By Lisa Michel

On April 5, IABC Seattle hosted a Pro Talk with Jennifer Brown titled, “How to Be an Inclusive Leader.” Jennifer is the CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and author. The conversation focused on how to lead inclusively and how leaders can communicate and give voice to employees while navigating uncertain times.  

Jennifer’s path to her current career was not linear. Rather, she found consulting after her livelihood as a singer was threatened by a vocal cord injury. Now, she uses her voice to support other voices. Jennifer spoke to the IABC audience about “covering,” by which people downplay a known and stigmatized identity. Now open about her own identity as a member of the LGBTQ community, Jennifer explained that her own experiences being closeted, thus covering, led her to the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Brown explored how covering blocks the creative process and breaks down trust, as the inability to embrace your full self in the workplace causes people to hold back. Expending so much energy to suppress can result in what Jennifer referred to as “drainage.” In a more tangible and practical sense, the shame and fear that causes covering and therefore, a lack of disclosure, can ultimately lead to attrition. 

To combat these unpleasant feelings and experiences, as well as the negative organizational repercussions, Jennifer emphasized the importance of having diverse voices and representation around the table. Good leadership is inclusive leadership because it allows everyone to thrive. So how do companies go about ensuring that their leadership representation is balanced and diversified? Brown urged people to tell stories that haven’t been told and suggested that leadership pose the questions: “who are we missing?” and “who do we need to learn about?” 

Further efforts include an ongoing process of re-evaluation, detailed across Jennifer’s Inclusive Leader Continuum. Phase One is “Unaware,” during which leaders may think that since they’re comfortable, everyone else must be as well. Avoidance and an inability to contribute signify this lack of awareness. Phase Two is “Aware,” at which time leaders may question how they hadn’t thought about or addressed an issue previously. Phase Three, “Active,” is characterized by a growth mindset. At this point, the leaders are ready to do something, though they may recognize it won’t be easy. In Phase Four, “Advocate,” leaders must hold people accountable and, conversely, must be held accountable by others. 

Through this continuum, it is imperative that leaders are genuine and humble. This means they should go first, using storytelling to disarm, show vulnerability, and create a safe space for employees. Ultimately, leaders should personalize the process. 

Jennifer posed some powerful questions:
• Consider which phase you are currently in regarding various communities and/or identities
• What concrete steps can you take to move through the continuum?
• What phases do you perhaps need to return to in order to learn more?
• What will be your key points of learning?
• Who could support you on your journey?
• What is ONE commitment you can make today?

Unfortunately, progress in the area of inclusive leadership has been slow because real commitment on a widespread scale has been sparse and mastery of these concepts and behaviors hasn’t been critical to each leader’s performance. Collectively, we can shine a light on the systemic transformations needed by naming them.

The parting note of Jennifer’s talk was that “listening” is her comms mantra. The world, and surely the workplace, would be a better place with more listening.  

Lisa Michel is a marketing and communications professional with more than a decade of industry experience. With a passion for internal communications and employee engagement, she’s a strategic and creative thinker who’s focused on solving problems and relaying complex information. Currently, she works at wiip, an independent TV studio in Los Angeles.