July 22, 2020

Remember Your ABCs: Moving From Theory to Practice When Recruiting for Executive Diversity


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 president and founding partner of Cowen Partners Executive Search.

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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, visit www.cowenpartners.com