Executive-recruiting firms best serve their clients by making a commitment to finding minority candidates.
According to Shawn Cole, president and founding partner of Cowen Partners, knowing sources of alternative qualified prospects and digging deeper into the demands of roles can greatly improve diversity executive recruiting.
All too often, search firms compare themselves to the professional services offered by a law firm or management consultant. The firm wants to offer, then reap, all the benefits of a trusting (and at times, confidential) client relationship, but assume none of the related responsibilities.
In order to offer a similar high-caliber suite of professional services as an expert in the executive search field when it comes to talent management and selection, it is imperative to step up and acknowledge a fiducial duty to present diverse candidate pools to clients, acknowledged Shawn Cole, president and founding partner of Cowen Partners, an executive recruitment firm in Seattle, Portland, and several other major cities across the U.S.
“As leaders of human capital management, it is incumbent upon us to not expect nor wait for clients to request or mandate this goal, especially during diversity searches,” said Mr. Cole. “In fact, we, as the talent selection industry, must become the driving force in reflecting within the workplace the diversity already found within our society, stakeholders, and customers.”
In short, the time is now to deliver diverse candidates as a standard default, not by initiative. “Search firms are retained to find the unobtainable, the unfindable, the rare and uniquely qualified, and yet many keep perpetuating the narrative that it is difficult to find minority leaders qualified for the job, resulting in the fact that we must settle on one or none,” said Mr. Cole.
“As an industry, we have a fiduciary responsibility to our clients,
their shareholders, and our society to provide a diverse candidate pool,” he added.
Cowen Partners, which serves both small and large public and private companies, was founded in 2015. Mr. Cole, to a large degree, focuses on recruiting for executive accounting and finance positions. One of his specialties, he said, is finding talent for growth companies in need of experienced senior financial leaders capable of raising capital and scaling.
Some of the firm’s past and present clients include Blue Nile, Kaiser, Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, Northrim Bank, and TrueBlue Inc.. Mr. Cole is a graduate of Oregon State University, where he studied business administration and finance.
Executive recruiters, said Mr. Cole, must become more creative and willing to upend the status quo in order to effect change. “The goal is not to assume expertise in diversity, but, rather, exhibit cultural humility in our policies and actions for not just ourselves, but also for our clients,” he said.
Candidate representation must be equally representative of society, sparing clients from the public shaming that occurs in the press and across the internet. Many large and well-known public companies have made the news for their lack of diversity, or unfair/misrepresentation of minorities.
“This is not a new problem, but stepping forward to shoulder responsibility for offering and implementing solutions is a new approach,” said Mr. Cole. “Acting as thought leaders and leading the way by providing actionable steps on how to improve candidate sourcing, we eradicate previous mindsets and fulfill diversity promises with equal minority representation.”
The tools are available, said Mr. Cole. A commitment to using them to their fullest potential is the key to meeting diversity benchmarks. “If it happens that qualified minorities are in short supply or nearly impossible to find, the next step is to know and understand unique sources of alternatively qualified minorities,” said Mr. Cole. “Additionally, digging deeper with the client to fully explore the position demands, then developing a progressive candidate profile can help with augmenting sourcing efforts.”
Mr. Cole cited Colleen Birdnow Brown, former CEO and corporate director at multiple public companies, who said that when it comes to director searches, “Broadening the scope beyond the traditional CEO and CFO backgrounds by recognizing the complexity and needs in the boardroom have grown and changed over time.
For example, by considering CMO, CRO, and CHRO positions, the number of female candidates can grow significantly.” For recruiters, finding diverse candidates goes beyond a moral imperative, said Mr. Cole. It is also a responsibility of the job. “These are simple concrete steps we can all take, without being asked or directed, but doing so by default because it is our fiduciary responsibility to our clients,” he said.
Having trouble finding qualified diversity hires? You may have to invest in creative solutions. Whether it be college and or work experience, there may not be sufficient minority candidates to meet your hiring needs because they have not and will not have the opportunity unless you create it. Implementing diversity training programs for women and people of color, especially in skilled labor, is an incredibly successful way to invest in the future of your company’s culture and sustainability.
This is especially applicable to tech companies. And if done correctly, you will have an unrivaled source of qualified candidates already loyal to your company. Lastly, perform a compensation analysis to confirm equal pay and create a culture of professionalism with zero tolerance for sexual harassment and racial discrimination. At the end of the day, awareness alone is not going to solve the problem. By taking actionable steps, we can all be a part of creating an equitable and inclusive future.
If the aforementioned perceptions often act as convenient excuses not to pursue diversity goals in executive recruiting, how can companies move beyond them to develop and execute concrete diversity recruiting strategies to diversify their leadership teams?
To gain some insight into the subject, I spoke with three professionals who have extensive experience with diversity recruiting in executive search. Here’s what they had to say about the importance of diversity recruiting and how to go about it.
Allison Handy is a partner with the corporate practice of Perkins Coie, a leading corporate law firm. According to Handy, California’s SB826 is only one part of a growing national movement toward inclusion at the highest corporate levels.
“Several other states have adopted similar laws, and others are in the works, including a comply-or-disclose board diversity statute currently under consideration in Washington,” Handy says. “Public companies and those thinking about going public that have not addressed board diversity, including ethnicity, may find themselves subject to investor criticisms, negative press, and even shareholder proposals calling for board-search diversity policies.”
In light of the evolving legal and social landscape, it is critical to be proactive. Making diversity in the executive ranks a priority is a great first step in actually finding the best candidates for your organization.
Through my conversations with Handy and other thought leaders in this space, I came to realize that building a diverse board and C-suite is a lot like building out a crew to sail across the ocean. (I’m a sailor, so the analogy came naturally to me.)
When you’re putting together 8-10 people to serve as the crew on a ship that will take a voyage across the ocean, you don’t choose your crew members randomly. Instead, you identify the diverse skill sets the team needs, and you look for people who can bring their different skills to the job while working together effectively. Your business vessel will inevitably face squalls and rough waters, and having a diverse set of skills and perspectives on board will substantially increase your odds of survival.
What the sailing analogy suggests to me is that, before you can vet a single candidate, you need to identify the specific skills and experience your team needs. I discussed the analogy with Stewart Landefeld, another partner at Perkins Coie and a past chair of the corporate practice, who helped expand the idea further.
“In addition to the analogy of building the team that will crew your boat, an easy way to think of the path to healthy board dynamics with diverse directors is through the ABCs,” Landefeld says.
The A stands for “all aspects” of diversity. “As a board leader, you can help [other members] always be thinking about the ideal matrix of skills and backgrounds for the board,” Landefeld says. “Who has the industry experience and can help the company see through the eyes of an industry participant? Who brings additional gender, age, ethnic, and other background diversity to the table?”
The B stands for “build.” The idea here is that creating a diverse board and executive team is a long-lasting process. You and your colleagues will need to be patient.
“You cannot build the perfect board overnight,” Landefeld says. “Start with what you have and build from there, keeping your matrix of skills and backgrounds in mind.”
Finally, C stands for “connect.” Landefeld says that companies should “use simple techniques to build connections and relationships among directors, such as including new directors on a small task force to address a short-term time-critical topic or asking one new and one experienced director to co-present to the board of directors on a particular matter.”
By incorporating these ABCs into a single cohesive strategy, you can bring your board members closer together in pursuit of the shared goal of more diversity. In Landefeld’s words, you can “help knit your board together by tying strong people with strong bonds.”
Even if you take a proactive approach and remember your ABCs, there is still the question of how your company can recruit diverse leadership talent in the midst of an apparent shortage of talented, diverse leadership candidates.
No matter how connected your board is, you may find your organization struggles to identify qualified candidates. One way to solve this problem is to expand the scope of your search.
Colleen Brown is a seasoned CEO and executive director of public companies who has helped boards find diverse executives and board members. She recommends expanding the confines of your search to find those talented candidates who can easily slip under the radar if you don’t know what to look for.
“It is important to broaden the scope beyond the traditional CEO and CFO backgrounds by recognizing that the complexity and needs in the boardroom have grown and changed over time,” Brown says. “For example, by considering [candidates with experience in] CMO, CRO, and CHRO positions, the number of diverse candidates [in your pool] can grow significantly.”
In all likelihood, there are several diverse members of your team who are already doing stellar work. Even if they may not necessarily have the background of a typical board member or executive, their work speaks for itself. By recognizing their intellect, talent, and drive, you may be able to find some of your most talented future board members.
Building a more diverse executive leadership team or board of directors can feel daunting, but it’s far from impossible. As long as your company has an effective strategy, it can overcome the most common obstacles that thwart many diversity recruiting initiatives.
Getting your diversity executive recruiting effort right will certainly require some trial and error. There may be some initial setbacks. That said, as long as you take a proactive approach, remember your ABCs, and look for talent in places you may be ignoring, you can bust through the perceptions that limit your company and implement a successful diversity recruiting plan that drives significant return on investment.
Cowen Partners is the nation’s executive search firm, enabling companies to harness the power of human capital and diversity recruiting to fuel their success. Cowen Partners gives our clients access to the top 1% of human capital to create opportunities that accelerate their growth and market share. With Cowen Partners, clients can grow at scale, create value, and drive results with world-class talent.
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Interviews don’t solely benefit the company hiring for a position. Candidates also learn a lot during this process. They get an opportunity to see how your company works and receive a first impression of the business. When trying to hire diverse, top candidates, especially executives, it’s imperative to have a smooth hiring process. A significant part of a smooth hiring process is avoiding candidate interview fatigue.
Interview fatigue happens when a potential hire has been through so many rounds of interviews that they start to lose interest in your company. Some businesses actually have eight or more rounds of interviews when determining a final candidate to hire. That’s way too many interviews for one position. If you’re going through that many rounds, then you need to adjust your process to whittle it down to something more efficient.
Interview fatigue can lead to top candidates dropping out of the running, and it also leaves those people with a negative impression of your business. The interview process should be efficient, professional, and organized, so make sure you consider how to avoid interview fatigue when setting up the hiring process.
For most positions, you really shouldn’t need any more than three rounds of interviews to select your candidate. Executive-level positions, however, take a little more investment, so for this group you can extend the process to four interviews, max. Limiting the number of interviews you conduct has a number of benefits. First, you’ll get through the hiring process a lot faster. Timeliness benefits the whole hiring team because less of their time will be dedicated to interviews. Plus, the important open position will be quickly filled which will alleviate some of the workload that has been displaced on others.
Second, your interview team will be more diligent about their questions and remember each candidate. If your company is organizing too many interviews, the hiring team won’t take the first few rounds as seriously. When interview rounds are limited to four, managers are sure to dig into the most important aspects of the position and seek out specific qualities in a candidate. It also helps everyone remember each candidate more clearly. When you’ve interviewed six people five times each it becomes difficult to keep track of individual details.
Finally, four interviews is a perfectly acceptable number for candidates to go through during the hiring process. The hiring team will know exactly how much time they have to dedicate to the interview process and candidates won’t have to make an obscene number of trips to your office to cover information they’ve already discussed.
When a candidate hits interview fatigue, one thought they’ll likely have is that you’re not respecting their time. Executives in particular are incredibly busy individuals in high demand. Their time is a precious commodity and if you’re bringing them in for multiple “final” round interviews, they won’t be afraid to bow out of the running. Executives often have the ability to be choosy with their opportunities because they’re presented with a number of options. You need to make sure you’re not wasting their time by unnecessarily drawing out the interview process.
As you organize the hiring process, don’t forget to look at the timelines and interview rounds from a candidate’s perspective. An executive has to set aside several hours each interview day to commute to the interview, talk with hiring managers, and then get back to work. This is time and money lost that they’re giving up to speak with you. You also have to consider how a disorganized or indecisive interview process will look to an executive candidate. Too many interviews will make a high-level candidate think the company has too much red tape when it comes to decision making. It will also make an interviewee feel undervalued as they start to think they’re not quite what you’re looking for in a hire.
Before you even start the hiring process, you should have a clearly defined timeline. Determine how much time will be dedicated to each step of the process so your hiring team knows how much time they have to review candidates, schedule interviews, and provide feedback. Not only is a clear timeline crucial for your hiring team, it’s also important for your candidates.
A common candidate question asked during the interview process is about the hiring timeline. Candidates want to know when they will hear back from you after an interview and when they can expect the process to be complete. Telling a candidate you’re not sure how long the hiring process will take does not instill confidence in your company’s organization or decision-making abilities. On that same note, you also shouldn’t give a false timeline. If you tell a top candidate you will be moving on to the next round at the start of the following week but then set up interviews several weeks later, you’re still making a bad impression. Create your timeline in advance so you have hard deadlines for your interview team to follow.
One way to help cut back on the number of interviews is to assign a hiring manager who has ultimate authority over the hiring decision. Selecting a final candidate is not a democratic process requiring consensus. The hiring manager should gather feedback and input from the interview team and use those details to select the new hire. Allowing people to debate the merits of every candidate leads to indecision, which is often how companies find themselves inviting people back for another final round interview. The interview team can’t come to an agreement so they think another round of interviews will solve the problem. You don’t need another interview in this situation. You need decisive action from a team leader who can look at the interview questionnaires, the job requirements, and the candidate profiles and make the best decision.
Another role to assign is the point of contact. Clear communication with candidates is crucial for making a good impression and ensuring the interview process goes smoothly. Disorganized interviews and a lack of feedback can leave candidates with a poor impression and lead to high-quality candidates dropping out of the interview process. Make sure someone is assigned as the main point of contact for each candidate. This person should be responsible for scheduling meetings with the hiring team and following up with candidates after the interviews. Don’t leave potential hires hanging in limbo waiting for an answer. Be timely with a response to whether or not they’ve made it to the next round of interviews. A clear point of contact on the hiring team can help circumvent interview fatigue because candidates will have straightforward timelines and schedules for their interviews.
An executive recruiting firm is an excellent resource for reducing interview fatigue. A recruiting firm has extensive experience with the hiring process and knows to limit interviews rounds to a reasonable number. The other benefit of a recruiting firm is it can also fill the point of contact role for your company. Managing candidate schedules, interview team availability, and process timelines can be a lot of work, but an experienced national executive search firm will be able to handle the process with ease. Contact Cowen Partners today to simplify the hiring process and avoid interview fatigue for all candidates.
Cowen Partners is a leading executive search firm that believes in diversity recruiting. For years, we have been exceptionally effective at empowering companies to harness the potential of human capital to fuel their greater success. Cowen Partners gives our clients access to the top 1% of human capital to create opportunities that accelerate their growth and market share. With Cowen Partners, clients can grow at scale, create value, and drive results with world-class talent.
Cowen Partners is a national executive search and consulting firm. Our clients are both small and large, publicly traded, pre-IPO, private, and non-profit organizations. Clients are typically $50 million to multi-billion dollar revenue Fortune 100 companies or have assets between $500 million to $15 billion. Successful placements span the entire C-Suite and include VP and Director level leadership roles.
With our proven processes and guaranteed results, we have successfully placed hundreds of candidates in industries including technology, commercial real estate, healthcare, financial services, sales, and finance.