CEO Insider

Why it’s time to become a more inclusive leader

Joy Burnford

We know that gender equality remains a huge problem for businesses, but for real change to occur, the drive has to come from the top. 

So, firstly, why is this important? The case for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace is considerable, not only from a moral perspective, but because it simply makes good business sense. There’s overwhelming evidence to back this up: companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25% more likely to have above average profitability; FTSE 350 companies with more than 25% women on their executive committees have profit margins almost three times higher than those with all male; if women were to participate in the economy identically to men, they could add as much as £28 trillion to the global GBD in 2025.  This is just a handful of statistics, I could go on.

Yet, despite the evidence, one in three women considered downshifting or leaving their careers in 2021. Consider that the cost to a business of losing a salaried employee is predicted as being on average 6-9 months’ salary (some studies estimate this figure to be much higher).

Businesses need to start making tangible changes now to retain women and offer them the opportunities to progress. This is where inclusive leadership is critical: we need leaders with D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) in their DNA to be the ones pushing forward the changes needed in workplace culture that will create not only a level playing field for women, but a better place to work for all. 

If I’ve sold you on the benefits, then the question of where to start is a big one; the answer is not about fixing women as the title of my new book, Don’t Fix Women, literally states. It’s instead about updating an outdated system that stops women from thriving in business. This is where inclusive leadership is vital: inclusive leaders have an awareness of their personal biases and privilege, they seek out and explore different perspectives to inform decisions and they collaborate with others effectively.

As a result of my research with CEOs, I created the PACETM framework to define the four behavioural traits exhibited by inclusive leaders: Passion, Accountability, Curiosity and Empathy. By understanding this framework, leaders can recognise the traits they possess and those that they lack, and work towards a more inclusive approach to managing. 

Let’s start with Passion: I’ve witnessed how inclusive leaders are the ones who make the biggest strides in gender equality. It’s simple to identify where you fall on the spectrum here: do you already have a clear vision for how to progress gender equality in your organisation? If the answer is no, think about what you can do to make progress and consider how you can be more purposeful in your actions. 

A great example of this is Nathan Coe, CEO of Auto Trader Group plc. Auto Trader has achieved 50:50 gender parity on its board and is listed in the Inclusive Companies Top 50 2021/2022. I asked Nathan what it took to achieve this and he explained: ‘Without doubt, change requires passion, empowerment and a belief right from the very top of the organisation to make the change happen and to call out behaviour or practice that is exclusionary. Too few at the top of organisations are talking passionately about this topic and yet we, as leaders, have a duty to ensure that women feel included and have the same access to careers that male colleagues have.’ 

Being passionate, for some, may involve changing deep-rooted habits and biases by rewiring thinking processes; this is hard to do, but not impossible. 

Next up is Accountability: inclusive leaders must take responsibility for diversity, equity and inclusion if change is to occur. If leaders delegate decision making to others, then this can slow progress substantially. 

To ensure accountability is in place, leaders can set clear goals which are linked to performance measures and/or bonus payments; they can track D&I metrics and trends for review in regular management meetings, where progress should be discussed and areas for improvement flagged; they should make diversity a fixed feature on executive committee and board agendas; they should communicate strategies, successes and areas for further work publicly and invite contributions for improvements. 

Businesses should look for opportunities to reward those who demonstrate the right behaviour that drives change: McKinsey & Company reported nearly 70% of companies believe that the work employees do to promote diversity and inclusion is critical, but less than 25% recognise this work in formal evaluations.

The third trait is Curiosity: inclusive leaders are those that have the courage to ask for help, even when they don’t fully understand how to do it. They create a culture where it is encouraged to show vulnerability and admit when you don’t have all the answers. 

Being curious is essential so that, as leaders, you can understand the needs of your people, and what it is like to be a woman within your organisation. This will put you in tune with what is needed to create a culture that will retain women in your business: for example, do you need to offer more personalised flexible working practices? Or perhaps you need to put better support systems in place to help women progress into senior roles.

Gary Kibble, Chief Marketing Officer at Wickes Group Plc, offered this insight: ‘My biggest learning of being involved in BAME and gender networks is to be curious. This shed a light on my blind spots and things that I take for granted and has widened my view of the world and made me aware of the barriers and challenges that women can face in the workplace.’ 

Being curious takes courage as it asks you to recognise your own existing biases and be open to feedback (and not too proud or defensive to make changes).

Lastly we have Empathy: empathy is about truly understanding those around you and being able to put yourself in their shoes.

There’s a wealth of evidence that shows how valuable empathy is as a managerial trait, including a study that my own company conducted in 2020, entitled ‘Rethinking leadership through a gender lens – new ways of working as a result of Covid-19’. The results were overwhelming: 92% of respondents said that levels of empathy and understanding had increased in their manager’s leadership style as a result of remote working when managers had gained greater insight into the wider context of employees’ lives.  

I spoke with David Bailey, Chief Operating Officer at RBC Wealth Management, who offered the following explanation of empathy: ‘I have no idea what it means to be a woman in this world because I am not a woman. But you can be open-minded enough to listen to what those challenges are. Recognise your own unconscious biases and do something about it. Influence the things you can influence and don’t be the silent majority.’

Once you’ve recognised where you fall within the PACETM framework perhaps the traits you already possess and those that need more focus next, you must consider how you can ‘Pick up the PACETM.’ If progress is to be made in gender equality, then urgency and prioritisation is needed, and this has to come with commitment from the top. 

Waiting for change to happen organically may not be enough, for example with internal promotions, and structural changes can be essential to create more opportunities for women. James Clarry, Chief Operating Officer at Coutts told me they ‘take every opportunity to create gender-balanced teams, with the skills needed for the future business, even if it means changing our structure to achieve this goal as quickly as possible.’

Speed and urgency is essential for us to make real progress, otherwise our children will still be debating this in 20 years’ time. By becoming an inclusive leader, you’ll not only move the dial faster, but will be role-modelling behaviour within your business, resulting in more allies for those that need them most and a better working environment for all. 

There is a Chinese proverb that particularly resonates for me here: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ It encourages us to question the speed at which we want change to happen: maybe you didn’t plant that tree 20 years ago, but you still can today.


Written by Joy Burnford.
Have you read?
Best CEOs In The World, 2022.
Global Passport Ranking, 2022.
World’s Richest People (Top Billionaires, 2022).
Economy Rankings: Largest countries by GDP, 2022.
Top Citizenship and Residency by Investment Programs, 2022.

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Joy Burnford
Joy Burnford is the Founder and CEO of Encompass Equality, a recognised gender equality trailblazer and the author of a new #1 bestseller book ‘Don’t Fix Women: The practical path to gender equality at work’. With over 25 years' experience as a business leader, non-exec director, podcast host and speaker, she supports organisations to navigate a path to gender equality and enable the retention and progression of women in the workplace. Joy and her team do this through research and consulting, leadership development programmes, knowledge sharing and coaching.


Joy Burnford is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.