Inclusive leadership: four best practices

August 24, 2022

Inclusive leadership

Inclusion is a topic of much conversation in leadership circles today — and rightly so. At the same time, it’s important to decipher the signal through the noise. Inclusivity, along with values like diversity and equity, is developed and sustained through the intentional deployment of best practices. 

What follows is a collection of a few such practices that are useful not only for financial services leaders, but also those business leaders we serve, including advisors and plan sponsors.

1. Leaders cultivate an expansive mindset

The expansive mindset is developed through example. Leaders who are not only open to, but hungry for, different perspectives inspire the same approach in others.

The old adage about stepping into another’s shoes is good, but it could use a little refinement. As businesses seek to transform for the digital era, it can be helpful to intentionally step into the shoes of a specific type of person — the beginner.

By getting into the mind of someone who has never encountered the problem or solution—or better yet, inviting this very person to join the group early in the process — we rediscover latent energy and creativity while also avoiding blind spots and inertia.

2. The sense of belonging is strong

There is a caveat to inviting new and diverse people to the strategy table, however. Simply adding individuals with different perspectives to a team doesn’t suffice; fostering a sense of belonging is necessary. It’s hard to be creative when you feel isolated, as if you are under a microscope, or ignored and discounted for perceived inexperience.

Coqual, a global nonprofit think tank that conducts research on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, identifies four key elements to creating a sense of belonging:

  • Being seen, i.e., recognized for unique contributions1.
  • Having authentic connections with peers, managers and senior leaders1.
  • Feeling well supported both in daily work and in life in general1.
  • Feeling proud of what the organization stands for, with personal alignment to values and purpose1.

3. Everyone is shaping strategy

DEI is at risk when leaders don’t intentionally foster an environment of healthy risk-taking that encourages their thinkers to fail forward. 

Innovation comes from leaders who elicit the best from every single team member, leaving no person behind. Getting the best from everyone requires insight into the team. It’s been my practice to study the people on my teams the way an academic might, exercising genuine curiosity about what each person needs to be at the top of their game. Then, we work together, using our creativity to get them exactly what they need in a way that is both meaningful and sustainable.

This is how inclusive leaders build confidence at the individual level, which coalesces into a collaborative force strong enough to move that immovable mountain otherwise known as the status quo.

4. Solutions are multidimensional

In a similar fashion, an inclusive leader studies end-users before developing solutions for them. It’s the surest way to achieve relevant multidimensionality, a high value among today’s employees and plan participants. And, there’s a lot of work to be done in demonstrating businesses know who they are serving. 

Applying this type of thinking to your retirement solutions, how well-understood do plan participants feel? Are their needs being addressed? Are their values reflected in the solutions they have access to?

The fastest way to achieve multidimensionality is to ensure the “students” participating in end-user research and learning represent a broad spectrum of thinkers. That’s how a successful business maintains focus on the humanity and the purpose behind its products — and ensures those products are accessible to everyone who can benefit from them. Recognizing the wide range of needs, levels of understanding, and unique financial challenges that may exist within a workforce is a key consideration. Who is represented in your solution?

Different vantage points lead to new best practices

None of these best practices is simple. Each requires effort and patience. It can be tempting to move fast or to look for quick fixes to enhance DEI within an organization or professional practice. But checking a series of DEI to-dos off a list will never create a culture of inclusion, nor generate the kind of sustainable environment that teams need to be at their best. Professionals in leadership positions are usually there because they are needle movers. And making things happen quickly has an addictive quality to it.

Speed and decisiveness, while sometimes necessary, are not the competencies that nurture inclusion. In fact, they often lead to the need for rework, especially if all voices are not heard at the outset. Empathy, curiosity, modeling — these are the aptitudes of an inclusive leader.

It’s important to consider that these best practices come from my perspective, which is that of a female executive in the financial sector, a person of color and a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Inclusive leadership, like many aspects of professional and personal life, is relative. There is no one perfectly correct point of view. Each leader will have different vantage points, experiences and perspectives that should govern how they develop and deploy their own best practices.

NOTE: At Cuna Mutual Group, we understand that improving access to financial education is one incredibly important way plan sponsors and advisors can help move the equity needle for plan participants and retirement savers. That’s why we offer holistic financial education as a baseline option for our retirement plan clients — at no extra cost. Reach out to us to learn more.

Written by: Shazia Manus
Shazia is SVP, Experience Capabilities, for Cuna Mutual Group. She applies a futurist view to the field of financial services, helping both the company and its partners discover new possibilities for transformation. Shazia is a two-time CEO, having led both Greater Iowa Credit Union and payments processor TMG prior to joining Cuna Mutual Group in 2017. 

1 Coqual, The Power of Belonging, Belonging Series Part 1, Sept. 2020