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Recognize, Learn, & Evolve: How PMs Can Be More Inclusive Leaders


In September PMI’s Leadership & DE&I Membership and Volunteer Committee hosted an engaging, informative, and unforgettable session, Unconscious Bias Awareness, Belonging, and Inclusive Leadership! The session was led by renowned speaker and leadership coach, Christopher “CJ” Gross.

Meet Our Leadership Coach

Christopher “CJ” Gross is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Ascension Worldwide,  a full-service minority owned consulting firm committed to helping clients achieve workplace inclusion, employee and client diversity, and innovative growth opportunities beyond their imagination. He is a TEDx Speaker and a consultant in international organizational development who specializes in leadership development and Diversity and Inclusion. With over 19 years of experience working with international leaders including fortune 500 organizations, nonprofits, and government agencies, CJ assists clients to outline and execute their diversity and inclusion strategies and initiatives. I had the opportunity to speak with CJ after the presentation and ask him a few questions about the session, his experiences consulting with different organizations and how his framework helps to create positive changes in organizational leadership.

How Our Unconscious Bias Leads Us to Make Decisions

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “unconscious bias”? Is it a feeling, prejudice, stereotype, or even a lack of understanding? While all hold some relevance, the truth is we develop a bias based on past experiences: good or bad. As CJ explains, “our brain allows us to decide quickly, primarily for protection, against physical and emotional harm, or discomfort”. From deciding which seat we choose on the TTC, to the cashier we go to when all the lanes are open, and even the impressions we instinctively make when meeting someone for the first time, all of these are formed with bias. CJ led us through a series of scenarios and the responses were eye-opening, so many of us make decisions even before logic can take shape in our brains.

Using the theory psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes about in Thinking, Fast & Slow, CJ explains that “our brains naturally work to automatically react (fast brain) but we need to consciously be more deliberate thinkers (slow brain).” So how do we do that as PM leaders?

  • Recognize - Acknowledge that we have biases and we want to make a change.
  • Learn - Understand where the bias comes from and formulate new ways of thinking.
  • Decide -  Take conscious steps to make better decisions.
  • Explore - Take time to learn and get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.
  • Assess - Look around at your close circle of colleagues & learn from others’ experiences.
  • Explore - Start to consider how you can turn a negative into a positive outcome.

These tools are essential for inclusive leaders.

Creating an Environment of Belonging

People feel motivated when they feel like they belong someplace and when working with and on teams, the need to feel a part of the team is essential. CJ explains that creating a team environment means that every single person should feel a “sense of belonging, a feeling of true family and community.”

CJ created an inclusive and interactive session that allowed participants from all over the world to interact, connect, and re-examine what unconscious bias means and it can dictate how we lead and make decisions. The discussion enabled participants to stop and reflect how we all have formulated biases based on past experiences. So how do we start to shift that way of thinking?

Some companies have DEI “baked into their identity, because it is who they are” because diversity is part of their company culture. Some organizations are proactively learning and implementing new strategies into becoming more diverse and it all starts with leadership. One important takeaway is that inclusive leaders build environments of trust.

International Outlook

While working with teams in different countries CJ cultivates ways that teams can form strategic plans in implementing inclusivity and diversity. We live in a diverse world and we can learn from one another’s experiences and work together to create a better future. CJ states that “inclusivity means feeling valued, respected, welcomed and supported”. As PM leaders we have a responsibility to the teams we manage to establish inclusivity from the start. This means we are curious about what we don’t know and want to be better informed to effectively lead teams to work together more effectively.

Unstoppable Motivation

The first thing CJ aims to do when working with clients is to identify what is missing in their leadership and training. Then he is able to strategically guide leaders to effectively create positive changes throughout their organization. There is great motivation to continue the work he does:

So much of our time is spent at work so we need to create workspaces where people feel they belong, can be creative, and have the freedom to do the work they love to do and helping companies create this experience for employees is one part of it. The other part is about solving social problems that most cannot see and understand. When you are able to create positive change it feels really great.

Project managers are changemakers who lead diverse teams but it is essential to create an environment where everyone feels they are working with teams who work together and are supportive of each other.

Best Practices for PMs and Inclusive Leaders

In working with several organizations around the world, CJ, and the company he founded, Ascension Worldwide, uses a few best practices that employers, employees, and leaders should consider adopting when implementing diversity and inclusion changes through their organizations or teams.


As shown in the diagram the different approaches often overlap or one approach blends into another approach. Not all approaches may work—depending on the circumstances—but each approach aims to:

  • Create a better, equitable, respectful, fair, and just world for everyone
    • Committing to making a change is what is right and ethical for all stakeholders
  • Advance an inclusive culture
    • Studies have shown that companies that have diverse cultures and leadership outperform those with homogenous leadership and teams
  • Improve organizational effectiveness
    • Organizations need to develop a well-executed DEI strategy with the engagement of the relevant stakeholders in order to effectively improve the culture of the organization

PMs can use tools such as these to build a diverse culture in their organizations and on their teams and in turn become inclusive leaders.

Unconscious Bias Awareness, Belonging, and Inclusive Leadership! was a training session that every PM must attend. I learned a great deal from listening to CJ. He is passionate about the work he does and he definitely creates an environment where everyone feels they belong and are heard.

Get Involved

Looking to get involved in PMI Toronto DEI initiatives? Support the PMI Toronto Steering Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. For inquiries, please contact info@pmitoronto.ca.


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