If you want innovation, start with inclusion

A different type of leadership and a fresh approach to HR are required if we are to move beyond the rhetoric on diversity, says Caoimhe Keogan

We’re all facing the challenges of a disrupted world, regardless of our business sector. The challenge is to move faster, find creative approaches and adapt to disruptive technologies. At Moneysupermarket Group, our approach to innovation starts with inclusion.  

There’s something really special about the power of an inclusive environment in driving innovation and business success. For me, it’s an environment where employees can be their true, authentic selves and everyone’s voice has real value, regardless of their seniority or tenure. It’s the kind of environment we all want to work in. Crucially, the best ideas do not come top down; they often come from the people closest to your products and customers.

However, to create an inclusive environment, you’ve got to drive it from the top.  The behaviour of the leadership team has a disproportionate impact on culture, and those in executive roles may have to learn different ways of being and sometimes unlearn behaviours that have brought them success previously.

Inclusive leaders are open and curious, taking an interest in other people’s ideas and experiences. They ask: “Are we the people with the best insight, or are there other people we should bring into the room to get a different perspective?” 

Being an inclusive leader also involves acknowledging when you don’t have all the answers and accepting when you make mistakes. As Brene Brown, author and professor at the University of Houston, states: “Vulnerability is the best measure of courage’”.

We often talk about diversity and inclusion in the same breath and, while the business case for diversity is well established, there is a risk that we become too focused on demographics and forget that diversity is about a celebration of difference, whether that’s gender, race, education, values or experiences. Diversity is about representation and inclusion is about involvement – and we need both of those things to drive innovation.

So how can we in HR create more inclusive environments? Start by abandoning the concept of ‘cultural or team fit’. As Adam Grant, professor of organizational psychology at Wharton Business School, points out, hiring for culture fit is shorthand for ‘someone just like us’. Businesses with inclusive cultures hire for ‘culture-add’ instead – actively seeking out individuals who are different and bring something new.  

My five top tips for creating an inclusive environment are:

  • Create opportunities for leaders to listen to how colleagues really feel. We’ve hosted breakfasts between colleagues and our non-executive directors, as well as ‘open houses’ where senior leaders take questions in smaller groups about specific topics. It can take time to make those forums feel really safe for colleagues to speak openly, but perseverance is key. 
  • Adopt a ‘colleagues as customers’ mindset and make sure you ask for their input early on. For example, we recently worked with non-HR colleagues using a design-sprint methodology to overhaul our flexible working guidelines, which was well received.   
  • Review all existing guidelines with a critical eye. Do those really support an inclusive culture – or do they take a less-than-trusting, parental tone? As a people team, we’ve been inspired by Lucy Adams, author of HR Disrupted, and are actively putting some of her ideas into practice.
  • Challenge unnecessary status symbols that reinforce hierarchy and don’t recognise everyone’s needs as equal in the workplace. For example, who gets a private office or dedicated car parking space? Recognising and celebrating long tenure is important, but it’s just as important that new joiners feel valued from day one.
  • Make closed forums more open. In a previous role, we invited two colleagues from outside the senior leadership team to ‘cameo’ in our quarterly leadership meetings and report back to their colleagues. This specific approach won’t work for everyone – but the principle of transparency is what matters. 

So how will you know if you have achieved a more inclusive environment? The simplest way is just to ask. Benchmarking can certainly help to establish where you stand but, for me, what matters most is whether colleagues see us using their feedback to improve decision-making and that, over time, people move from feeling welcome and included to feeling that they truly belong.

Caoimhe Keogan is chief people officer at Moneysupermarket Group