Throughout my international career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide range of diverse and fascinating people across five continents and many cities. More recently, via my two NGOs, Women on a Mission and HER Planet Earth, I have also had the great privilege of leading a number of all-female teams on pioneering expeditions to some of the most inhospitable places in the world. My teams’ composition on these expeditions have always been extremely varied, and I’ve found this to be an incredible advantage because it has contributed to the richness of our interactions, and in many ways, to our competitive advantage.

On average, my teams are made up of women aged 22 to 60 years old. They could be from Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Cape Town, Paris or London. Their careers and profiles are diverse and far ranging. I’ve had CEOs and new graduates, pilots and artists, engineers and marketers, stay at home mums and consultants, to name a few. The women are of all nationalities, races, marital status, sexual and religious orientation. Our unity of purpose has always been a great strength, but it is our diversity that has been at the heart of our powerful sisterhood, and which has made our time together so precious.

Diversity brings strength in more ways than one. Every individual has so much to contribute and the differences add to the beauty of the whole experience. Yet diversity alone is not enough. Inclusive leadership needs to be at the core of diverse teams in order to foster a culture where people feel they belong, can be happy and contribute, and where they can thrive and be successful in the long term.

In today’s business world, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are often treated as buzzwords that amount to little more than a compulsory annual training. But the reality is that when we make DEI a priority, every facet of organisations benefits, including the bottom line.  

So what is DEI?

• Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting or group. In the workplace, this generally refers to psychological, physical, cultural, social, religious and ethnic differences that occur among any and all individuals. A diverse group, community, or organisation is one in which a wide variety of social, cultural, religious, sexual orientations and racial characteristics exist.

• Equity ensures everyone has access to the same opportunities and advancement. Equity aims to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups.

Barriers can come in many forms. Research has shown us that unconscious bias can influence how we recruit, with employers often rating male applicants as significantly more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant, and as a result offering higher starting salaries and more career mentoring to male applicants.

• Inclusion refers to how people with different identities feel they belong to a larger group. Inclusion doesn’t naturally result from diversity, and in reality, you can have a diverse team of talent but that doesn’t mean that everyone feels welcome or valued. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are mutually reinforcing principles within a team or an organisation. A focus on diversity alone is not enough, because an employee’s sense of belonging (inclusion) and experience of fairness (equity) is vitally important 

Why does it matter?

The simple answer is that organisations that don’t implement strong DEI practices and standards miss out on the chance to benefit from their peoples’ full potential. Diverse teams are more creative and innovative, result in higher rates of satisfaction and retention, higher levels of trust and engagement, and make better decisions. The data points overwhelmingly to the fact diverse companies have better shareholder returns.  

A study by McKinsey & Company in partnership with The Society for Human Research Management (SHRM), evaluated the performance of companies with different levels of workplace diversity. They found that companies that exhibit gender and ethnic diversity are, respectively, 15% and 35% more likely to outperform less diverse peers. The same study found that organisations with more racial and gender diversity bring in more sales revenue, more customers and higher profits.

Most importantly, reinforcing and developing robust DEI programmes helps every employee show up each day without fear of being their true selves. This allows them to bring their whole personality to work and fosters higher degrees of happiness and wellbeing that also contribute to increased business success and higher revenue.

How do you promote DEI?

When leaders vow to build a more inclusive and diverse culture they tend to start with the company’s mission, values and promise that everyone will be given equal opportunities. But they often don’t alter how they communicate on a daily basis, missing a key way to promote DEI. Inclusive leadership means adopting and developing an all-encompassing communication style, while emphasising equity, diversity and of course inclusion. To do that well, several elements need to be at the core.

Elevating Equity. Equity needs to be placed before diversity and inclusion – for a reason. Without equity, efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are commendable, but not sustainable in the long term. To enact equity is to provide all people with fair opportunities to attain their full potential. Leaders need to first acknowledge social inequities and recognise that, unintentionally, their organisation may not be at level playing field. People all over the world enter the workforce with unevenness of advantage and opportunity, so what is considered “fair-opportunity” for some may not be the same for everyone else. Leaders need to include this awareness in their communication, showing a deep understanding of the reality and current trends, while setting clear goals toward greater equity, only then can they build the foundation of the organisation’s diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Activating diversity. Activating diversity is a process that also involves recognising and celebrating differences within employee and customer base. It looks at the impact of different perspectives, assumptions and approaches to contributions but also includes defining clear expectations, processes and goals. 

Leading and communicating inclusively. This is probably the most important ingredient. It means being intentional and pro-active in efforts to promote the full participation and sense of belonging of every single employee, customer and strategic partner. This involves policies and practices but also the chance to enact a more empathetic and compassionate way of  leading. Across all levels and functions, leaders need tools and support as they improve their ability to spot bias, promote differences, mitigate conflict and build more empathetic relationships, while bringing out the best in their employees. One of the best ways to do that is to use language that is personalised to their audience. Just like a keynote speaker, leaders need to put their audience first and adapt the message to the needs and demographic makeup of their listeners. This takes time and a conscious effort to think about what language, anecdotes, references, or examples the audience will relate to. If the audience is investors, they’ll want to hear about the same initiatives in terms of ROI; if they’re sustainably minded consumers, address the environmental impact of the initiatives. It requires a high level of self-awareness and an openness to receiving feedback. The good news is that communication is a behaviour and can be learnt and mastered just like a science.   

Prior to each of my expeditions, I share my “seven golden rules” with the team, and ask each participant to acknowledge they have read it and are on board with it 100 per cent. While a leader’s communication style sets the tone for an inclusive culture on any team, it is equally important to have rules or policies in place that reinforce the values of the organisation and that have buy-in not just from top management, but from the bottom up as well.

The golden rules include a promise to support each other, to be respectful to everyone on the team and to the people we encounter along the way. It asks that each teammate commit to reducing waste, so as not to pollute the environment, to never complain or raise their voice unnecessarily to other teammates, guides and support staff, to be patient with changes in the itinerary and finally, to be grateful and to remember how privileged we all are to be on this expedition, while raising funds for the less fortunate.

The golden rules could apply to any organisation, not just to teams on expeditions. Outlining and communicating such values helps build a culture of inclusion. Indeed, many companies and organisations today are looking to develop such a culture, which will help them attract, retain, engage, and enable a diverse and talented workforce.

Ultimately, leaders in these organisations have a vital and important role to play in shaping this culture. They are the ambassadors who need to lead by example. Their actions set the tone, and how they communicate with their teams will help build a positive environment allowing equity, diversity and inclusion to thrive and become a dominant force, not just in their companies but throughout the world.