Developing and leading an inclusive Retail organization

The ability to lead inclusively is more important than ever.

Retailers increasingly rely on diverse, multidisciplinary teams. These combine the collective capabilities of people with different gender identities, different ethnicities, cultures, ages and generations, and more.

But simply throwing a mix of people together doesn’t guarantee high performance; it requires inclusive leadership to bring the best out of today’s teams. It requires ensuring all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and sense that they belong, and are confident and inspired. Doing that successfully requires understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion.

The way forward

Retailers have entered a new era where not only are stakeholders feeling empowered to speak up and act on diversity and inclusion, it’s expected: from employees, from customers, and from shareholders. Many retailers have responded by announcing hiring or other internal goals focused on underrepresented groups, and by pledging support for organizations or initiatives tied to supporting diversity and increasing inclusion.

As examples, Nordstrom Canada has supported its Black Employee Network in setting up ”Courageous Conversation” forums to increase internal communication around diversity issues. The Hudson’s Bay Foundation donated $100,000 to the Black Health Alliance to assist in reducing racial disparities in health outcomes for Black communities in Canada. And there many others with programs focusing on promoting WOC internally, on promoting Indigenous art and products in the marketplace, on committing to increasing the representation of BIPOC owned or funded brands in their assortments, and more.

Along with demonstrating clear leadership in an area so important in today’s society, Harvard Business Review (HBR) research shows that focusing on inclusion and developing inclusive leaders directly enhances performance. Teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively. As well, a 10% improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases work attendance by almost one day a year per employee, reducing the cost of absenteeism.

What makes leaders more inclusive?

HBR identified six categories of behaviours that distinguish inclusive leaders from others, and included examples of ways inclusive leaders exhibit these behaviours:

  • Visible commitment: Inclusive leaders show true commitment to diversity, they challenge the status quo, they hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority. They can give compelling reasons why being inclusive is personally important to them and to the business more broadly – and are prepared to do so publicly.
  • Humility: Inclusive leaders are modest about their capabilities, admit mistakes and create the space for others to contribute. They demonstrate a humble, unpretentious work manner that puts others at ease, enabling them to speak out and voice their opinions.
  • Awareness of bias: Inclusive leaders are aware of personal blind spots and flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure meritocracy. As an example, they show empathy for working parents by checking in with them, offering extra support or pushing back deadlines, and in the current business environment, by showing grace when children interrupt video meetings.
  • Curiosity about others: Inclusive leaders demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment and empathize with those around them. They acknowledge team members as individuals, address each one by name, and know their work stream and the work they do.
  • Cultural intelligence: Inclusive leaders are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required. They take the time to learn the ropes (common words, idioms, customs, “the way things run around here”) and the cultural norms within each of their teams.
  • Effective collaboration: Inclusive leaders empower others, acknowledge diversity of thinking, and focus on team cohesion. For example, they will make virtual meetings equitable by turning on closed captioning, and sending documents and collecting input in advance so those who tend to be shy in public can still contribute.

These traits may seem obvious. However, inclusive leaders ensure that everyone agrees they are being treated fairly and respectfully, are valued, and have a sense of belonging and are psychologically safe. Subtle words and acts of exclusion by leaders, or overlooking the exclusive behaviors of others, easily reinforces the status quo. It takes energy and deliberate effort to create an inclusive culture, and that starts with leaders paying much more attention to what they say and do on a daily basis, and making adjustments as necessary.

Retail organizations can take the lead

Retail organizations can help foster inclusive leadership by treating customers in the same inclusive way:

  • In a recent store redesign, telecommunications brand Rogers installed a round café table that could be used for consultation and payment interactions by both wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users alike. This inclusive solution makes those with differences feel part of the same community, rather than having their differences highlighted and held up to define them.
  • The British supermarket chain, Morrisons, has a nationwide ‘Quieter Hour’ where the store is adapted to suit different sensory stimulation of autistic shoppers. During this hour some of the lights are dimmed, there are no announcements made over speakers, and the barcode scanners make no sounds.
  • Staff diversity is important when delivering an inclusive retail environment for customers. They should at least reflect the diversity of their own target market; there is great power in customers seeing themselves reflected in their retail experience. They want to feel they are understood by the person representing the brand and serving them.

From the retail organization to the retail professional, leaders who consciously practice inclusive leadership and actively develop that capability will harness the full power of their diverse teams. The results will include superior performance and success as an organization and as individuals.

Retail organizations are learning to navigate this new territory of providing increasingly inclusive leadership in an increasingly diverse environment – especially in our current pandemic environment. As they do, retail professionals like you will find these skills increasingly important.

To learn more on this and other retail trends and insights you can check out our blog.

Written by Patricia Viscount and Rob Fisher