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Leading the charge for inclusive leadership: In conversation with David Morrison AO and Diana Ryall AM

Diana Ryall AM, David Morrison AO, Amanda Webb; Diana Ryall with NAB’s Executive General Manager, People, Culture and Capability, Stephen Barrow; and David Morrison, Amanda Webb, Lisa Annese (DCA), and Diana Ryall.

We know that successful leaders drive performance, productivity and innovation through their ability to relate to a diversity of people and perspectives. We also know that they are open, flexible and focus on personal, team and organisational growth, but what does this all actually mean?

On Thursday, 30 June, the Diversity Council Australia (DCA) and Xplore for Success co-hosted a conversation on inclusive leadership with DCA Chair and 2016 Australian of the Year, Lieutenant General (retired) David Morrison AO, and Xplore’s Managing Director, Diana Ryall AM.

Facilitated by Xplore’s General Manager, Amanda Webb, before an audience of more than 150 people at NAB’s ‘Arena’ in Melbourne, these two distinguished leaders shared their own experiences of inclusive leadership, and offered their unique perspectives on what it takes to be an inclusive leader in today’s workplace.


‘Crucible moments’ on inclusion

When asked to recall a moment or situation when inclusion became important to her, Diana told the story of a worldwide Apple sales conference in Hawaii she attended where she encountered exclusion based on gender. “I was enjoying a drink with a male colleague at the end of the day when another member of the executive came up to us and invited my colleague to join him at a strip club. Not only did he completely ignore me, but my colleague felt compelled to go with him for fear of risking his job. I was left there on my own, feeling invisible and humiliated.”

Diana suggested that while this behaviour was typical of those times, similar things still happen in our workplaces today, only much more subtly and subversively. She believes Australia still has a long way to go in terms of calling out this kind of behaviour, which, she acknowledges, is very difficult to do.

David said there wasn’t a single moment when inclusion became important to him, but rather an acknowledgement of the privilege that comes with being a white, Anglo-Saxon male, with a career in a male-dominated organisation like the military. “For almost all of my life, and certainly for my entire professional career, I never really felt excluded. As you go through school and life, you learn techniques for being included. Sometimes that can be a really powerful thing, shaping your values in life. The Army gave me an enormous head start in that regard through its focus on ethical leadership. But being a part of the ‘in-crowd’ can also lead you to accommodate exclusion by pushing others away, assuming that everybody of ‘worth’ or ‘value’ was in the group that I was in. I absolutely now realise that I saw the world in a very particular way.”

“I have a very different view about that now. I see that there are really questionable criteria on which people make decisions about inclusion and exclusion, and without doubt, probably unconsciously, I was part of the excluding group. I still feel included because I’m still white, Anglo-Saxon and male, and that gives you a big head start in this country,” he said.


Taking action on inclusive leadership

Research and history tell us that very few leaders are inherently inclusive, but the good news is that it can be cultivated once we become conscious of it.

In discussing the actions that each personally took to develop a more inclusive leadership style, Diana reinforced the importance of bringing people who differ from you ‘into the room’. Her awareness of the importance of inclusion was built over time, and she realised that her outgoing and fast-paced approach wasn’t always the most effective. “I’m the kind of person who might leap off a tall building without a parachute. I’m a far better leader when I surround myself with people who are skilled at process, procedure and reflection, different ways of thinking, different backgrounds, different approaches, and qualities that force me to slow down and reflect. I have learnt that, when you bring people together with a diversity of thought and activity, and you play to strengths, you can achieve great things.”

Teamwork is the foundation of organisations like armies and the police forces, but they function much better if you introduce the idea of diversity of thinking, David said. “That’s the real Rubicon that organisations cross. Diversity for diversity sake, is simply box-ticking. Inclusivity is all about listening to other people’s perspectives and their views. You don’t have to agree with them, but you have to listen to them with respect.”

David said that the journey the Army went on was initially about diversity, not box-ticking per se, but tackling what he saw as the first big challenge: to grow the number of women in the organisation, to set a target and to name it publicly.

“That was a really important step. We put in place a lot of policies and practices to better attract women to the idea of army service, and then offered them reasons to stay. But the big step was understanding that we needed to be inclusive, because when you’re inclusive, you start to get the real power that diversity brings, which is diversity of thinking,” David said.

“I took to saying to the Army workforce, which was overwhelmingly male and young, ‘Hey, listen, the reason we’re doing this is not to tick the feel-good factor box here. It’s because armies exist to out-think our adversary, and when we don’t out-think our adversary, really bad stuff happens’. So this is about thinking about the challenges that we’ll be faced with, and understanding that the only good idea can possibly come from him because ‘he is who he is’: a white Anglo-Saxon and a member of the prevailing tribe. If you can break down that line of thinking and say, ‘Her ideas have provided a very different perspective here, they’re focused on issues that we hadn’t thought of before, and if we put them in place we are going to see real advantages accrue to what the team can achieve’. That is something that actually changes the conversation.”

David sees the culture of an organisation as setting the ground rules for whether people feel included or excluded. “When you tackle the culture from a capability point of view, I think real traction starts to happen. The Greek historian Thucydides said that there are three things that impel human nature: fear, honour and interest, and I don’t think that we’ve changed that much as a culture. When you talk about inclusivity, you’re talking about honour, and you can now take those to mean values.”

“Organisations that have values that are inclusive — like courage, initiative, teamwork, respect — change a lot of conversations. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to listen to you because you’ve got a value, and I respect that. I may not agree with your point of view, but I respect your right to say it.’ Over a period of time, people start to learn things that they haven’t heard before, see issues that they haven’t seen before, hear voices that they haven’t heard before, and so I think you can make fundamental changes to your organisation by appealing to the better part of human nature. If you couch the conversation as being more professional — more capable, understanding the true advantages of inclusivity — you’ll probably move the dial a lot quicker.”


The role of leadership in developing an inclusive culture

David describes culture as the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, that we’re prepared to believe in, and these stories become the tools of exclusion — if you are not a part of the dominant tribe, you’re either held at arm’s length, or not invited to come in. “If you want to be so bold as to try to come in, you’ll be harassed and bullied until you leave,” said David.

“You can do one of two things: You can set it to one side and say you’ll come back to the strengths of the culture because that’s what makes the institution great, or you can take a deep breath and work with the people within the organisation, and people from outside of the organisation, like I did with Elizabeth Broderick. Elizabeth shone a light for me into places I hadn’t looked hard enough at, or hadn’t looked at in the way it needed to be looked at. Coming to that realisation gets you to the starting point. It doesn’t give you all of the answers, but I made a decision that was best for the organisation. I realised that on my watch something needed to be done.”

David said that the work that was done in the Army as a result was because thousands of men and women responded in a way that said they understood the logic, who knew they were capable, and who were determined to do something about it. He said they are the ones who need to be recognised for what was achieved.

Through her work at Xplore, Diana has seen some great examples of inclusive leadership within organisations where the challenges have been tackled with creativity and passion. She said organisations like NAB, Australia Post, Lendlease, and CBA, all have some fabulous initiatives to make their workplaces more inclusive, but there’s more work to be done so we have more examples to hold up.

Referencing the research of Catalyst, Diana said that inclusion for her is made up of ‘uniqueness’ and ‘belongingness’, uniqueness as being recognised and valued for the distinct talents and perspectives people bring to their workgroups, and belongingness being when people see themselves as insiders who share common goals and interests with colleagues. Diana believes that if we can focus on these two areas, we will start to see a shift towards greater inclusion.


The importance of language

Language is a powerful tool for building inclusion at work. It can be used to create a sense of being valued, respected and one of the team (included) or of being undervalued, disrespected, and an ‘outsider’ (excluded).

Last month, DCA launched a new campaign called #WordsatWork to promote greater understanding of the role that language can play in workplace cultures, and the benefits that can flow from more inclusive language. In discussing the role that leaders should play in ensuring they use inclusive and respectful language, David said we should be calling out rudeness and vilification.

“Words are actions in their own right. We can all do better with our language, be more respectful. When we are, some really good stuff happens,” David said.

Diana added that discrimination may centre around comments made over a long time, and that leaders need to keep a clear view on how the language they use may be received by others, and the impact that demeaning comments can have on feelings of belongingness.


Models of inclusive leadership

When asked to name a leader in the world today who they see as exemplifying inclusive leadership, Diana responded with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. On announcing a gender-balanced team, he was asked why, to which he replied, “Because it’s 2015.”

While this statement received worldwide exposure, his commitment to inclusion was also demonstrated through having a diversity of age in his cabinet, cultural background including two ministers who are Aboriginal, one refugee, four ministers of Sikh origin, and two ministers with disability. He chose a cabinet that ‘looks like Canada’.

Rather than singling out one individual, David said there are many people who are quietly going about shaping families, community groups and societies, and then there are others who are publicly recognised such as through the Australia Day awards and the Australia Day honours. He said that, together, all of these individuals are moving us forward on inclusion in their own way.


Parting words of wisdom 

David said, “There’s no reason why the transformation that I helped bring about in the Australian Army can’t happen in any company in Australia, but they have to ‘get’ it at a deep level.”

Diana said, “For every person who does not fit your natural style, put more effort into understanding them, their unique skill sets, and their aspirations. Embrace individuals for their uniqueness so they feel like they belong.”

The discussion concluded with a brief Q&A session where both David and Diana reinforced the value of setting targets on inclusiveness, and making these public.

They also reinforced the importance of having a leader who can stand up and say, “I am passionate about this. This is the big issue I’m standing next to. I will run the risk of failing publicly for doing what I know is right.”

Amanda Webb

Amanda Webb is a highly experienced and respected Human Resources practitioner and CEO of Xplore.
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