Article: Diverse, inclusive leadership key to building sustainable future for organizations: Kim Schmidt, Grant Thornton International


Diverse, inclusive leadership key to building sustainable future for organizations: Kim Schmidt, Grant Thornton International

The business landscape appears to be undergoing permanent changes, and we are seeing now is a shift towards a more flexible, dynamic, and hybrid model where people will increasingly expect more empowerment over when, where, and how they contribute to their organizations, says Kim Schmidt, Global Leader - Leadership, People and Culture at Grant Thornton International.
Diverse, inclusive leadership key to building sustainable future for organizations: Kim Schmidt, Grant Thornton International

The current moment marks a window of opportunity for businesses to move decisively towards a more diverse and inclusive future.


READ the June 2021 issue of our magazine: COVID-19 Rages On: Are You Ready?

Kim Schmidt is the Global Leader – Leadership, People, and Culture at Grant Thornton International (GTIL). Kim joined GTIL in January of 2018 as a member of the Global Leadership Team. In this role, Kim is working to develop transformational leaders who build a culture of innovation and collaboration across our network. Prior to this, Kim led the formation of the Human Capital Consulting practice in GT Australia. Kim also spent three years as the People and Culture Director – Australia. This role sat on the Strategic Leadership team and reported directly to the board with responsibility for culture and for risks associated with People and Culture within the firm.

With over twenty years of experience working in South Africa, Australia, and Asia, Kim has built a reputation as a transformational leader with a passion for building dynamic organizations that truly value the positive impact leadership, diversity, and cultural innovation can have on sustained performance.

Kim has advised senior leadership teams and clients on a range of critical people, leadership, and cultural transformation priorities inviting them to rethink their approach to leading in order to support sustained performance. 

Here are the excerpts.

What do you think businesses should focus on in the new normal to come out stronger on the other side? What are the keys to reinventing organizations and building a sustainable future?

Increasing diversity and inclusion will be central to businesses’ success in 2021 and beyond. The pandemic has challenged traditional paradigms about remote working, building trust, connection, and engagement. As a result, I believe that many businesses are evolving their approach to diversity and inclusion practices and will emerge stronger because of it.  

In the “new normal”, organizations will need to continue their focus on leadership and the creation of inclusive and supportive cultures. There is a window of opportunity for businesses to increase the focus they place on diversity and inclusion at all levels to create an organization that is sustainable for the long term. The pandemic has also provided significant learnings, demonstrating how adaptable people can be and how important empathy and care for your people are.

As a transformational leader with decades of experience, what do you think has changed in leadership and what has been your most significant learning from the pandemic?

Leaders have certainly come under greater scrutiny during the pandemic as traditional approaches and structures become almost redundant overnight. 

Different leadership skills and attributes have become necessary to navigate the challenges and ensure employees’ well-being. 

The ability to engage and connect with staff on a personal level, listen actively, and support mental health have become not only more desirable but essential. This has driven many so-called “softer” attributes like empathy, care, humility, and flexibility right up the scale of importance when looking at leadership. No one is arguing that they are not essential or of commercial importance any longer.

To me, one of the most significant factors the pandemic has highlighted is the importance of leaders taking an active role in creating psychological safety in their organizations. Psychological safety is the shared belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risk as an individual or a group. This could include asking questions, challenging the status quo, raising contentious issues to the surface. When leaders intentionally shift their behaviors and beliefs to ensure their people feel safe to be themselves at work, the impact on morale, team cohesiveness, innovation, and productivity all increase significantly, not to mention mental health and wellness.  

Can you throw light on how the top leaders are navigating the disruption? Can you some names who are doing an exemplary job in terms of leading through the crisis?

Prior to the pandemic the ability to lead effectively during significant change, complexity, and uncertainty was believed to be an important requirement for leaders to be successful this is no longer just an idea – it is the reality of every C-suite leader. In 2020 our research asked the senior leaders of mid-market companies what top-three leadership traits are required to navigate this “new normal”, to ensure we continue responding to the challenges in 2021 and beyond. Quite unsurprisingly, being adaptive to change was the top choice, with 44 percent highlighting it as a key skill. Being innovative resonated with 43 percent, while the ability to be collaborative across the business came in third at 29 percent. 


In considering exceptional leaders I personally believe that Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand is a good example. Even prior to the pandemic she had demonstrated courage, humility, and empathy in dealing with very challenging circumstances. These attributes together with transparency and being a confident and decisive leader resulted in the best possible outcomes given the circumstance. I have also seen several CEOs across our network show remarkable empathy, care, and support for their people while leading with transparency and humility leading to a significant increase in the engagement of their people which I believe will strengthen their firms into the future.

How do you define the work culture in today’s context given that the majority of workers are working from home? Can employers help keep the morale and productivity of their employees intact at a time when almost everyone is burnt out?

Firstly, I believe that those leaders who have done the right things and lead with empathy will have strengthened their people’s engagement and loyalty to their organizations. I believe that in many cases a culture of care, connection, and a deepening of trust has developed between employers and employees. I think that leaders have been more transparent, accessible, and open with their people and they have certainly had to trust and empower their people more which in turn will have had a positive impact on workplace culture.  

That said, the continuous and relentless impact of the pandemic, lockdowns, restrictions, and ongoing lack of control over one’s personal circumstances has definitely had a significant impact on people’s mental health and well-being. Morale has really suffered for some employees through lockdown with the lack of social interaction with their colleagues and peers.

Leaders should be mindful of the toll that mental health and wellness issues are having on their people and take conscious action to address these issues head-on. The focus should be on ensuring an authentic culture of inclusion and belonging. 

In addition, there has also been an increase in accessibility when it comes to online learning and training. So, there is a real opportunity here to expose people to more opportunities, and if businesses can be deliberate about that, then they can really reap the benefits of this shift and boost productivity.

How do you see the overall role of HR and people managers evolving amid all this uncertainty and skepticism? What’s next?

Challenging the notion of “this is how things are done here” is going to be a more and more significant part of HR’s role. In a corporate environment, HR leaders and people managers are now on the frontline and will have a major role in influencing the direction of organizational change through challenging the status quo and playing an instrumental role in culture creation in this new world of work.  

As organizations enter the next phase with employee needs evolving, do you think organizations need a more sophisticated approach to elevate their workers’ overall ‘experience’?

They certainly need a deliberate approach but that does not mean that it must be more sophisticated. While the enforced flexible working culture has removed some of the barriers that previously existed, leaders will still need to take action and be focused on ensuring a positive, inclusive experience for all their people. 

In terms of improving employees’ overall experience and the actions being taken by senior leaders, our research shows that promoting work-life balance and flexible working arrangements, has been implemented by 45 percent of respondents. A close second is creating an environment of open communication, where all staff feel able to express their ideas and issues (43% of businesses are focusing on this), with almost half of respondents believing their emphasis on it will grow in the future. Organizations need to continue this positive trajectory if they are to account for different working styles and elevate their people’s overall experience. 

It's clear that the corporate world is experiencing a moment of awakening with regard to their efforts around diversity and inclusion? How do you see the larger DE&I landscape today globally?

The business case for diversity is well documented as is the essential need to have an inclusive environment to ensure that diversity is leveraged to deliver all its benefits. The current moment marks a window of opportunity for businesses to move decisively towards a more diverse and inclusive future. Forward-looking organizations will recognize this moment of change as a chance to evolve and thrive. 

It’s certainly true that pursuing the D&I agenda has been made more challenging by the pandemic. But broadly, I think businesses are recognizing the dangers of losing focus and can see that diverse and inclusive leadership will be essential to building a sustainable future for their organizations.

What are your thoughts on how will work look like in a post-pandemic world?

The business landscape appears to be undergoing permanent changes, and I think what we are seeing now is a shift towards a more flexible, dynamic, and hybrid model where people will increasingly expect more empowerment over when, where, and how they contribute to their organizations. Businesses will have to consider how to adapt to this and ensure the positive culture changes that have occurred are nurtured and embedded and do not fade away. 

Given what the research is telling us along with conversations with leaders both internal and external to Grant Thornton, I believe 2021 will bring more transparency, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion data and KPIs. I also believe a deeper focus on unconscious bias in the workplace will continue to be significant. And not just in terms of training and development, but with leaders having real conversations with their people and examining their own bias when it comes to the different elements of the employee lifecycle. And finally, I think 2020 and even 2021 have shown us that the well-being of our leaders and our people should be at the top of every leadership team’s agenda. I truly believe that teams and organizations that integrate well-being into the design of work at every level will build a sustainable future where everyone can feel and perform at their best.  

How is Grant Thornton reinventing the company? What are your top priorities in 2021?

Grant Thornton strives to be the most valued network in the profession. By 2025, we expect international business to have made a significant contribution to our overall network growth and to account for a much larger part of the network’s revenues. Evidencing the sustainability of that growth to our many stakeholders will be a necessary business practice. We will have a reputation for high quality in everything we do and have stronger capabilities in strategic markets where international clients need us. Our unique network culture and care for our people and clients will also contribute to our reputation for going beyond the expected.

In terms of our priorities, we are focused on strategic capabilities, including developing leaders with a global mindset; risk management and quality; and culture. We are also continuing to build a culture of collaboration, innovation, trust, and confidence, increasing the focus on inclusion and psychological safety across the network, and encouraging a diverse workforce with a global focus on gender.

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Topics: Diversity, Leadership, Strategic HR, #ContinuousReinvention

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