Diversity & Inclusion

Laying a Firm DEI Foundation to Drive Future Success

In our chief diversity officer series, we’ve talked to many diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders across a number of industries. Forward-thinking firms are working hard to break down the traditional barriers that have hindered greater diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their ranks.

They recognize the genuine value D&I can bring to any organization: greater creativity, stronger understanding of diverse markets and their customer/client base, and overall greater profitability.

Kamau Coar

One key step some firms are taking is creating the chief diversity officer (CDO) or equivalent positions, which are focused on promoting D&I within their organizations. Kamau Coar, Chief Legal Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer at Heidrick & Struggles, is a great example of this trend.

A Start in the Legal Profession

Coar started his career as an employment attorney with Proskauer Rose, a law firm in New York. He says that unbeknownst to him at the time, he was being pulled by two forces that led him to law school and ultimately to becoming a lawyer. The first was a strong calling for purpose, specifically around fairness and equality. The second was his personal ambition for success and to try his hand in the corporate world. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the legal profession, it’s important to note that it is notoriously lacking in diversity. This isn’t necessarily due to any intentional policy or overt biases, but there are long-standing structural and systemic reasons women and minorities are poorly represented in leadership roles within law firms and even among the attorney population more broadly. Anyone with experience in the industry, such as Coar, would no doubt note the general lack of diversity.

Individual Experiences and Personal Stories Can Have Huge Impacts

The drive to focus more resources and effort on increasing D&I is due in part to a changing appreciation in the business world of the value D&I can provide to a company’s bottom line. But in addition to that general trend, which impacts all industries, individual experiences, stories, and passion can have a tremendous impact on those efforts, especially at the individual company level.

Coar’s transition to the chief inclusion officer role at Heidrick & Struggles is a great example of this. It’s a new role for the firm, he says. “It came to be primarily over the past year or so as I began to see parallels between the elements that are critical for the success of any [DEI] program, together with my own increasing comfort in sharing more broadly.” Coar adds that he was already passionate about these areas and had been working directly with Heidrick & Struggles’ board and leadership team—most notably its CEO, CHRO, and COO—to be an advocate and a champion of DEI and to help turn the firm’s aspirations into tangible actions. Coar says he also already had a view that statistics and data lead to more effective actions and investments in change. 

What led to the creation of the role, he notes, was his own growing comfort with speaking up and sharing more about himself and having more open conversations on diversity issues at work. He explains, “2020 was unique and challenging in so many ways, but one of the positive outcomes that will hopefully endure is a willingness from so many to have more courageous conversations about who we are and who we want to be as a culture.”

Leveraging Core Competencies for Internal Change…

Changing an organization’s culture to embrace and focus on D&I can be a tremendous undertaking. Many of the most well-intentioned companies, in fact, can fall short in these efforts. But Coar notes that Heidrick & Struggles holds a privileged and unique role in advancing DEI around the world. As a global leadership advisory firm, it is an advocate for talent and, by virtue of that advocacy, an agent of change. The firm works to place executives in the top leadership and board roles around the world and to provide its advisory services to help leaders and organizations build inclusive workplace cultures. 

As a global company with more than 50 offices in more than 25 countries, some level of diversity comes naturally to Heidrick & Struggles, Coar says.

“In creating a diverse and inclusive culture, our efforts start with leadership that truly values diversity and sees it as an asset. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion, starting with our CEO, is authentic, real and non-wavering.” That commitment, Coar says, is shared by the firm’s board and all of its senior leadership teams. “From the shadow of our leaders, we encourage other leaders around the firm to use their position to include overlooked or under-represented people and get honest about where we need to do more, or where there is a lack of understanding,” Coar says. “These leaders look to a wide circle of advisors that can help them stay accountable for progress and commit to improving over time.”

…and External Success

It’s not a great conceptual leap to translate that internal experience to external client engagements, which is a great example of how DEI can be a core competency for businesses that truly get it and embrace it. “When we value and prioritize DEI in our workplace, our commitment cascades into representation in who we present to our clients and how we help our clients advance DEI in their organizations,” Coar says.

“A great example of this is our Board Diversity Pledge. In 2018, we were the first executive search firm to announce a Board Diversity Pledge committing that on an annual basis at least half of the cumulative slate of initial board candidates presented globally to clients would be diverse. We have exceeded the pledge goal each year. In 2020, more than 60% of our initial proposed candidates were diverse, globally. When we value DEI, it has a tangible impact on who we are and who our clients are.”

D&I is embedded in everything Heidrick & Struggles does and believes in as a firm, says Coar. The firm values differences in ability, ethnicity, gender, geography, and sexual orientation and, more broadly, differences of perspective. 

“We also believe that diversity is not just a politically or socially responsible goal, it is a business imperative,” Coar stresses. “We proactively recruit, develop and work to retain diverse talent across all levels of our firm, and create a welcoming and inclusive culture.”

It’s that level of commitment that has helped Heidrick & Struggles turn DEI into a core competency that drives its overall corporate success and positions it well for whatever the future may hold.