Why Being Inclusive Is Like Growing Truffles

Ian Treloar is a long-time friend and former colleague of mine who, for all the time I have known him, has been trying to grow truffles. He has spent a lot of time adding minerals, nutrients, to soil and waiting for the results — which have thankfully arrived! He has committed years of persistence (18 to be precise), a significant investment, and repeated, almost dogged determination to make those little fungi grow. You can check out his site here.

From my research and talking to Ian, I have learned that before you can grow truffles, you need to know quite a bit about them, plant trees and they have to take root. The truffles then take a minimum of five years to begin emerging after the trees are planted, and seven to eleven years to achieve peak production.

Truffles are fickle little things too. They only grow in extremely specific conditions, but when they do grow, the rewards are huge! A kilo of truffles can sell for over to $4000! Truffles remind me quite a bit of inclusion culture in a company.

The business case for inclusion:

Inclusion isn’t something you can simply switch on — much like truffle crops. It takes work, commitment and time. Almost the antithesis of the modern leaders’ focus on quarterly targets and the crisis management which has pervaded much of 2020. It is also crucial for the sustainability of the workplace and so warrants attention. Research by HBR found that teams led by inclusive leaders are 20% more likely to make high-quality decisions and 29% more likely to engage collaboratively. Additional research by Bersin / Deloitte showed the following benefits:

As we become a multigenerational workforce, the concept of including all groups of people becomes an increased challenge for leaders. Millennials particularly want to feel a sense of open inclusion in the employers they select. It is predicted that by the year 2025, 75% of the global workforce will constitute millennials and many in positions of leadership. This demographic prioritizes diversity and inclusion above most parameters (including salary). And yet only 12% of organizations can positively identify their inclusive culture and 40% of those are simply focussed on compliance.

Inclusion is also BIG business:

In their book, the Inclusion Dividend, Kaplan and Donovan state that companies on the S&P500 invest about $8 billion annually to foster a more inclusive corporate culture. They don’t just do it to avoid discrimination lawsuits, but because it makes them money.

For instance, take the companies listed on Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index. They’re profitable companies that brought in an 89% return on their investments over a three-year period. But the S&P corporations that also made it onto Working Mother’s 100 top companies for inclusion brought back 98% on every dollar

And so back to Ian’s truffles and how they relate to inclusion. If you can imagine an 8x better business outcome, that feels like Ian must feel when he lands a crop of truffles in his wood. But it isn’t easy to achieve. You see Ian is playing a long game with the reward of knowing that even whilst he is not seeing immediate results, he needs to keep working at it because the payoff is huge. The key is to improve the quality of the soil over time, and remove the undesirable plants (weeds which soak up nutrients whilst adding little value), whilst keeping his eye out for clues which indicate progress in the right direction and then replicating that across the wider environment.

Ian also knows that he can’t detect truffles on his own, so he has some excellent, canine assistants. They are the ones who are closer to the ground and sniffing out the magic happening underground. They provide the hints that Ian needs to know his hard work is starting to pay off.

So how do we take all this truffe talk and apply it to how you might create an environment of inclusion in your workplace. For me, it starts with 3 As. Awareness, Alignment and Action.

Awareness starts with people understanding what inclusion is. Some research by Queens University in Canada revealed that 40% of employees didn’t know whether their company had an inclusion program or not. It’s not diversity. It’s not equality. For me, inclusion is about organizations and leaders working to ensure everyone feels that they have a seat at the table and a voice to speak. Inclusion is like being invited to the party and being asked to bring your favorite song to add to the playlist. Awareness also needs to extend to what is going well and not so well in the organization, so some sort of assessment and adjustment processes needs to exist to highlight areas of progress and successes or to bring areas of underperformance to the forefront. Awareness needs to be driven through values, strategy, processes and people.

Alignment means that we all understand the expectations on us when it comes to inclusion. We have a strategy, plans and defined activity and measures which ensure that we all know what we need to do / not do. There also needs to be an active conversation around expectations across the business. Not just at the top table but through all teams and functions. Also, interpretation of inclusion needs to be considered business-wide, and this extends to talent planning, benefits and rewards

Action is all about making it real. Inclusion is not a policy on a shelf or a poster on the wall, but actually bringing it to life. Making sure people know about your inclusion initiatives and also involving them in being part of the change is key. Creating champions and highlighting role models in the business helps to showcase best practice in action. Leaders who consciously engage themselves and their teams in inclusive activities which create inclusive environments. It’s also about dealing with the situations where the process or people fail to live up to expected standards.

Where these 3As overlap we also have the key elements of Clarity, Coordination and Communication. Essentially our 3As need to not exist as linear steps but rather as a holistic and coordinated culture initiative led by leaders and teams alike. I like to say the two words out loud and ask — what do we need to achieve these — so Aligned Action, and Action Alignment. The 3 Cs form both the results, and specific bits of work — ie to get awareness and alignment, leaders should focus on clarity — and so on.

Over the last few months every time I talk about inclusion with leaders, the gap always appears to be in one or more of these A areas. Work out where the gaps are in your organization and focus on closing that — and if you want to discuss how to do this, I’m happy to help.

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Jimmy Burroughes

Showing leaders and teams how to change their conversations to change their business performance results. jimmyburroughes.com