Authentic leaders who courageously "walk in their power" are crucial to embedding sustainable inclusion; creating work environments that are not only more pleasant but more productive, too.
Max Webber, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Neelam Chohan, Partner and Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) for Korn Ferry's UK & Ireland business. In this interview, Neelam shares her invaluable perspectives on holistically cultivating sustainable inclusion across large professional services firms and the pivotal role authentic, purpose-driven leadership plays in embedding belonging.
I'm a Partner here at Korn Ferry, where I head up DE&I strategy and initiatives for our UK & Ireland business. To give you a brief overview, Korn Ferry is a global HR consulting firm operating across the entire talent lifecycle – from overall organisational strategy, to assessments, leadership development, rewards, and executive search. Our capabilities and data assets are quite unique in the industry.
Here, we really embrace this concept of “living life by design, not default” from a career perspective. I began my career practising law for a few years, which I had aspired to do. However, I soon realised that while intellectually stimulating, my true passion was working directly with people and teams to drive organisational impact. So, I made the intentional shift into recruitment and talent, which I absolutely loved. In 2007, seeking global experience, I relocated to Dubai to immerse myself in high-growth multinational environments across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
I eventually transitioned into my first human resources leadership role, heading up HR for a French oil contracting firm, which expanded my scope across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. I continued expanding my HR strategic work at Fortune 100 multinational company Honeywell, I leapt at the opportunity to relocate to the US and lead D&I globally for the enterprise. Those international experiences definitely shaped my passion and global mindset for DE&I.
We have a real focus on ensuring our core values, like honesty and inclusion, are authentically lived day-to-day. DE&I inherently lives within behaviours – how we connect with and care for each other as colleagues and leaders, how we create consistently inclusive teams, and how we actively leverage diverse perspectives and experiences. Our employee networks are another crucial way we foster community and belonging across differences.
It is the small daily actions that really matter immensely – like proactively developing more junior colleagues, encouraging teams to expand who they collaborate with, providing mentoring and sponsorship, and giving others growth opportunities. I love the saying “becoming is better than being” – keeping a growth mindset focused on continuous improvement versus static achievement. It is when we all see the potential in others and role model the right behaviours that cumulatively, we build an inclusive culture.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, at the end of the day, ownership and accountability at the very top are absolutely essential. Senior leaders in any organisation must walk the talk consistently and role model inclusive leadership through their daily behaviours. It’s also hugely powerful when leaders share their own personal stories humanising who they are and model vulnerability and authenticity. This storytelling fosters psychological safety and trust, which encourages others to bring their full selves too.
Equitable, fair systems and processes are also crucial to prevent bias, however those systems are meaningless unless adopted in behaviours and daily actions. It has to be a multifaceted, ongoing journey grounded in authenticity and accountability. And people leaders play an immense role in bringing that cultural vision to life through their leadership.
For years, DE&I and other areas like wellbeing or purpose were treated as merely “nice-to-haves” or separate to business priorities. But the research is now irrefutable – ample data directly correlates more inclusive cultures, wellbeing practices, and connecting people to purpose with heightened productivity, innovation, employee retention and more. This is precisely what consistently separates high-performing organisations from the rest today.
Additionally, diverse talent and consumers are increasingly seeking out organisations who reflect their values and proactively address areas of social injustice. Fulfilling your people’s needs through cultivating a culture of belonging and purpose is imperative to attracting top talent, engaging them, and unlocking their discretionary effort – which ultimately fuels performance. So inclusive culture and living your purpose are clearly no longer just an ethical imperative, but a business growth imperative as well.
I certainly receive a lot of advice along the way, though I don't always manage to take it on board! But a few points have really stuck with me. One is recognising that you can be your own worst enemy – self-doubt truly is the only thing holding you back from taking risks and owning your capabilities.
Another is to walk in your power – have the courage to face your fears, embrace uncertainty, and confidently take risks to grow. As leaders, we all experience imposter syndrome sometimes, but it’s important that we channel any self-criticism into possibility thinking and excitement for the road ahead. If we could all walk comfortably in our power, we would be unstoppable.