Ten years ago, Dale Jones ditched his corporate job in Atlanta and moved to Washington to help bring clean water to underdeveloped parts of Africa. That might seem like a risky career move. But after Jones returned to the corporate world, his philanthropic hiatus turned out to be useful experience, especially when it came to his current gig: running Diversified Search, an executive-headhunter firm that often makes a point of valuing nonconformist career paths.
Founded in 1974 by Judith von Seldeneck—who had previously worked as then senator Walter Mondale’s secretary—Diversified initially focused on bringing women to the C suite. Today it emphasizes diversity in all of its forms, with companies such as Ford, Harley-Davidson, and International Paper tapping its expertise.
“Studies show that diverse organizations deal with complex systems better,” says Jones. Yet many businesses still struggle to attract candidates with different backgrounds. We recently sat down with Jones—who runs Diversified from its DC office—to talk about how companies can improve their efforts.
Rethink Your Criteria
Too often, hirers fall back on stale concepts like “passion” and “pedigree” when discussing candidates’ backgrounds—buzzwords that don’t really measure potential. “I hear ‘pedigree’ a lot,” says Jones. “There are great people who come from Ivy League schools and great people from many other institutions.” He warns that even legitimate concepts like “chemistry” or “culture” can be used to rule out good candidates from diverse backgrounds: “You have to be careful that those are not code words.”
Don’t just flip through the résumés that find their own way to your desk. Your search has to develop from the grassroots, says Jones. “We look in African-American churches, at historically black colleges and universities, in fraternities and sororities and affinity groups on major university campuses. You have to find emerging leaders who are not on the radar and track their trajectory.”
Whether we realize it or not, we all have biases. It’s obviously crucial to question yourself rigorously about subconscious discrimination, but biases can take quirkier forms as well. Jones, who grew up working at his father’s shoe-repair shop, finds himself judging prospective hires by their footwear. “People who care for detail take care of their shoes,” he says. But he cautions employers not to “get lost in a veneer—you can get duped by a beautiful set of shoes.”
Push Past the Résumé
Never forget that you’re hiring a human being, not a piece of paper (no matter how stylish the font or extensive the list of accomplishments). “We take them back to how they grew up, what shaped them, how they see the world,” says Jones. “When an interviewee starts with ‘Well, I graduated from UVA in 1982 . . . ,’ I respond, ‘We already have that information.’” What really matters? “Habits of the heart. If who you are is what you do, we want to know who you are when you stop doing what you do.”
Failure Is Not an Option—It’s a Requirement
Every high-level job involves navigating challenges, and Jones loves to see how candidates have dealt with their own setbacks. But people rarely include failures on their CV or bring them up in an interview. “You’ve got to ask the question,” he says.
Hire the Coach
Jones has developed some tricks for ferreting out great employees, whatever their background. For example, “there’s something to be said for people who get to their kids’ soccer games,” he says. “It’s about more than just work/life balance—it’s about managing multiple interests and keeping it all afloat. If you can get to the game, you can also multitask at work.”
Authoritarian leadership has gone the way of the office fax machine. “When I’m hiring for a top spot, I’m not looking for bosses,” Jones says. “A boss relies on old-school authority, saying ‘I’ and issuing ultimatums. A leader moves people forward and relies on goodwill. Leadership is not a title. It’s a behavior—a way of life that brings people together. ”
By Paul O’Donnell
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