Woolworths Group’s Renae Smee: Driving transformation through inclusive leadership 

Jane Counsel, front and centre

Early in 2018, Woolworths Group embarked on an ambitious program to deliver Inclusive Leadership training to all hiring managers by 2020. They commenced with workshops provided to 420 senior leaders (Level 4-6). The Inclusive Leadership Program was designed and facilitated by Executive Central’s Jane Counsel, who has a wealth of experience in Diversity and Inclusion.

We spoke with Renae Smee, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Woolworths Group, and Jane Counsel, Principal Consultant and Executive Coach, Executive Central.

Q: What was the impetus for the Inclusive Leadership Program?

Renae: The impetus came from the Corporate Responsibility Strategy 2020 and Woolworths Group’s Corporate Responsibility commitments under the pillars of People, Planet and Prosperity. Driving Inclusive Leadership is one of the key People commitments made under that strategy.

We have a commitment to having all hiring managers undergo Inclusive Leadership training by 2020. This seems straightforward, until you realise that it involves 7,000 managers, out of a total workforce of 205,000!

The rationale for the Inclusive Leadership Program doesn’t stop at compliance with this training commitment, however. Driven from the top by CEO Brad Banducci, Woolworths is aware of the need for continuous transformation and cultural shifts, through a leadership structure that is as much horizontal as it is hierarchical.

“In the old days, you had to be very good at vertical leadership – managing up and managing down. Where we want to go, you have to manage horizontally…. At a simple levels, you need to be able to work with your peers to achieve an outcome without having to elevate it….. Most of the change will focus on us as a senior team. We need to create the right conditions for the team to make the calls.” Brad Banducci, CEO, Woolworths Group

Renae: This is about putting the customer at the centre of what teams do, with teams empowered to make decisions for the customer. Woolworths calls this a Team First, Customer First culture where team members are given ‘Freedom within a Framework’. Diversity and inclusion are integral to this culture change, to create a climate where people feel valued and empowered.

Q: Is the program about dealing with a problem or responding to an opportunity – or both?

Renae: We need to continuously change and adapt. Given that contemporary society and workplaces are evolving so rapidly, all organisations have to be attuned to change.

Thousands of our team have been with us for over 25 – 30 years. Many of our leaders, who have a wealth of Woolworths experience, may not have had to think about things like unconscious bias or diversity for a large part of their career. So this is an opportunity to get everyone on board with both understanding and taking action on issues of Diversity and Inclusion.

Jane: I agree, and I think perhaps the biggest opportunity was to demonstrate to leaders what behaviours are needed to drive the business to be more nimble, diverse and innovative. All organisations have to undertake this sort of transformation in the current climate of rapid and generational change.

Q: So tell me about the program itself.

Renae: Jane ran the three-hour workshops face-to-face. They were very interactive, with various forms of media stimulus, brainstorming, small group problem solving and so on. Everyone said that Jane was absolutely fantastic. She is highly regarded and was very impressive.

The program was delivered to leaders from across the Woolworth Group, such as Supermarkets, BWS, Dan Murphy’s, Metro, Big W, ALH Group – and this was a cross-functional opportunity to align leadership thinking, language and actions across the entire group.

Jane: I do think leaders could really see that there was an alignment between inclusive leadership thinking and behaviours, and what’s required culturally to engage people and drive collaboration and innovation. The program helped really embed inclusive leadership as an integral part of the Woolworth Ways of Working. Of course there were many leaders who were already doing this quite intuitively, but who have benefitted from the opportunity to actually recognise and value this approach to leadership. And from that stems the ability to take deliberate steps to infuse this throughout the organisational culture– and bring it to life for others.

Q: What feedback have you had so far?

Renae: It’s a bit early for formal evaluation, however the anecdotal feedback has been very positive. People are using the tools and kits that were shared in the workshops. A one-off workshop is rarely enough by itself, so we are reinforcing the message and keeping the momentum going with emails, online quizzes and other communications. We share resources or send links to videos, all with the aim of keeping diversity and inclusion top of mind. We’re encouraging the participants to share the learning with their teams.

Jane: I certainly saw many leaders come away very clear on the benefits of being more inclusive: the benefits for improving team engagement and performance, the benefits of creating a sense of belonging for diverse employees and the benefits for Woolworths more broadly in creating a workplace environment that fosters innovation and collaboration. When leaders can create a safe psychological space for their teams, diverse individuals will contribute their diverse perspectives more freely and openly and this represents a massive business asset.

Q: Apart from participant feedback, what were the desired outcomes from the company perspective?

Renae: Driving cultural transformation involved a number of objectives: developing an understanding of why we need leadership behaviour to change and evolve; providing the leader with a business case for inclusion; and then as an action, providing them with tools and tips to develop constructive and inclusive behaviours. Essentially it was, and is, about understanding, awareness and tools.

Jane: Agree, and my personal aim for participants was to create those light-bulb moments that really encouraged them to think differently about how they lead. I often say that is the small things we do or don’t do as leaders like taking the time to really listen or seeking more regular feedback, that make the biggest difference to whether employees feel included.

Renae: It’s too early for evaluation of ‘training transfer’ into action, as we’ve only completed a portion of the cohort training. However we are seeing better conversations happening. Leaders are driving inclusive behaviours within their teams. A bit further down the track we’ll be using a range of metrics to assess the impact. For example, there’s a close link between our gender equity and inclusion strategies, so metrics on gender equity will be relevant. Jane’s session had quite a large focus on gender equity, which is very important to us at Woolworths Group.

Q: What does an inclusive leader look like, and how can s/he drive engagement, results and innovation?

Renae: The person that comes to mind immediately is Guy Brent, Director of BWS. He is the new executive sponsor for LGBTI Inclusion. Having a sponsor is a really important way to get things done. He role models the values of Woolworths Group and drives inclusion in his teams through respect and acceptance – and makes it known that he supports people from diverse backgrounds and values everyone’s contribution to the business. This creates a comfortable environment for people to speak up and contribute.

Q: What’s the overall vision for diversity and inclusion at Woolworths?

Renae: I think the overarching vision is important. We want the makeup of our teams to reflect the communities they serve and for all our team members to feel supported and respected.

Besides the desired outcomes, do you think there are broader – and perhaps unexpected effects that we could point to, such as innovation?

Renae: I think if we go back to the business case, there’s definitely a link to innovation. If we create more inclusive teams, then there are higher levels of team engagement, resulting in better productivity – and in turn better business results. And when we’ve got more diversity around the table, that’s where we get the innovation coming through.

I think there are also impacts on talent practices, where it’s not just about retaining talent but also about talent attraction. People want to know what sort of environment Woolworths Group offers in terms of, for example, gender equity and cultural balance. With an inclusive culture in place we open ourselves up to a much wider pool of talent.

Finally, I think that our whole corporate responsibility strategy is built around inclusive values. We are the nation’s largest employer, we are part of the fabric of society in that we have a presence in every corner of Australia – and we have a responsibility to give back to those communities.

In September, Woolworths was recognised as Australia’s top company for Diversity and Inclusion according to the global Thomas Reuters 2018 Diversity and Inclusion Index which ranks more than 7,000 organisations globally across the categories of Diversity, Inclusion, People Development and News Controversies. Woolworths has acknowledged the award as recognition of the organisation’s efforts and progress in creating an inclusive culture across all its businesses.


Our Inclusive Leadership Mastery solution helps leaders develop the mindset, skills and behaviours to manage business disruption and create a culture for innovation. It helps leaders build an inclusive approach to leading diverse employees. Learn more.

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