SMPS Heartland Regional Conference / DE&I  / Building an Inclusive Culture Starts with Mindset First

Building an Inclusive Culture Starts with Mindset First

Beth Ridley
Founder and CEO of Beth Ridley Consulting (

I’m passionate about simplifying and demystifying diversity, equity and inclusion and making it relevant and actionable for everyone in the organization – not just those in HR.

Based on my experience leading diverse teams in five different countries and leading DEI for a Fortune 100 company, this work is all about embracing an inclusive mindset – something that everyone at all levels can do and apply to their day-to-day. When everyone approaches daily interactions and decision-making with an inclusive mindset, organizations transform their cultures and achieve lasting impact.

Start with Your Personal Social Circle

Developing an inclusive mindset doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in every facet of diversity. That’s impossible. Having an inclusive mindset is really about having the curiosity and the courage to learn about people who are different than you. Developing an inclusive mindset is a journey with no finish line. It’s a process of progressively becoming more aware. You can get started on your journey by examining your personal social circles.

Let’s look at me as an example. To be perfectly honest, my social circle hasn’t always included individuals who hold political views different from my own. At work, I have no problem with people with different political views. I’m a professional and eager to work with anyone to achieve our common business goals. But in my personal life, I don’t always challenge myself to forge friendships with people who hold political views that differ from mine.

I had the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone by participating in a program where people with different backgrounds were paired to foster cross-cultural understanding. As an African-American woman, I was paired with a white man. I knew we had different political beliefs, so I was really nervous. What if I unintentionally said something offensive? What if we got into an argument?

We cautiously eased into conversation at first. It didn’t take us long to get into sharing how we grew up, our fears and our proudest moments. By sharing our stories and listening, we quickly realized that despite how we vote, we shared more in common as humans than we ever would have thought. While we will never agree on politics, we did forge a very close friendship.

While it’s a human tendency to gravitate towards people similar to you, it’s so important to replace biases and stereotypes with real information and experiences to inform your thinking. At the end of the day, having diverse friends makes you better informed, more thoughtful, more empathetic and more balanced – all competencies for a great leader!

Three Fool-Proof Phrases

The next step on your inclusive mindset journey is to invite people who represent dimensions of diversity missing in your personal life to coffee with the simple objective of getting to know them. Don’t worry about putting your foot in your mouth by asking questions. As long as questions come from a place of genuine curiosity, you’ll be fine.

Use three simple phrases guaranteed to spark interesting conversations:

  1. “I’m curious to know…” – this is a way of asking something on your mind without casting judgment
  2. “Tell me more” – give someone the opportunity to expand on the question in whatever way is meaningful to them
  3. “Thanks for sharing” – thank the person for being vulnerable reciprocate by sharing something about yourself

Don’t ask or expect anyone you are meeting with to speak on behalf of or represent the viewpoint of any particular group. No two people are alike. The beauty of meeting people different from you is you get to know the many nuances and inherent differences. The more people you get to know who are different than you, the broader, deeper and richer your understanding of complex issues will be.

When in Doubt, Consider South Africa

Before you dismiss the notion of achieving a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture as Pollyannaish, consider South Africa.

I lived in South Africa from 1996 to 1998. It was two years after the end of apartheid after Nelson Mandala was released from prison and became president. I got to experience what it was like for a country to transition from a deeply divided apartheid state to a unified democracy.

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Much of this was made possible through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was founded on the belief that truth was the only means by which South Africa could come to a shared understanding of their past in order to forge a new identity in the future. The commission, led by Desmond Tutu, held hearings across the country in churches and community centers, where victims of crimes under apartheid and perpetrators of crimes could come forward and share their stories in the spirit of seeking understanding and healing.

The stories were aired on TV every Sunday, which helped spark a spirit of listening, learning and relationship-building across the country. I saw before my eyes how an intentional effort to uncover and understand the human experience common among all of us beyond race, culture and political affiliation healed an entire country.

If it can be done in South Africa, we can certainly create greater diversity and inclusion within our own mindsets and organizational cultures. Start with yourself and consider it a new lifelong journey of understanding others.