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Above All, Inclusion Is a Leadership Challenge


Above All, Inclusion Is a Leadership Challenge

CEO of Above Difference, Jennifer Izekor explores the five value proposition statements that underpin the work of her Award-winning, Inclusive Leadership with Cultural Intelligence business and led to the launch of a new UK-wide, inclusive leadership movement #ToSeeAndHearYou

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening”.

Edgar Schein

This week, I reflected on the fact that over the last three years, in leading Above Difference, my expert facilitators and I have facilitated workshops with over 3,000 leaders across the public and community sector.

I still never tire of what we fondly call the “lightbulb moments” and the excitement I see on the faces of leaders who leave our Masterclasses with a better understanding of how they can make a difference to the lived experiences of their diverse teams, peers and colleagues. They get the “how to make inclusion work”.

As an Inclusive Leadership and Cultural Intelligence facilitator, leadership coach and speaker, I know that the best theories/models in the world mean nothing, if they do not engender a deep personal transformation that in turn, creates leaders who walk away feeling empowered, engaged and aware of their own ‘power and influence’ in creating inclusive spaces where everyone feels valued. Leadership, John Maxwell says, “is all about influence, nothing more, nothing less and everything rises and falls on leadership”. 

Leaders play a key role in creating the ‘feel’ of spaces where individuals of all backgrounds work. Wittingly or unwittingly, they create or facilitate team and departmental cultures. As Edgar Schein says “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this happening”.

These cultures, shaped and facilitated by leaders, are unelected rulers of the workplace. They define who belongs and who doesn’t, who thrives and who just survives in the workplace.

Often, the most powerful moment in our programmes is when a leader realises the power of these visible and invisible ‘cultures’ and the potential they have as leaders to shape and influence them. When they realise, that by having a limited view of what the word ‘culture’ encompasses, they can limit their own ability to be effective, inclusive leader. Inclusive leaders are grown, not just sown and watching those seeds germinate and green shoots appear is as they say, a blast!

Yet the best thing about every leadership programme and Masterclass I facilitate is the learning that I take away from the diverse leaders I get to engage with.  Over the last three years, that learning has led me to Five Value Proposition Statements that now underpin all the work Above Difference undertakes with our partners and clients.

Value Proposition Statements

When good leaders lead well, they lead all people (irrespective of their backgrounds) well

If a leader isn’t leading all their people well they aren’t leading well. Inclusion is a leadership challenge.

All people, irrespective of their backgrounds, deserve to be well led

Also a core value for Maxwell Leadership. Access to good and inclusive leaders should not be an optional extra for any employee

Leaders need to be Culturally Intelligent, Value Driven and Effective Change Leaders/Managers to lead all people well

Leaders need to be able to adapt their leadership style across diverse contexts, individuals and situations. They need to be change makers and innovators.

Equipping and Upskilling Leaders to lead all people well, is an organisational challenge and an organisational necessity

It’s not enough to just ‘expect’ leaders and managers to lead inclusively, organisations need to invest in upskilling and that means more than one training course.

Developing Oneself as a Culturally Intelligent & Inclusive Leader is a personal growth challenge and a professional growth necessity

If you lead people who are different from you, in any way then you have a responsibility to equip yourself with the best tools, skills, knowledge and capabilities to do it well.

I believe all five statements point to one clear fact;

Inclusive leaders create inclusive cultures which provide the right environment for inclusion and belonging to grow and flourish. Inclusion is a leadership challenge.

Over the next few weeks we will launch our Inclusive Leadership Movement #ToSeeAndHearYou. It’s been a long time in the making.

#ToSeeAndHear you is a call to action for leaders who understand that Inclusion is a leadership challenge and want to work with other likeminded leaders to do it better. It’s for leaders who are tired of the polarisation, negative dialogue and just want to understand how and what they can do differently, how they can lead difference well.

It’s about organisations who want to find a simple but powerful focal point for all their inclusion strategies – a commitment to individually ‘See and Hear All’ and a commitment to do what it takes to create an organisation where all are ‘Seen, Heard and Valued’.

Organisations that want to simply and powerfully say to their diverse staff and stakeholders – “We see you, we hear you and we will get this right for you. It is for all of you, for all of us.”

Join the #ToSeeAndHearYou conversation and be part of the movement:

Watch the space each week exploring each statement in more detail and inviting you to engage. We believe Inclusion is above all a leadership challenge.

To join me on one of our acclaimed “Leading Inclusively With Cultural Intelligence Masterclass Programmes:


Inclusion in a Very English Way. Why Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Makes Inclusion, Inclusive


Inclusion in a Very English Way: Why Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Makes Inclusion, Inclusive

Why we need to constantly question our assumptions about what Inclusion looks and feels like from different cultural perspectives.

“Ask most people about what inclusion looks like at work and two words instantly pop up – respect and value (being respected and being valued). To what degree, however, is an individual’s perception of being respected and valued in the workplace defined by their cultural background, values, and cultural preferences? If culture does make a difference, then by what cultural lens are we defining inclusion when we talk about it. Do we just mean inclusion the English way?”

September 27 – October 3 is National Inclusion week in 2021, similar to last year, social media will probably be awash with the voices of many reiterating the importance and relevance of Inclusion to the diversity agenda. It is very encouraging to see Inclusion celebrated in its own right. Even more so, that there is now a clear recognition that diversity itself, does not automatically mean Inclusion. One would go so far to suggest, that diversity in any workplace without equity and inclusion is just tokenism, a demeaning numbers game that leaves many of its target groups and champions, broken, disillusioned, and frustrated.

As encouraging as this emerging focus on Inclusion is, I wonder if there is a real danger that it becomes a meaningless buzzword. Could it too become an aspirational ‘catch-all’ for all our shared ambitions around the reality of an equal and fair society?

This danger, I believe, lies in the underlying assumption that Inclusion itself is monochromic, particularly concerning ethnicity. That it means the same in every cultural context and is not shaped or defined by the cultural values and preferences of those who seek to include and/or those who are being ‘included’. This assumption would suggest that being included, looks, and feels the same to everyone irrespective of their cultural or indeed social background. I am not sure it is that simple.

Ask most people about what inclusion looks like at work and two words instantly pop up – respect and value (being respected and being valued). To what degree, however, is an individual’s perception of being respected and valued in the workplace defined by their cultural background, values, and cultural preferences? If culture does make a difference, then by what cultural lens are we defining inclusion when we talk about it. Do we just mean inclusion the English way?

As a Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Trainer and Facilitator, I constantly question my assumptions about what Inclusion looks and feels like from different cultural perspectives. I do so now, through the lens of enhanced Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and a growing deeper appreciation of the impact of cultural values and preferences on intercultural interactions between individuals.

Here’s an example. In some cultures (high power distance cultures), respecting your boss/manager means listening and in many cases acquiescing quietly to what they have to say. It means, not disagreeing with them in meetings even if you think they are wrong. In these cultures, respect can be submissive and can involve surrendering one’s rights in favor of a ‘superior.’ Hierarchy is essential, and status is everything. Professional standing is expected to be clearly, visually defined in the perks that come with seniority of office. Decision-making (even the most basic) powers are intentionally invested in the hierarchy. Respect, especially from subordinates means being treated with suitable deference in all things.

In other cultures, (low power distance cultures) a person who sits quietly in a meeting, seemingly unwilling to challenge or debate in front of a manager/leader can be perceived as lacking character or initiative. Individuals at all levels in the workplace are expected to demonstrate an ability to make decisions, prioritize without continually checking with a manager and work on their own initiative. Open, shared office spaces are all the rage. Flashing signs of your authority or title, especially in the public sector is generally considered inappropriate behavior. Respect is expected to be a two-way street, and deliberate attempts to assert authority vested in your position over subordinates can be seen as bullying and is frowned upon. I found this chart on the internet that loosely sets this out.

It is clear that leaders in these different cultural contexts will have different views about what respect for their positions in the workplace will look and feel like as will the individuals lower down the pecking scale about being valued. As a young fresh graduate arriving back to the UK from Nigeria and having grown up in a high power distance culture and perhaps an even higher power distance family, I remember my confusion as I tried to come to grips with these conflicting perspectives.

When my first UK ‘boss’ asked what I thought about a new proposal he was presenting, I genuinely thought it was a trick question. Nothing in me felt it was appropriate or safe to give him my honest opinion which as it was, wasn’t entirely positive. In my view, to express that would have been ‘disrespectful.’ 

So here is the rub. In an ethnically diverse team, set in a low power distance culture where the manager and team members are from diverse cultural backgrounds (Low/high), which definition of respect/value wins out? How does the other individual or individuals resolve the potential loss of part of their cultural identity in the workplace and still feel valued and respected? Can they express their confusion without fear of being patronised, judged, treated as if their own values are retrograde, backward or ‘just not the way we do things round here’. Is simply conforming (by choice or by expectation#) to the dominant cultural perspective real Inclusion? 

The issue here is not about which of these two cultural perspectives with regards to respect is preferable or ‘right.’ We will naturally all make that judgement through our own cultural lens and the cultural values of the environment in which we live. While a High Power Distance approach to ‘respect’ and ‘value’ may not sit well with our Eurocentric view of the world, it is the very real and lived experience of many people from African, Asian and Middle Eastern parts of the world and an acceptable way of doing things within the workplace, socially and in families. 

This is where Cultural Intelligence (CQ) becomes vital. The Cultural Intelligence Quotient (CQ) is defined as the capability to work effectively across diverse cultural contexts, including ethnic, generational, organisational, etc. I think it’s relevance to inclusion lies in the fact that it provides a common ground for the ‘includers’ and those to be included. Both sides benefit immensely from developing the core capabilities that are key to an enhanced Cultural Intelligence (CQ) in individuals and teams. These shared capabilities make inclusion for all, a comfortable reality. 

Individuals with enhanced CQ Drive are motivated to learn and adapt to new and diverse cultural settings and values. This is important because it provides an open and curious platform on which differences in perspectives can are identified and engaged with positively.

Individuals with enhanced CQ Knowledge have a rich, well-organised understanding of culture and how it affects the way people think and behave. They understand that assumptions and stereotypes based on one’s own cultural values and preferences are the death of inclusion and diversity.

Individuals with enhanced CQ Strategy think about multicultural interactions before and after they occur. They recognise the importance of planning, checking, and most importantly possess a refined awareness of the cultural perspectives of self and others during interactions with people different from themselves.

Finally, individuals with enhanced CQ Action translate their CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, and CQ Strategy into action. They know when and where to adapt their behavior and speech. They know how important this is to make others feel valued, accepted, and in some cases, safe in the workplace.

All of these components can be assessed, developed in individuals and teams and it works. Research tells us that where CQ levels are low, diverse teams will underperform against homogenous teams on every key indicator – performance, productivity, creativity and innovation. Where CQ levels are high, the reverse is true; diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous teams on every indicator.

Cultural Intelligence makes inclusion a shared and jointly owned agenda. It tackles the suspicions, misunderstandings, and friction that inevitably occurs when diverse cultural perspectives come together. It challenges the subtle, covert cultural superiority that sadly, so often underpins misjudged, patronising attempts at inclusion. It says it’s ok to be different but equips us to respond and react to difference in a way that is universally respectful. CQ helps us do difference better.

The challenge is not about how diverse organisations look but how diverse they feel for everyone. Those feelings will always be shaped and analysed through the lens of our diverse cultural values, lived experiences, and preferences. Real inclusion comes when we openly acknowledge those differences, recognise the distances that everyone has to travel to an agreed and shared set of values around being and doing in the workplace. When teams are Culturally Intelligent, they make this journey together. There are no ‘includers’ and ‘included’ just a diverse and beautiful spectrum of individuals seeking, learning, experiencing, and shaping together. 

These are the individuals and leaders that produce innovative, inclusive and creative solutions that make the world a much better place for all.


What’s a culturally intelligent and inclusive leader and how do you know you are one?


What’s a culturally intelligent and inclusive leader and how do you know you are one?

Leading the way to intentional inclusion begins with embracing ambiguity and exploring the depth of difference.

“The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate”

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker 1

When Steve and Todd wrote this in their book about school culture in 20141 they coined a notion that resonates in all types of organisations everywhere.

Leadership is responsible for culture. Leadership role models. Leadership has a responsibility to lead behaviour, as well as policy.

Conversely, it must also resonate to say, “The culture of any organisation can be shaped by the best behaviour the leader is willing to demonstrate“, so, what does this mean for inclusion, and how can leaders be intentional about it?

But, before that, maybe we need to take a step back and also ask – what does it mean to be a leader?

Richard D. Lewis charted 24 different leadership styles in his book “When Cultures Collide.” (see image: courtesy of Paul Sohn)²

Dr David Livermore, the man we like to call the Godfather of Cultural Intelligence (CQ), says of this image, “As always, avoid stereotypes but these visuals are a helpful starting point to consider leadership approaches across the world.”³

Whether you agree or disagree with the detail in the graphics, acknowledging that different people display different approaches to leadership is a crucial point of understanding.

Dr Livermore has also noted that 90% of leadership books assume a low power distance, individualist context, yet, 70% of the world is high power distance and collectivist.Power distance refers to whether you prefer shared- decision making, to expecting superiors to make decisions. (If you’re not familiar with these terms, please check out David’s book “Leading with Cultural Intelligence” for more detail on the 10 Cultural Value Dimensions). So, if you’re a subscriber to the vast majority of leadership literature you may not be cognizant of the gaps between your knowledge and experience and the needs of a diverse workforce.

The Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE)5 study examined leaders and followers across 62 countries to determine similarities and differences in what followers want from their leaders. They had some agreement in what they did and didn’t want, however there was a vast difference in the behaviours used to describe how the leaders would manifest those attributes. E.g. what trustworthy looks and feels like to me, may be different to what it is for you, even though we both agree trustworthiness is an important leadership trait. Culture influences what people expect and need from their leader.

Once we can acknowledge there is no singular overarching way to be a leader, we have the propensity to become an inclusive one.

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is an essential skill for effective leadership in our multi-cultural, globalised world.

When Above Difference carries out its Masterclasses in Inclusive Leadership, CQ underpins the whole discussion.

You mustn’t be misled, however, in thinking this is necessarily for people who lead global organisations or multi-national teams, because a diversity of cultures exists under all our noses. There is often the misconception that “multi-cultural” refers to nationalistic or ethnic difference, when in fact culture simply refers to what is acceptable and familiar within a given group. And acceptability and familiarity can vary whatever the signifier, be it the culture of a particular generation, sexuality, health condition, non-alcohol drinkers, myth believers, etc.

So, inclusive leadership based in cultural intelligence, allows for any difference, the question is how do you react to that difference and are sure to think, behave and act in a way that consciously includes different perspectives.

In the first instance, culturally intelligent leaders are curious. They have a desire and motivation to know about difference. That is to say they are high in CQ Drive.

Next, they understand how differences such as values, norms, religion, family, laws, education, languages, economic influences affect the way their teams think and behave. They are high in CQ Knowledge.

Then they learn to plan ahead for unfamiliar cultural settings while remaining flexible. This is CQ Strategy.

Finally, they are high in CQ Action – they choose the right verbal and nonverbal behaviours, depending on context and successful adapt their behaviour to each situation.

Angela Earnshaw of Leeds and York NHS Trust told us, “The Above Difference programme provided me with new insight into how I can become a fully inclusive leader. The CQ Framework provides a clear foundation for taking forward personal development and improvements.”

In 2017, Deloitte cited Cultural Intelligence as one of the six signature traits of inclusive leadership.They say, “Inclusive leaders are tolerant of ambiguity, which enables them to manage the stress imposed by new or different cultural environments as well as situations where familiar environmental or behavioural cues are lacking.” This is important, because in the pressurised world of leadership, when stress hits you can be tempted to default to comfortable predisposed norms and fall back on biases.

Inclusive leadership is a journey of discovery about self as well as others and its rich rewards can be felt in personal growth as well as in the profit column.