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

Posted by Lauren Kendall on March 8, 2021
Originally published on by Dave Melville, CEO & Founder of The Bowdoin Group.

Last year was an incredible and challenging year for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Coming into 2020, many HR departments had slashed their DEI budgets, putting it on the back burner among other priorities. But just one year later, a survey from Reflektive reports that 90% of companies are now making DEI a top priority for 2021. 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, DEI is no longer a nice-to-have, or a way to create good PR for a company. It’s an essential part of preparing an organization to achieve its full potential. Companies will need to consider how their executive search process will support and further their DEI goals, and make sure they’re partnering with executive search firms that understand what a foundational and important part of hiring this is.

The Bowdoin Group sat down with experts Esu Ma’at and Soyini Chang from Quantum Power Skills (QPS), a DEI consulting firm and Bowdoin’s strategic DEI partner. Ma’at also serves as Chief Diversity Officer at the Orlando Magic. Together, they determined four guiding principles of DEI that reveal how executive search will evolve to support these business critical efforts in the years to come:

1. Executive search opens the gates

Executive recruiters are the first people with whom a candidate will speak to during the hiring process, and this can mean that diverse talent can be overlooked if the search firm doesn’t have a DEI placement strategy in mind. “It’s not our job to fix a company’s demographic breakdown or even to hit certain quotas, it is our job to build great teams. Numerous studies show that adding diversity to a team increases its effectiveness,” says Dave Melville, CEO of the Bowdoin Group. “Therefore, search firms have an obligation to carefully evaluate their talent pools and update their best practices to consider how they can 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 DEI at the executive level. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is a business imperative.”

“Executive recruiters are the gatekeepers to opportunity and access for underrepresented candidates,” says Esu Ma’at, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Orlando Magic NBA Team and Co-Founder of Quantum Power Skills. “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 DEI initiatives.”

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

2. DEI shifts from hiring skill sets to hiring people

Companies, today, cannot survive by hiring the same “cookie cutter” candidate. And yet many executive search firms continue to recycle the same candidate profiles for C-suite roles. This is where executive search professionals can make the biggest contribution.

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

Dave Melville, CEO of The Bowdoin Group, explains: “Historically, the easiest path to filling a role is thinking only about a person’s relevant experience. In order to hire with a DEI strategy in mind, though, hiring managers need to be aware and conscious of their biases and actively build a pipeline of candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Instead of thinking about a singular task or role, we’re now talking with our clients about building diverse teams and how each candidate can bring something unique to an organization,” says Melville.

3. DEI must be metrics-driven to be transformative

If you take away one thing from this article, let it be that incorporating DEI into executive search and talent strategy is a transformational, long-term process – not a transactional short-term one. Soyini Chang, CEO of QPS, says that transactional approaches to DEI can be perceived as insulting and placating to talent. Real, genuine connections between organizations and diverse talent come from cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion at every level of the organization.

“Many companies are showing up to take action on DEI, 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 that monitor and report on long-term progress.”

Chang suggests a number of metrics companies can use to avoid focusing on transactional, short-term DEI efforts. After capturing baseline information about the company’s recruitment and retention of employees by demographics, they can also consider:

  • Demographic representation over time
  • Rate of hire
  • Rate of promotion or advancement
  • Salary or compensation
  • Inclusion and belonging survey

The 5 Key Metrics to Measure Diversity

4. DEI extends beyond hiring

“Diversity” is not a one-time event for a company, or merely 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 put into making the hiring process more inclusive.

Instead, companies must consider executive search and hiring in general to be one part of the spectrum of becoming more diverse and inclusive. The final piece that must fall into place is ensuring your company culture is open 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, such as increasing diversity by 30% over the next five years, but what kind of ecosystem are you sending talent into?” says 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 judgement? 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. And this is felt across the workforce. In fact, according to research conducted by LinkedIn, 67% of employees say that companies can support inclusion by fostering an environment that respects different opinions.

Embracing executive search’s starring role in DEI

Businesses exist for the purpose of making a profit, not for the purpose of being diverse. But in order to grow a business and meet those bottom line goals, you need a workforce that reflects the diverse pool of customers the company desires to attract. Successful executive search in 2021 will look past “cookie cutter” talent and focus on finding individuals that will add unique and valuable attributes to their teams.

Want to learn more about The Bowdoin Group’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for executive search? Check out our mission, best practices, and related resources here.