Recruiting for Leadership Diversity: A Real Awakening?

The onset of COVID-19 and protests surrounding the death of George Floyd forced society to shift in countless ways. In the world of executive search, the events of the past year and a half have shined a spotlight on the need for greater representation of people of color, women and other underrepresented groups in leadership across all industries and organizations. There has been an awakening, believes Philip Burton, Principal and Leader of WittKieffer’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practice. However, while organizations are emphasizing greater diversity in leadership hiring, they don’t always go about it effectively, he says. In the following Q&A, Burton explores the state of recruiting for diverse leadership and the experiences that diverse candidates have during the recruiting process.

How have the events of the past year and a half affected organizations’ commitment to hiring diverse talent?

Burton: The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd have significantly impacted diverse hiring. Organizations are demanding more diversity when recruiting. In the past, this often meant there were diverse pools of candidates but not necessarily diverse hires. That’s changing now. Organizations are measuring and creating incentives related to the hiring of diverse individuals. It is unfortunate that recent tragedies had to be the driving force for this.

Nevertheless, we are seeing an awakening in organizations for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) across the board. This includes the hiring of individuals who truly represent their constituencies. Our reality is that we are beginning to see “minority-majority” states and populations, such as in California, Texas or New Mexico. Organizations therefore are being more intentional to hire based on the composition of their stakeholder groups. Beyond the “feel good” of it, they want to make sure their leaders reflect their communities.

Organizations are also seeing an increase in desire from employees to see authentic commitments to DEI from their employers. Many employees note that, while their organization may feel diverse as a whole, diversity in leadership falls short. More and more employees expect their employers to remedy the imbalance and hold themselves accountable to the progress. Organizationwide commitments to DEI, in both word and deed, have shown to offer a competitive edge as candidates look to join companies whose practices and values align with their own.

What missteps do you see organizations making in recruiting and hiring diverse leaders?

Burton: One misstep that often happens is the lack of support and effective transitioning of diverse hires. Some organizations are placing or hiring executives to address diversity goals, but they don’t always have the infrastructure in place to support that person. For example, if an organization places a chief diversity officer, but does not ensure that it allocates the resources needed, regrettably the hire will not succeed and often times not stay.

In any situation, there has to be an effort to integrate the executive into the system. The diverse leader should be looked at for their value-add rather than “fit.” Not only are they ethnically diverse, for instance, but they also have a wealth of experience, a unique mindset, and new thoughts to bring to the organization. For the organization to realize this, it requires a commitment from the most senior leaders. Does the new hire have a network within which to feel comfortable? Has the organization required implicit bias training for all leaders and employees? Does the executive have an opportunity for their voice to be heard? Are their thoughts actively solicited during decision-making? Have they been provided the resources they need to implement strategic initiatives? Have the goals, strategy, and vision been made clear? Do we measure performance based on intangible or hard to define concepts such as “executive presence”? Or are our leadership competencies defined by key behaviors that have been shown to drive results? These things are important and start at the top.

What is the candidate’s experience? Do individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups sense a change in how they are being pursued and considered for leadership roles?

Burton: I’ve heard two main themes from diverse leaders. I speak with various candidates who believe they are being called and interviewed without the real opportunity to compete. There is a feeling that they are being paraded for the interview process but not the hiring process. On the other hand, others are seeing this as a time of real opportunity, as organizations are serious about diversity and are actually hiring more diverse leaders. Therefore, there’s a real dichotomy of experiences that individuals are having. Diversity hiring is critical to organizations, but are they doing it to check a box or has there been a real change in opportunity? Both are happening. We’ve made progress but yet there is still a long way to go.