Leadership behaviours that drive inclusion
August 4, 2020

Leaders across all sectors are focused on increasing diversity and inclusion, setting targets, filling knowledge gaps, conducting research and assessing data.

But are there fundamental leadership behaviours that are required to drive true change?

We spoke to Dr Kamel Hothi OBE, one of the UK’s most influential BAME leaders, to draw on her unique perspective.

Kamel forged a successful career within a very traditional business and was intrinsic to her firm’s transformation into a more inclusive business, at a time when diversity and inclusion were just being spoken of.

How did she achieve this? What can leaders learn from her experience?

Reflecting on her career, Kamel explains how influencing leadership thinking in white, male workplaces can result in dramatic change.

  • Diverse perspectives can open new revenue opportunities

“There are people like me in every business, and our diverse experience can help shape businesses at every level.

“I got the idea for Lloyds TSB’s Asian strategy after consistently listening to my entrepreneur husband complain about lack of access to finance. He and many like him felt that banks didn’t understand Asian businesses even though Asian entrepreneurs were adding billions to the UK’s bottom line. Why weren’t banks listening?

“I did my research on how big the market was and the barriers to finance they experienced and presented this to our board. They supported the concept. I coached over 500 leaders on cultural differences, designed new products, pooled marketing budgets and created ways of reaching out to the community in the manner they wanted. Within four years we were market leaders.

“Soon other service providers were keen to follow in my footsteps to reach out to the community with their own brands.

“That wasn’t the first time that I found a business benefit in my diversity. Some thirty years earlier, as a TSB cashier, many customers refused to talk to me because I was a brown woman. But others would seek me out because I spoke several languages, and would ask for my help with their banking, thus winning more clients. They would say, ‘There’s an Indian girl who speaks our language’ and soon the word spread.”

  • Encourage diverse employees to speak out

“Following the merger of two banks I was asked to share an initiative I had designed to improve customer experience and processes right across the wider group.  When I transitioned to operations and stepped into head office, the lack of diversity was stark.

“It was there that I became aware of the lack of understanding of diversity. Hardly anybody looked like me. I found my confidence dipping, my voice getting softer.

“I became more and more anxious as to why my ideas and thoughts were just being either walked over or not heard. That’s when the first penny dropped. I was raised to show respect to seniority, to let others go first, to share the credit, to be modest. These cultural nuances were now stopping me from breaking glass ceilings as others took advantage of my humble upbringing.

“A group of us got together and we formed the first Ethnic Minority Network and Women’s Network to understand if they too felt like me. This resulted in my speaking about my life and experiences at a BITC Race for Opportunity conference. After the speech a number of the execs came up to shake my hand to say how grateful they were for what I’d done, how privileged they felt because I was working for them.

“Then the second penny dropped: everyone benefits when people from diverse backgrounds raise their voice and share their experience as this helps colleagues understand what it feels like to be in our shoes.”

  • Show vulnerability

“Soon after the financial crisis in 2008, our new CEO was signed off with stress. This was quite a shock to the group who was now in public ownership. Thankfully he got better, came back, and the ship turned around.

“Six years later I onboarded our new charity partnership with Mental Health UK and we asked our CEO to share his story. I felt otherwise that we were asking our customers and colleagues to take us seriously on mental health issues while our leaders couldn’t be honest and open themselves. He agreed to do an interview for the FT. This had a global ripple effect on the many CEOs who read the article. More importantly it made 85,000 colleagues think, ‘if the boss can talk about his mental issues then I can talk about mine. This guy’s human.’

“Senior executives feel they have to be strong and know all the answers. I believe showing your vulnerability is the biggest strength. It’s giving empowerment to CEOs to say, ‘I don’t know the answer or it’s ok to not be ok sometimes.’ 

“When our CEO spoke about his mental health and the steps that led him to being signed off, he was more respected than ever. He’s since won numerous leadership awards globally. How do we get execs to realise that showing their vulnerability is as powerful a tool as their expertise?”

  • Connect with your humanity

“For decades we have created an image of what a CEO or senior leader should look like and we continue to mirror these behaviours . Not showing empathy or vulnerability for me is one of the key reasons we are not connecting with those that we lead. How do we all step out of our shoes and question why we leave our humanity at the door?

“I’m sure these leaders have daughters, partners, a mother or sisters. They may have neighbours or friends who are BAME. So why then do executives say, “I don’t know how to improve diversity in our business?” If only we could stop being an executive for a moment, be human and think about the people in your life.

“If your daughter or your sister came to you and said, “this discrimination happened to me” you’d be furious. You’d want to counsel, to coach, to understand. Why don’t you do that at work?

“We over-complicate diversity. Leaders have the power to change the situation, not by just delegating to the HR or talent team, but by themselves stepping out of their offices and walking the corridors and listening to their people and then leading the change.”

  • Go beyond the programmes and metrics

“Measurements are needed. Benchmarking pay gaps sets useful context. Corporates need to track progress for annual reports.

But do the metrics mean the executive team is really on board? I’ve done this for 38 years and I understand corporate body language. The programmes, the pillars, the strategy: most big corporates do all that.

“But if the executive role is to turn up once in a while, launch an event or go to a talk it won’t change enough, and the imbalance will remain.”

  • Inclusion empowers all diversities

“By finding common purpose and experience we can embrace the majority in this conversation for everyone’s benefit.

“MeToo focused on gender. Then the narrative shifted to mental health. Now it’s Black Lives Matter. There is so much interconnectedness.

“I recently had a conversation with a transgender advocate. After two hours I said, “you and I have so much in common” because the journey she’s been through and the challenges she’s faced are very similar to my own.

“When leaders empower people to find their purpose within the organisation, it benefits everyone, including the white males who can be such great allies and advocates of change.”

We have developed our AVID (Authentic, Vulnerable, Inclusive and Diverse) leaders programme to change the way organisations approach diversity and inclusion.

We work with boards to coach them on how leadership behaviours influence culture across the organisation and can fundamentally increase diversity and inclusion.

How can we help you to empower your diverse talent and unlock their potential in your business?

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