, is that the research is showing us that organizations that have more inclusive cultures tend to have employees that contribute more. They stay longer. They make better decisions. They're more effective collaborators, perform better, and they're definitely more engaged, innovative, and motivated. That research is, like I said, continuing to grow and there's more elements being added to the benefits of inclusive cultures and inclusive leadership. But, those are some pretty big areas that organizations are taking notice up right now.
An interesting part from a piece you did on this subject for Chief Learning Officer magazine, which I saw as I was doing my research here, it said, "Diversity is necessary but not sufficient." What is meant by that?
[Fetzer] If you look at diversity, really by definition, it's only about having employees that are different in one way or another. Whether it be a demographic characteristic or their approach to different areas. Really, diversity is organizations approach it, and measure it as how many people do we have that are different? When the diversity bandwagon first got rolling, it was initially thought that, "Well, let's just put a bunch of different people in the same room, or on the same team, and we'll start to see some of those organizational benefits that everybody's touting about having different perspectives." And that would just kind of happen. In some cases, it did. You know, there was certainly some early successes, and there's some research that supports that, but there's also some cases where it didn't, and there's even some studies where it shows that it's had a negative effect on the organization.
Several years ago, the turning point was, "Diversity is not enough. We have to have something else." That's kind of where inclusion comes in. Inclusion is that ongoing process, that you really need to integrate and manage and nurture these employees in a way that facilitates the benefits of diversity. That's kind of saying you really can't just put them all in the same room and expect the magic to happen. You have to have something to get people to be inclusive, to encourage others to take advantage of those different perspectives. Of course, without diversity there's not much need for inclusion. You have to have diversity in order to realize some of these benefits, but that's kind of what I mean by diversity alone is not enough. Someone said, and I've used this before. "Diversity is being invited to the party, whereas inclusion is being asked to dance."
What would you say are the main traits of inclusive leaders, and looking at it the opposite way, what are some of the traits that you won't find in an inclusive leader that just won't work?
[Fetzer] In our inclusive leadership model, we actually have five facets, or five elements, of inclusive leadership. There's supportive, equitable, entrusting, encouraging, and enabling. By supportive, I mean leaders that are going to advocate for other people's needs. They'll back other's ideas and opinions. They really see others as important to the group. It's not just all about themselves. They definitely consider the best interests of others when making decisions. And equitable, in a sense that they're treating people fairly. They're respecting other people. Making sure other people are respecting each other. Entrusting, our third facet, is a lot about delegation and being able to involve others in making decisions or allowing others to determine work processes. Fourth, encouraging, is a lot about seeking others' perspectives, soliciting opinions from other people, and, in a sense, providing opportunities for other people to speak up and contribute what they have to the table that's of value.
And finally, enabling leadership is kind of getting a sense of figuring out how to, what we call, maximize contributions. Everybody has something different to contribute, and it's up to the leader to really enable those contributions, whether that be they work with people one on one, or they get people in a room, or put people on a project team that are able to contribute different perspectives, and really understanding how those folks can contribute. Getting to know those people so that you have that sense. So, those five areas are really what we kind of focus on when we talk about leadership traits. As far as what we wouldn't find an inclusive leader, sort of the opposite here is anybody who is going to be close-minded, not open to learning about people or understanding ways that people can contribute differently.
If somebody is inflexible or not very adaptable, that's certainly going to be hard to overcome if you want to be inclusive. Those folks that are apathetic. If they don't really care about learning about new people, or learning new things about people, or trying new ways of doing things. And definitely anyone who's slightly egotistical would probably have a difficult time with inclusive leadership. It's not to say that it's impossible, but those are some areas that we don't really find in the leaders that we would classify as being more inclusive.
Is being an inclusive leader, as they say, something you're born with or is it something you can develop? And if it can be developed, what do you have to do to accomplish that? How do you have to change your mind-set?
[Fetzer] As far as I know, they haven't really discovered the inclusive leadership gene so that's the good news. Even better news is what that means is life experiences, and the behaviors that people exhibit, are what lead to being more or less inclusive. In a nutshell, it is a learned behavior, which means you can develop it. We've seen quite a bit of success with this. Usually we have folks in the development process. The first step is you really have to understand what inclusive leadership is and, almost as important, what it is not. We do spend some time really educating people on, "This is what we mean by inclusive leadership." There's a large number of behaviors that we use in those definitions to really make sure people are comprehending what inclusive leadership is and, again, what it is not so that they really understand what it takes to be an inclusive leader.
The next step in the process is introspection. Figuring out what that person or what your current level of inclusive leadership is. We usually do tie that back to those five facets. There's a number of different ways that you can do that. I'll try and expand on that here a little bit, but really getting a sense of, "How inclusive am I? Where do I need to go from here?" Once you have that, the final step in the process is the traditional training and development. Create an action plan. Work on the facets that may be a little bit lower than the others. Or pick the one that is a bit higher and really kind of strengthen yourself on that.
There's multiple approaches for inclusive leadership training. There's a number of different resources out there. There's online training, e-learning, onsite workshops, on-the-job training, coaching, a number of different articles and books. It's kind of pick your favorite learning method and go with it. Really, the ultimate goal here is to make sure that people are going to hold themselves accountable for it. So in some way, circle back after you've gone through this process and however you determined how inclusive you are in the first place, do that same process again. Whether it's talking to your peers, or your manager, doing some other sort of assessment, but really figure out how far have you come.
It's an odd sort of juxtaposition here. Part of leadership is having a singular vision for the success of your organization. It almost seems somewhat counterproductive, but how important is it to be open to feedback if you're going to develop an inclusive nature? That singular vision and open to feedback: is that not really mutually exclusive?
[Fetzer] It's not. We have worked with leaders at different levels of the organization, and I have all four leaders that do have a strong vision of what success means for their organization. I think that is paramount, especially for the organizations that are more successful. The way I view it really is that vision is more of the destination. This is our end goal. This is where we want to be. Along that journey, or along that path, there are a number of different routes you can take, right? You could be the type of leader who's going to push people forward with a stick or you can take a number of different leadership styles.
That kind of permeates its way down through the organization. On the inclusive leadership side, it is definitely important to be open to feedback. It's not necessarily feedback about changing that grand vision, but it's more about how you get there, and how you get the people that you work with to get on board with getting there, and how well they're going to work with each other, and what value they're going to bring to the table. So, definitely important to be open to that feedback as you make that journey. There's always unexpected obstacles and barriers to overcome, but if you are a more inclusive leader and you're open to feedback, what we've seen is the solutions will arise, and the people who are working with you will oftentimes bring some of those to the table that you may not have ever thought about.
I wonder if you think part of the issue with becoming an inclusive leader is an honesty with oneself because I would think there's a lot of leaders who think they're inclusive, when they really aren't. Is that tough to combat, and how would you do so?
[Fetzer] You kind of hit the nail on the head there. We've worked with leaders who are very self-aware, and they recognize that they may not be as inclusive as they could be on certain elements. There are a proportion of leaders who are a bit surprised at how others might perceive their inclusive leadership styles, or lack thereof. You definitely need to be honest with yourself. Nobody wants to say, "I'm not inclusive." People kind of come into it with thinking, "Well, I'm kind of inclusive, or I could be inclusive." One thing we try and tell people though is it's not a binary concept. By that, I mean inclusion or inclusive leadership is more of a continuum. I hold off from classifying someone as inclusive or not inclusive, but I frame it to them as this is the degree to which you're being inclusive.
And even taking that one step further, we break it down by those five facets that we talked about earlier. So, "You could be more supportive, but you might be a little bit less on the enabling or the entrusting side." We usually try and frame it in that way. One of the best tools that we've found for doing this is using 360 assessments, whereby you go out and ask your peer, and your direct reports, and your manager, and other people that you work with on a regular basis to basically rate you on the different behaviors that are related to inclusive leadership. This is an eye opener for most people.
Most people guess as to where they fall on some things, but others are sometimes surprised at how others perceived the way they act. Sometimes it takes a moment for them to sit back and think and say, "Yeah, I get that." 360 assessments, it can be a difficult pill to swallow if you're not very honest with yourself, or you're not very self-aware, but the vast majority of leaders we've worked with will definitely take this to heart because perceptions are reality, and they really want to learn how to become more inclusive, even if they're not quite there yet.
We talked about the benefits to an organization, but are there personal benefits to be experienced by a person if they practice a more inclusive leadership style? I have to imagine it makes people like you a little bit more?
[Fetzer] Absolutely. I think first and foremost, it's definitely you'll see a difference in the relationships that you have with other people, especially your employees. And they'll change for the better. They'll be more willing to come to you with ideas. They'll be more engaged with their work. They'll be more motivated. They'll be more innovative, and definitely open to more collaboration, especially if you as a leader are open to that. It will make them want to contribute more. All of these things definitely make a leader's job easier and more effective on many levels. But on a personal level, it is a changing nature of that relationship that we've heard anecdotally that really makes an impression on people, and it really makes their approach to work in a different light, and enables them to become more successful.
Other benefits are your approach to problem-solving will change because you're able to look at multiple perspectives, or you're able to draw on multiple perspectives. You'll be surprised at how much other people contribute when they're enabled and motivated to do so, and that in turn helps your process around the problem-solving aspect. There are always things that come up that some people might not have experience with, but others might. That's where that magic happens is you're drawing on that collective experience and wisdom. Lastly, we tell people that it'll open more doors for you. You'll discover new and better ways of doing things or you'll probably discover new things that you can do that you might not have thought about before. This is relevant to any level or any type of organization. Having that inclusion or inclusive culture really gets you to maximize what your employees have, and really allows you to be your best and be the best leader that you can be.