Inclusion Coaching: Coaching as a Tool to Solve the Diversity & Inclusion Dilemma

by La'Wana Harris

May 28, 2019

There’s an elephant in the room when companies talk about diversity and inclusion programs or initiatives: the efforts to increase representation often amount to little more than lip service due to a lack of resources, investment, or expertise. Inclusion Coaching is based on a growing mound of evidence that coaching is highly effective in corporate settings and that applying these concepts to diversity and inclusion programs can transform well-meaning efforts into lasting change.

Coaching changes behavior

It’s time to explore the intersection of coaching and inclusion. Inclusion Coaching is the key to partnering with executives and other professionals to help them go deep within themselves, reflect on unconscious biases, make conscious choices to become more inclusive, and take courageous actions to make their organizations more equitable.

According to the International Coach Federation, organizations with high-impact coaching programs are more likely to see greater staff engagement and retention, as well as increased revenue. The rapid growth of the industry is another sign that organizations and individuals are seeking guidance from experts who can help them—and they’re getting their money’s worth. In 2017, $1 billion was spent on business, personal, and relationship coaches, up by about 20% compared to five years earlier, while the number of business coaches worldwide has risen by more than 60% since 2007, a 2018 Harvard Business Review article reported.

Diversity and inclusion are more than a business trend

Companies are similarly gravitating toward diversity and inclusion programs. A 2017 PwC study found that 87 percent of CEOs actively promote D&I, and 80 percent of organizations say they are focused on developing a pipeline of diverse leaders. The D&I emphasis makes sense, given both the changing demographics of society and the proven bottom-line impact of heterogenous teams. McKinsey’s latest research shows that companies with greater gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their executive teams outperform peers on profitability.

Still, D&I at many organizations is a priority without real progress. In fact, the share of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 dropped by 25 percent in 2018, from 32 to 24. A 2017 study of a subset of the Fortune 500 found that 72 percent of executives were white men, and that Latino/a and black executives remained underrepresented. Inequities persist at even the most enlightened organizations. A Great Place to Work has documented significant gaps in the employee experience of men vs. women and whites vs. minorities, leading to restructuring their rubric for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list to prioritize diversity and inclusion metrics.

A big challenge when it comes to D&I efforts is that it is hard to change ingrained behaviors. Even now that many business leaders realize that implicit bias affects all of us, a true commitment to workplace inclusion is easier said than done. Leaders may be well-meaning, but their shortcomings related to diversity and inclusion may stem from habits dating back decades or to their personal struggles on the job—like having to do more with less or feeling overworked and disillusioned. According to research by Gallup, just 35% of U.S. managers are engaged in their jobs, leading many to wonder where D&I programs fit into the organization’s priorities, structures, and culture.

Coaching is a way to solve the diversity dilemma

My voice on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is grounded in my lived experience. For the last 20 years, my practice as an Inclusion Coach has focused on working with clients who range from CEOs, C-Suite executives, managers, and community leaders to recognize deep-seated assumptions about power, privilege, and the “-isms.” My experience, along with professional training, credentials, and certifications has enabled me to acknowledge and teach the stages of learning the layers of diversity and inclusion.

What’s most important, however, is my commitment to opening a dialogue with the intent to listen as well as coach. We are all at different points in our journey of unlearning biases and confronting toxic power asymmetries, and we certainly won’t feel encouraged to learn or be open to being taught if we don’t feel safe enough to speak honestly.

From the old boys’ club to confronting bias and exclusion

Let’s take “Michael,” for example—a client I work with who shows the promise and realities of what Inclusion Coaching can do for companies looking to drill down and create diverse and inclusive workplaces. He works in a large company, within a department known as the “Golden Country Club,” a nickname born out of its reputation as having an old boys’ club vibe—along with virtually no diversity. Michael’s boss, “Todd,” saw no problem with his department. He said he never considered race, gender, or any other aspect of diversity when hiring. “I just hire the best person for the job,” Todd once claimed.

Michael, though, began seeing the underlying bias that led to the demographics of the department. He asked to meet with me for one-on-one coaching, and shared that his wife had been experiencing blatant gender discrimination at her workplace, challenging Michael to seriously consider how the homogenous make-up of his department might negatively affect or exclude people who are different from the dominant group. Michael was deeply bothered by the realization that his team dynamics were strikingly similar to the ones at his wife’s organization.

With honest emotion, Michael recounted, “I had to look my wife in the eye and admit that I’ve been contributing to the system that is causing her so much distress.” Realizing our own participation is the critical first step, and through Inclusion Coaching, Michael’s enlightened position, with further education and conversation, can lead to transforming his own workplace.

These are the moments when progress is possible, the personal epiphanies that lead to new perspectives, and the bravery to make changes. Michael, for example, began speaking up in meetings with Todd, questioning whether the department truly was doing all it could to “hire the best.”

With a safe space for deeper reflection and vulnerability framed by Inclusion Coaching, Michael was able to do the self-work needed to bring about a shift in his mindset and behavior.

This is the power of Inclusion Coaching – matching the proven benefits of coaching with the unmet needs of D&I. You have ERGs, Inclusion Councils, and unconscious bias training—what’s next? Inclusion Coaching is a practice whose time has come to help your organization close the gap between good intentions and real D&I results.


Lawana-harrisLa’Wana Harris is a Certified Diversity Executive, ICF Credentialed Coach, global leadership development professional, and author of Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias.

Topics: Diversity & Inclusion, People and Culture

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