A 21st Century Framework for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Executive Search

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Last year was an incredible and challenging year for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Coming into 2020, many HR departments had slashed their DE&I budgets, but just one year later, 90 percent of companies are making DE&I a top priority for 2021, according to a survey from Reflektive. 

Why? Because, quite frankly, it pays off. Companies with greater levels of diversity, equity, and inclusion achieve higher levels of business performance as measured by markers like profitability and innovation.

Moving into 2021, DE&I is no longer a nice-to-have or a way to create good PR. It’s an essential part of achieving an organization’s full potential. Companies will need to consider how their executive search processes will support their DE&I goals, and they’ll need to make sure they’re partnering with executive search firms that understand what a foundational and important part of hiring DE&I is.

I sat down with experts Esu Ma’at and Soyini Chang from Quantum Power Skills (QPS), a DE&I consulting firm. Together, Ma’at and Change have devised four guiding principles of DE&I that can help us understand how executive search can evolve to support business-critical DE&I efforts in the years to come:

Executive Search Opens the Gates

Recruiters are the first people with whom a candidate speaks during the hiring process, which means diverse talent can be overlooked if a search firm doesn’t have a DE&I placement strategy in mind.

It’s not a recruiter’s job to fix a company’s demographic breakdown or even to hit certain quotas, but it is our job to build great teams. Studies show that more diverse teams are more effective, which means we recruiters do have an obligation to carefully evaluate our talent pools and update our best practices to support underrepresented talent in securing leadership roles. We have a clear responsibility to both the companies we serve and the talent we place to drive new processes that support the advancement of DE&I at the executive level. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also a business imperative.

“Executive recruiters are the gatekeepers to opportunity and access for underrepresented candidates,” says Ma’at, who serves as chief diversity officer of the Orlando Magic in addition to his role as a cofounder of QPS. “Companies are literally coming to you for talent, and you have the opportunity to lead those conversations and help them decide how they’ll create sustainable progress toward their DE&I initiatives.”

Even though some companies may be participating in DE&I because they feel pressured into it, it’s possible to meet people where they are and have productive conversations about the value of DE&I to a company’s business model.

DE&I Shifts From Hiring Skill Sets to Hiring People

Companies cannot survive by hiring cookie-cutter candidates today. Yet many executive search firms continue recycling the same candidate profiles for C-suite roles. This is where executive search professionals can make the biggest contribution to DE&I.

Incorporating diversity into the hiring process requires search firms and hiring managers to start looking at candidates as people, not just skill sets. Understanding a candidate’s unique background and how their specific attributes can positively contribute to a larger team is key.

Historically, the easiest path to filling a role has been thinking only about a person’s relevant experience. To hire with a DE&I strategy in mind, hiring managers need to also think about their biases and actively build pipelines of candidates from diverse backgrounds. Instead of focusing on a single task or role, recruiters are now talking with our clients about building diverse teams and how each candidate can bring something unique to an organization.

Check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine for more career advice and recruiting trends:

DE&I Must Be Metrics-Driven to Be Transformative

If you take away one thing from this article, let it be that incorporating DE&I into executive search and talent strategy is a transformational long-term process, not a transactional short-term one. Chang, CEO of QPS, says that transactional approaches to DE&I can be perceived as insulting to talent. Genuine connections between organizations and candidates of diverse backgrounds only come from cultivating DE&I at every level of the organization.

“Many companies are showing up to take action on DE&I, but they don’t know how to actually create a strategy and support it with metrics that lead to transformation instead of small, one-time changes,” says Chang. “Technology can play a powerful role in creating this transformation, but the most important thing an organization can do is create transparency and accountability by setting meaningful goals to monitor and report on long-term progress.”

Chang suggests several metrics companies can use to avoid focusing on transactional, short-term DE&I efforts. After capturing baseline information about the company’s recruitment and retention of employees by demographics, an organization can also consider monitoring:

  1. Demographic representation over time
  2. Rate of hire
  3. Rate of promotion or advancement
  4. Salary or compensation
  5. Inclusion and belonging surveys

DE&I Extends Beyond Hiring

Diversity is not a one-time event or a box to be checked. Companies that treat diversity this way often see a higher turnover rate among underrepresented talent, undoing much of the effort they put into making the hiring process more inclusive in the first place.

Instead, companies must consider executive search and hiring in general to be one part of an overarching project of fostering diversity and inclusion in an organization. Your company cannot simply hire diverse talent — it must also have a culture that is genuinely open to and accepting of diverse talent so that these individuals have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

“It’s one thing to set long-term goals like increasing diversity by 30 percent over the next five years, but what kind of ecosystem are you sending talent into?” asks Ma’at. “Companies need to support their hiring efforts with effective talent management and engagement strategies that create a truly inclusive environment where underrepresented talent can thrive.”

Take a look at your existing teams. Do your managers encourage individuals to be who they are without judgment? Are differences of opinions respected? Does your company’s mission statement embrace diversity? Candidates entering new workplaces need to feel like they belong, regardless of their backgrounds.

Businesses exist to make a profit, not for the purpose of being diverse — but the businesses that reliably meet their bottom-line goals build workforces that reflect the diverse pools of customers they desire to attract. In 2021, successful executive search strategies will look past cookie-cutter talent and focus on finding individuals who can add unique and valuable attributes to their teams.

David Melville is the founder and CEO of The Bowdoin Group.

By David Melville