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.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – There are countless definitions of “excellence.” For better or worse, it’s a word that we toss around pretty casually. Rather than a specific definition, though, I like to think about excellence as a trait that C-suite executives can employ as a personal benchmark in how they manage their teams and organizations.

An idea that keeps coming up in discussions with leaders I coach and others I counsel is the tie between excellence and fundamental leadership skills. Once we get into analyzing a challenge, we see that communication – or lack thereof – is the real culprit. Ironically, the skill we use the most and spend our whole lives building is precisely the one that lets us down most often.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

But, I’m not here to just say “get better at communications” without providing some ideas. Communicating as a leader is not easy. Like the whisper game we all played as children, there are many potential misfires between what an executive says and what people hear. 

There’s also a second important point: CEOs and other C-suite leaders are human and bound to make occasional mistakes. Yes, potential missteps can be devastating. However, the upside is that putting the effort in to improve this skill has real value. Improve the way you talk to people and you will see immediate results.

When it comes to creating a culture-centric organization, I advise executives from the board of directors level to frontline managers to focus on inclusive language. According to my colleague Jackie Ferguson, author of The Inclusive Language Handbook, by emphasizing inclusive language, “You’ll clear the path for everyone in your organization to do their best work. As a matter of fact, inclusive language will strengthen and transform your entire company culture.” 


In this era of change and constant uncertainty, leaders can lead from the front by using inclusive language and urging others to do the same. For some executives, the idea of pronoun use or other unbiased language may feel a bit strange, because most of society doesn’t put an emphasis on these ideas. Yet, putting inclusive language into daily practice acknowledges diversity, conveys respect, and demonstrates your support of equity and empathy in the workplace. 

Here are three leadership moves that you can begin to implement today:

  • Embrace Uncertainty

Many people fear the unknown, especially when using words that may offend or outrage the receiver. Excellent leaders have embraced uncertainty around remote and hybrid work, health protocols and economic disruption, so the adaptability must also extend to inclusive language. Plus, being adaptable and showing your teams that you are modeling this behavior will go a long way toward helping them make inclusivity a priority.  

  • Be Authentic

Rather than default to legalese or stuffy messaging, leaders who embrace inclusive language demonstrate that they care for their people in a way that is authentic and empathetic. “Using inclusive language honors each person’s diverse identity, making them feel welcomed, valued and empowered to do their best work,” explains Ferguson. The outcome is what every leader wants: teamwork and trust. 

Part of using inclusive language is the learning process. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. When you make a mistake, own it. Show that you can fix it and then move on. Whenever people learn new things, they often don’t get it all right immediately. Instead, role model that you know when to apologize, how to correct your behavior, and then keep moving forward. 

  • Call Out Bad Behavior

Have you spent any time with teenagers or college students recently? If so, perhaps you have been on the receiving end of an eye-roll or two when you’ve said something they cringe at as insensitive. For many of them, inclusive language is already ingrained, so they are finely tuned to those moments. 

However, family conversations are different from workplace interactions. As a leader, you can set the tone for inclusive language by calling out insensitive or discriminatory language, which can cause tangible harm to your people and teams. No one can do their best work in a place where they feel like they don’t belong. As a leader, you set the tone and example by not allowing someone’s mistakes with inclusion – even when unintended. 


Executives who don’t embrace inclusive language are exposing themselves and their organizations to risks running the gamut from lawsuits and regulatory issues to being criticized on social media or the press. In addition, there is a direct correlation between exclusionary words and actions and return on investment, particularly in talent management and human resources. 

“The harmful effects of exclusion can result in the victim withdrawing from the group or even leaving the company to escape the situation,” explains Yetunde Hofmann, author of Beyond Engagement: The Value of Love-Based Leadership in Organisations in Harvard Business Review. “Victimization can lead to problems like depression, low self-esteem and anxiety – which, as a consequence, can affect someone’s ability to complete daily tasks or experience positive feelings.” The cost to the organization is steep: “Ultimately, the organization also suffers through higher levels of absenteeism and staff turnover.”

If we just look at turnover as a direct cost of not implementing inclusive language practices, the loss is significant. Recent studies reveal that the average cost to replace an employee is about 50% of that employee’s annual salary, but for key positions could be as high as 150%. 


All the challenges CEOs and other C-suite leaders face call for bold action, so why wouldn’t you put in the work to make your communications excellent? According to McKinsey’s Homayoun Hatami and Liz Hilton Segel, “The best leaders and companies are ambidextrous: prudent about managing the downside while courageously pursuing the upside. These leaders are thinking about the next decade, not the next month.”

The upside to any future challenges, Hatami and Segel explain, is that leaders are able to make bold moves. “Many are spurring their organizations to rethink opportunities and reset the strategic game board in light of the current volatility,” they write. 

While we usually think of boldness in actionable strategies and tactics, improving workplace communications is just as striking and can be as game-changing as setting off on some new initiative. 

What could be more bold than embracing the humanity of others in the workplace and in your communities? As a leader, your personal commitment to learn and practice inclusive language will set a positive model for others to follow. This is a major step toward workplace excellence.

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement and the author of  Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. For a limited time during the holiday season, both The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication & Transformation Leadership by Jackie Ferguson and Roxanne Bellamy and Underestimated are offered with a 25% discount.