As protests erupted over decades of racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, companies rushed to publish statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Many employees of those companies, however, have called out the fact that the words coming from nondiverse management teams do not reflect reality.
These workers have vowed to continue pushing their employers to put such words into action. And their momentum has yielded results. Since May, a number of high-profile resignations have occurred, including departures from Adidas, Bon Appétit, CrossFit, and The New York Times, all of which can be attributed to the protest movement.
While these changes are welcome, we shouldn’t lose sight of just how far we have to go; for instance, there are still only four black chief executives among the Fortune 500, which equates to 0.8%, while blacks make up some 12% of the country’s population. And the numbers aren’t much better when moving up to the board level, where the appointment of new black members in the boardroom has declined over the past year.
Stepping back, why has corporate America’s leadership remained so white for so long? Looking forward, what action can be taken now that demonstrates executives seem to be listening? One potential answer to both is to look to those who wield influence when choosing leaders.
Kingmakers Wield the Influence
One group—let’s call them the “Kingmakers”—are those within a company who choose to fill a given leadership role from existing, internal contenders. As a real-world example, this month, Ford Motor Co. announced its next CEO would be current COO Jim Farley in what Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. called a planned succession. In this case, the Kingmakers are Ford and his board.
Another group—the “Gatekeepers”—are those who assemble and evaluate external talent, such as executive search firms. Sticking with the auto industry, General Motors recently said it will look internally and externally for a CFO replacement and could retain a Gatekeeper search firm to assist in that effort.
So how does leadership stay so overwhelmingly white? The short answer is because the designated Kingmakers and Gatekeepers naturally gravitate toward similar and familiar talent pools.
And why is that? Well, unconscious bias research shows that humans try to find patterns and take mental shortcuts when attempting to make sense of their complex world. Among other things, this leads to favoring those with whom we’re already familiar while discounting those we find different.
In hiring practices, recall the research showing those with black-sounding names were less likely to get a callback than those with white-sounding names, as well as the study showing black and Asian applicants who “whitened” their résumés had a greater chance of being interviewed.
Accordingly, Kingmakers tend to groom and anoint successors cut from a similar cloth, which yields homogeneity. And, instead of bringing added diversity to the mix, it is a pattern repeated when companies turn to Gatekeeper search firms whose senior ranks—like those of their corporate clients—are overwhelmingly white.
Simply put, the outside candidates presented are likely to reflect the consultants conducting the search and evaluating the talent.
It is a closed-loop system that, regardless of statements and commitments to diversity, perpetuates a status quo at the highest levels of corporate America. To change this pattern, a multi-pronged approach is needed, including a long look at internal mentoring and promotion practices.
The Gatekeeper Solution
But one immediate solution is to seek different Gatekeepers who themselves better reflect the talent sought and who can bring different perspectives. It may seem reductive, but recruiters who identify as diverse are likely to have personal and professional ties to different communities than a recruiter who identifies with the majority.
If your everyday life includes, for example, Jack-and-Jill board meetings, a pickup league with your LPhiE brothers, or Friday prayers at the mosque, then you probably have connections that run deep and wide into communities not well-represented at the highest levels of corporate America.
Such a recruiter has done the spade work in the community to build a trusted network of nontraditional talent. This person will know whom to call—and whom to avoid—for a particular opportunity, and he or she will have earned the hard-won credibility within those communities to quickly get the word out when a terrific new role is on the market. This is an advantage that simply cannot be replicated by LinkedIn or a job posting.
And having spent those years, if not a lifetime, living and working within underrepresented communities, these diverse recruiters will know not just the leading lights—those pioneers and trailblazers whom everyone has seen ascend to the C-suite—but also the next generation, those on the up, the mentees and little sisters/brothers who have what it takes but might not be receiving the attention of a traditional Kingmaker.
If the definition of insanity, to quote Einstein, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” perhaps organizations seeking to change the way they identify and promote talent to better reflect their constituencies, customers, and clients should rethink who gets to be a Kingmaker or Gatekeeper.
Toya Lawson is a Partner in the Philadelphia office of Bridge Partners LLC, a minority-owned executive search firm that partners with national and global clients on senior-level search engagements, with a focus on leading an inclusive search process. Lawson partners with nonprofit and for-profit (multiple sectors) clients, with a particular expertise in conducting chief financial officer, chief accounting officer, controller, VP finance, and VP financial planning and analysis searches. She has 20 years of experience working in retained and contingent search, corporate Human Resources, and talent acquisition environments.
Ryan Whitacre is a Partner in the Chicago office of Bridge Partners LLC. Whitacre is a strategic adviser and talent-spotter to hiring managers, boards of directors, and search committees for leadership roles—board, C-suite, and function heads—across sector and industry. He is dedicated to identifying and recruiting an array of diverse talent for each engagement.