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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

How Leaders' Personal Preferences Affect Shareholder Value

Four steps organizations can take to encourage inclusion and limit bias

We are all hardwired with our individual preferences. Everything from the colors of clothing we like, to the cuisines we like to consume, to the company we choose to keep. Our preferences are ingrained into our decisions—both large and small— and as a result, we often have blinders on when it comes to the limits those preferences impose. These blinders can be problematic when it comes to hiring and promoting talent as well as decisions about products and services. 

Many of us can think of instances where a leader's personal preferences hindered the potential available to the organization. Leading by preference lays the groundwork for a series of culture breakdowns, ranging from discriminatory practices to exclusionary behaviors, which ultimately results in value destruction for the company. 

How can leaders ensure that their preferences aren’t limiting the company’s opportunities? Based on our work with leaders around the world, we found there are several leading practices for uncovering and preventing behaviors that lead to culture and value destruction.

Unveil the Concentration of Power and Dilute It

When companies have been acting on unconscious or personal preferences in hiring and promoting employees, the senior leadership team often becomes a homogenous group. Think about the decision-makers for promotions and gatekeepers of opportunities: Are they truly representative of the diverse talent within our organizations? If not, CHROs, CEOs, and board leaders must critically examine how personal preferences seep into the decision-making process in their company and how they could be more inclusive.  

We believe that inclusive leadership is a skill that can be learned and developed. This is why we created an Inclusive Leadership Index – a tool that comprises three dimensions: leadership skills, taking action, and personal learning. At the outset, there are three core questions organizations can consider:

  • Is our leadership demonstrating behaviors that support their ability to work across differences? 
  • Is the leader taking action to increase diverse representation and inclusive culture in their organization? 
  • Is the leadership team able to connect DEI issues outside of their organization to challenges inside the organization? 

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” corrective action must be taken. 

Once the concentration of power is identified and there are concrete steps for changes the company will make, the next step is to understand and remove hurdles that hold people back. Examine whether your people systems are evolving to ensure that the criteria for hiring, evaluation, development, and promotion are aligned with the desired culture. One way to do that is by taking a profile of your culture. Egon Zehnder has a tool that measures eight cultural dimensions by ranking behaviors that shape these dimensions.  

Integrate Inclusive Decision-Making 

Decision-making is an inherently subjective process, shaped by our personal preferences and biases. However, by embracing diversity and inclusion, we can ensure that decision-making becomes more objective and representative of the varied experiences within our organizations. By consciously seeking out diverse perspectives, valuing different opinions, and establishing inclusive decision-making frameworks, we can harness the collective intelligence of our teams. This inclusive approach allows us to make informed choices that reflect the needs of our shareholders while avoiding the pitfalls of homogeneity and missed opportunities.  

Create Opportunities for Everyone 

We all have colleagues we prefer to work with. Maybe it’s because we are similarly wired and have creative synergies, or we have similar working styles or even because we like the same television shows. We gravitate to these people consciously or subconsciously, but this is also a limiting behavior. We can't see how this might emotionally harm or limit the opportunities of other colleagues. Remember the dreaded group projects from school where there was someone who was eager to do all of the work, someone who didn’t want to do any of the work, and then everyone else fell somewhere in between? While at times irritating, there was a fundamental friction to these randomized groups that led to new strategies of working and collaboration. We need to apply that same concept at work today. While you can’t mix up teams constantly due to skills needs and other variables, put together unconventional groups. Have people who don’t usually speak with each other have a reason to. 

To unlock new ideas, it is imperative to create opportunities that are accessible to all individuals, regardless of their background or personal preferences. By expanding your perspective beyond your own experiences and actively seeking out diverse voices, you can broaden your understanding of talent and enhance innovation. Through intentional efforts, such as mentorship programs, sponsorship initiatives, and talent development strategies, you can nurture a culture where everyone has a fair chance to contribute their unique skills and perspectives, ultimately propelling the organization toward its full potential. 

Unlock the Power of Personal Stories 

Personal stories are potent tools for dispelling biases and challenging preconceived notions.  Before we accept and promote simple perceptions about colleagues, we should make sure we understand their personal stories.  Otherwise, we are at risk of perpetuation of a non-inclusive culture.  When we take the time to truly know and understand individuals based on their own narratives, rather than relying on assumptions, we unlock a wealth of untapped talent. Fostering an environment where individuals can share their stories without fear of judgment creates a safe space for authenticity and personal growth. This openness enables us to identify commonalities among diverse individuals and challenges stereotypes. It paves the way for a workplace that recognizes the potential of every employee, regardless of their visual or verbal cues.  

Valuing these personal stories also directly feeds into fostering a culture of curiosity and creativity. These two factors are enablers of innovation that drive greater value for shareholders. Curiosity allows individuals to seek out new solutions and perspectives, pushing beyond their personal preferences and biases to uncover new opportunities for growth. Creativity then allows those solutions to take form, bringing forth innovative ideas that can advance the business in new ways. 

Inclusive Organizations Drive Greater Value 

To grow shareholder value and not erode it, leaders must confront the ways in which personal preferences inadvertently limit opportunities for the business. Increasingly the upcoming generation of consumers are paying attention to where they put their money and which products and services they purchase.  They are scrutinizing if the companies they are supporting are inclusive in their leadership, marketing, and messaging. 

This process will be uncomfortable. It requires leaders who aren’t afraid to admit their own shortcomings and mistakes they may have made in the past. It’s this vulnerability that will empower others in the organization to stop and reflect on their own behaviors. This introspection can’t happen from the bottom up. Leaders in the organization will need to start this effort. Change will not come overnight, or even maybe in a year’s time. Unraveling systems driven by preferences for decades will take an investment of time, resources, and emotions. But the organizational culture you rebuild will be stronger, with employees engaged and empowered at all levels of the company. 

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