Creating a culture of belonging at Accenture — one in which employees feel that they can express their individuality and perspective — is one of Vukani Mngxati’s top priorities as a leader. “If people aren’t able to express themselves, then they aren’t able to be free,” Mngxati tells Thrive. “And if they aren’t free, then we at Accenture aren’t getting the full value of what each and every person can bring to the table.” 

Mngxati’s leadership style is informed by his past experiences in the corporate world, where there were times he was made to feel like he didn’t belong. Today, he’s out to make sure that colleagues in his orbit never feel as he once did. 

A true model of inclusive leadership, Mngxati sat down with Thrive to talk about the value of connecting with others, having tough conversations with colleagues, and the advice he’d give his younger self that we can all benefit from. 

Here are some highlights from the conversation (watch the full video interview here): 

On making everyone feel like a “culture fit”

In the past, people have said I’m not a “culture fit.” Whatever a culture fit means. When someone says this to you, you feel that you cannot share your personal experiences, you cannot share your own thoughts. The phrase itself is not necessarily problematic, but the context is. Sometimes it’s used as a way to hide certain prejudices: You’re not a culture fit because you don’t speak the same language, or you’re not the same color, or you’re not the same age as the clients or colleagues that you’re working with. And this holds people back. As a result of this personal experience, I really feel strongly that it’s paramount for us at Accenture to make sure that everyone feels at home in our company — that we make everyone feel like a culture fit.

On how inclusivity is core to his leadership style

I want all of our people to feel that they belong and that they have a role to play in our business. I find myself spending a lot of time talking to people at Accenture and listening carefully to what’s important to them. I like my executive team members to feel that they are running this business with me. I don’t want to feel like I’m a boss. I want them to know that I’m another human being they can speak with; they can share with me what’s going on in their lives. I take time to personally connect with people outside of my executive team, too. For example, I like to take five minutes to speak to an analyst in our organization and ask them how they are doing, if there’s anything I can do to help them. Or even just ask them how they’re doing as another human being. That’s my own little way of making everybody feel that they belong in our firm. 

On the advice he’d give his younger self about speaking up 

If I were to speak to myself 15 years ago, I would say, “Make other people understand how you feel.” I love this advice. Sometimes you really have to tell people how you feel, make sure they understand how you feel — which can be really scary for someone to do. But I think it’s important to share so that other people can understand the impact of their words or actions. If someone runs their hands through your hair just to “feel how spiky it is” — they’re doing it because they want to see how it feels, because it’s outside the realm of what they understand. And if you say to them, “Hey, I don’t like that, that makes me uncomfortable,” there’s a greater likelihood that they won’t do it again. But if you keep quiet, there’s a greater likelihood that they will do it again to you, or they will do it to someone else. This is why speaking up when something feels insensitive is so essential. 

On having “real conversations” and being vulnerable with colleagues 

One of the things that we have done as an organization here in Africa is to call upon external help to facilitate frank, open discussions about diversity and inclusion. Because most of the time we deal with facts — like “there’s racism and corruption in South Africa” — but we don’t talk about how these facts make us feel. And if we don’t talk about how it makes us feel, we don’t effectively deal with the inherent issues. So one thing I want to share with leaders at Accenture is this: Be smart and have the real conversation about the feelings of our people. Once we understand how people feel, we have an opportunity to start creating corrective actions as opposed to assumptions. This is how we will create real change within our firm.

Accenture Employee? Access the full Thriving Together curriculum here to learn more strategies to reduce your stress and boost your resilience and success.

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