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February 2020

A How-to Guide to Boost Diversity in the C-Suite
By Valerie Frederickson

A How-to Guide to Boost Diversity in the C-Suite

These days, it’s hard to imagine that for decades women professionals had only one office-based career choice: secretarial work. Relegated to the typing pools, they were unable to break free of the institutional shackles limiting their professional potential.

As increasing numbers of women started asking for more – better roles, promotions, consideration for the C-Suite – the media assigned a name to their cause: Shattering the Glass Ceiling. I grew up hearing this term and understanding the analogy, but I could never have imagined just how difficult a goal it would be to accomplish. Shattering the glass ceiling – or even fracturing it -- is only slightly more challenging than physically picking up a 30-pound sledgehammer and actually breaking glass.

Reviewing the Numbers

While women and people of color still have a long way to go to reach parity on boards, the numbers are nonetheless moving in a positive direction. As of this year, there are no S&P 500 companies that don’t have a single female director. There are even a small number of companies, like GM, Viacom and CBS, that have boards with at least half women. According to research conducted by the Alliance for Board Diversity, women and minorities now hold 38.6 percent of board seats at Fortune 100 companies. This is an increase since 2016, when they held 35.9 percent. Unfortunately, only 5.8 percent of board seats are held by minority women, the group which has traditionally had the toughest time breaking through structural barriers to their success.

Everyone Wants the Same Candidates

Today, the numerous benefits to diversity are well-understood, both for teams and for boards. As a reminder, diverse teams are smarter, more innovative and more productive, and they drive superior financial outcomes. As such, most leading CEOs are actively seeking to diversify their executive teams and boards. The barrier, therefore, is less about convincing executives to consider diversity as beneficial as it is about helping them find qualified and interested women and minority candidates to recruit.

Often employers compete for a small sub-segment of women who have 100 percent of the qualifications and pedigrees they’re seeking, including the desired cultural fit and executive presence. This is especially true for women of color. Only 2.8 percent of board directors are women of color, but they hold 3.1 percent of the total positions. Women of color as twice as likely as white women to serve on multiple boards. Selection committees are relying on the same tiny groups of women and especially women of color to fill board seats. Too many of these search firms are relying mainly on referrals from current board members, or candidates who are already on boards, creating a Catch-22: getting on a board largely requires having already served on one.

Over my 25 years running the country’s leading human resources executive search and consulting practice, I’ve learned what actually works. In my HR executive search practice – which is exclusively devoted to placing Chief Human Resources Officers, Chief People Offices, and Heads of Talent Acquisition, Diversity & Inclusion, and Total Rewards – 75 percent of the candidates we’ve placed have been diverse.

Part of our secret sauce is that I’ve built the most diverse search team in-house that I’ve ever seen and have invested heavily in their training and development. Diverse teams are effective at recruiting diverse candidates. They also, from my perspective, make a far more interesting and rewarding work environment.

Whether you are consulting to a CEO or board about how to generally improve their diversity numbers or looking to impact a specific hire, this following advice should be of value to you. These practices are among the best diversity hiring practices in the world and have proved successful in my own HR executive search firm, as well as for our clients.

Before the Hire

Start by thinking through the entire recruiting experience from the job description through onboarding. How can you make the entire process more gender-neutral or women-friendly?

Begin with the job descriptions. Technologies like Textio and Unitive can help you reduce bias in job descriptions. Scrutinize the job requirements, and don’t take any of them for granted. For example, many jobs require a heavy travel schedule, sometimes up to 50 percent. This is probably not necessary in this age of video conferencing. Assume that some women (and some men) can’t or don’t want to travel, so emphasize role performance over face time.

If you can hit your quota or make your KPIs, why is travel important? This not only helps women but also anyone who doesn’t want to travel heavily. However, don’t assume that all the women won’t want to travel. Some women – like many men – love to be on the road, and they deserve not to be judged by those of us who have decided to limit our travel. Make travel flexibilities and exceptions the norm.

Next, think critically about the resume screen. Take candidates’ names and LinkedIn profiles off their resumes before they go to the recruiters so that their gender is unknown during the screening process. Next consider the interview questions. Design interview questions for each role for each interviewer so that no one strays into the Oh, you have a baby at home...how do you handle it territory and so that the interview process is the same for all candidates.

Next, get serious about how to reward your recruiters, whether they’re internal or external. If you want diversity, demand diversity. Train your recruiters in unconscious bias, how to recruit women and people of color, and how to improve the interview experience. If you want a woman candidate hired for a specific role, demand a slate of at least 75 percent qualified women. Any fewer, and men are more likely to get the job.

Next, think about where you source candidates. It’s important to open up the potential candidate pool by recruiting women into technology from relevant industries with more gender parity, such as academia, consulting, not-for-profit and government. I also encourage recruiters to look seriously at former CEOs and former directors – not just at people who are currently holding those roles. Finally, I’ve seen it work very well to recruit directors from the CHRO and CPO population since this group has many women who are used to working closely with boards and CEOs. Smaller companies beyond the Samp;P 500 can even look beyond CHROs to Heads of Talent Acquisition and Total Rewards at large companies. This is comparable to the many Vice Presidents of Finance at large companies (as opposed to CFOs) who hold many mid-size company board positions.

Finally, consider diverse applications one level too senior and one level too junior for each role. Also be open to high-potential candidates who appear to only exhibit 70 to 80 percent of the desired skills. This is critical because it will expand your target candidate pool. If you have the right executive sponsor for diversity, your company will be able to hire more diverse candidates this way.

Interestingly, one thing you do not need to do is to put current employees of the desired gender or ethnicity onto the hiring panel in hopes that the diverse employees will select candidates who look like them. The best people to include in the hiring panel are the direct manager and whatever executive sponsor of diversity you can find. These people’s opinions will carry the most weight, and their opinions will not be viewed as biased. Don’t make assumptions that women will help women or that Latinos will help Latinos to get selected in. Understand that some women may be just as sexist as some men because women live in a sexist society, and we are all influenced by it.

Replace Cultural Fit with Skills Fit

Cultural fit means Let’s hire people just like us. Skills fit means Let’s hire people who can do what we need done. Here’s an example I often use: There are two nine-year olds attending school with my nine-year-old twins. One child, I’ll call him Sutton, was born into a fourth generation Harvard family. His grandfather is chairman of a Fortune 100 company, and his future college tuition is already paid. He started golf lessons when he was three and has now added tennis and sailing. He has play dates with other children of Ivy Leaguers, and they all show up in their little Polo shirts and matching flat front, tailored shorts like little executives vacationing in Bermuda. His parents, both senior executives themselves, not only coach him constantly on his behavior, but also role model strong, confident communications and decisive, commanding attitudes. How will he interview for jobs? Like the confident future Harvard student he is. Straight posture, firm handshake, great eye contact, and comfortable discussing all his qualifications. In fact, studies show that when it’s time to go to work that he’ll apply for jobs even if he’s unqualified.

I’ll call the other child Juan. His parents are from Mexico and don’t speak much English. His dad earns minimum wage working in the back of a big box store, and his mother cleans houses. His grandmother who doesn’t speak English walks him to and from school. His family is close, warm and loving, and Juan is a super smart, delightful kid. He’s one of the best readers in his class and is almost a musical protégé on the piano. His parents coach him to show gratitude and respect and not to ask for or expect too much. How will Juan interview? Let’s just say that unless the company has stopped interviewing for cultural fit and accepts different styles of communication, like less eye contact and more humility, Juan will lose every time. Research show he probably won’t even apply for jobs unless he meets 100 percent of the stated requirements, and even then, he won’t come across as self-confident as Sutton.

Overcome the Negotiation Hurdle

Studies show that both male and female hiring managers react negatively when women ask for raises or negotiate their compensation. How will women get paid more if they can’t ask for it without negative social consequences? The answer is three-fold: 1) Have a third-party negotiate on their behalf; 2) Share compensation data with all candidates; and 3) Don’t ask the candidates what they are making.

Back in 1997 when my HR executive search firm was two years old, I brought in two HR consultants of equal levels, a man and a woman, to work on a career pathing project for a big German software company. Our first meeting was a two-hour planning session with the client. The next day I received two invoices, one from each of the consultants. The man had billed for eight hours, and the woman had billed for two hours. I was amused and mystified by such a huge difference in hours billed and wanted to understand each of their billing philosophies. I called them and asked them the same question: “Why did you bill me for eight (or two) hours?”

The answers show why we need to help female executives negotiate their compensation packages. The man replied, “I thought about it, prepped for it, and debriefed afterwards. A day’s work. Easy. Eight hours.” The woman said, “It was a two-hour meeting, so I billed for two hours.” This shows why we need to offer the same compensation to all candidates. We shouldn’t give more compensation to the person who impresses us the most during the negotiation process because studies show that it won’t be a female or person of color (even if they ultimately outperform the non-diverse candidates once they work on the job).

California, which leads the nation in high tech, labor laws and earthquakes, enacted a new law, AB168, which prevents employers from requesting a candidate’s compensation history. That is supposed to stop employers from offering female candidates the least possible amount of compensation and instead offer them what the job is worth. It has been a painful transition for those of us in search. I miss the beautiful multi-colored bar graph showing candidates’ compensation trend lines which I included in all search reports. I recently experienced the power of this new law within my own firm. I recently hired someone without having any idea what the person was making. When they accepted the offer and told me that it was much more than they had previously been making, I had that split second, “Darn, I’ve missed out on a bargain” thought, but it was immediately followed with the realization that it felt great to do the right thing.

Don’t Just Recruit, Coach

Recruiting diverse candidates for executive roles requires advocating for them, coaching them, and having tough conversations. Many women, like many candidates from outside the U.S., have been trained not to sell themselves. This over-index on humility needs to be unlearned during the recruiting process.

I coach candidates on everything from not talking too much to selecting classier hair colors. Truthfully, some probably hate it when I coach them about their appearance or their habits. Based on what I think the CEO will like, I’ll suggest that a candidate wear a cocktail dress, jeans and a blouse, highlight their hair, stop dyeing their hair a tacky color, or get rid of their little girl jewelry. I give them feedback on whatever it will take to get them the job.

I also coach them on their actual delivery during the interviewing process, such as how to keep answers short and how to describe their wins. I teach women how to come across as strong and authoritative but still authentic and feminine. Our society still has problems with women in direct leadership roles unless they can fall into the unconsciously approved categories of “second wife,” “wise woman,” or “daughter.” My attitude is to get them the job and to change the diversity numbers one at a time.

After the Hire

Once you’ve competed for and made that key female hire, the real work kicks in again. You need to review all your policies and programs and make sure that the new female executive is set up for success now and in the future. Have friendly policies so that she can flourish on the job and maintain her home life. Implement a mentoring and a sponsor program. Mentors help individuals perform better in their current roles while sponsors give them visibility and chances no one else would. Also, apply the feedback from the interview process to our new diverse executive’s development plan to help her grow and thrive.

Part of setting your diverse hires up from success involves getting everyone else on board to recognize their impact. Put your entire executive team (and ideally all managers) through unconscious bias training so they are trained to hear the smartest voices, not just the loudest ones. This is an easy win that can not only improve morale but also creativity and performance.

Finally, keep yourself honest. Track your Gender Equality Index, and make your data public. That way you’ll know how you’re doing not just as recruiting diverse candidates but also at retaining them.

When You’re Not Recruiting

For me as the leader of an HR executive search practice, hiring and promoting women and people of color is only half the battle. Planting the seeds for the next generation and making sure the ground is ready to help grow them is equally important. There are things that you can do personally and as an employer to support diversity. It’s hard to believe, but there are seven universities in the U.S. (primarily in the deep South where there are high African American student populations) that do not have a single African American student majoring in Engineering. And today, many girls still feel intimidated by math and science and view it as a boys’ thing.

Donate to STEM programs for girls and for children of color. Talk to children you know from under-represented groups, and offer them internships and paid positions at your firm. Invite them to business events, dinners, and meetings to give them exposure to the business world. Help them get a better job. Support global laws and programs that help girls go to school and avoid child marriages. Write to movie writers, directors and producers, and ask them to include more women on screen and off. What we see and experience every day is our reality and our norm unless we change it.