Inclusion and Belonging in the Workplace with Kelli Kombat

On this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit Podcast, Jenn DeWall talks to DEI executive and coach Kelli Kombat about creating inclusion and belonging in the workplace. In today’s diverse workplace, everyone wants to feel seen and heard, yet sometimes, as leaders, we don’t know how to create a culture of inclusion and belonging. 

Meet Kelli Kombat, DEI Executive & Coach

Kelli Kombat is a passionate DEI executive and coach. Her previous experience includes working in human resources at Ford Motor Company, L’Oreal and Volvo Car USA. Before her career in human resources, she was an on-air broadcasting personality in Virginia. 

Kelli was certified in leadership coaching for organizational performance at Rutgers University through ICF and holds a professional certified coach credential. She is also a certified DEI coach and serves as director, DEI on the board for the International Coaching Federation, New Jersey Charter chapter. 

As the episode opens, Kelli introduces herself, saying, “Hello, everyone. My name is Kelli Kombat, and I am curious and kind as a coach. Uh, I started a long time ago in human resources. I’m also a DEI executive. I got into all this work as a professional coach and podcaster because I was othered. 

And what does that mean? So being othered means, and I’m sure a lot of you have gone through it, whether it’s because you wear glasses or because you’re a nerd or because you’re black or because you identify as gay, whatever the case may be. I think many of us have been othered. 

And so that’s why it matters to me that I am curious. I try to find out more about people. I try to be more inclusive every single day. Do I get it wrong sometimes? Sure. But that’s just who I am. I’m all about equity and fairness and just making sure that I can help transform people’s lives.” 

The Big Question in DEI: What if We Get It Wrong? 

Jenn starts their conversation by addressing the elephant in the room when discussing inclusion and belonging in the workplace: fear. 

Jenn asks, “ One important thing that I want to highlight, and I’m sure you were going to bring it up, is what do you mean by getting it wrong? Because I think there’s a lot of fear around this topic, and we’re working to make it happen. I understand the importance of the work; if you get it wrong, know that you can recover. There’s not necessarily a wrong when you’re trying, but what do you mean by getting it wrong, Kelli?”

Kelli explains, “ When people get it wrong, it’s when they think that they have to be perfect in this space of being diverse and inclusive. That, oh, I have to be perfect. I have, there’s this perfectionism that happens, and I always get really excited when I’m coaching someone or I’m working with leaders or whatever I’m doing in this space. And I admit right from the start. I get it wrong all the time. 

And when I say get it wrong, meaning I have to say all the right things and do all the right things. In this space, we talk about being woke; we talk about being inclusive. And what ends up happening is we get it wrong by thinking, oh, we need to, you know, smack somebody over the hand for saying something the wrong way. 

I recently saw online that there were people at a very large company that said, oh, we’re going to be attending an all-hands meeting. And some folks got very upset about that, saying, well, we really shouldn’t say “all hands” because that’s inferring that everybody is a certain way and that we have our limbs and what have you. And at the end of the day, we’re all going to get it wrong. I’ll say it again: we’re all going to get it wrong. 

I don’t care if you have a lot of certifications in this space because I do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a certified DEI coach in this space because I get it wrong all the time. And I love that light bulb moment when I’m across the room from someone who’s an executive just trying to get it better. 

It’s like the wall comes tumbling down, and they’re thinking, oh my gosh. Well, if you’re an executive in this space and you get paid very handsomely and you get it wrong, then I don’t have to worry about that. As long as I’m trying to learn, as long as I’m trying to grow. It’s all good.”

What’s So Important About Inclusion and Belonging at Work? 

Later in the episode, Jenn and Kelli talk about why a sense of belonging is important in the employee experience. 

Kelli explains, “It matters to most folks because everybody just like, we all want love, we all want safety, we all want security. We want a sense of belonging. It’s like that hierarchy of needs, and it’s intrinsically innate. We all want that feeling that we belong. Think about dodgeball or think about anything where you felt excluded. It’s a bad feeling to feel. 

If you think about it from that perspective, empathy is at the center of all this work. It’s not as if I have to know what somebody else has been through as long as I can understand, listen, and understand. That’s really at the core of all of it.

It matters so much when you think about all the different generations and what those unique needs are for each person, each group, people really want to feel as if they belong. Because if they don’t have that, they will vote with their feet. They will leave. They won’t feel as if the (organization’s) values are aligned with their own values. The operating system is what I like to call it. I think that psychological safety won’t be there, so the engagement won’t be there.” 

Changing Perspective by Changing the Acronym

Later in the episode, Kelli explains how she likes to change people’s perspectives on diversity and inclusion by flipping the acronym. Most people are familiar with the acronyms: D&I, DEI, DEIB, and more. Kelli prefers the acronym IDEAS: 

  • Inclusion
  • Diversity
  • Equity
  • Accessibility
  • Solidarity

She explains that she likes this acronym because it brings to mind creativity and innovation. She explains, “It’s I before D it’s on purpose because it’s not just about the metrics of having different kinds of people working at your organization. It’s more about creating a space where people feel included. And only they can deem that. Just like a person can only deem another person an ally, I can’t call myself an ally. Only through my actions and my intentionality can someone else deem me that. 

So that’s my approach. It’s all about inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility with the goal of solidarity. And it’s always around that goal of innovation, that goal of creating a sense of belonging and psychological safety. And so my approach is both quantitative and qualitative. It’s about bringing everyone along. Nobody’s taking away a piece of the pie. It’s more about bringing everybody along with the sense that we all can get it, we all can have something better. And I know it sounds hokey, and it may sound a bit cheesy, but I do believe that when you bring everybody along, that’s what matters most.”

Where to Find More from Kelli Kombat

To get more of Kelli’s expert advice on creating a culture of belonging, be sure to check out the full episode! To learn more about Kelli’s work, you can connect with her here: 

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