Scanning the headlines today, you will undoubtedly come across stories about the need to build diverse workforces at all organizational levels, particularly the C-suite. The conversation has been driven in large part by the strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to recent legislation — including California’s Senate Bill (SB) 826 requiring public companies to find female board members — and empirical evidence showing that diversity is good for a company’s bottom line.
While the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives in executive recruiting is clear, actually implementing those initiatives can be rather difficult. It isn’t as simple as posting a job ad on Indeed and waiting for qualified applicants to arrive at your door. Instead, companies must intentionally create practical and achievable plans to diversify their leadership ranks.
Many well-intentioned diversity recruiting initiatives are stymied by problems of perception. Developing actionable strategies to achieve diversity recruiting goals requires putting those erroneous perceptions aside.
3 Perceptions That Derail Diversity Recruiting
When company leaders sit down to plan diversity initiatives for executive recruiting, several objections often immediately bubble to the surface. The first centers on the pool of potential candidates. The consensus is that diversity recruiting is particularly difficult in executive search because there simply isn’t a large enough pool of qualified talent. The thinking goes that even if a company wanted more diversity among the executive ranks, finding a qualified executive who fit the bill would be nearly impossible.
Another objection is related to company size: Smaller businesses that want to hire diverse executives often struggle to compete against larger entities in the executive talent pool. They argue they may not have the resources, cachet, or prestige to convince enough executives from diverse backgrounds to join their firms.
Finally, there may be apathy and intransigence when it comes to doing the difficult work of diversity recruiting. Companies recognize that executive diversity should be pursued, but the perceived immensity of the task can cause them to take a more passive approach than is advised. They will fulfill their obligations under relevant laws, but they will only do the bare minimum they must do to avoid legal trouble. Diversity recruiting goals become nothing more than lip service to satisfy shareholders, customers, and regulatory authorities. This is the most troubling perception of the three, and it would be naive to think it does not happen.
Some of the objections above may have some merit. For instance, some smaller businesses really do struggle to pull in top candidates. Larger companies like Google or Nike can easily identify and attract diverse talent from all over the world, but a small or medium-sized enterprise not located in a major city may find it much more difficult to capture those candidates’ attention.
That said, board- and executive-level diversity cannot be ignored. Company leaders cannot bury their heads in the sand and try to ride out the trend toward more diversity with minimal effort. Instead, companies have to take practical steps to improve their odds of finding game-changing candidates from diverse backgrounds.
Changing Our Perceptions: Insights From Practitioners
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 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:
1. The Power of Being Proactive
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.
2. Remember Your ABCs
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.”
3. Moving Beyond Talent Shortages
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 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 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.
Shawn Cole is the president and founding partner of Cowen Partners, a national executive search and consulting firm. Shawn specializes in the C-suite and CFO searches. He also manages the firm’s CFO consultancy. To learn more about Cowen Partners
Search 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 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 the Pacific Northwest. “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, TrueBlue Inc., and others. 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 you want to read more about executive search best practices, check out our industry-leading resources and see why Cowen Partners is a 5-star executive search firm serving clients in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Los Angeles, and beyond: