Stefan Wilke is the manager of QuikStep UG, an organisation whose services include consultation, training, workshops and coaching. Their primary focus is in the area of interpersonal skills and on the support of people with disabilities in the job market.
What does ‘inclusive leadership’ mean for you?
This is complex topic that can’t be summarised in a single sentence. There are various factors that need to be considered:
First, inclusive leaders need to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They should also be good judges of themselves and able to act in an authentic way. Fake strengths and concealed weaknesses have nothing to do with inclusive leadership. These leaders need to be ready to further develop themselves constantly. Inclusive leadership also means being open and approachable for those that you work with, playing to their strengths and even being willing to support them when they outshine you as a leader as a result of your support.
My fundamental belief is that everyone has talents. The challenge for the leader is to invest these talents in the right places and to create the parameters necessary for this to take place.
The true strength of inclusive leaders is shown when they take into account the wellbeing of everyone involved: whether it’s their own, that of other individuals or of all those who are involved, as well as considering the overall wellbeing of the organisation or company. Ultimately, this has to be backed up by actions – not just as a solo effort, but if possible with the involvement of all individuals and stakeholders. It is precisely this that makes the real difference, when instead of just allowing the ‘strong’ to have a say, inclusive leaders make space for everyone to play an active part.
How do you implement inclusive leadership in your own company?
I am visually impaired myself and have had various experiences throughout my career that were the complete opposite of inclusive leadership. It’s because of this that I don’t find it too challenging to implement the basic principles behind inclusive leadership – you just need to have courage and a clear way of going about it.
Because of my own story and my own experiences, I never really considered any alternative to inclusive leadership. One principle that we make use of again and again at Quikstep is to concentrate on the strengths – the strengths of every individual, of our team and of our company. Maybe I have a certain advantage here. As a manager with a handicap, I know both my strengths and my weaknesses very well, making me particularly sensitive to the needs of my colleagues. This allows me to start with people where they are and to shape professional procedures in such a way that everyone can work well – obviously whilst maintaining a clear sense of the optimal procedures from an economic perspective. The real skill is to be able to keep an eye on both the employees with their individual strengths and the company’s profitability.
Can you give an example to help us understand inclusive leadership better?
Rather than describing a particular situation, I’d like to share a little about the approach we take to leadership at Quikstep and how we work with each another.
Let me begin by taking you on a short journey into my past when I was still working as an employee. Many employers are occasionally required to communicate their approach to inclusivity or their organisation’s social measures, for example during an audit or PR activities. It was regularly my experience that I would be ‘shown off’ as the colleague who had a disability in order to prove that our company’s conduct in this area was exemplary. Whilst this may in part be a necessary step, it is far removed from inclusive leadership.
People with disabilities are often viewed as a problem in the working environment. Here at Quikstep the reverse is true: we concentrate on the potential of every individual and promote their strengths. When, for example, one sensory organ does not function, the other senses automatically start to work better. Our brain requires around 33% of its capacity for our vision – this means that a third of our brain power is taken up with sight. If this were to be taken away, there would be much more space for the other senses. By the way, the opposite can also be observed in our society. If you are always looking at your smartphone, your senses will also begin to be impoverished, regardless of how good your eyesight is (laughs). But generally it is worth bearing in mind that the senses of those with disabilities are noticeably more acute. Because we increasingly need more specialists in our work force, this can be a clear advantage. We have incorporated this knowledge at Quikstep and act accordingly.
What does this look like practically in your company?
To be very practical: sending a colleague like myself with impaired vision to make photocopies or asking them to create a presentation would be a waste of time. But making use of me as a creative and commercially-minded individual by involving me in the development of a new product makes a lot of sense. For us, inclusive leadership means being open to supporting the talents of our employees. Within the realm of their responsibility, they are expected to do what they’re good at. Both the employees and the company profit from this.
What are the implications of inclusive leadership?
Inclusive leadership contributes to a real sense of togetherness – and this is something that benefits everyone. If you want everybody to contribute, you need to create an open system that enables even the so-called ‘weaker’ members to participate. In this system the individual and their own contribution are as central as the development or advancement of the whole. It is no longer simply about ‘receiving instructions and carrying out tasks’ but about ‘working together and accepting responsibility’.
Can inclusive leadership lead to economic benefits?
Yes, without a doubt. For example, with our company we were searching for a barrier-free merchandise management system – a product that would promote inclusion within our economy and society. We were able to modify an available open source solution for a merchandise management system in line with the needs of our clients and to put this on the market. It was through this that we discovered our market niche and were able to light on an innovative product.
How would you advise someone who wants to put inclusive leadership into practice for the first time or to improve their current practice?
Be brave and give inclusive leadership a try. Don’t be put off going ahead by setbacks or by opposition. There will always be opposition, but the success of your company will ultimately show that you were in the right. It is useful to take part in a workshop on inclusive leadership – I took part in one myself. It helps to assess yourself, position yourself and to learn from others.