Prioritizing a Culture of Inclusion to Drive Business Outcomes: A Conversation With Kelly Kuhn

By Kelly Kuhn & Owen Daugherty

Leaders across industries are figuring out how to set their teams up for success amid uncertainty and shifts in the market. Perhaps no industry right now is disrupted as much as the travel industry, one Kelly Kuhn knows well from her more than 30 years as a global executive leading teams. Kuhn, a Senior Advisor at McChrystal Group, details how when leaders put their employees and build an inclusive culture first, positive results and revenue growth will follow.

In the Q&A below, senior advisor Kelly Kuhn gives tangible examples of ways leaders can strike the balance between being internally and externally focused while not losing sight of priorities. She also discusses what it means to center inclusion as a guiding principle and how it will impact the bottom line.

Q: What advice do you have for leaders who are trying to implement a culture of inclusion?

A: Culture is a two-way street, meaning it has to be lived and breathed. Walk the walk and talk by the example of executive leadership, starting with the CEO, the executive team, their leadership teams, et cetera.

But it also must be a groundswell. It must be a culture built by the employees there. The meeting in the middle is where the magic happens. That's where executive leadership envisions what employees need to be motivated and to give discretionary effort.

If employees are highly engaged, customers are happy, and shareholders ultimately are happy as well. So, starting with employees means all the other stakeholder groups down the line are being serviced as well. And I think that so many companies miss that tie.

Q: You brought up the customer, the shareholder, and the employee because it's that delicate balance of not looking too much inward but not being too focused on simply revenue growth and growing the bottom line. How does inclusion become a priority while not losing sight of the business goals?

A: The pandemic made most companies very inward because they had to look inward to survive. This also came with the thought that we in the professional services environment need to focus on helping our customers figure out what new problems they need to solve because everyone's problem set changed because of the pandemic.

Then leaders needed to think about their employees and think about what kind of talent and employees they’re going to need right now, but also for the future and how are they going to retain and then attract new talent, all the while thinking about learning and development as a core competency for what you are going to need for the future.

I would argue that financial performance is an outcome of your culture and your purpose. It's an outcome of your operating behavior, who you are as an organization. Financial results will follow, and so it shouldn't be the purpose.

Q: For employees, things like their purpose and their answer to the ‘why’ question may have shifted amid the pandemic. How can leaders adapt and meet their employees in the middle where it’s both reflecting employees and their organization’s business priorities?

A: This is where the notion of being an inclusive environment comes front and center. Just saying we're inclusive doesn't make it so; you have to demonstrate very deliberate behaviors for that to happen.

Inclusion has always been about bringing those life experiences to the table and being able to share experiences to drive better decision making, better strategy, better alignment, and that kind of an inclusive work environment will motivate employees to think differently, to be innovative, to be creative, to be inspired.

One thing is clear: Strategic direction will not be able to be implemented without this inclusive workforce...being comfortable and having a bias toward hiring people that look like them to have the same experiences as they have had the same career path as them. It's comfortable. It's easy. You must be comfortable being uncomfortable today. It's the only way to drive transformation, and that uncomfortableness is where the best work gets done. It's where every employee feels free, not only free, but expected to share their voice, to have a different opinion, to drive change, and therefore then innovation.

Q: How can leaders focus on what’s most important with so many distractions and competing priorities?

A: I have never found in 30-plus years of customer-facing and commercial roles that doing the right thing is ever wrong. Telling the truth is always the right thing. So that's where prioritizing doing the right thing, making sure your employees know that they have the ability and the empowerment to do the right thing, can be a guiding principle for leadership.

Q: What tangible examples can you share with leaders looking to prioritize their employees, and inclusion specifically, going forward? 

A: A lot of companies struggle with this question, which is why it's in the too-hard pile. It's one of those things that we haven't figured out yet, and it gets pushed aside for the things that are more tangible because it's hard to measure inclusion. A lot of companies today can measure diversity. They know how many diverse slates of candidates they look at when they recruit and hire.

What most companies aren’t doing, though, is measuring and questioning their employee groups about ‘has diverse hiring driven a more inclusive work environment’ and ‘is that inclusive work environment now driving better performance and outcomes?’ And then celebrating examples of where a highly inclusive team actually drove innovation, a new way of problem-solving, better customer retention, and new sales — organizations need to measure these business outcomes. I would argue that highly inclusive leaders inspire winning, often measured by net new — have we won more than we’ve lost — and this can apply to both customers as well as employees.  These are great metrics to measure. It means you're winning more than you're losing. Inclusive leaders inspire, and inclusive teams win!

Visit our Great Prioritization resources page for more actional tools and insights.

Kelly Kuhn

Senior Advisor

Kelly Kuhn is a Senior Advisor at McChrystal Group, where she provides counsel on the organization’s go-to-market and business development strategies, as well as achieving commercial growth through market expansion and engagement with clients and prospective clients.

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Owen Daugherty

Communications Manager

Owen Daugherty is the Communications Manager at McChrystal Group, where he is responsible for crafting and promoting content across various platforms, including web, audio, and video. He also leads McChrystal Group's external media relations initiatives, working with senior leaders to elevate the group's position in the market.

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