5 behaviors for building strong, inclusive teams

Clearly communicate that leaders and staff are expected to embrace and demonstrate the essential behaviors that promote diversity and belonging.
By Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA

I have just completed my first year of service on the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee. What a privilege and honor. I'm one of two men in the group, and this experience has grown me so much in understanding the opportunities and challenges we have as a profession in expanding our pipeline of diverse partners, leaders, and team members.

At our recent meeting in Seattle, we had a healthy discussion on how we can move the needle faster for women and overall diversity in our profession.

As I listened intently to the experience and wisdom of the influential WIEC leaders, I made notes on some of the behaviors that could help leapfrog our firms and profession forward together into more inclusive and diverse teams.

When our behaviors are intentional to consider the uniqueness of every individual, it serves as our baseline for building strong, inclusive, and diverse teams. Ultimately, we become truly powerful teams when we aspire to and achieve diversity of thinking. The hard part of moving the needle of progress starts with our willingness to be vulnerable and open-minded. If we never consider a different way — a different perspective based on experiences — we attempt to build a path forward that's based on our own limited perspectives. Practically, progress often includes uncovering and identifying our own biases (not just those related to gender, ethnicity, and race) and then being willing to talk about them openly and to ask for help in addressing them and implementing strategies to make sure they do not influence our decision-making in a negative way.

For starters, what if we communicated with clarity the expectations for all leaders and team members to embrace and intentionally demonstrate these attributes:

  • Inspires others by intentionally caring.
  • Elevates and advocates for team members with less natural access, the access that emerges naturally among those who remind us of ourselves, and that often excludes women and racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Creates a sense of belonging for all, where silos are nonexistent.
  • Creates intentional opportunities for all to align with personal career aspirations and business strategy.
  • Breaks down legacy barriers to growing diverse teams, including organizational norms and individual bias.

Our most practical challenge is to understand what specific behaviors support these attributes.

Defining these behaviors for our leaders and team members will accelerate our journey to truly strong, inclusive, and diverse teams. We move to higher ground when firms wrestle with how to recognize, reward, and show appreciation to all leaders who are demonstrating behaviors that lead to these attributes. And how do we hold accountable those who are not? Defined expectations for these behaviors and results matched with accountability are critical factors to future success.

The power of belonging

I would stress that a sense of belonging is required for anyone to see and realize their full potential. I've learned from Steve Robbins, Ph.D., (author of What If) that the sensory area of the brain that is activated by physical pain is also affected by feeling like an outsider. Now we've all had a nagging toothache — one that keeps us off-focus and preoccupied to the detriment of our priorities. Can you imagine the repercussions of this in teams with large populations fighting with the feeling of not belonging? How can they reach their full potential when they're in actual pain?

When we have a strong sense of belonging, it frees us up to be ourselves as we take risks, collaborate, innovate, and rebound from our mistakes. A true sense of belonging helps each of us to step up and say, "I'm ready." Creating a sense of belonging is not coddling or lowering expectations. But it might involve access to different resources, different relationships, additional coaching, or sponsorship along the way.

A sense of belonging will always be grounded in clarity in expectations, intentional support, persistent advocacy, and equitable opportunities. As Robbins so simply, and with such conviction, shares, it's about closing the insider vs. outsider mentality and creating an open-mindedness that helps us all be curious. On an individual basis, it means embracing expectations and being fully engaged to pursue our full potential.

We have made progress, and today we stand on the shoulders of many pioneers and courageous leaders who were vulnerable enough to help us to be better. We celebrate these groundbreakers and thank all our leaders who have helped pave the way. Now it's time to leapfrog, and we can make that jump if we embrace, communicate, and expect these five attributes and define for our firms the behaviors that support them. Let's start running now that we can clearly see the path ahead.

Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he leads the 500-employee firm's strategic visioning for culture, growth, and client experience. Learn more at To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at

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