Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Many of our teammates and colleagues are searching for meaning in today’s workplace. When I think about the leadership challenges that have emerged as a result, my mind goes to key terms that I have been hearing repeatedly: disruption and evolution. The idea at the core of each is change – the quick break that leads to something new versus the slower process of gradual improvement over time. Leaders are expected to be experts at change – but it is difficult work!

As executives and managers, we are experiencing change along with our colleagues. We also carry the added challenge of simultaneously managing them as they chart through ups and downs at work and what is happening at home. At any given time an employee could be going through pandemic stress, caring for young children or elderly parents, experiencing financial turmoil or any number of stressors that deplete energy, effort and enthusiasm. 

Donald Thompson

Under these tough conditions, leading is a tall order. I have been counseling execs in my coaching practice to double down on change by adapting and implementing inclusive leadership. 

Rather than provide a textbook definition, I’m going to run through some scenarios that will demonstrate how an inclusive leader thinks and reacts based on three central tenets:

  • Authentic two-way feedback
  • Empowering teams
  • Adaptability


There are few aspects of work that people like less than feedback; it can often be painful or just plain awkward. Regardless of the pretense, people don’t dig it because it is not done in an authentic manner, frequently devolving to criticism and finger-pointing.

An inclusive leader uses feedback to identify the gap between behavior and success with the understanding that closing that space will lead to a stronger organization. What you can do right away, then, is to approach feedback with a different mindset: we are going to do what is collectively right for the organization. From this vantage, the discussion becomes about we, not the employee focusing on me, my mistakes, or my problems.

As leaders, we must break down the old barrier that kept executives and employees from having honest conversations. We are long past the model of attack and defend. Instead, our evaluations must center on what we want to achieve together, the aspects that are my responsibility and those that are the employees. Together, we’ll get to how we tackle the challenge, document it and work to improve together. 

As a result, inclusive leaders are excellent at giving feedback that leads to actions that we can take together. Inclusive leadership is being open to that conversation. 

Of course, if we’re asking employees to change their fundamental ideas about evaluation, then executives must adapt too. One of the things I try to improve on every day is being open to the feedback from people on my team. For example, one of my leaders said, “Don, sometimes you don’t give me as much mentorship on growth topics as you do on tactics. I’d like it if you slowed down and gave me the big picture on how these points work together.” 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. She wanted to understand the context of what she was working on and had identified a weak spot in how I managed. I was so thankful that we had created a relationship where she could talk freely with me and I could respond thoughtfully.

We both adapted. I changed the agenda of our one-on-one meetings, giving sufficient time to make sure the overall objective was as clear as the tactics we needed to get there. She then saw the context of how her daily tasks helped us reach our collective goals.


Another inclusive leadership trait you can adapt today is empowering teams so that they do their best work together. My goal in this area is to uplift others so that we can create an environment where everyone has a voice and views themselves as a valuable team member. 

This renewed emphasis on teamwork – and, by extension, how to create great teams via culture – is not a “nice to have” part of the workplace, it is a business imperative. The data support what we’ve learned: DEI improves engagement, productivity, decision-making, innovation and agility within teams. Better teamwork equates to stronger organizations that will likely experience higher revenues and profitability through greater efficiency. 

When inclusive leaders demonstrate the we versus the you model, they provide clear insights on what the organization values and how we will address these values collectively. By showing this behavior, we prioritize it throughout the organization. I have seen that it is wiser, more scalable, and has more long-lasting consequences if I allow the team to come up with a solution,  because they will then own the outcome. Our job as leaders is to set the vision, standards, expectations and then allow the team the space to build the plans to now chase that new objective.


An inclusive leader demonstrates adaptability as a key trait. You can immediately serve as a role model for your team by breaking through rigid decision-making. Then, show that you understand the concept by applying it. Your organization consists of people who see themselves as individuals. They approach, assess, investigate and analyze problems uniquely and from different viewpoints. 

Building stronger teams also includes growing others as leaders via delegation, even if it seems that you might be able to perform a task faster yourself. When I am in a meeting with a handful of people or even 10 or 12, I often notice that a small percentage of people are dominating the dialogue. As an inclusive leader, it is my role to slow the conversation down and get more people involved. 

I can ask another teammate directly, as in “Suzanne, what do you think about…”, or I can shift the conversation to a subject matter that I know one of the quieter teammates knows well, so they have the space to speak up.

Most people are not intuitively adaptive and even the best leaders can slip into a rote way of dealing with challenges, particularly when pressure intensifies. The move to adaptability needs to be deliberate and takes practice to implement. 


When inclusive leadership becomes a part of an organization’s culture, it creates immediate return on investment (ROI) opportunities. 

Recently, I spoke with Danielle David, chief people officer at CRB, a provider of sustainable engineering, architecture, construction and consulting solutions for global life sciences and advanced technology industries. The company views its DEI initiatives as part of a journey that lifts the entire organization internally, which then has external value. 

 “We’re leaning into DEI and our leaders are really focused. The impact we’ve seen is that it allows candidates and employees to see themselves here,” David explained. “I know we’ve attracted people because they see that we’re working on DEI and that’s important to them. We’ve attracted some really incredible people, and we’ve retained some amazing people as well.”

One of the most remarkable ROI proof points I have seen centers on the idea that happy employees stay in their jobs and are more productive. Data from Oxford’s Saïd Business School shows that happy employees are 13% more productive every week. This equates to nearly one extra hour of work per day, per employee, or five extra hours a week.

And, happy employees don’t leave their jobs. Turnover is expensive and a drain on resources, from searching and vetting candidates to the time spent training and onboarding. On average, research shows it costs companies 1.5 to 2 times a person’s annual salary to find their replacement and nearly 2.5 times salary plus two full years for that new hire to reach full productivity and value. Cultivating a culture that aligns with personal values through DEI can create professional happiness that improves business outcomes.

A final note about inclusive leadership: being an inclusive leader is not easy. I am the first to admit that I’m a work in progress, as are many of you. However, it’s important that we realize the impact that inclusive leadership can have, not only on our organizations, but on people individually, families and in our communities at large. 

Whether the change you’re experiencing is disruptive or evolutionary, it is in your best interest to adapt to what you’re seeing and feeling in today’s high-octane workplace. Your organization’s health depends on your adaptability, as does the health and welfare of your teammates.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement which has created an employee-experience product suite that personalizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology, and expert-curated content. Their microlearning platform, Microvideos by The Diversity Movement, was recently named one of Fast Company’s2022 World Changing Ideas.” With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, Donald also serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. His leadership memoir, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available for pre-order. Connect with or follow him on Linkedin to learn more. 

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