Talent Citizen
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Talent Citizen

It’s Time for a Reckoning and Redesign of Executive Search

By Tracy D Welsh and Makeba Greene, Talent Citizen, October 2020

Image by EvgeniiasArt on Adobe Stock

As Executive Search and Talent Development leaders whose clients are primarily in the higher education, philanthropy, and nonprofit sectors, we have spent the last eight months watching our clients grapple and learn from the impacts of COVID-19, and a renewed civil rights uprising in affirmation of Black lives. We’ve heard two significant themes, that are often framed as being in conflict with one another: “How will we survive the recession?” and “How do we actively become (or in some cases, appear to prove that we are) a more anti-racist organization?”

But herein lies the risk: As organizations lean into the realities of shrinking revenue, a scarcity mindset is taking over. As a typical characteristic of white institutional culture, a scarcity mindset fuels the sense that, in a time like this, organizations cannot afford to spend their resources and energy on ongoing anti-racism efforts, including hiring practices, self-evaluations, long-term structural changes, and staff representation. Instead, organizations are looking for quick fixes or unintentionally tokenizing people of color in order to assuage their responsibility to tackle transformative, uncomfortable, culture change. And as mission-driven organizations default to this mindset (and the comfort it offers), executive search providers must decide what our role is in undoing institutional racism.

It has become clear to all of us that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the impacts of structural racism and income inequality in all aspects of American life. Racism, indigenous invisibility, poverty, inequality, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism are the roots of a disease far more persistent and prevalent than COVID-19. We will be fighting these forces long after we have identified a vaccine for this virus.

But while this pandemic has fully exposed and laid bare the human price of these inequalities, it is time to be bold — to dig in — to re-imagine how we can drastically shift the landscape of leadership in the mission driven sector. In other words, we can do “both” — we can approach this new pandemic and this long-festering unresolved crisis with a spirit of abundance and possibility. But first, we need to reflect on how we got here.

It’s Time to Acknowledge the Harm in Existing Search Practices

As white women who are continually learning about our own bias and fragility, it is time to be honest about the harm that we and other (mostly white) search practitioners have perpetuated in our work. While executive search has always been focused on identifying the right leader for a given organization, the sector has largely assumed that equity could be advanced by injecting a few changes within the existing model.

The demand for diverse candidate pools has spurred an imperialist-like pursuit of the networks of a small and exhausted community of leaders of color and other groups farthest from justice. While it is easy to defend this practice as “the way things work,” both organizations and executive search firms are often unwilling to recognize that leaders of color and other oppressed groups are disproportionately exploited by (largely white) recruiters who want to access their networks. In this relational exchange, there is no real compensation for their expertise; recruiters and organizational leaders are using these sources to make up for the fact that they lack real relationships within communities of color, LGBTQ communities, and disability communities.

In this urgent and white-dominant-led quest for diverse leadership, organizations and executive search firms sacrifice real relationship building for the sake of a placement. By putting a premium on “diverse” candidate pools, organizations are seeking to relieve themselves of the discomfort of driving their own deeper equity work by assuming that a diverse pool will lead to a hire who will, on their own, drive organizational change. In effect, (mostly) white leaders have sought to address their racism by shifting the burden of anti-racism work to people of color. This disregard for true relationship building also manifests in the lack of transparency, communication, and follow through to sources who offer access to their networks, and to vulnerable candidates who are left wondering why they are frequently recruited, but don’t advance.

The work of transforming leadership is so much more than finding new people to sit in old chairs. This work requires a new paradigm for executive search that is more time and energy intensive, requires greater cooperation and honest communication between organizations and search firms, and depends on the willingness of organizations and search firms to practice significant self-assessment, transparency, and a commitment to internal organizational change.

To go further in this work, organizations and search firms must be willing to begin the search process by identifying the true underlying barriers to advancing equity, including the role that each of us plays in contributing to this problem. This process begins with a commitment to greater transparency about organizational practices and norms, along with a willingness to receive critical feedback with a spirit of curiosity, instead of defensiveness or shame.

Organizations must shift their mindset — to move from a posture of identifying strong leaders to one of changing their culture in order to attract different leaders. Organizations that just assume they will be attractive to leaders of color, LGBTQ leaders, and leaders with disabilities are often those that have been unwilling to address deeper organizational biases that are driving away the talent that they so desperately seek.

Commit to Ongoing Inquiry and Shared Responsibility

By starting a leadership change process with an honest and robust self-assessment on racial and identity equity, organizations have an opportunity to identify barriers that can drastically alter their search process. Doing this has helped our clients question:

  • The reputation their organization may have among communities of color and other communities furthest from justice
  • The experiences of staff of color, LGBTQ staff, and staff with disabilities (past and present)
  • Their tendency to value logic over feelings, and data over lived experience
  • Whether the lived experiences of those the organization serves are reflected among the staff

In the course of a search, organizations and their search partners must work with a high degree of trust and accountability, asking:

  • Who has power and influence over which decisions?
  • What responsibility/agency does your search firm have in questioning the potential bias of search committee members (and vice versa)?
  • In what ways are we willing to sacrifice the value of “efficiency” in order to prioritize deeper relationship building and collective learning in identifying the best candidate?

This inquiry process will often highlight gatekeeping practices that would otherwise go unchallenged. For instance, this has led our clients to openly question the value of requiring a graduate or even undergraduate degree, assessments about a candidate’s communication style, and the weight of a single negative reference by a white/cis/able-bodied supervisor.

Showing Up with a Spirit of Creativity, and Transparency

This spirit of continuous learning and humility has already produced some important changes in search practices. Thanks to advocacy from leaders like Vu Le, many organizations now commit to publicly disclosing salary ranges, addressing the fact that privileged identity is often linked to the willingness to negotiate salary. Roanhorse Consulting, LLC, an indigenous-women owned think tank is curating resources to catapult indigenous leaders. In 2017, along with six other Native American women entrepreneurs, Roanhorse Consulting co-founded Native Women Lead to build power across and within indigenous-led organizations, de-colonizing the resources and tools that indigenous leaders can use to advance change. The firm is now reframing executive search with a co-designed approach that centers indigenous values and practice. Trailblazing search firms like Offor have disrupted communication practices by vowing to provide transparency about both the strengths and significant weaknesses of their clients — including the unique challenges leaders of color may face in entering the environment. And new organizations and initiatives like Talent Justice are working in bold ways to drive more rapid and successful advancement and ascension of underrepresented talent within organizations.

The willingness of organizations to be transparent about their bias and harmful practices has, in a sense, become a proxy for assessing the authenticity of an organization’s commitment to equity work; this is an exciting shift that builds effective social pressure for organizations to really practice what they preach.

By working in deeper and more relationship-focused partnerships, executive search firms, along with many other partners, can share their collective learning to more rapidly advance the capacity of the entire sector to confront and undo legacies of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. As we continue to struggle with the ambiguous grief of not knowing what the future brings, the mission-driven sector must stay firmly anchored in the vision of the future we collectively want to build — with an understanding that undoing oppression is at the core of this work, not an add-on.

While this virus may be exposing the deeply entrenched divisions within our world, it has also shown us that we humans are more resilient and creative than we would have ever imagined. It is time to harness that creativity and resolve to truly dismantle oppressive practices and collectively build a powerful new ecosystem of social impact leaders.

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Talent Citizen is a search firm that taps into the nation’s best thinkers in civil, corporate and nonprofit sectors in their pursuit of positive social impact. Putting equity at the center, we reach across boundaries of sector and discipline to push clients beyond their spheres.

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Talent Citizen

Talent Citizen

Talent Citizen is an executive search firm reaching across sector and discipline boundaries to give clients access to talent beyond their own spheres/

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