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How to be an inclusive leader



Published On:

June 6, 2022

Published In:

Industry Innovation | Technology Insights

How to be an inclusive leader

Key takeaways from Creative Equals’ event RISE: For Creativity

When thinking about how to be an inclusive leader, you first need to ask yourself the question: do I consider myself to be a leader? And if so, what does ‘inclusive’ mean in this context?

A better understanding of what inclusive leadership involves in the media and creative industries is what brought multiple experts together at the recent Creative Equals’ event, Rise: For Creativity. Featuring speakers from across the board – including journalists, political party leaders, and creative, editorial, art, and brand directors – discussions spanned sustainability, workplace harassment, conscious advertising, and storytelling.

Bringing this range of themes together was the overarching topic of diversity and inclusion, highlighting both the incredible work being done, as well as the work that remains ahead. With such a breadth of insights, we decided to put together our list of key takeaways for what it takes to be a truly inclusive leader.

Empowering your community

If you are in a position of influence – for your team or community – then you are well placed to drive empowerment. To do so successfully, leaders need to embody the sense of authenticity that they want to see, which requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Only when leaders bring their true, whole selves into the professional realm can others follow.

  1. Positive self-perception

The story starts, as it often does, with us. Keynote speaker Jazz-Ampaw Farr reminded a room of storytellers of the significance of narrative. When it comes to confidence and self-esteem — and importantly, inspiring others —  believing we are capable of success is crucial, as Farr summarised: “The stories you tell yourself are the most powerful things affecting how much impact you have and how much difference you make.”

Since our internal stories are shaped in childhood, moulded by cultural stories, defying the odds is not always enough. A foster child herself, Farr pointed out that only 6% of care leavers enter higher education – a number that remained unchanged from 2007 to 2017. To become what Farr calls a “positive disruptor” leaders need to consciously learn to believe the stories of who and where they are now, instead of who and where they were then.

  1. Fostering inclusive culture

Within organisations, using an open and responsive feedback loop as a foundation is crucial to establishing an inclusive environment where diverse perspectives are welcomed and heard. Being as much a team member as a team leader, recognising everyone for their individual input, and giving with “positive intent”, as Gemma Greaves puts it, goes a long way towards having a business built on what author Reni-Eddo Lodge calls “collaborative self-reflection”.

The growth of a company, a team, and indeed, leaders themselves, is an ongoing process. Leadership development can only occur when managers, CEOs, and other senior staff pro-actively seek input from their team and engage in deliberate and planned self-evaluation. A good leader knows their weaknesses and their blind spots, and hires experts who are empowered to use their specialisms and experience to make the right choices.

Leading the charge to change: building a diverse team

Although diversity and inclusion have become industry buzzwords, finding the right approach is not always straightforward. Company initiatives need to be more than skin-deep: they need to be woven into the fabric of any business. This starts with an ethos of openness and evolves into a culture of curiosity and purposefulness.

This is particularly important for the creative and media sectors. Efrain Ayala, Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Marketing, Reckitt, highlighted the mismatch between how people see themselves, and the way they are represented on screen in wider content and ads. While we have seen progress in inclusive advertising, there are some challenges left to tackle, from ageism and gender to ableism and race-washing.

Furthermore, authentic and empowering storytelling goes beyond casting alone. Ayala illustrated this by citing Toyota’s ad featuring Paralympian Jessica Long, which featured an inspirational story, yet fell into negative tropes and stereotypes around disability.

Leaders who make it their mission to create inclusive advertising will, first and foremost, focus on building a diverse team to ensure campaigns represent the communities they are aiming to engage. Beyond this, however, they will also inspire their team to question and revolutionise the traditional creative approach by encouraging them to be curious and to think deeply; not only about who is portrayed, but about how they are portrayed. Campaigns that make people think – such as this powerful effort from CPB London on gender expectations – offer demonstrations of successful creative and prove the potential of the ad industry to fuel positive change.

Communicating brand values authentically

Authenticity shines through when a brand’s values align with its structure and strategy. In practice, this means ensuring a company’s actions reflect its message, with sustainability highlighted as a key example in the creative and media spaces – especially since digital pollution accounts for 3.7% of carbon emissions. Before business leaders declare a strong stance on sustainability, they must consider their organisation’s green credentials and practices, asking questions such as:

  • How does my business perform when it comes to green initiatives?
  • Who is my energy provider?
  • Which companies do I work with?
  • Am I involving and/or challenging my clients?

At a broader level, the same applies for leaders striving to drive industry change. Ensuring they are actively contributing to solutions means being mindful about where they invest their ad budget, who they collaborate with, and what truths they are promoting and validating through campaigns – not only when it comes to sustainability, but also other important topics, such as informed consent, mis/disinformation, diversity and hate speech. Conscious advertising is vital in a time of fast-moving technology, brand safety, and building a better, safer media ecosystem.

Once your own house is in order, then you can focus on how your brand engages with contemporary issues. Having supported the LBTQ+ community since 1995 and developed its rainbow vehicle back in 2002, Ford is one brand that has constantly embodied its values. But even with this long history of talking the talk, creative leaders still recognise the need to approach issues sensitively. For example, ahead of launching its VeryGayRaptor campaign – and becoming a leader in championing inclusive rights – the Ford team had to gauge whether or not the contribution would be genuine and valuable.

This involved checking in with its audience. Joe Shields, Copywriter, Writer and Art Director at Ford explained: “If your brand wants to weigh in with the wider community, you need to have their backing.” Citing the recent backlash experienced in response to Samsung Singapore’s inclusive ad, and its subsequent removal, Shields also noted that standing up for brand beliefs isn’t without risk, but “hitting reverse on campaigns just because it’s difficult” is never an option for Ford.

A great and inclusive leader is someone who recognises value, both their own and that of others, and empowers their team to reach their potential. Even – or especially – in a sphere where representation, reputation, and creativity speak volumes, actions still speak louder. A leader will make sure that inclusivity is embedded into every fibre of the company, from recruitment, to communication, creativity, and beyond.

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