Why Inclusive Workplaces Matter in a Time of Crisis (Blog Post)
Steering a team during a global health crisis is one of the most difficult leadership challenges I have ever faced. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. But one thing this experience has affirmed for me: the importance of inclusive workplaces.
The first big test came in early March. The staff was working with increased intensity as our 2020 Catalyst Awards Conference and Dinner approached. Everyone was excited about our annual New York City event, scheduled this year for March 12. We were going to celebrate Deloitte, Medtronic, and Unilever for their groundbreaking initiatives that advanced women in their workplaces. It would provide an opportunity for Catalyst’s global staff to connect and share learning with Supporter companies.
It also would be our single biggest fundraiser of the year.
The coronavirus was spreading across the globe. New York’s governor and the New York City mayor had not yet issued a ban on large gatherings. We were monitoring events and formed a rapid-response team. Then, a member of my senior leadership team came to me early on March 4 and spoke bluntly: We needed to cancel; the potential health risks were just too great. Cancellations were coming in from our Supporters who were concerned about safety, she said.
With the conference sold out and only eight days away, I tried not to react but to listen – drawing upon Catalyst’s model of inclusive leadership. Our 2019 survey of 2,100 employees had uncovered a leadership style that balances both leading outward and inward. Leading outward is what you do to ensure team members are treated fairly, empowered, and able to flourish; leading inward requires a hard look at who you are and your inner ability to act courageously, with humility and curiosity.
Although I didn’t want to cancel, I was curious and asked a lot of questions. I was gratified that my senior leader felt comfortable telling me a hard truth; her act took courage and was possible because of a feeling of psychological safety. After all, who wants to tell the boss something upsetting?
The rapid-response team met and weighed the potential ramifications; health and safety were primary considerations. Each person presented facts to support their point of view. I valued everyone’s opinions. I also reached out to members of Catalyst’s board of directors and advisers, recognizing that these leaders of multinational organizations have wisdom to offer. I created a spreadsheet with everyone’s comments so that I could track the data I was collecting.
By the end of the day, I decided to cancel. I talked to the board chair early the next morning, and we called an emergency noon meeting of the Executive Committee, giving the team the go-ahead to cancel and come up with a pivot plan.
Here’s the best part about having gone through the decision-making process with an inclusive work culture. By working together, the team quickly plotted and began transforming the 2020 Awards Conference and Dinner into a series of high-quality, virtual engagement opportunities and content, which we began rolling out on March 12 and will continue over the coming weeks. The process required creativity and collaboration across the organization—with new workshops still in the process of being conceived. (Stay tuned on that.) After speaking with staff at a virtual town hall, we closed our physical offices on the same day as the event, deciding all employees should work from home. We are using our experience in remote working to continue to drive our mission.
As this pandemic unfolds, we all will likely face new, unpredictable challenges. None of us will have all the answers. We all are on journeys to become more inclusive leaders. But uncharted situations call for unprecedented collaboration. By consciously working to create an inclusive culture, one in which people feel supported, comfortable speaking up, and brainstorming together, your organization will be more able to adapt and innovate.
How is your organization pivoting and innovating to meet this crisis? Share your tips and stories with us on social media, using our handle @CatalystInc and the hashtag #CatalystCommunity.
President & CEO
Lorraine Hariton is President and CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Catalyst’s vision and mission to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion has been a lifelong passion for Lorraine. She is…