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Becoming the Elusive Inclusive Leader

Strategic Leadership Workshop

DEI may become the business acronym that defines the decade, but according to Asfa Malik, Founder/CEO of GrowthMinded Consulting, it is inclusion that is the goal of all diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. How to create an inclusive work environment was the question explored in her TechServe Alliance Executive Summit workshop: “The Elusive Inclusive Leader – How to Be that Rare Leader for Today’s Environment.” Understanding that leaders play a pivotal role in whether any DEI initiative succeeds or fails, Asfa shared straightforward actions leaders can take to foster inclusion, including her proprietary C.A.R.E. approach and the Four As of Inclusion.

Why Inclusion and a Sense of Belonging Are So Important

Employees expect more from their leaders and their organizations today. According to Glassdoor, 76% of job candidates and employees say a diverse workforce is important to them. It’s important to employers as well: McKinsey reports that employees who feel a sense of belonging are more productive and engaged. Inclusive leadership can help build bridges between the workforce and the organization. Without those strong bonds, organizations risk losing their most valued possession: their talent. Creating a sense of belonging is critical for attracting and retaining talent. To tap into the full potential of a team, leaders need to take steps to ensure every employee feels seen, heard and valued. The benefits for highly inclusive leaders are overwhelming:

  • +50% team performance 
  • +90% team innovation 
  • +140% team engagement 

With that as background, Asfa provided a host of actionable ideas which workshop participants put into initial practice in breakout exercises. Highlights follow.

Create a Safe Environment for Everyone

An inclusive environment strengthens loyalty. It offers psychological safety for underrepresented groups, allowing them to freely bring their authenticity to the job. Inclusive leaders can promote a sense of safety and raise comfort levels for all when they:

  • Pay attention. Use direct eye contact, close your phone or laptop, actively listen, and ask questions.
  • Build trust. Use collaborative language that focuses more on the group than on individuals, e.g., “How can we make sure this goes smoothly?”
  • Include the team. Consult your team by asking for input, feedback and thoughts when making decisions.
  • Champion the team. Share your team’s work with senior leadership and always give credit to the team.

Show You C.A.R.E.*

Follow these simple acts of connectedness, awareness, respect, and empathy to show you care.

Connectedness. Make an effort to build meaningful connections with your team.

  • Ask people how they are dealing with changes at work or in life.
  • Add time in one-on-one sessions to strengthen relationships.
  • Gather diverse perspectives, e.g., religions, orientation, parental status.
  • Move beyond strictly task discussions to explore career aspirations.

Awareness. Be self-aware and cognizant of the work environment, as well as individual and team needs.

  • Uncover your own blind spots.
  • Actively seek feedback from your team.
  • Enhance your emotional intelligence to foster a culture of inclusion.
  • Ask the members of your team how you can be a better leader.
  • When you ask people to work late, be sure to acknowledge the effort put forth outside of normal business hours.

Respect. Know that respect comes in many forms.

  • Listen to understand.
  • Learn about personal and professional challenges.
  • Be curious about the people on your team; ask questions.
  • Seek all sides of a story during conflicts.
  • Educate yourself on differences, e.g., religious holidays, ethnicities.
  • Offer to swap holidays when it seems appropriate.

Empathy. Believe in and have compassion for your entire team.

  • Acknowledge different feelings and perspectives.
  • Show your own vulnerabilities.
  • Be courageous in showing your compassion for others.
  • Share your own struggles and triumphs.

Follow the Four As of Inclusion*

When you work at becoming an inclusive leader, always bring your “A” game.


  • Provide learning opportunities, e.g., to lead a meeting or train the team.
  • Add DEI goals to your own review process.
  • Ask diverse members for input on projects, decisions, etc.
  • When planning events, consider how to include virtual team members.
  • Be an upstander, not a bystander, i.e., if you hear a microaggression, call it out right when it happens.


  • Invite others to be present at meetings.
  • Make introductions to ensure everyone feels welcome.
  • Have underrepresented people present at large meetings.
  • Acknowledge and use your ability to lift up others.
  • Push back when you see a lack of diversity on panels or in focus groups.


  • Champion and sponsor others to help them build credibility.
  • Recommend people for stretch goals and promotions.
  • Direct technical questions to people with expertise.
  • Invite DEI counsels to key meetings and compensate them for their extra work.


  • Give credit where and when due.
  • Boost confidence by echoing quieter voices.
  • Relinquish the mic if someone is interrupted or spoken over.
  • Use a pull approach to invite the expertise of those who might otherwise be overlooked.

Become an Inclusive Leader

In her concluding remarks, Asfa advised workshop participants who aspire to be inclusive leaders to be curious, emotionally intelligent, flexible and adaptable, authentic, and self-aware. When you work to build interpersonal and mutual trust, integrate diverse perspectives, optimize employee talent and strengths, and apply an adaptive mindset, you can achieve transformation. In her words, “When you build a sense of belonging, they will come … and they will stay.”

Leadership is one of the most difficult and fulfilling roles in a company because you impact people and business at the same time. Inclusive leadership doesn’t need to be any more difficult or elusive if you remember to always be authentic, show humility, learn, and operate with integrity. The rewards will come back to you, enriching your relationships, enabling greater engagement and productivity, and boosting the performance of your team and your business.

To learn more about the pursuit of inclusivity, reach out to Asfa Malik, someone who truly possesses that rare quality and inclusive style that the best leaders achieve.

*C.A.R.E. and the Four As of Inclusion are concepts developed exclusively by Asfa Malik and GrowthMinded Consulting. All rights reserved.


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