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A sense of belonging: Why allyship is an essential leadership quality

Nichelle Grant, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Siemens USA

In a recent essay, our CEO, Barbara Humpton, shared how Siemens is rethinking what it means to be a leader as we strive to empower employees.  


The most important part of leading, Barbara wrote, is actually letting others lead. The key to employee empowerment, she added, is ensuring that everyone feels a deep sense of belonging by using “every available muscle to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.” 


This link between empowerment and a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a vital one. To quote Jodi-Ann Burey from her powerful TED talk, “Without accountability to examine [the] systems of bias and power, the call for authenticity fails.” Yet if we embrace DEI and one of its most important building blocks—allyship—I believe that permission for every employee to be themselves can be more than given…it can be exercised, boosting employee satisfaction, wellness, and morale to foster a company culture that’s more innovative, dynamic, and productive.   


Allies lead with empathy and build relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability. They listen, show compassion and endeavor to walk in other people’s shoes, meeting people where they are.  

Allies lead with empathy and build relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability. They listen, show compassion and endeavor to walk in other people’s shoes, meeting people where they are.

Allies recognize the existence of unconscious bias and the toll of discrimination. But instead of making assumptions, they get to know people. They recognize and cherish individual uniqueness. They’re mindful that we all face and are impacted by daily challenges and struggles, then help to ease them. 


They give energy to others but also apologize if necessary. 


They learn the language colleagues use to describe themselves, from the correct pronouns to how to pronounce a name.


They’re in your corner, rooting for you, advocating for you.


An ally also champions the intersectionality of diversity and celebrates the complexity in all people. Too often, diversity itself is viewed too narrowly while people are viewed too one-dimensionally. Yet diversity is not only reflective of gender, age, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation; it also represents attributes that are acquired, like education, socioeconomic background, and religion. And people are more than one attribute. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I’m also a woman of color with Cherokee Indian heritage who is able-bodied with a STEM education and who has overcome discrimination and who is capable of manifesting my dreams into reality.


Another way of putting it? Allies uphold the “I” in DEI. 


Think back to when you were a kid. You wanted to be included on the playground. You wanted to be a part of your family unit, accepted by classmates, and valued by friends. To paraphrase Verna Myers, we not only want to be invited to the party; we want to be asked to dance once we get there.  


And it’s not that much different as adults. We all want to be included at work in our teams and to feel a sense of belonging in an organization. That’s why diversity begins, not ends, with hiring diverse groups of talented people. It’s just as important to ensure that the people we welcome into our companies are fully included in our efforts to reach business goals. We want to leverage their full range of ideas, knowledge, and perspectives to impact how we make decisions, how we go to market, and how we serve customers.


The business imperative for doing this has been captured in numerous studies. One that caught my eye, though, comes from Boston Consulting Group, which both validated the benefits of diversity to the bottom line and examined the factors that “allow diversity to flourish.” When surveying employees at more than 1,700 global companies, fewer than 40 percent saw their company being described in factors such as “participative leadership, with different views being heard”; “strategic emphasis on diversity led by the CEO”; “frequent and open communication”; and a “culture of openness to new ideas.” At the same time, companies successfully creating an inclusive culture reported nearly 13 percent higher innovation revenue compared to companies in which inclusive values were determined to be “weak or not present.”


So, here are some ways to become a stronger ally.


Diversify your circles. Consciously get to know people who are different than yourself. Then build your relationships, as allies do, based on trust, consistency, and accountability. Ask about their experiences and share your own. Listen with empathy, being both open-minded and curious. And learn about current issues that are important to the community or communities you support.


Support work-life blend. Instead of encouraging one another to find the perfect work-life balance, let’s recognize that we all have competing priorities and make sure we focus on what matters. Transparency with these priorities, regular check-ins with each other, and supporting flexibility are foundational to empowerment and belonging.


Reduce the impact of unconscious bias. We all have biases, and they can increase with remote work when we’re not seeing and interacting with people regularly to challenge those biases. Let’s take an inventory of our actions and recognize the difference between microaggressions that make people feel excluded or inferior and microaffirmations that make people feel valued. Rather than try to make people more like ourselves, get to know people for who they are and encourage them to tap into their own unique strengths and capabilities. 


Practice purposeful inclusion. Empowered employees will be more likely to raise their hand and pursue more responsibility. That’s why it’s so important to very consciously look for opportunities to include others in decision making, team projects, meetings, or management tasks such as interviewing candidates. 


When you see something, say something. When you see or hear something that is wrong, marginalizing or offensive, take the time to educate others. Someone might not know they were being hurtful, so don’t let teachable moments go to waste.


Embrace a broader view of leadership: There’s no hierarchy when it comes to allyship. People in leadership positions have to lead and should be expected to model the right behaviors and show the way forward. But all of us can – and have to be – leaders. And, as leaders, we also need to be allies. 


We’ve been through a period of profound disruption. And as Barbara wrote, we’re not trying to get back to how things were before the pandemic; we’re going forward. The challenges we’ve faced have taught us how to do things better—from how we treat each other to how we support customers. 


Digital transformation is accelerating; now we’re looking to move even faster. The challenge of remote work and the racial justice movement have elevated inclusion as an essential priority; now we’re accelerating our commitment to DEI. 


DEI and innovation agendas are becoming inseparable. Leadership and allyship are becoming synonymous. Being a strong ally now means supporting strong business results as much as fostering an inclusive workplace. 


And that’s a positive development. Because it’s not only a recipe for more successful companies, but for a world that’s more resilient, sustainable, and equitable. 


Let’s move our companies forward—and transform the world—together.


Published: June 7, 2021

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