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Energising gender diversity
During Ramadan this year, American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker decided to fast for a day, to help him empathise with his Muslim staff.
This action, explained Sadiya Khan, air cargo director turned professional coach, exemplified humble leadership. It enabled Mr Parker to gain a personal understanding of part of his company’s culture through walking in their shoes.
Having worked in international teams, Ms Khan is keen to emphasise the benefits of a diverse workforce – but critically, she says, the leadership team is responsible for getting the best out of their people and helping different voices to be heard.
“If it’s a matter of employing 10 blue people, seven green people and five orange people – then companies are missing the point,” she explained. “It’s not a tick-box exercise; there are real gains to be had from a diverse workforce.
“It starts with recruitment. Who’s coming forward for the jobs and what’s the hiring process like? What about the way the jobs are advertised? Do they appeal to a broad range of candidates, or do you have to be chained to a desk 24/7?
“If there’s one thing Covid has taught us, as long as you have wifi, you can pretty much work from anywhere, and in my opinion, a good attitude will result in learning fast, and producing more in less time.
“There will be skillsets that are really beneficial to organisations with a diverse workforce. Why would you not want an even richer talent pool working for you?
“Different people, with different languages and a different outlook on life will interpret things differently. Diversity can generate new ideas. If everyone is the same, it becomes group-think, grey and boring. Nothing will change if you just hire a cookie cutter version of yourself. Do the same thing, get the same results.
“But if you can recruit new skills and ideas, in addition to what you’ve already got, you’ve got a better chance of winning.
“But management is crucial. Culture starts with the company. If you’re about growth and learning, the company will be open to ideas. Managers need to trust their staff, who need to be able to express ideas freely. You don’t want staff feeling insecure if they have an idea. You’ve given them a role and a salary, so create psychological safety for them and let them speak.”
However, achieving this diverse workforce is not always easy, and companies can struggle – especially relatively successful ones.
“It can be difficult when you have always done what you’ve done and it has seemingly worked. People don’t change unless there is a good reason, like financial, or regulatory. It’s likely that until you get an impact, or a wake-up call, you won’t change. It’s habit. Actively pursuing diversity may require businesses to actively rewire age old processes and could require fresh eyes in leadership. But it will come with time. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing out on until someone else does it. So, it depends on whether you want to be a leader or a follower.”
There is another challenge too: not only should companies listen, but people should feel sufficiently confident to speak. Ms Khan runs workshops to help boost confidence and enable people to contribute without fear, both in public speaking, and at work. Confidence also helps people to apply for that next role, which helps out with the supply of candidates in the recruitment process.
“The idea in the workshops is to get people to feel safe and open up. We talk through reasons they might be worried about getting up and speaking out. We look at the things that impact how you talk, how people perceive you, how you look, sound, and so on. And the answers are different for everyone.
“People worry about looking silly, or unprepared.”
She noted that while this can affect everyone, it may especially impact women, who may have lower confidence levels, or have had a career break.
“Some people aren’t sure how to get where they want to be, or what their leadership style is as they’ve never had this time to reflect,” she added.
The workshops have been attended by and are open to all. The new group, Women in Aviation & Logistics, is trying to help event organisers ensure a diverse speaker base – which also requires women to step up and offer their services, and Ms Khan is keen to support this.
“There is no magic formula. Whether I am working 1-2-1 with a client or in a group, the coaching space helps people unpick their thoughts and isolate what is holding them back. Through powerful questioning and self reflection it’s amazing how people can get rid of limiting beliefs and gain the confidence they looking for to perform at their best.”
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