On Recruiting a Diverse Leadership Team

Leadership diversity is more important than ever on college campuses—institutions need leadership teams that reflect the student body and broader community. It is the president who must play the lead role in bringing a diverse team to their institution. In the interview below, WittKieffer’s Robin Mamlet, senior partner and managing director of the firm’s Education Practice, sheds light on recruiting diverse leadership teams, citing initiatives by a few of the most dynamic leaders in higher education.

Ithaca College president Shirley M. Collado recently wrote, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about the success her institution has had recruiting a diverse leadership team. What has Ithaca done that is unique?

Mamlet: President Collado has been very intentional about building a diverse team and getting consensus and enthusiasm around the idea, especially among trustees. From the start it was one of her stated values. She then took a proactive, hands-on approach to identifying and recruiting women, people of color and leaders whose skills and strengths were complementary to those around them and reflected the diversity of the student body. When searches for key positions started, candidates sensed the commitment that she and the entire campus had to creating diverse representation in key positions.

To what degree was President Collado’s willingness to take different approaches – based on the specific professional community for that search – a part of Ithaca College’s success?

Mamlet: It was essential. Having the flexibility to structure your search so that it is well received within a given field can mean the difference between having a robust, diverse pool of strong candidates, and not. For instance, an academic dean search in which the faculty play a central role is vastly different from one for a VP of advancement. In addition, President Collado sometimes reached out directly to candidates herself where she felt it would make a difference. Some searches were open and provided great opportunities for shared governance and building trust on campus, while others were more confidential. Being flexible with the approach makes it easier for strong candidates to engage.

Can institutions achieve this level of diversity while using a number of search firms?

Mamlet: Certainly, but I believe it helps to have one go-to partner. This enables your lead consultant at that firm to form a partnership with you that goes well beyond any one search, with multiple benefits. The consultant can help you build a recruitment strategy that emphasizes the team over the individual hire. They can also help you communicate out to your stakeholders – and, importantly, to candidates – about your hiring strategy in a way that advances a coherent set of messages that are sent consistently. A single firm facilitates a big-picture approach to leadership hiring.

What else matters in attracting a diverse pool of strong candidates to your client institutions?

Mamlet: Sending every signal that inclusion is critical to you as an institution. Michelle Marks, new chancellor at the University of Colorado Denver, provides an example of setting a tone for diversity and inclusivity. At the start of her tenure, she held a “100 Days of Listening” campaign with stakeholders, the first 10 days of which were focused on equity and racial justice. That was a pretty bold step, and she makes it a point to reiterate her vision often. “We must reject hatred and use our levers of education, open dialogue, and resolve to create a more equitable and belonging climate at CU Denver,” she said recently. Tuajuanda Jordan, president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, provides another example. Since taking office in 2014, Dr. Jordan has not missed an opportunity to promote her vision of diversity, equity and inclusion, and to build a diverse leadership team. As she said in her recent state of the college address, “EQUITY must be at the center of EVERYTHING we do. Everything.” Those are just two examples of leaders who continually promote their vision. When it comes to hiring, candidates take notice of such commitment and want to be part of that environment.

Finally, how have recent events – specifically the pandemic and protests around racial equity – influenced institutions in their pursuit of diverse leadership?

Mamlet: The protests around racial justice have prompted all of our clients to be more committed than ever to bringing diverse leadership to their institutions. This is a moment in which representational diversity really matters. It’s an opportunity for institutions to make different choices than they have in the past in terms of whom they value as candidates and whom they hire.

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