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…