Jennifer Brown on Inclusive Leadership

Jennifer Brown on Inclusive Leadership

In an exclusive interview with Human Capital, Jennifer Brown, an internationally sought-after diversity and inclusion expert, award-winning entrepreneur, highly-acclaimed keynoter, podcaster, and author, shares compelling insights into inclusive leadership, how organizations can foster a culture of belonging where everyone's talents are nurtured and celebrated, the tools that leaders can wield to practice inclusion, the importance of allyship, and why inclusion strategies should be centered around the business pillars of workforce, workplace, and marketplace. Jennifer also outlines the stages of the "Inclusive Leader Continuum", its distinctive characteristics, and what leaders can do to keep growing and improving themselves.


You have successfully charted an unusual career path from being an opera singer to becoming a successful entrepreneur, bestselling author, and a world-renowned diversity and inclusion thought leader. How do you look back at your professional journey traversed thus far?


There are a couple of things that were incredibly important turning points. Perhaps the first was being an aspiring opera singer, injuring my voice, and having to reinvent myself by turning to this other thing—my stage experience—which positioned me to be a keynoter. The second equally important turning point was coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and progressively, over the years, across the various roles I have played, becoming more comfortable with that. This coming out element was especially meaningful once I realized how it could empower my business and establish credibility for my consulting work and thought leadership. Now, nearly two decades on from those first two events, a new turning point has been in writing books. It’s difficult and expensive, but it has enabled me to get my perspective across to so many more folks. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments because it’s a way for me to have a broader impact than I otherwise would have had.


In your recent book ‘How to Be an Inclusive Leader’, you discuss the phenomenal power of being inclusive. What does inclusive leadership mean, and why does it matter?


An inclusive leader is dedicated to the thriving of others. It might sound simple, but it’s far from that—it takes immense courage and dedication to work not only within the workplace but also within oneself. There is so much more to it than this, but learning more about what inclusive leadership entails is worth it. The competencies required of an inclusive leader will, over the next few years, come to be seen as core business leadership competencies. Smart companies are already defining what this means, and requiring and measuring their knowledge and practice of inclusive leadership because they already understand that acknowledging what you don’t know, surrounding yourself with difference, and working to ensure that diversity reaches its full potential are keys to organizational success.



You recently created the ‘Inclusive Leader Continuum’ which encompasses four developmental stages to help leaders discover where they stand in their journey of becoming more inclusive. Could you elucidate the hallmarks of each stage, and also share some tips on what leaders could do to advance to the next level?



The team and I created the Inclusive Leader Continuum* because we identified the need for a way to help folks get started on their journey to inclusive leadership. As with so many other personal growth aspects, understanding where one is relative to the full scope of possibility is a great first step—but there wasn’t a way to gauge that.

The continuum has four stages:


◆ Unaware, for those who are just coming to understand that there might be a problem;


◆ Aware, for those who believe there is work to be done, but are doing intensive personal work to make their own behaviors more inclusive;


◆ Active, for folks who are ready to move that personal work out into the open and begin to demonstrate allyship for other communities in their place of work; and finally;


◆ Advocate, the stage in which one is truly advancing the cause of inclusivity in the workplace on both interpersonal and institutional levels.


You may be further ahead or behind on one issue or another since we learn about different forms of difference at different speeds. Regardless of where one is on the continuum, we encourage everyone to remember that you’re not alone.


*To know where you fall on the Inclusive Leader Continuum, take the self-assessment by visiting


Storytelling is being increasingly acknowledged as an incredibly effective tool in catalyzing impactful organizational change. How could leaders use storytelling techniques to foster a culture of inclusion and belonging?


First of all, everyone has a diversity story, and telling that story—no matter who you are—is key to creating more inclusive workplaces.

That said, those who tell stories most often have historically been those whose identities are dominant—cis male, heterosexual, white—and we have lost the voices of those who are not in the majority—women, people of colour, the disabled community, etc. In order to foster change, we need leaders to get more meaningfully involved in sharing their diversity story and to encourage others to do so. The messenger matters these days as much as the message, and it’s not just the job of those who are most underrepresented in the workplace to carry the mantle. Leaders need to commit publicly to sharing what diversity means to them. This will help normalize the conversation while having the important simultaneous impact of lessening the burden on those who are struggling the most to bring their full selves to work. This is a great example of an inclusive leader competency I refer to above.


Unconscious biases come in many different forms, and can negatively impact everything from hiring decisions to strategic, boardroom-level thinking. What techniques could be used to tackle these biases, and how could technology help?


Unconscious bias training is important—but it is only a first step. We have to quickly translate those cursory lessons into behaviors and actions backed and supported by institutional accountability.


To become inclusive leaders, we need to begin by spotting our own biases and starting to do things differently, as well as pointing out biases that we see daily, thereby challenging the status quo.

The best technology I know that helps with diversity, equity, and inclusion, is called Textio. It aims to address unconscious bias-related problems: it de-biases job descriptions—for example, looking for a “ninja” or “rock star” tends to attract more men—which is especially important given all the issues we know exist regarding the perceived challenges of finding diverse talent to recruit or hire. But there is a broader movement to broaden the scope of how tech can play a role, and I imagine we will see a more promotional pipeline and pay equity-related technology in coming years.


Creating and sustaining a culture of psychological safety is vital to embed inclusivity within the organizational fabric. From your expert view, what are the top strategies that could be employed to help people bring their whole selves to work every day?


I think we need more overt and public allyship from those who have not been talking about this forever. Allies are critical to eradicating the covering behaviors that are prevalent for those who are traditionally less represented—and may be fatigued, at this point, by having to advocate tirelessly for themselves.

Importantly, diversity manifests itself in both visible and invisible ways—something that’s especially important to remember when we talk about covering. From the perspective of companies and leadership, it’s necessary and useful to give aspiring allies a concrete road map for things they can do and say to exhibit concrete signals that inclusion is important. For example, the simple act of including pronouns in one’s email signature and sharing one’s pronouns as a matter of course is a great signal of allyship—as it educates folks about the diversity of gender identities—and also makes it safer for those who might have non-normative relationships with pronouns to feel comfortable using and asking others to use the language they most identify with.


Another fantastic tool is the creation and support of Employee Resource Groups or ERGs—affinity groups for different minority folks—which is a valuable way for those who might not see themselves reflected in greater numbers to experience a sense of community and solidarity, and to think strategically about their contribution to making the workplace more inclusive for their identities


You advise Fortune 500s and many others on how to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace. What are some of the common mistakes that you see large organizations make when it comes to diversity and inclusion?


Doing just unconscious bias training without a more formal or robust strategy is akin to checking the box and hoping that change will follow. Part of this is the fact that a lot of people are satisfied with their positive intent and think that is enough.


Whether there is a pay gap or a lack of diversity in leadership, people tend to believe they are better at all of this than they are because of their desire for things to be different. But intent and impact are different in all aspects of business, including—and perhaps especially—this one. We all need to take concrete action to intervene on the mechanisms we understand to be holding us and others back.

Inclusive organizations don’t create themselves—whether they are in the Fortune 500 or they’re a small non-profit. Each of us has to take steps every day to create and maintain inclusive workplaces.


Finally, many companies rest on their communities of identity to bring their full selves and do the education for the company in the form of ERGs or passionate volunteers to determine what strategy should be owned and driven by company leadership. Like anything else, there is a cost to outsourcing that comes in the form of under-resourcing the program and, more wastefully, side-stepping the opportunity to learn, and then finally by exhausting the populations you needed to give space to in the first place.



Most business leaders agree that workplace diversity makes good business sense, but many find it challenging to act beyond mere “tokenism”. What practical advice would you give to leaders seeking to cultivate a strategic diversity and inclusion mindset?


First, they need to ground their strategy in the business pillars that are meaningful for their organization. We usually say workforce, workplace, and marketplace should be the three foundational pillars of every effective strategy. Initiatives should be spoken about in a way that points back to these strategic pillars.

Most critical is that your workforce represents the world you’re selling into—and the world is diversifying. Does your workforce reflect what the current (and future) marketplace for labour and customers wants or is looking for? If you’re designing products and services for people not at the table, you are not setting yourself up for success. So this is about diversity but also inclusion—about workplace culture— which, as they say, beats strategy every time. If leaders can keep that in mind, they are well-positioned to set themselves up for their own inclusive leader journey and, by association, get their organizations up for the marketplaces of tomorrow.

With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR—from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


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