The best diversity leaders know how to be vulnerable
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No one is infallible. But leaders have historically been regarded as a lot less fallible than most. From the position they’ve ascended to, it’s assumed they have a perfect 360-degree view with all angles covered — and no need to consider the perspective of any other stakeholder. This idea is outdated, though, and not one you should model your leadership on.
As a black and Asian woman in a tech industry dominated by white men in authority, I’ve learnt how tough it can be to build trust and connect with people with different lived experiences. Yet trust and empathy are at the core of connection, and productive teams are ones that can healthily engage in differences of opinion in pursuit of increased productivity and innovation.
In my first foray into the tech start-up world in 2011, I worked at Groupon in the City of London. It was an internet darling, with acquisition offers from Google. I joined a small team in a new department managing relationships with merchants fulfilling offers to Groupon customers.
Within eight months, I was promoted to manager and our department had swelled to 50. We hired people from all backgrounds and I saw all start-ups as wonderfully diverse in education levels, socio-economic classes, sexual preferences, hair colour — you name it.
Workplace reality is less idyllic. Women, half the population, are 26 per cent of the UK tech workforce. While 20 per cent of UK people identify as black, brown or another ethnic minority like me, we comprise 15 per cent of the tech workforce, says research by the networking platform Tech Nation.
So much talk about diversity and inclusion, so little progress in the data. How do we, as leaders, close the gap between word and action?
To me, the solution is that we must learn from Brené Brown’s viral TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, and allow ourselves “to be seen, really seen”. We must navigate the shame attached to our ignorance, privileges and inadequacies, practice self-compassion and fully own, and express, our limitations.
A few years after leaving Groupon, I found myself a manager again in a fast-growing start-up, HotelTonight. I was the only black person in the office, on a mission to ensure our open roles were filled with women to improve the gender balance.
It fell to me to explain to my male peers why it was not appropriate to touch my afro hair without my permission. I was the only one to say it is not OK to Instagram-stalk female candidates for jobs, rating their “hotness” on a 1 to 10 scale. My attempts to educate some of my peers on inclusion best practices created heated debate, my feedback seen as judgment and criticism. My interpretation of some of their actions was viewed as an attack on their authority.
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By referencing problematic jokes and awkward physical interactions, I aimed to get colleagues to see these workplace scenarios from my perspective. From their perspective, these office moments were funny. From mine, they were toxic and I quit.
A vulnerable leader shows their staff that they recognise the complexity of navigating a world defined by institutional prejudice. A vulnerable leader is conscious of asymmetries of information created by unique lived experiences, and they are aware of the tension and frustration this creates.
Show your team that you understand the energy required and emotional labour endured by under-represented employees and their allies, who try, and too often fail, to bridge gaps between themselves and coworkers — coworkers who are moving through the same world, same industry and same workplace in vastly different ways.
When I’m presented with a complex challenge, the hustle energy in me pushes me to experiment. I tell my team I do not have the answers but have a hypothesis about what could work. Together, we devise an experiment to achieve our desired results.
Some of these experiments help us reach our goals, others may teach valuable lessons. This is how I practice vulnerability: by embracing the unknowns and unanswerable questions, and being open with my team about risks involved as we work to reach our targets.
A vulnerable leader can admit how competent they are at inclusion-building skills, on a personal level and as a representative of their peers. Only when leaders can make such admissions can we begin to have brave conversations about what it takes to increase participation of women, people of colour, people with disabilities and all under-represented groups in our corporate world. When leaders lean into their vulnerability, it signals across their company culture their willingness to experiment with different ideas and be open about ways to progress.
Modelling this behaviour has profound impact. My experience is that C-suite leaders who engage in annual training to develop vulnerability skills see marked increase in team diversity.
Abadesi Osunsade is presenter of the Techish podcast and founder of Hustle Crew, offering diversity and inclusion training to technology employers. She was cited as one of the UK’s top 100 black and minority ethnic leaders in technology in a 2018 Financial Times ranking
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