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Why Inclusive Sponsorship is Needed to Make Diversity Work

By Melissa J. Anderson

Diversity is a necessity, wrote Laura Liswood recently in the Huffington Post. Liswood, Co-founder, The Council of Women World Leaders, said that in today’s complex, global, changing world, diversity of thought is sorely needed in order to come up with creative, competitive solutions to problems.

But, she said, leveraging the benefits of diversity means we must treat diversity as more than a numbers game. She explained:

“By the benefits, I mean the advantage of capturing the differing ways people think about issues and experiences and creation of a truly level playing field. Without an even playing field, a real meritocracy that neither subtly advantages some nor disadvantages others, it is my opinion that organizations will never obtain the benefits they seek from their diversity initiatives.”

One of the key steps to fostering diversity of thought is ensuring that everyone feels their voices can and should be heard – that they feel entitled to be bold. Inclusive leadership should ask themselves who speaks up most in their organization, and why this might be. As Liswood explains, “This is not rocket science, but it does require a far greater consciousness about who gets heard and how to ensure that all are included. How we unconsciously react to diversity is the key step that often gets skipped.”

Sponsoring Boldness

Dominant groups in the workforce may feel comfortable taking chances and speaking up about ideas because leadership looks like them and acts like them. There’s less risk involved if they fail.

At the same time, individuals who are not members of the dominant group may not feel as comfortable or confident in taking chances, and therefore do not speak up when they have something to say – it’s too risky if they fail, and there’s often no one like pulling them up the ladder and offering support.

But what good is diversity of thought if those with diverse voices don’t feel they have the support and opportunity to use them? Liswood writes:

“But once we get the diversity, we have not yet learned how to create an organization that fully obtains the benefits of it. Often this can be diagnosed by looking at the hierarchy and the numbers of individuals at various levels. In many companies today, it is not an intake problem, it is an upgrade problem.”

While most companies today are succeeding at attracting candidates from minority groups, considering the make up of corporate leadership at most companies, diverse individuals aren’t making it up to the top in large numbers.

The answer lies in leadership. How many leaders are actively sponsoring diverse individuals, pulling for them behind closed doors and actively stepping in to help them advance?

Learning Inclusive Leadership

Liswood recommends that leaders be trained in the art of inclusion, to ensure they are sponsoring and supporting members of groups who do not look like them. She says, “My belief is that we need to move now to Diversity 2.0 and give managers and leaders the training, awareness, skill sets, tools that ensure we engage and capture the full benefit of the diversity we say we are so committed to.”

Earlier this year, the UK group Opportunity Now released a new study on inclusive leadership, which, according to the study, is not occurring broadly.

“Organizations are not looking at this in a more systematic way. We need to put this in organizational cultures and processes.” She added, “Currently, really great inclusive leaders have developed through osmosis – not through organizational design.”

“The most powerful takeaway on this report is that inclusion is a commercial imperative,” Wells said. “It’s about absolutely maximizing the potential of your people in a tough time.”

She continued, “We want organizations to prioritize and see as important the development of inclusive leaders.”

Some companies are working to create inclusive sponsorship cultures.

For example, PwC’s BOLD Initiative is a sponsorship program that ensures underrepresented individuals are getting opportunities to work on interesting projects with powerful people, and having important career conversations with the folks at the top.

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