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How to build an inclusive leader mindset and culture

Financial services firms are embedding the power of more inclusive leadership as part of their growth strategies.

In brief

  • Inclusive leaders are empowered, not inhibited by what they must learn.
  • Inclusive leadership is emerging as a critical capability.

The world is more complex and volatile than ever, and financial services face unique challenges as they seek to regain lost ground and transform for long-term recovery. Many are embedding the power of more inclusive leadership as part of their growth strategies.

They understand that doing so is less about looking at diversity & inclusion (D&I) as a “problem” to solve and more about looking at it as a solution to some of banking’s biggest challenges – from how banks develop more diverse products, meet the needs of more diverse customers, engage the full power of their workforce, and overcome problems.

We have seen banks increase their focus on D&I over the past year as they realign their values as a result of COVID-19. Increasingly, they understand that diverse, equitable and inclusive teams are needed to maintain employee engagement, are critical to a bank’s ability to align to consumer demand, and to maintain a competitive edge.

However, those banks who are realizing the full potential of D&I know that an inclusive culture – good or bad – comes from its leaders. As leaders recognize their own inclusive mindset, they begin to self-reflect on their behaviors – making the necessary changes to role model inclusivity.

Aspects of diversity ranging from our work roles, gender, and ethnicity imbue each of us with a unique inherent experience of the world. But recognizing that fact should also provide leaders with a passion to learn more about the experiences of others and apply what they learn into their strategy and culture to make it more inclusive.

Indeed, committing oneself to drive a more inclusive culture requires plenty of listening and life-long learning.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

On making this comment, renowned author, Peter Drucker, pointed out the importance of the human factor in any business. No matter how comprehensive your D&I strategy is, if the people executing it don't nurture the appropriate culture, then D&I will stumble.

The strength of an inclusive culture is assessed by how inclusive employees act in critical situations. But mostly it comes down to how inclusive leaders are.

We find that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual feels included. And this matters because the more people feel included, the more they speak up, innovate, and collaborate.

So, as leaders, we must self-reflect on whether we have an inclusive mindset, recognizing that our mindset determines our behavior and our behavior determines our results.

So what makes an “inclusive leader”?

Leaders who have successfully built high-performing diverse, inclusive teams demonstrate several similar traits:

They role model inclusivity in visible ways – every day. They set out their overall commitment to D&I but they back this up with visible actions – from how they conduct themselves in team meetings, to how they celebrate success, and create diverse working teams. Every day presents leaders with opportunities to advance an inclusive culture or to suppress it. Leaders must become more attuned to these opportunities and to their own behaviors when they arise.

They have a growth mindset. A financial services C-suite client, who EY invited to speak at a recent global account event, spoke about how her organization sees humility and vulnerability as cornerstones to building a culture of trust. As an inclusive leader, she encourages reverse mentorship, taking advice from more junior colleagues. She is comfortable admitting to her own limitations and trying to understand issues from different perspectives is key to this client. To encourage this, she supports communities where people of different seniorities gather to openly share ideas.

They are open to inclusivity blind spots. Each leader’s journey starts by acknowledging that we are the sum of our unique experiences and background. This doesn’t prevent us from being inclusive leaders but acknowledging our unique experiences should motivate us to learn more about the lives and challenges of people with different gender, age, ethnicity, and cultural backgrounds. Ultimately, it’s a leader’s mindset that decides whether they’re able to acknowledge their own biases and reflect on how these relate to their actions.

Inclusive leaders are also on the watch for systemic bias across their organizations – from how people are hired, developed, promoted and succeeded. A leader’s commitment to change cannot succeed without having an infrastructure that allows that change to take place.

They role model inclusive collaboration. They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety and focus on building diverse, inclusive working teams. They also acknowledge the success of these teams and connect the dots to team, department and overall company objectives.  


Remember, people get an understanding of their culture from what they hear leaders say, what they see leaders do and how the business is set up to get things done. Leadership control across these elements is such that, without adaptation and change at this level, any culture transformation is often hindered. 

So, what behaviors are you encouraging? What behaviors are you discouraging? What behaviors are you tolerating? And how are these behaviors impacting inclusivity in your business?  

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