Sure, Diverse Leadership Teams Perform Better. But How Do We Make Them?

September 27, 2021

Not too long ago, I received a mandate to search for a vice president in the retail industry from a client who is very affirmative about diversity and equality. I thought, Great! Let’s go!

But then, I asked my client, “Hold on, what do you mean exactly by diversity, and who qualifies as diverse for you?” It is a fair question, considering that we were looking at an industry sector that is 90% male.

My client had pressure from his board to act quickly, and I had pressure from him to act quickly as well, but the addition of the diversity component to this mandate meant that we had to sort through clarifying expectations; a process that is more difficult than it sounds – and certainly not quick.

At the time, I wondered whether or not it was just me and this client struggling with implementing a diverse search process. Well, you know me by now, I went asking several of my clients, various sizes, many industries, young and more experienced recruiters for input.

There is tension in diversity search

Everyone agrees that it is time that we act on diversifying the leadership suite. And many firms are struggling to act on diversifying leadership when hiring.

For most hiring managers I talked to, prioritizing diversity in search mandates feels like a significant risk. Our contractual replacement guarantees do not seem to be incentive enough to encourage our clients to take the leap in the direction of hiring a more diverse selection of leaders.

From my experience recruiting all across Europe for C-level managers, I would say that the diversity bias in Europe is not so much about gender or race. My clients are more concerned with cultural differences – those that we see by region here in Europe. I can have lengthy discussions with a German client about the compatibility of hiring an Italian top manager, or a French with a Dutch, or vice versa. It is endless.

Given this obvious tension between desire and action, we need a better roadmap for working together to bring greater diversity to European corporate leadership.


The data supports creating diverse leadership teams

There is no lack of incentive to bring greater diversity, really.

Companies with greater diversity in their leadership ranks perform better than companies that lack it. This is a simple fact. The conditions, however, that can lead a company to greater success through diversity in hiring practices for executive placements are complex.

Let me dissect this a bit by sharing with you what I have learned from my work with one of the most awarded retail firms in the world for their DEI policies and results. My client employs 400k people across 80 countries and recruits as many as 80k people each year. They set the benchmark for DEI. Here is what they recommend.


For corporate leaders to bring more diversity into the leadership ranks

You are in a leadership role and there is an opening in your team. Your board is revisiting the mandate that the human resources team will use to guide their search. This is the time to act; especially if you are a white man – you will demonstrate your confidence in your own abilities and knowledge by advocating for diversity. To do this you might try one or more of the following tactics:

  • Give hiring managers the confidence they need to take a risk by sharing what you know about the importance of diverse teams.

  • Tell your hiring managers that they will likely have to value the potential for future leadership over demonstrated track record. If we are always looking for the most experienced candidate, we will always get candidates who have had the opportunities that lead to experience.

  • When your hiring managers bring back a long list of candidates that includes gender and racial diversity, work against your own unconscious biases to ensure that the short list you create reflects the composition of that long list.

  • If you decide to interview from your short list, partner with an employee who is a woman or person of colour that is comfortable addressing issues of diversity directly. This is essential because you are likely out of your comfort zone in this process.


For hiring managers

Your corporate leadership team may or may not be asking for diversity in the ranks. It might be that you will need to make the case for a search that values potential over experience. Recognize that this is a long game; a culture shift takes time. Communicate this at the outset with your leadership and solicit their partnership in developing the long-term health of the company through diversity driven innovation.

You might also consider the following when filling your leadership mandates:

  • Blind search. LinkedIn now offers search functions that allow you to hide pictures and names from profiles. We all have unconscious bias – even those of us already in the game who are people of colour!

  • Mandate plus! It is our business to know human resources and find great candidates for openings. It can also be our business to educate and consult on best practices. Hiring for diversity is now, most definitely a best practice. Recognize this opportunity and sell it.


Ask us to push you out of your comfort zone in your next search

We are very much willing to help. Trust our expertise in stretching your recruitment habits. Let us explore beyond the normal boundaries of executive search. With greater freedom in our mandates, we are likely to find candidates with unexpected skills and experience. Of course, I am not the one who ultimately will make the hire and pay the person, but I have the benchmark and the expertise to spot the good ones. Improving our hiring practices with more intelligent attention paid to diversity is a win-win for business.

Let’s take the next step to more and better Diversity – together!



Pierre Collowald is a Senior Partner at Robertson Associates.