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Start Your Journey of Inclusive Leadership With Small Steps

This article was based on episode 89 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get 20% off JCB’s DEI Foundations course launching on March 10, 2020, when you become a member at

There is a growing body of research highlighting the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Despite this evidence, many companies struggle to create and maintain a workplace culture which provides a genuine sense of belonging, respect and appreciation for all of its members. So why are efforts toward building a diverse and inclusive environment so often unsuccessful, and why is the rate of meaningful change so slow?

Jennifer Brown believes that the power of diversity and inclusion is essential for the very viability and sustainability of every organization. She is a leading diversity and inclusion expert, dynamic keynote speaker, best-selling author, award-winning entrepreneur and host of The Will To Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. As the founder, president and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, Jennifer’s workplace strategies have been employed by some of the world’s top Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits including Walmart, Microsoft and Starbucks. She believes that when people feel welcomed, valued, respected and heard by their colleagues and organization, incredible things happen.


All of us have implicit biases. They were formed as our brains learned to make sense of the world through the process of socialization. They’re difficult to deal with because they exist without our intention and yet strongly influence our decisions and behaviors.

It can be hard to accept these unconscious biases because consciously we hold opposing values. I’ve personally experienced this exact dilemma. I believe with all my being in creating an inclusive environment, in the innate and equal value of every human being, yet I am not fully aware in how my actions or words impact others who have a different life from my own.

Good intentions are simply not enough. At worst, they can hold us back from making real change. Only if we are able to recognize and acknowledge our unconscious biases and lack of knowledge, can we take steps toward making different and better choices. Only when we notice our behaviors, choices and assumptions, paired with a desire and willingness to learn, and a conscious commitment to change, can we be transformed ourselves.

This process should be part of any leader’s work in honing their leadership and managerial skills, and has become a necessity for succeeding in today’s workplace.


Leadership positions in most companies today are occupied by a subset of people who identify largely as white, straight, cis-gender males. There is diversity in the lower and middle parts of organizations, but as you look up the chain, diversification thins out considerably. This visual serves as a reminder that we are endeavoring to create a better experience for ourselves and others in a workplace that was not built by or for us. One look at history and it’s easy to see that businesses were not built to provide advantages for a diverse group of people. Therefore, a lot of bias has been hardwired into this system by leaders who do not recognize the day-to-day reality of their colleagues.

Unfortunately, many leaders are disconnected from the experiences of their employees. They do not acknowledge that people, despite working in the exact same environment, are having quite varied experiences. It is within this system that biases have been perpetuated.


While some differences are observable, others lie beneath the surface. Both

visible and invisible differences impact interrelationships and organizational dynamics. Examples include:

  • Gender is relatively obvious and visible, although you may assume someone’s gender based on their physical presentation, this may not be how they identify. To be inclusive of all gender identities, it is helpful to share pronouns in email signatures, opening remarks or meetings with new people;

  • Race is often an obvious and visible identity, but not always. Do not assume race or ethnic identification;

  • Disabilities may be visible but some, such as Dyslexia, are often hidden;

  • Mental health issues often remain invisible;

  • Neurodiversity, such as being on the autism spectrum, may or may not be visible;

  • Veteran status is often a hidden diversity. Many people are closeted about having been in the military because of the stereotypes that sharing might trigger;

  • Age may appear obvious yet we can assume incorrectly.

There are many people in the workplace who are minimizing or hiding aspects of themselves in response to the narrow stereotypes accepted in their workplace culture. They hesitate to bring their full selves to work due to the assumption that they are alone in their story. When being our true selves is not normalized, the result is suppression of important stories or truths in favor of submitting to the status quo.

In order to change the environment, we must first change ourselves.


Jennifer has provided a guide for driving real change toward diversity and inclusion at work and in life. She describes four stages of the personal journey that must be undertaken to create an inclusive workplace where everyone is welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.

Stage 1: Unaware

People in phase one don’t think there is a problem. They may believe that life is a meritocracy. Often they do not feel the need to be involved with diversity efforts until it is required of them, even then, often doing only the bare minimum. For example, they may send their staff to unconscious bias training because they have to, but they do not understand the point of it. This stage also includes resistant people who erroneously believe that attending to diversity is a zero-sum game, and that extending more opportunity to others means there will be less opportunity for them.

Stage 2: Aware

People in phase two recognize that some people do not feel a sense of belonging at work. They understand that the experience of an employee varies in part due to one’s identities. Those the Aware Stage express curiosity and seek learning opportunities. They go out of their way to expose themselves to experiences and identities that are different from their own. They ask, "What don't I know and where, or from whom, can I learn it?"

Stage 3: Active

People in phase three choose to use their knowledge and put what they have learned into action. They strengthen their voices and themselves as they broaden their language to make it more inclusive. They become more public about their journey and take more risks.They attempt to speak up, however imperfectly, because it does not always go smoothly. They take risks as they try new approaches based on their newly gained understanding. It is important at this stage to have trusted advisors who can provide a safe space to offer insight and feedback in service of your growth.

Stage 4: Advocate

People in phase four have become courageous enough to truthfully tell their story and create a safe space for vulnerable storytelling from others. You take a leap of faith that when you openly share who you are, you will be met with a community of people who will be grateful for your honesty and courage to be a truth teller. At this stage you lift up the voices of others, speak out against biases you observe in others, and contribute to systemic change.


For too long, we’ve allowed good intentions to get in the way of real progress. The responsibility for change must be owned by everyone. To start your journey:

  • Take a diversity self-assessment to begin reconciling your own biases and determining where you are in the journey. Encourage your colleagues to do this, too. Check out the Inclusive Leader assessment and The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT).

  • Broaden the concept of what diversity means through storytelling. Role model this by being vulnerable to your team. Doing so can help people gain awareness of invisible and diverse dimensions to our identities while inspiring others to share their stories.

  • Create and maintain safe spaces for everyone to bring more of their full selves to work.

  • Choose an identity which you know very little about and commit to learning by reading, listening to a podcast, finding culturally accurate tv shows, or in any way purposefully exposing yourself to the issues and challenges experienced by those in that group.

As a manager and leader, if you're not willing to be on the journey, to make mistakes, to share your full self and range of identities and diversities, it is impossible to ask your team to. Therefore, change must begin with you.


Get 20% off JCB’s DEI Foundations course launching on March 10, 2020, when you become a member at

This article was based on episode 89 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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