10 Actions Every Leader Can Take To Be A Diversity Champion

Tommi Laitio
8 min readSep 30, 2020

Diversity in the workplace is not an easy sell. The more you commit to it, the more you will stumble and the more people demand from you.
Here´s ten really practical things you can start with.

I look at this painting called “Safe” by Finnish artist Maiju Salmenkivi every morning. She painted it inspired by the storm hitting Helsinki´s Flow Festival and how people huddled into the tents for safety. It reminds me that the job of a leader is to keep people safe.
  1. Mentor.
    Mentoring means that you commit to a year-long process with someone quite different, often more junior, who asks for your help and guidance. The idea is that you meet with them on a regular basis and discuss issues relevant to them. The person you mentor is responsible for scheduling, themes and preparation. Your job is to be attentive when you meet. It will send a strong message in your organization that you give your time to help others.
    I currently mentor two people — a woman in her 30s working as a creative freelancer and a young man in his 20s in sales. Based on my own experience, mentoring opens new perspectives. You can help someone else realize what they are good at. Simultaneously, you develop your skills for empathy and learn to understand people very different than you.
    Tip: Universities and other schools provide multiple opportunities for alumni. Bigger employers can also start their own mentoring programmes, which are great for employer branding.
  2. Amplify minority voices in meetings.
    You are running a meeting. Someone offers a perspective very different, even contradicting, than the ones presented by others. Focusing on these moments matters especially when the person presenting the view belongs to a minority in your team — the only Muslim, the only non-white person, the only LGBT person, the only woman, the only millennial…you get the drift. It is often quite hard as the only X in the room to say that something troubles you or you feel some messaging is risky.
    As a manager, this is what you can do:
    “Hey, that was interesting what she said. What I heard was (and you repeat what you heard). Would you be able to elaborate on that a bit more? I feel that would benefit us as a team.”
    Taking a moment matters even if you would not agree on their view or decided in the end not to follow their recommendation. Amplification has two major benefits. First, it promotes a culture where people feel safe to express unorthodox ideas. Second, there is tons of research that for instance women in male-dominated environments or non-white people in all-white environments often feel that their views are not heard or someone else takes credit for their ideas.
  3. Demonstrate uncertainty.
    Last weekend I gave a keynote in a (forest) leadership seminar for the scouts in the Helsinki region. After my talk on inclusive practices, a man my age came over and said:
    “Hey I run an all-male scout group. I have been thinking about how we could be more inclusive for gays. I don´t feel like we discriminate but it s not talked about. I really don´t know what we should do but I feel this is important. What should we do? Should we go on a Pride march?”
    My advice was that he would say exactly the same things to his scouting buddies as he just said to me. He could be an ally. He could say that something is important even if he does not have the answers.
    It is really powerful when a leader identifies an issue and asks for help. A good leader is not a know-it-all. If more leaders would act this way, we would create better organization cultures.
  4. Ask open, not closed questions.
    This one sounds simple but is actually really difficult. As a leader you easily send cues on what is the “right answer” to your question. You probably mean well, you probably want people to challenge you — but you also want results. You are often behind schedule in a meeting.
    Agreeing with the leader is a question of power. Most people feel a pressure to be on the winning team.
    That is why it matters how you start your questions. As a journalist, I learned how you get more interesting answers. So:
    Less: Isn´t it; Would you agree; I feel like; Do you;
    More: What; How; Why; When; Who
  5. Bring new voices in.
    You are organizing a seminar. Your speaker choices send a clear message on whose voice matters. Think of your choices on a portfolio level. Look at all the speakers of your event and focus on the message you are sending on who is interesting, who is an expert and whose voice matters. How many women do you have? Are all your speakers white? Do women talk about care and men about business? You don´t have to have the answers but you as a leader can say:”Hey, let´s look at all our speakers? What message are we sending?“
    Tip 1: Start keeping a list on your phone of interesting people. I have it on Google Keep but you can use any tool. Take pictures of people in magazines and online and conferences. I pay extra attention to the share of women and minorities. This list is extremely handy when you end up into the “Who would be good” discussion.
    Tip 2: Sometimes it is needed to give room for others even if you would love to go and speak. I have started to answer requests by saying that my colleague X would be great for this. At times I also point out that the speaker list is currently only men and that is why this person would be a better choice as they know the issue as well, or even better than I do.
  6. Talk the walk.
    There´s a lot of talk about the importance of leaders practicing what they preach, a.k.a. walk the talk. However, it is as important to talk the walk — to show how actions carried out by your team members are pointing the organization to the right direction, to name challenges your organization still needs to overcome, to encourage people dedicated to diversity, to point out pockets of good behavior in your organization. You as a leader can help turn concrete actions of your employees into strategic language. Make it concrete and specific. Who you highlight and why sends a clear message. You can say:”What you just did there is exactly what we are about and what we stand for. We strive to be X and that happens through actions like yours. Thank you.” Praise people to their face but also behind their back.
    Hot tip: Social media matters. When you as a leader use your social account to highlight to your friends and stakeholders what you heard and the people you met, that sends a clear message to your team — that you are proud of them.
  7. Ask “What I Could Do Better” over and over again.
    It is difficult to give critical feedback to your boss. That is why it usually comes through anonymous surveys like a 360-degree review. But you as a leader can also ask for feedback. In the beginning the feedback is going to be very polite and the situations are awkward. The more you ask for it and the more you accept the feedback, the more honest the feedback gets. You can also make your question more focused by asking:”What could I do better to be more inclusive?”
    Hearing honest feedback is not easy. I must admit that it has been tough when people for instance have told me that my communication is unclear, that I use too fancy language, that I cannot criticize delivery if my brief was unclear, that I seemed irritated or unfocused, that I seemed out of energy, that my face sent a message that I did not like what I heard or that I did not treat everyone equally in a meeting.
    It is supposed to feel like something. It is OK to say that you hear what people say but you need to digest their feedback a bit. All this feedback helps you grow as a leader. The most important thing is not to start litigating the feedback. Ask questions, not evidence.
  8. Require learning, not perfection.
    Leadership is a lot about providing coverage — making people feel safe. This means that when people have done their best and things fail, the management needs to take the hit. But when things go right, we celebrate together and we give credit to the people who did the work.
    In my organization, in Helsinki´s Culture and Leisure division, we have a principle: it is more important to do the right things than to do things right.At the beginning the principle was this: It is easier to be forgiven than to get a permission but we changed it due to feedback from managers.
    Even the revised principle is easily misunderstood. Some people think it gives a permission to disregard and bypass rules and policies. It does not. The point is ethical action and leadership. We want our employees to have their brains on, to do courageous things and understand why they do what they do. We want discussion on what is the right thing to do, what would be fair and just. We want our employees to take personal responsibility and to exercise moral judgement. This also means that you learn from actions, whether they result in good or poor results.
  9. Demonstrate fallibility.
    I feel Brené Brown has put it quite well: you need to get into the ring, to show vulnerability and be uncomfortable. That guarantees good things coming towards you and to the people around you. That creates growth, joy and innovation. That makes people feel included.
    But it also guarantees punches to the core. It means that you will discover how you have unknowingly failed to identify and recruit talent, talked about minorities in an excluding manner, failed to intervene or accepted or maintained policies that do not tackle diversity challenges. If you create conditions for vulnerability, problems are guaranteed to arise.
    If you want other people to demonstrate vulnerability and share mistakes, you need to set the path. It is quite powerful when a manager admits making mistakes. Tell your team at times how you have changed your mind with new knowledge or how a discussion with someone made you realize you have been wrong. It is not easy. I am still shaken by the realization that I mansplained once to a smart woman about her own work. My intentions were good but my delivery sucked big time.
  10. Document your journey.
    They say history is often written by the winners. This proverb is true also on a personal level. Our mind corrects our memories into a logical journey of growth.
    I started writing a diary when I took on the position of Helsinki´s Director of Youth Affairs. I have written a page of notes every single day since August 2012. Every now and then I go back to the diaries.
    I just read my notes from 2013. I was surprised how differently I remembered things. I had completely forgotten things that kept me up at night. The diaries demonstrated how people in 2013 said things about minorities that would be unheard of today. The diaries showed how I had made the wrong analysis of certain situations and people. And it showed how my thinking on the role of a leader had changed. I recommend writing out your journey with a real pen, not on your laptop.



Tommi Laitio

Used to run libraries, culture, youth and sports for Helsinki. Research and development on conditions for co-existence and public spaces. www.tommilaitio.com