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The Realities of Recruiting Diversity to the Boardroom

This article was originally published by Savoy Magazine.

How access delivers results

Successfully recruiting diversity to the boardroom requires a customized search strategy that boutique search firms are uniquely positioned to offer. In my decades advising executives on their most important talent needs, I can attest to the enhanced value diversity brings to the boardroom dynamic. Nevertheless, organizations still struggle to get this right – despite best intentions – and the consequences of inadequate results can have long-lasting impacts on a board’s culture and ability to influence and effectuate.

The reality is that high demand for diversity talent requires boards to partner with a search firm that can genuinely represent them in a very crowded market. Understanding a few key decision points can help those responsible for board composition make informed decisions regarding which firm to select.

What constitutes a qualified candidate is inherently debatable, but this should be the first point addressed with a search firm. Traditionally, board candidates are current or retired CEOs, CFOs, GCs, and major business/division leaders on executive leadership teams. This is a safe, proven path. However, not only is it impassable for most candidates given the paucity of openings, but it perpetuates diversity disparities – a well-explored topic.

An alternative approach is to partner with a search firm to build a board succession plan based on an assessment of competencies. This allows boards to anticipate their makeup and cultivate talent to supplant needs while simultaneously solving for diversity. Succession planning requires a deep dive into the board, which means the firm must possess capacity, discipline, and diplomacy. This process fosters a trusted relationship between the board and firm, and boutique firms purposefully limit the number of their engagements to ensure this high level of accountability and client service.

Since pipelining talent alone is rarely sufficient to achieve diversity, search firms that gain a board’s trust to explore untraditional profiles can expediate the process. Executives with the expertise and perspective that can be additive, such as human resources, ESG, information technology or digital experts, commercial, and purchasing/supply chain leaders, are often overlooked as qualified candidates. Rarely will the “usual suspects” bring distinctiveness in these areas. Boards should also leverage the practical knowledge of indirect reports to the CEO, such as SVPs at large-cap companies, especially for mid or small-cap opportunities.

Board capacity, conflicts of interest, and schedules can dramatically reduce a slate. Untapped, qualified diverse candidates are becoming more sought-after. Therefore, the more boards a search firm is committed to at one time, especially when engaged to search for similar profiles, the more each client must analyze where they stand in the firm’s pecking-order. Boutique firms are unlikely to be searching for similar candidate profiles at the same time and can present clients with unrestricted access to a slate.

Finally, how a search firm approaches the candidate and characterizes the personality of the board can greatly impact the candidate’s interest. Without a deep understanding of the board’s intrinsic nature and strategy to enhance its expertise and perspective, missteps happen. Approaching high-impact candidates is a combination of art and science. Recruiters should develop an extensive appreciation of the candidates’ experience, expertise, character, and interests and articulate clearly how the candidate aligns with the profile and impacts the board. Boutique firms that put candidate care high on their value statement and possess the bandwidth and emotional intelligence to cultivate candidates will be more convincing.

In short, the bureaucracy and oversight that can thwart the success of recruiting diversity to a board are often absent in boutique search firms. On a topic this important, hold your search firm to a higher standard.

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Eric Douglas Keene is a Managing Director in the Board & CEO Services practice at RSR Partners and the founder of Keene Advisory Group. He has extensive experience recruiting a diverse range of senior executives to C-Suite level roles and to boards of directors.

RSR Partners is a boutique professional services firm headquartered in Greenwich, CT, that specializes in helping Boards and CEOs with their most critical recruiting, selection, and succession needs. The firm was founded in 1994 by industry icon, Russell S. Reynolds, Jr. The firm has conducted thousands of projects for Boards and CEOs at public, private equity backed, and family-owned businesses across a range of industries including asset management, consumer goods and services, industrial, technology, and healthcare. To learn more about RSR Partners, click here.