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For the love of sports: Fostering inclusive leadership and culture

By Sharoni Denise Little

The common business principle, “leaders cast a long shadow,” suggests that a company’s culture, practices and general operating norms are influenced by what a leader says, does, prioritizes, measures, promotes and validates. Considering the power and privilege they often possess, it is imperative for business leaders, among other key strengths, to be strategic, intentional, innovative, adaptive and inclusive to drive success.

Sharoni Denise Little

Being inclusive is an active process. It entails creating and sustaining norms, practices, and an environment centered in fairness, respect, access and opportunity. Inclusive industries — and companies that exemplify these values — ensure that they’ve created a welcoming and equitable workplace, where the inherent worth, dignity and well-being of all people are acknowledged and valued, with everyone experiencing an authentic sense of belonging and opportunity to succeed. 

As both an avid sports fan and DEI scholar, I know that the very nature of sports embodies the spirit of inclusion with collegiality, collaboration, commitment, communication and healthy competition at its core. Like sports, to establish and sustain an inclusive culture, leaders and companies must authentically commit, create the necessary conditions, foster core skills, practice and train regularly, and ultimately, execute as a team. Given its significant influence on popular culture, the sports industry can positively model and shape global perceptions and practices.

Sports leaders should:

 Apply an equity lens to assess all business systems, practices and behaviors, including hiring, pay, promotion, retention and leadership composition, to uncover and mitigate against bias, isolation, “onlyness,” and all exclusionary practices that can create a toxic and psychologically unsafe workplace environment, including regularly reviewing the company’s data to assess indicators of inclusion.

 Foster cultural practices that value and leverage the unique and multifaceted contributions of a diverse workforce, avoiding assimilation messages and practices that seek conformity and compliance, often under the vague concept of “cultural fit.”

■ Engage employees at every level of the organization to assess their overall sense of belonging and psychological safety. Ask questions that can address feelings and experiences around equitable access and opportunity, being respectfully heard, and fully seen. Ask where they see themselves represented within the company; within their department/division; within their team, league or agency leadership; and among clients, customers, fans, vendors and partners. 

 Recognize that the multifaceted aspects of identity matter when fostering an equitable and inclusive culture. Be mindful that authentic representation is not merely being “added” to a proverbial room or being given a seat at the table. If power dynamics and status quo systems limit, silence and/or make one invisible, such practices are performative. True visibility and voice comes when leaders and organizations design systems and structures that authentically value diverse perspectives, cultures and experiences, while not expecting conformity or acclimation. They regularly assess who participates, speaks, presents and leads in every aspect of their company’s operations and make necessary changes to enhance equity. 

More information

As you continue your DEI journey, there are many books, films, podcasts readily available. I’ve included a few suggestions below.

WATCH:
“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”

LISTEN:
“The Only One in the Room,” a podcast by Laura Cathcart Robbins

READ:
“We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide,” by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden

 Acknowledge and mitigate against any form of cognitive, behavioral and systemic biases that can constrain an individual’s contribution, excellence and sense of belonging. A form of behavioral bias is microaggression, which can manifest in numerous ways. For example, we must avoid telling someone from a historically marginalized or underrepresented racial, gender or social class group, “You are so articulate.” While the underlying intention might be complimentary, one must understand and acknowledge dominant perceptions associated with certain identity groups around limited intellectual and persuasive abilities, implying an offensive sense of surprise or exceptionalism.

 Invest in ongoing, companywide professional development training that includes cultural and emotional intelligence, self-awareness, empathy and bias mitigation.

While striving to be an inclusive leader and fostering an equitable culture is complex, and at times challenging, it is essential, especially in the vast global sports industry. Leaders can achieve their inclusion goals by making it a personal and ongoing journey. They can ensure that their stated values, practices, and norms are transparent, and consistent. 

Sharoni Denise Little, Ph.D./Ed.D., is head of global inclusion strategy at Creative Artists Agency.

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