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Billie Jean King: Inclusive Leadership 'Can Effect Unbelievable Change'


When tennis star Billie Jean King thrashed self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in three sets back in 1973, women still needed a male cosigner in order to get a credit card.

Although the world has come a long way since then, King, a legendary advocate for equality, remains in the fight against discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. According to King, corporate leaders can unleash greater productivity by championing equality.


“We have to recognize that just because we have diversity doesn’t mean we have inclusion,” said King, who spoke to a packed room of corporate executives at Oracle OpenWorld 2016.


Ultimately, that lack of inclusion erodes the potential of many workers, who expend energy trying to fit in rather than reach for the stars. “These people essentially work two jobs—the African-American woman who gets up early to straighten her hair, the guy who hides that he grew up poor, the worker who constantly talks NFL because he doesn’t want people to know he’s gay. It’s exhausting. If you’re the boss, you’re getting half from these people that they could give,” she said.


Many companies don’t even realize the extent of unintended cultural bias at their company, and that’s why corporate leaders have a responsibility to start—and maintain—a high-profile conversation on these issues.


“It’s a challenge to get a seat at the table, but nothing really happens until you have a voice at the table,” King said. “It’s very important to help colleagues have a voice.”

That requires leaders to think carefully about how their actions may be perceived. Oracle CEO Mark Hurd, who joined King on stage, pointed out that even something as simple as a promotion sends a message about what corporate leadership values. “Employees want to know what it is you value, so be as transparent as you can be when making decisions,” he said.


It also means that companies should analyze internal processes for unconscious bias. Take job interviews, for example: “The Wall Street Journal did research that found that women were hired on performance and men on potential,” King said. “You need to catch yourself when interviewing to make sure you ask consistent questions—don’t forget potential for both genders.”


King said that leaders must start by knowing their company’s record on issues of equality. “If you don’t know, you need to find out,” she said. “I met a CEO at a White House conference who did not know whether women at his company were paid equally. He went back and found out, and he wasn’t happy. He committed to equal pay for equal work and it paid off—the bottom line is stronger, and people are happier.”

Her last bit of advice: Make an absolute commitment to mentor people who don’t look or act like yourself. “Really great leadership shines a light on others, and it’s important to champion those that think differently,” she said. “If you have power in your company, you can effect unbelievable change.”

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