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Aligning Diversity and Talent in Board and C-Suite Recruitment

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Achieving diversity must begin with proactive and intentional recruitment efforts.


Global business leaders recognize the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace. But while senior leaders are adopting diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives at greater rates within their organizations, those initiatives don’t always impact recruitment for their board and C-Suite roles in meaningful ways.

For example, a BoardEx survey of UK companies found that 68% of boards of all sizes have “not enough” members, or no members at all from underrepresented or diverse groups; 71% of C-Suite executive teams have “not enough” members or no members at all from these groups, either. This is despite the fact that, “an overwhelming majority of respondents are willing to broaden the requirements for background experience to attract more diverse talent” to join both boards and leadership teams.

These organizations are missing proven value due to these shortcomings—for example, “diversity of thought among teams, increasing productivity and retention, and creating cohesiveness among colleagues,” as one DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) senior executive describes in her Hunt Scanlon article. She says these benefits should be “obvious,” but executive leaders are all too often the “strongest barriers to inclusive environments” instead.

“Leaders must take responsibility for diversity and inclusion [and] make sure that everyone can see diversity in [the] boardroom”

In late 2021, BoardEx sat down with Nicolina Andell Chair, NED and Trustee at Ministry of Justice, and Val Lopez, Partner at Hanold Associates, to discuss prioritizing both diversity and experience when recruiting board and executive members. Both agree: “Leaders must take responsibility for diversity and inclusion [and] make sure that everyone can see diversity in [the] boardroom” and C-Suite, as Andell describes. Diversity at these levels impacts recruitment at all levels of the organization as well: “People can only become what they can see,” explains Andell.

Defining Diversity in Board and C-Suite Roles

Workplace diversity is characterized by the presence of employees from a variety of backgrounds. This includes diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and religion – especially those that are statistically underrepresented in professional environments. But successful workplace diversity also combines these characteristics with other attributes, such as diversity of experience, background, culture, and unique insight as well.

At the C-Suite and board levels, achieving diversity must begin with proactive and intentional recruitment efforts. This is the only way to ensure that a company’s leadership will meaningfully reflect the diversity of its workforce, its customer base, its various stakeholders, and society at large.

Lopez describes that D&I at the board and C-Suite levels “must be more than a checkbox exercise.” In addition to representation, prioritizing diversity means being open to alternative best practices and forms of decision-making that existing board and C-Suite members might not have considered previously. “Diversity is not only thinking of new ways of doing things but overcoming traditional practices and biases,” says Lopez.

Diversity of Persons, Experience, and Expertise Go Hand in Hand

The first step to achieving diversity of persons is recognizing that the process of recruiting for diversity can’t be siloed from the process of recruiting for talent, experience, and diversity of thought. “Whenever we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s not a zero-sum situation; we’re not taking something away to have progress in that area,” says Lopez. Instead, diversity of persons, experience, and expertise must all be considered equally.

According to the 2021 AESC Adaptive Leaders Culture & Strategy report, this proactive behavior is emerging for the first time in executive roles. “The fact that leaders are starting to own their role in driving diversity and inclusion indicates that they now see D&I as a critical part of their leadership agenda.” But the report, based on insights from 1,000 C-level business leaders, also indicates both board members and CEOs see their organizations in a positive light in terms of representation, equality for women, and age diversity; however, their views may be inaccurate as other senior leaders in their organizations do not.

What Does it Mean to Bring D&I to the Board and C-Suite Levels? 

“D&I needs to be on our board agendas,” says Andell. “Diverse organizations are stronger, more resilient, and have better performance.” As described, a diversity of persons allows board and C-level executives to better understand “the views of all stakeholders, not just the shareholders” who both impact and depend on their organizations. Stakeholders include employees, supply chain partners, customers, and community members among others, who contribute to and are impacted by the long-term success of any company.

“Diverse organizations are stronger, more resilient, and have better performance.”

Critical to this ‘strength, resiliency, and performance’ is representation. “Representation matters,” says Andell. Representation through diversity of persons ensures the lived experiences of stakeholders from all backgrounds are valued among board members and C-level executives.

“The challenges of representation are going to vary depending on your organization,” Andell continues. “But whatever representation means to you, it must be present at the top, middle, and frontline in your organization.”

In any case, ensuring representation must coincide with ensuring that these positions are filled with talented individuals who also will bring a diversity of thought and experience to their roles. “No one wants to be a token,” as Lopez describes. “Candidates want to join because they bring a skill set that no one else has; and so, when candidates ask, ‘Why are you reaching out to me?’ if you can’t answer that question, it’s clear you’re simply checking a box in your D&I initiative.”

Widening the Gates, Not Lowering the Bar

With these goals in mind, ensuring diversity at these levels requires that business leaders broaden considerations for diverse persons even while continuing to prioritize the right experience and skill sets. Proactivity in terms of diversity of persons corresponds with expanding the variety of candidates in the mix to these ends.

“We’re witnessing more chief marketing officers and people with technology backgrounds being added to boards because, at the end of the day, you have to consider your company’s goals,” describes Lopez. “But along with bringing in the right talent and niche expertise, inclusion is just as important [when considering] how you are changing the chemistry and collaborative nature of a board” or C-Suite.

Executive recruiters and organizational decision-makers should consider these techniques and principles:

  • Seek out qualified candidates who can help you meet your D&I goals. This means broadening the scope of candidates, including those with diverse backgrounds and unique skill sets. “Look at roles and functions that bring inherent diversity, such as human resource roles that are predominantly women or different functional areas that might help diversify a board as opposed to simply prioritizing physical diversity as a checkbox exercise.”
  • Consider a “whole person” when evaluating candidates. This means taking into account their professional experiences, but also their personal experiences, backgrounds, and how they might contribute to diversity of thought.
  • Be open to a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. This includes but is not limited to race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, and age. Ensuring a variety of perspectives ensures stakeholders of all types are represented at senior levels of the organization.
  • D&I objectives should never supersede talent objectives. The goal is to always find the best candidates who will also help you meet your leadership diversity goals. Appointing diverse candidates without the right skill sets does a disservice to both those candidates and company leadership.

In these ways, executive recruiters and organizational decision-makers can seek out “their secret weapon,” as Lopez describes: “someone that can advise them and bring them forward; someone that has that skill set where they have gaps so they can start building board-relevant experience.” Being more strategic in board-level and C-level recruitment ensures that organizations are making the most of diversity and inclusion initiatives while also attracting top talent.

How to Begin Future-Proofing Your Organization

In the long run, prioritizing these layers of diversity contributes to better succession planning and proactive preparation for an organization’s future. But aligning these goals with real action requires alignment at all levels of the organization.

“It takes all of us to be diversity champions,” says Andell. “Improving diversity starts with a culture check… the embedded day-to-day behavior in your organization.”

Lopez recommends that decision-makers begin considering the gaps in their long-term strategies, then begin “pushing that strategy and understanding how [diversity] benefits the organization—it’s a good thing to do, but it also helps the company, overall.”

Adopt Recruitment Technologies & Partnerships

Specific partnerships can aid decision-makers in these organizational goals. For example, organizations with diversity on their boards are three times as likely to have work with associations that champion and celebrate diverse leaders, according to the a 2020 survey by BoardEx. Increasingly, technology can aid executive recruiters in their efforts as well: “leveraging technology has become [a] key differentiator in a saturated market full of recruiters,” as Hunt Scanlon describes.

For example, BoardEx’s data visualization feature, BoardEx Discovery, provides recruiters and organizations with a “Total Diversity Index” score that includes five components: age, gender, sector experience, functional experience, and international experience. The tool accommodates considerations for D&I recruitment at executive levels—namely, diversity of persons, experience, and expertise.

Securing the Right Talent Begins with Allyship

No organization can benefit from these strategies and recruitment opportunities before becoming an ally to underrepresented or diverse groups. Allyship must begin with moral guidance and not with self-serving objectives, such as diversifying one’s board.

“Allyship is our willingness to speak up, speak out, and acknowledge that everybody’s journey is different,” says Andell. “We all need to use our influence and our power to level the playing field; at the end of the day, it comes down to each of us doing something right in this space.”

It’s through these guiding principles of allyship that minds become open to the viability and importance of D&I initiatives. And it’s through deliberative and strategic efforts that executive recruiters and others can realize D&I success at board and C-Suite levels.