Practice Allyship and Inclusion to Advance Diversity at the Highest Level


Data show that just 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black; 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; and 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are openly LGBTQI+.

The numbers speak for themselves, and they tell us that the road to the top post is far steeper for people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQI+ community than other groups. The lack of diverse leadership isn’t due to a lack of diverse talent, but rather systems that inhibit the advancement of diverse people.

All too often, we decry this problem without putting in the work to fix it. If we aren’t intentional in cultivating diverse talent, then we’ll never see a marketplace of diverse leadership—to all our detriment. The solution lies in a combination of allyship and inclusion.

Allyship versus mentorship

Traditionally, we might call this a priority of mentorship. But mentorship is often mentee-initiated. Indeed there are plenty of how-to articles instructing people who want to get ahead on how to actively seek out mentors (often elders or superiors).

To effect the more sweeping change that’s necessary, leaders should be practicing allyship. Allyship can be defined as when people are aware that aspects of their identities hold more power and influence than aspects of others’ identities, and use their advantaged position to advocate for people in less advantaged positions.

Allyship is initiated, and continually practiced, by the person in the advantaged position. What’s more, allyship is directed towards anyone of a less advantaged position.

It comes down to making diverse team members feel respected and valued, or in a word, included, particularly through forms of advocacy and speaking up. The science of allyship and inclusion can help leaders foster diverse talent throughout their organizations.

Become an ally

While a majority of people express a desire to be an ally, they might not know how to do it, or even know what it means. According to Deloitte’s 2019 State of Inclusion Survey, while 92% of people already see themselves as allies in the workplace, only 29% say they actually speak up when they perceive bias, and 34% simply ignore it. NLI’s allyship model provides a roadmap for leaders to become the allies their people need.

First, leaders should listen deeply to those around them. Start by creating a designated time and place for people to voice their questions and experiences. Listen actively and ask follow-up questions to ensure you’re exploring the root cause of problems, not just your responses to its most tangible aspects.

The next step is to unite widely. Leaders need to bring people together to achieve large-scale change. Try reminding people that we are more similar than we are different, and focus teams on tangible goals in which everyone can participate.

Finally, leaders should act boldly by using their voice and resources to influence people and practices at their organizations.

By taking these initial steps, leaders open the door to a more equitable culture at their organizations and signal to their young talent that the organization is committed to helping them grow and advance.

Actively include

Once leaders have embarked on their journey to become allies, they should learn to practice the habits of inclusion. At NLI, we developed the SCARF Model® to make it easy for leaders to engage in behaviors that uplift and motivate people. In doing so they create an inclusive culture that empowers diverse talent to grow.

The SCARF Model® is organized into five domains of social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. By sending the right SCARF® signals, leaders can lift their diverse team members up.

For instance, to create a sense of relatedness, leaders can use language such as “we” and “us,” instead of language like “you,” “me,” and “they,” which signals a clear boundary between groups. Or, to create a sense of fairness, leaders can communicate their thought process behind making important decisions. Doing so satiates our desire for equity in social interactions and prevents us from inventing alternate stories.

Foster diverse talent

Let’s see what practicing allyship and inclusion would look like in action.

Consider a manager, Jason, who schedules a regular meeting to speak with employees of color about their concerns about diversity within the organization. Jason uses the time to listen and inquire about how these concerns are affecting the team’s collaboration and performance.

He stresses that inclusion is a problem that the team needs to address collectively and creates a bold plan of action to do so. Jason shares the plan and his rationale with the team, providing a sense of certainty and increasing their sense of fairness.

What our hypothetical manager has done is acknowledge, perhaps implicitly, that aspects of his identity hold more power and influence than aspects of others’ identities, and used his advantaged position to advocate for people in less advantaged positions. What’s more, he’s sent the right SCARF® signals to his team, thereby creating a sense of inclusion and belonging.

If leaders want to shrink the disparity between diverse talent and diverse leadership, they need to be intentional about fostering diverse talent. That starts with the most junior employees and stretches to the boardroom. Allyship is where all leaders should start this journey.

Author: Cliff David


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