Skip to content

5 Ways to Open More Doors for Underrepresented Talent in Executive Leadership

Posted by Lauren Kendall on May 4, 2021
Originally published on LinkedIn by Dave Melville, Founder & CEO of The Bowdoin Group.

Let’s face it, executive recruiters have a disproportionate amount of influence in the process of hiring executive candidates. Unfortunately, that means talent from underrepresented backgrounds can be overlooked in the hiring process if the search firm doesn’t partner with you to create a clear diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) placement strategy.

In today’s highly competitive and innovation-hungry world, companies and investors need to know they’re working with executive search professionals who have their best interests in mind and who fully understand their underlying business goals. In the case of DEI, that means not only expert guidance around finding your next executive, but also strategic partnership around building a C-suite that will take the company where it needs to be over the next three-to-five years (and beyond).  

We consulted with our own strategic DEI partners, Esu Ma’at and Soyini Chang, co-founders of the management consulting firm Quantum Power Skills (QPS). Ma’at also currently serves as Chief Diversity Officer at the Orlando Magic. Together, we developed five ways executive search firms can recruit diverse executives and support diversity, equity, and inclusion imperatives. It starts with intentionally unlocking more opportunity and access to underrepresented executive candidates:

1. Become a critical touchpoint for clients on their DEI goals

The majority of executive search leaders polled by the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) indicate D&I is a priority for their clients, and more than half receive specific requests for diversity in their recruiting efforts. That’s where today’s executive recruiter can shine, expertly bringing DEI into the talent acquisition conversation and educating companies about how to pursue DEI goals in alignment with existing business priorities. 

Part of the value executive recruiters add is in providing clear examples of success in DEI initiatives, so that’s where firms should start: collecting success stories that help companies and investors build confidence in not only building a diverse workforce, but also creating a culture of inclusion and belonging. From there, we need to make sure we’re well-versed in the field research so we can help organizations navigate their priorities to achieve the outcomes they’ve set out to reach.

2. Locate pools of diverse candidates to hire from 

Like most executive recruiters, each of us at The Bowdoin Group has invested decades in building up our robust network of professional connections. It’s an invaluable resource we offer our clients to immediately tap into pools of talent and resources, which is further supported by our robust research function. But as the conversation around furthering DEI imperatives continues, it has become clear that candidate sourcing must be stronger when it comes to talent from underrepresented populations.

As an industry, executive search partners need to carefully consider how they can re-engineer and expand their go-to sources of talent. Our established networks are strong — but they aren’t always necessarily diverse. Progress in DEI initiatives requires a concentrated effort to find out where new, underrepresented talent spends time and meet them where they are. 

For example, we were recently introduced to Carolina Alarco, President and Founder of a strategy firm called BioStrategy Advisors, who leads an initiative called Latinos in Bio. This is an incredible organization devised to give members of the Latino community access to professional development, community, and business development in biotech and life sciences. It’s through relationships like this that we as search professionals can expand our networks to tap into more diverse talent for our clients and their organizations.

The best way to mix up your candidate sourcing will depend on your existing networks, but here are a few additional places we recommend you start in your quest for more diverse executives: 

3. Ensure your evaluation criteria support diversity efforts 

In one of our latest articles, “The Future of Executive Search: Can You Handle the Truth?,” we discussed how the past year’s uncertainty did an amazing job of revealing the leadership talent in our midst. Under crisis, the status quo leadership types dissolved, and a new generation of talent stood up to become leaders—leaders that didn’t always fit the “cookie-cutter” mold or come with the mile-long resume we’ve come to expect. 

This is one of many recent shifts in the workforce that allows diverse candidates to shine. It has given executive recruiters the opportunity to shift part of the spotlight away from a candidate’s track record and toward a candidate’s potential. When executive recruiters, hiring managers, and CEOs analyze a candidate’s potential, a new conversation can take place. We can consider the aptitude of candidates—often women and people of color—who have not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate their potential. 

4. Use your expertise to partner with diverse organizations

As executive recruiters, we do a lot of good work from within the system. But that’s not the only place we can make a contribution. We have a unique ability to open up the executive leadership level to underrepresented talent by sharing knowledge about the career path that leads to it, often in the form of community events like speaking, workshops, and mentoring. We can then give people access to our unique knowledge set and empower them to seek out development opportunities, skills, and promotions that will lead them where they want to go. 

The kind of contributions we’re talking about do not require an enormous amount of work. Modern technology and remote-focused networking as a result of the coronavirus pandemic make it so that you can share a 15-minute keynote or participate in a 30-minute networking event with a few short emails. Even doing this just once a month can result in life-changing access to information for the people who need it most. 

Here’s a shortlist of diverse organizations we’ve partnered with to invest more than 500 hours of community service—start here, then look into your own community, your alma mater’s community outreach programs, and industry events and associations to find the right fit for you:

5. Continue to educate yourself about DEI

You know what Einstein says—the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Executive recruiters can’t simply “make” their search process more diverse. The best results come from pulling in the input and expertise of people in the DEI space who can expose you to resources, examples, and lived experiences you wouldn’t come across on your own.  

At The Bowdoin Group, our invaluable partnership with Quantum Power Skills gives us insight into how we need to evolve and adapt to recruit diverse candidates more effectively. As a result of this partnership, the services we provide our clients achieve a higher level of quality and nuance when it comes to sourcing, evaluating, and presenting diverse candidates to our clients. 

Each hire is a step in the right direction

These important ideas about DEI reinforce the true function of the executive recruiter: helping investors and organizations achieve their full potential, which includes the big picture, long-term view, not just the single hire view. 

To that end, it’s on executive recruiters to embrace their role as gatekeepers of opportunity and access and evolve in how they source, vet, and recommend candidates from underrepresented minorities—all in support of a company’s immediate, critical business goals.