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Jo Kandola

Head of Digital Solutions, Pearn Kandola

Quotation Marks
"while firm leaders are succeeding in creating environments in which everyone can speak up, they may lack awareness of how they’re falling short."

Understanding the most important allyship and inclusion behaviours in firms

Understanding the most important allyship and inclusion behaviours in firms


Jo Kandola explores how leaders can play a positive role in fostering diversity within a firm

For a team to achieve its full potential, leaders must foster a culture of inclusivity. In environments that are inclusive, people feel a shared sense of belonging. They report feeling more comfortable and confident, and feel safe making different or even unusual suggestions: to voice the thing that everyone is thinking but nobody will say. As such, inclusive organisations can enjoy improved communication and collaboration among colleagues, tapping into diverse perspectives to increase productivity and efficiency.

Inclusive environments are also more likely to attract and retain talent. A diverse range of cultural and social backgrounds will find its way into an inclusive workforce, and staff turnover will be reduced as a result of employees feeling valued and accepted.

In short, inclusivity is good for business. This is true of all industries. However, at Pearn Kandola we have turned our minds to the question of how inclusive cultures can be fostered specifically within the legal profession. Through our work we want to understand what leaders are getting right, where they might be falling short, and which behaviours are most important when it comes to inclusivity.

Our research

To achieve this understanding and to identify the inclusion strengths and weaknesses of leaders in the legal sector, we have analysed data gathered through our digital solutions tool, PK: INDYNAMICS Leader. This tool offers leaders feedback on three key aspects of leadership: culture, relationships and decision making, using a combination of team feedback and personality data.

Analysing competency scores from over 150 senior leaders and 800 managers, direct reports and peers, it emerged that all four groups agreed leaders were succeeding in building trust within their teams.

Line managers and peers specifically felt their leaders were open-minded in their approach towards people, and that they excelled in building confidence, so that team members believe they have value to add. Direct reports and peers, meanwhile, agreed that their leaders were open to new ideas and approaches. It was also felt by leaders themselves that this was something they were achieving.

As for weaknesses, line managers, direct reports and even leaders themselves all agreed that more could be done to help team members develop their own networks. All four groups also reported that leaders could do more to address cliques within the department and to address unconscious bias.

However, the question of leaders being open to their own unconscious bias was slightly more divisive. Whereas leaders themselves didn’t believe this was a problem, all three of the remaining groups agreed it was an area of weakness.

It seems, therefore, that while firm leaders are succeeding in creating environments in which everyone can speak up, sometimes they may lack awareness of how they’re falling short. Specifically, there appears to a particular blind spot when it comes to recognising their own unconscious bias.

Why is this happening?

The areas requiring the most work, it seems, are tackling unconscious bias and forming inclusive relationships with all members of the team. But before we can explore why that might be, we should first try to better understand the environments in which these individuals are operating.

Firms pride themselves on excellence, with the prevailing culture often one of significant pressure and exceptionally high expectations. To progress and particularly to be identified as having partner potential, lawyers often put in long hours and make considerable sacrifices. Time is focussed on servicing clients, so the opportunity to build relationships across the firm is often limited. As a result, we find that large numbers of lawyers at a senior stage in their career who are technically gifted but struggle to nurture a wide, supportive network.

This is a problem, considering that to excel in this industry requires lawyers not only to be technically proficient but also to have strong relationships with both clients and colleagues. It requires a good network and backing from senior colleagues of the firm. In essence, it requires a sense of belonging.

Historically, the industry has typically attracted candidates who are white, male and highly-qualified, often to Oxbridge standard. The issue of homophily, whereby we naturally gravitate towards individuals who are like us, is of particular relevance here, having long had an impact on who is welcomed into this world and who is offered the chance to progress.

In a conversation about inclusivity, this immediately raises the question of how female or minority candidates, who don’t necessarily fit the mould of the industry’s ready-made networks, achieve the same sense of belonging. And it begins to explain why unconscious bias is considered to be such an issue, as well as why inclusive relationships are seemingly difficult to come by.

What can leaders do?

What, then, can leaders do? How can they take the promising environments that we have heard many are building – places in which colleagues can openly share their perspectives – and tackle these outstanding issues?

In reality, there are plenty of ways we can enjoy more inclusive relationships, and help to ensure bias doesn’t shape our day-to-day judgments.

In team meetings, for instance, we should seek out a breadth of opinions. We should ask for the thoughts of quieter individuals and be aware of any over-reliance we might have on the same ‘go to’ people. If someone is interrupted, they should have the opportunity to repeat themselves, and where possible, we should hold smaller meetings to ensure the contributions of less assertive colleagues aren’t stifled.

During recruitment, we should use clear, objective competency ratings to support decision-making, rather than a ‘gut feeling’ or the notion of ‘team fit.’ We should also be aware of how we might be primed by colleagues before an interview, and always rate candidates independently before sharing our observations.

Even when nurturing our personal networks, we should make a conscious effort to identify those we rarely speak with or who would benefit from stretch development opportunities.

In short, there are plenty of ways for leaders to address the shortcomings we have identified on the subject of inclusivity. But for these efforts to be successful, they must be informed by a specific three-part process: awareness, insight and action.

Changing our own behaviour is not easy or straightforward: simply knowing where to start is a challenge. And, as we have seen in our own research, however good our intentions we all have our blind spots. This is why awareness is so crucial. We need to look closely at our own behaviour, allow ourselves to be vulnerable and determine what kind of leaders we actually are.

Inclusive leadership tools can help with this, providing a space for leaders to reflect and become aware of their own blind spots. They can also offer flexibility. Law firms are busy environments, often making it challenging to deliver face-to-face training programmes. A digital approach enables firms to reach a broader, more engaged audience.

But awareness is only a starting point. True behavioural change comes from gathering insight, and it’s here that digital assessments really come into their own. Inclusive leadership tools offer participants personalised insight, along with specific actions they can take to improve their inclusivity efforts.

The personal element here is what’s so important. Traditional learning approaches tend to treat everyone as if they have the same strengths and weaknesses. Digital assessments, meanwhile, offer personalised action plans, tailored to each leader’s specific needs.

Going forward

In today's business environment, inclusivity is essential. Everyone should be valued, respected and given a voice. This requires inclusive leadership, which itself requires an appreciation of diverse backgrounds, skills and experiences. More than that, however, it requires leaders to challenge their own preconceived ideas and biases.

We know through our research what challenges leaders in the legal sector face. And through that all-important process of developing awareness, gathering insight and taking informed action, we know that they will be equipped to make law firms more inclusive places, ready to unlock their full potential.

Dr Jo Kandola is a partner and head of Digital Inclusion Solutions at Pearn Kandola