Tending to Diversity & Inclusion As a Leader

For those who haven’t met me, I have a mixed heritage. My mother is Korean and my father is a mix of Europe, but mostly German and English. While in the Air Force with orders in Korea, my father met my mother, married, and had me once they were back in the states. My parents divorced when I was a baby and my father received custody of me. Being raised by my father I knew nothing of my heritage. It wasn’t until after college that I moved to the California Bay Area and had a diverse group of Asian friends, learning what it meant to be Asian. 

You see, my youngest years were spent in Europe, eventually moving to the East Coast in elementary school. I grew up teased and bullied. Kids would sing rhymes and call me names. I didn’t understand, but I knew I was different. I knew I didn't belong. How I idolized the blond-haired blue-eyed girls because they weren’t picked on. Like all little girls, I wanted to belong and be liked.

This is a part of my life I don’t often talk about. I decided that these stories need to be shared. The stories shared, highlight that we are each different, with different experiences that have shaped us and the way we view ourselves in the world. In the USA, we are shaped by race, gender, economics, and sexual preferences. In other countries, religion is the divide. In the end, it's about power and privilege.

It's Time to Talk About Diversity

I recently attended a coaching conference and watched as an audience of coaches played out the typical conversation of race. We were stuck and unable to move forward. The discomfort in the room was high and there was no way to "fix" the conversation. We all had to find our own ground amidst stories of racism and words of white privilege. It's then that I realized that it was time for me to do more than have a story. It was time for me to reflect on my own story, get curious, and speak up. This is the only way the leaders I work with will be able to do the same.

Leaders Have Power & Privilege

Traditionally diversity and inclusion efforts in American Corporations are supported by claims that they are good for business, a diversity of customers, innovation, and attracting diverse talent. This is all true. More importantly, it’s good for humanity and the right thing.

Leaders sit in a unique position with the power and privilege to make decisions every day. You may not think about it, but your decisions shape the culture of your team, the structure of work and the systems we work and live in.

During the last couple of years, diversity at work has changed. Gendered restrooms are up for debate, women & men signs too, more time is spent analyzing the percentage of women in the workplace, salary fairness, a rise in affinity groups at work and more. Progress is being made. Is it enough?

Inclusivity Starts with You

We need to make more progress, quicker. That can only happen if each of us reflects on our own leadership and sets the intent to be an inclusive leader.

  1. Be curious.

Every person around you has a different story of how they were raised and what their life circumstances were. You never know what informs them as a person. We each are different. Just because I’m 1/2 Korean & 1/2 European doesn’t mean I represent others. Curiosity from a genuine place of care is a powerful way to build trust.

  1. Learn to be comfortable with discomfort.

If you want to make progress as an inclusive leader, being comfortable with discomfort is a must. When you are in conversation with someone who has had less privilege and been discriminated against, it calls on every leader to sit with the emotion that comes up. Whether it be sadness, anger, or disbelief. We must become comfortable with the world we have created and own our part in it. This isn’t easy! We owe it to each other to try.

  1. Be ready to make mistakes, apologize and try again.

Yep! I can guarantee you if you decide to become an inclusive leader you will step in it, you won’t understand and you may do it wrong. As we find and create safe spaces for conversation, each dialogue will be different. We need to be willing to have courageous conversations, make mistakes, reflect, learn and apologize. Too often leaders give up after this. They avoid conversations and find ways to disengage. Please don’t. Find a way to try again.

  1. Uncover your own bias.

Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against something. I grew up drinking Dr. Pepper and Diet Coke. I’m biased. I liked it more than Pepsi. I called it soda, not pop. As an early manager, I believed my team’s performance reflected on me and at the time I valued prompt communication and people who were good at getting their tasks done. When I hired I looked for organization and time management skills. The problem, I wasn’t yet attuned that I needed a team that was good at building relationships and getting their tasks done. I was biased in my hiring. These are just two examples from my life. I share them to say we are all biased and have preferences. It’s in our nature. To be inclusive leaders we need to gain awareness of our bias and know when it’s prohibiting us and holding people back.

  1. Discover and check your own privilege.

The word privilege can stop people in their tracks and freeze conversation. Why? Privilege is uncomfortable. Most of us don’t realize the privilege we have because it’s what we lived with every day and it’s our normal. Privilege is an advantage, safety, and security that we don’t have to give a second thought too. It allows us to effortlessly go about our days and life. As I have come to survey my privilege in the world it’s been a voyage of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had and disheartening at the same time. The stickiest point is that we make decisions and act out of privilege every day and don’t know it. When a man speaks up in a meeting and is always heard that is a privilege. When a white woman can get access to opportunities that a black woman can’t, that’s a privilege. Unless we are unprivileged we don’t see the privilege we have.

  1. There is no fixing it.

You can’t make it better. You can’t erase the pain racism and discrimination has caused. We can move forward and make a difference. As leaders, we are paid and trained to solve problems. We can reflect on our own actions, hire more diverse talent, uncover ways we bias our decisions, sponsor affinity groups and more.

Further Resources


About the Author

Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

Kim-ElishaAgency, Create & Navigate Change, Lead Smarter