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Don't Know What's Wrong with Your Company? It's the Leadership.

Don't Know What's Wrong with Your Company? It's the Leadership.

There is an Italian saying, “When the fish rots, it stinks from the head.” When an organization, or parts of an organization, fail, it starts with the leadership and, as we are witnessing all kinds of ‘isms (sexism, racism, ageism, etc) play out in the media these days, it’s clear that companies still do not understand the importance of training leaders at all levels of the organization.

Smart companies looking to accelerate their growth know that diversity – in particular in leadership – is essential for improved innovation, reputation, customer and employee engagement. People with different backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences uncover different, often crucial, market opportunities and un-met needs. The diversity challenge remains, however, at the leadership level as well documented by Catalyst, American Progress and others; diversity numbers decrease as people move up the leadership chain, and the problems start, and end, with leaders.

[Related: Ten Low-Cost Options for Customized Leadership Development]

Leadership or executive training needs to evolve beyond its current “one-size-fits-all” approach and must be more inclusive of models that go beyond the traditional, North American, male-dominated models we have today.

Back in the nineties, I completed a program for Global Executives designed for leaders operating in a global environment. This included understanding and respecting cultural, ethnic, religious and language differences, and had a specific section on diversity. The single slide that stuck with me all these years highlighted the difference between “tolerance” and “acceptance.” Today, that theme is playing out in diversity (and gender equity) conversations as “diversity” vs “inclusion.” The premise, however, is the same; recognizing and acknowledging diversity is not the same as accepting it and including those who are in fact “diverse.”

Here are some practical ways you can ensure diversity and inclusion are part of your leadership training at every level in your organization – middle management through to Board Directors - to make it truly inclusive of underrepresented people:

1. Go Global

Think beyond North American models of gender and ethnicity. Incorporating global culture into leadership training helps uncover sensitivities, body language and communication styles that are different around the globe. Not only will this help your leaders if you plan to take your business global one day, but it will also help them understand each other better and accept gender and cultural differences in their home locations more easily. By going “global,” you are also taking the focus off those who are considered “diverse” or underrepresented, and truly teaching better universal leadership. An aperture to global differences will give your leaders a new appreciation for people on their teams, and an improved understanding of how to recruit, retain and mentor diverse leaders for the future.

[Related: Traits of Exceptional Multicultural Leaders]

2. Ditch Sports

Traditional leadership or executive programs are too heavily laden with sports references, analogies and lingo that do not resonate with everyone. To be truly inclusive, find team-work examples or analogies, and team events that everyone can relate to or engage with. My favorite “team” example (and activity) is food related. Most people bond over food, and if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant you know that this is one of the best examples of shared rewards for total team performance. While there is a hierarchy, the waiter is tipped in percentage of total revenue for his/her section, and he/she tips the kitchen, bar, food runners, hostess and bus-boys in percentage of that, based upon the night’s performance. During one leadership team-building event, I participated in a cooking class, and the roles we had were democratized regardless of gender or ethnicity. We all ate the final product of our team’s work together, and it was much more of a bonding and learning experience than hundreds of other events I’ve attended.

3. Change the Pictures

Take a hard look at the images you use on your website, in your product collateral and in your leadership training modules. Last year I wrote about “Being the diversity you seek”, where I address how to shift the images you project to broaden the way your employees and customers engage with you. Be visible about your commitment to diversity – and if your Leadership Team page on your “About Us” section is all white men … think hard about how you are going to bridge the gap between what you are, and what you say you aspire to be. Every leadership class I’ve ever taken has had stock photos carefully placed to represent race and gender – but those didn’t always correspond with the leadership team I then went back to observe.

Considering the myriad of resources available for companies and individuals today – from the National Diversity Council to Facebook, to the Bay Area Council’s Best Practice Resource Guide, there are really no excuses for lack of leadership training or mentoring on diversity. Putting inclusion into action creates an environment of involvement, respect, and connection—where people are appreciated for their ideas, unique experiences, and perspectives, and these in turn create greater business value. 


Leilani Latimer is the VP Global Marketing, Partnerships & Commercial Operations for Zephyr Health. She is a marketing leader with proven experience taking nascent business ideas and products from concept to scale, with success in global go-to-market strategies, product marketing and planning, cross-functional team leadership, customer engagement, communications and employee engagement.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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