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Effective Leadership Strategies for Diversity & Inclusion in the New Era

Maxine Nwaneri Interviews Nabila Salem On Why Leaders Cannot Afford For Diversity & Inclusion to Take A Back Seat Due To The Pandemic & What They Can Do To Help Diverse Employees Thrive

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The COVID-19 Pandemic totally transformed the world of work, and our lives last year.  

When we also consider the racial unrest, and so much else that rocked our world in 2020, as we enter this new year, it also feels like the beginning of a new era. 

Many businesses have, and continue to face their greatest challenges ever; requiring their leaders to come up with, and implement new strategies to effectively navigate these previously uncharted waters.  

It’s a well known fact that having a diverse and inclusive company is a great way to improve performance, and potentially tackle such challenges more successfully.  One of Mckinsey’s recent studies found that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability”, and in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity “top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth one by 36% in profitability”.  

However when we look at the impact of 2020 on diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts – we are seeing significant setbacks, with many years of progress potentially being wiped out, as 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 3 mothers are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers due to COVID-19. 

The immediate and longer term impacts of this mass exodus of diverse talent from the world of business would be devastating. It is therefore paramount that leaders discover and implement effective approaches for this new era.

For some insight into what some of these strategies could be, I interviewed Nabila Salem – President of world-leading cloud talent creation firm Revolent Group, which specialises in training the next generation of Salesforce and AWS professionals, helping clients diversify their talent pipeline.  This impressive and fast growing company whose focus is on recruiting, cross-training, placing, and continuing to develop ambitious people, in the cloud ecosystems clearly walks the talk when it comes to their diversity and inclusion efforts.

 In addition to having a female president:

  • 50% of their senior management team are women (of which two thirds are working mums),
  • 63% of employees identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, 
  • 37% of employees are the first in their family to attend university,
  • 95% of employees believe Revolent has an inclusive culture of equality for all, 
  • 93% of all employees scored their ED&I strategy as 4/5 or 5/5, and
  • Revolent was recognised as Diversity Employer of the Year 2020 at the Computing Women in Tech Excellence Awards

During an incredibly insightful interview with Nabila she shared 4 powerful leadership strategies for D&I in this new Era 

1. D&I should start from the top and include everyone 

Nabila shared that successful D&I efforts must be led from the top, with representation across the board and leadership team right through the ranks.  She has always been passionate about diversity and different cultures; she was born to an Arabic father and a Spanish mother, is now married to a Turkish husband, and has lived in Spain, the USA and the UK as she built her ceiling shattering career.  

Prior to joining Revolent Group, she worked for a fast-growing tech company for 12 years rising from the role of assistant to become the youngest and first ever female VP, making significant contributions on the leadership team as the company grew from a family run business to being listed on the FTSE 250.  She says “people often say great minds think alike – I couldn’t disagree more – I say great minds think differently, and that’s what leads to innovation and creativity”.

Given the benefits she has experienced by embracing inclusion throughout her life, it was something she was keen to continue in her leadership role at Revolent when she was appointed as President in January 2020.  However she stresses that for efforts to be successful they must be based on statistics, and must include everyone.

Salem advises that a great first step for leaders is to collect the statistics so that you can have the facts of what your organisation looks like.  Then engage the employee base so they can help to come up with ideas and suggestions that you can embed into the culture to help with everything from attraction of diverse talent, to retention and beyond.  

Getting such diverse input on what the company’s D&I efforts should include leads to what she likens to a puzzle, “a series of actions and behaviours that includes and celebrates people’s differences, giving them a sense of belonging that fosters loyalty and high performance.”

It clearly works; in Revolent Group’s  most recent employee survey, an impressive 93% of employees said they believe that their Manager encourages an inclusive environment in the workplace; and 86% of employees said they feel they are able to be their authentic selves at work.  

This latter statistic is of special importance to Nabila and her leadership team as “now that most of their employees are are working from home, and effectively inviting others into their homes on every video call, it is incredibly important to us that they feel comfortable enough to be themselves, and not like they have to ‘be someone else’ all day long in their own homes”.

2. Lead with Compassion & Trust 

Having joined Revolent at the beginning of 2020, Nabila had quite the “baptism of fire” with one intense challenge after another coming her way throughout the year; all while spending more time out of the office and away from her new team than with them.  As a result, two pivotal leadership traits she has developed much more of are compassion and trust. 

She says “Compassionate leadership is so crucial – we must show employees we truly care during difficult times; if we don’t, how can we expect them to care about us and our business? They will leave at the first opportunity, it’s important to listen, then show empathy and support, because what we do as leaders during these challenging times now will be remembered by everyone.”

A key focus for her has been to help employees feel safe and supported in their different challenges whether that looks like juggling working from home while caring for elderly parents and/or kids, wanting to come back to the office as soon as possible, or wanting to keep working remotely for personal reasons. 

Building trust has also been fundamental through establishing open communication, and ensuring KPIs make sense given the market conditions, and are output driven, rather than based on monitoring that puts undue pressure on employees to be “always on.”

Such initiatives have led to strong retention at Revolent Group and the financial benefits associated with that, as “depending on the individual’s role, the cost of replacing them could be up to ten times their salary.”

3. Be Flexible, Adaptable and Creative

One major theme that kept coming up throughout our conversation is that leaders in this new era need to be flexible and adaptable, as there is no one policy or initiative that will work for every employee. 

As we seek to ensure that our talent, diverse and otherwise, are retained, remain motivated, and are performing to a high standard, there is no one size fits all.

Things that were considered perks in the former era such as flexi-time, gym membership, and fruit in the office, mean nothing now when a vast majority of people are working from home, and depending on what country they are in, it’s likely the gyms are closed.”

Leaders need to get creative to uncover what will motivate the various individuals in their teams and if possible accommodate different perks for different people.  Nabila recommends engaging the team and co-creating solutions that make sense together.

4. Be Willing to Fail

A major key to Nabila’s success throughout her career, and specifically in relation to D&I is ironically her willingness to fail.  She attributes this trait to advice from one of her mentors who said “if you are not failing once in a while, you are not aiming high enough”.  

This advice led her to accept opportunities and challenges early on in her career that initially had her thinking “oh my goodness what am I doing if I accept this?”  Such as accepting additional responsibilities in HR, looking after what would grow to a team of 1,200 when she had no background in human resources.  This led to her discovering and honing powerful skills she is leveraging today.  

“I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to challenge yourself. Ask yourself what if ? and why not? If you are not challenging yourself you are standing still or regressing.  The worst that can happen is that you learn that something you tried is not for you.”  

This approach also helped her build belief in herself which has been crucial.  “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. Go for the best possible outcome for your business and your team, don’t wait for conditions to be perfect – with the world moving as fast as it is, you will be waiting forever.”  

With the numbers of women and other diverse talent set to potentially leave the workforce being so high, waiting forever to achieve greater success with D&I efforts is something leaders literally cannot afford to do; especially when you calculate the costs associated with replacing them. 

As Nabila said during our interview, “this past year has been a whirlwind – it’s brought the future of work 20 years forward”; I believe this accelerated progress presents leaders with the unique opportunity to make real strides towards diversity and inclusion that drives innovation and real business results in this new era by implementing her suggestions and strategies.

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