Articles | March 16, 2021

Diversify Leadership with These Five Strategies

Organizations in all sectors are increasingly committed to identifying diverse candidates for leadership roles, but progress in actually hiring diverse candidates has been surprisingly slow. Why is that?

Allison Vaillancourt, Vice President & Senior Consultant in our Organizational Effectiveness practice, looks at the reasons and provides five strategies for challenging your assumptions. 

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There are several factors at play

Key among them are tightly held and narrow perceptions of what a leader “looks like” and how leadership behavior should be demonstrated.

Candidates who do not look or sound like the leaders we have come to expect are often evaluated less favorably than those who act in accordance with the visual and auditory expectations that come to mind when we think about the majority of leaders we have seen for as long as we can remember.

It's not unusual to hear comments such as “He looked good on paper, but I’m not sure he will be assertive enough to survive in this environment,” or, “Her career trajectory is impressive, but I think our clients expect someone who presents more conservatively.” These statements are, of course, code for wanting someone who looks and acts like those who have historically been in charge.

The fact that diverse candidates are often screened out by those most committed to diversifying their leadership teams suggests that good intentions are not enough to interrupt longstanding hiring patterns. To make more progress, recruiters, search committees and hiring officials must reimagine the look and sound of good leadership and examine the biases that are limiting opportunities for outstanding talent. Here are five things that can move more women and people of color into the executive hiring process.

1. Examine the definition of “objective” assessments.

In other words, don’t be swayed by the math. Using a methodical approach to evaluate candidates against a documented set of screening criteria is a proven strategy for reducing bias in candidate assessments.

While these screening rubrics tend to be effective when reviewing application materials, they are less effective in advancing diverse candidates once the interview process begins. That is because rubric scores only work if the assessment instrument and the evaluators are completely unbiased and the measures they are using are easy to quantify.

Leadership attributes are, of course, highly subjective. If certain types of people seem more likely to be screened out by your assessment tool, consider the possibility that there's something wrong with it or the way it is being used.

While initial assessment scores can be useful in getting a sense of how candidates compare against one another, be sure to take time to discuss why each candidate scored well or poorly. Slowing down to consider the various factors that explain a candidate’s rubric score can reveal a reliance on faulty models of what a leader must look and sound like to be successful.

2. Avoid the “likeability” trap.

Most of us gravitate to people who are like us. If you hear comments like “It would be fun to work with her” or “I felt an immediate connection,” be open to the possibility that affinity bias is at play. It's normal to prefer people who are like us and to be wary of those who are not. Make it a practice to both name and analyze how candidates make you feel.

3. Challenge the charisma requirement.

In his 2019 book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes that we are drawn to people who have a strong sense of self, make bold declarations and discuss visionary plans. However, he adds: “There is a world of difference between the personality traits and behaviors it takes to be chosen as a leader and the traits and skills you need to be able to lead effectively.” Too often, charisma gets people their leadership roles, but it doesn't help them to succeed on the job. Charisma can blind us to the possibility that a candidate lacks of other critical leadership attributes.

4. Consider your preconceptions about desirable traits. 

People's preconceptions about “professionalism” and “gravitas” are often based on attributes associated with white men with high socioeconomic status. 

Engage in an exploratory conversation when a quiet and reserved candidate is labeled “uninspiring” or “obviously not interested in the position.” Do the same when a colleague suggests that a candidate’s passion and animation are evidence of a lack of emotional control.

Remind yourself and others that introverted thinkers — those who pause a beat before responding — might actually be strategic rather than “too tentative” or “less prepared” than other candidates. Take note when candidates with certain academic pedigrees are favored over others. Finally, resist the tendency to evaluate a candidate’s style based on what makes you comfortable rather than what is essential for the job you are seeking to fill.

5. Think about which candidates might offer new ways of thinking about old problems.

Give greater consideration to candidates who are most likely to challenge assumptions, interrupt default ways of thinking, encourage difficult debates over complex issues and ask “Why?” over and over again. While it may not be easy or even pleasant, constructive conflict typically yields better analysis and results than comfortable conversations do.

The most effective organizations recognize that good intentions are not enough to make progress when it comes to diversifying leadership teams. That's why they use structured assessments, create checks to reduce the tendency to use “gut feelings” and encourage deep and open conversations about how personal and completely unintentional biases can lead us to limit possibilities.

These are not easy conversations, but they can reveal that we tend to favor candidates for leadership roles based on our default vision of what a leader looks like rather than being open to the possibility that we might benefit from something entirely different.

Trying to diversify leadership?

Allison has more than 30 years of experience in communication, organizational strategy and human resources and has worked in large research universities, healthcare settings, media organizations and nonprofits. 

Get in touch. We'll get your question to Allison and she'll get back to you. 

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