Sector News

Diversity in executive search and leadership consulting 

March 21, 2021
Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity has long been a cornerstone of the profession, but something changed in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. “It was almost like a sledgehammer to the head, a wake-up call to the opportunity we had as a profession to truly be leaders.” Karen Greenbaum, President and CEO of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) describes what happened within the leadership of AESC. “Clarke Murphy, the CEO of Russell Reynolds, sent me a text at 7:00 am on a Friday. I won’t forget it, with the headline ‘Black Lives Matter’ saying, ‘can we talk?’”

Greenbaum immediately called Clarke back, and within a few days, they were convening a meeting of the CEOs of some of the largest and most influential search firms. “We had eight CEOs who came together, all competitors, all CEOs. We had some of the largest firms in the world represented. We had the largest woman-led firm represented. We had the largest Black-led firm represented. And we decided that what we wanted to do is begin by creating a CEO pledge, pledging the commitment of our member firms to diversity and that we wanted to quickly follow that pledge with action because we knew that a pledge was not enough.”

The AESC Diversity Pledge

“We share a commitment to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination within our own organizations, with candidates and the clients we serve, and in our communities. We pledge to use our collective voices and actions to help create a world that is inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible for all.”

View Participating Firms

They also developed an action plan to give teeth to the pledge, predicated on themes of accelerate, educate, advance, and advocate. “In order to sign the pledge,” Greenbaum explains, “you have to submit to AESC your plan, what you are actually doing. Those who have signed the pledge have fulfilled that obligation. We have well over a hundred firms who have signed the pledge.” Greenbaum explains that these plans are carefully reviewed and if the plans are not robust and actionable, they are returned with the message, “do better.”

Greenbaum calls attention to AESC’s publicly accessible IDEA Powered Leadership page on the organization’s website. “IDEA stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. And this is just a highlight of our many actions. We have always included diversity in our Code of Professional Practice. It has always been a commitment of our profession, but we know we can do more.”

Some examples of AESC’s recent leadership include:

  • We launched a North American Diversity Leadership Council with experts from member firms to help guide us in our focus on meaningful, impactful actions.
  • AESC’s November global conference tapped diversity and inclusion thought leaders from the world stage. Greenbaum says, “We had chief diversity officers from Facebook, Centene, NBC, Nike and Salesforce. We had John Amaechi, OBE, a highly respected UK-based leadership consultant, we had amazing executive women in STEMM from Australia, India, South Africa and Italy. We had Dr. Tony Byers, author of The Multiplier Effect of Inclusion, and the former chief diversity officer at Starbucks. “We are focused on education for our members. We know it starts with ourselves, our own organizations,” Greenbaum says.
  • BlueSteps, AESC’s career service for executives, will be leveraged globally with new actions that will more rapidly build a strong, diverse database of executives including the next generation of leaders. This will benefit AESC members, their clients and the candidates they are seeking, particularly the next generation of diverse candidates around the world.”
  • AESC’s first-annual IDEA Award recognized leading-edge work of members in inclusion, diversity, equity and access (or IDEA), as well as those who are doing work with underrepresented communities to advance social justice.

Greenbaum says, “It’s exciting and energizing to see how much we have accomplished already and I know that in 2021 we will continue to make a real impact as we help create a world that is inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible for all.”

Creating a culture of inclusion and belonging is important worldwide. But the lens from which we look at diversity itself varies around the world.

“Diversity means different things in different places.” Tina Shah Paikeday leads Russell Reynolds’ global Diversity & Inclusion advisory services as a senior member of the Leadership & Succession team. She says, “The U.S. issues today are largely focused on race and ethnicity, whereas in Europe, squarely, the issue is women.” She adds, “As we think about the LGBTQ population, we can’t talk about that in certain parts of the world as openly as we do in the U.S.”

Pauly Rodney, Senior Vice President and Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Raines International agrees that “it’s a different conversation outside the U.S. and the expectations are not the same.” He says, “There are some countries where gender is at the forefront of the conversation. Others where the diversity discussion is tied to socio-economic status. Still, other countries that are overwhelmingly one ethnicity, but the conversation is about geographic location and skin tone.”

Shah Paikeday adds, “The problem around diversity and inclusion, it’s almost a first world problem to some extent. As countries are developing, there are more basic survival needs that companies in those regions are thinking about.”

Greenbaum notes, “Our pledge begins with our own profession. As a profession, we have made enormous progress in terms of gender diversity around the world—although there are still some countries where progress has been slower. It’s more challenging to measure other aspects of diversity—visible and non-visible—because we lack a tracking mechanism. But we know that we as a profession have work to do in terms of all aspects of diversity represented especially in our more senior consultant ranks.”

In the Asia Pacific region, Shah Paikeday says, “For Western headquartered executive search firms, the challenge is focusing on the local talent and how do we recognize the difference in leadership styles that may be prevalent because of cultural norms, so that we are grooming locals to be in leadership positions in major search firms.”

One way to talk about diversity that transcends the differences among countries is through the lens of inclusion. “Inclusion is that universal umbrella that enables us to talk about the issue globally and in every region,” Shah Paikeday explains. “The caution that I give there is that in some places, hierarchy is actually so important that the notion of everybody having voice and influence doesn’t necessarily lend itself, take China, for example, where hierarchy is expected and valued. Whereas ‘belonging’ is a sense that somebody could be their true selves, no matter what background they have and that, that I believe is a universal concept and the way that we can talk about the same topic all over the world.”

At a minimum, Rodney says, “Let’s start with the principle that there should be no barriers to entry based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity or orientation, et cetera. Then let’s adapt that principle to each of the markets and the countries that we operate in, because each location has a specific priority to these issues.”

AESC members around the world are helping their clients accelerate the diversity of their leadership teams while helping them understand the importance of creating an inclusive culture.

“I think that I’ve never experienced a busier time in my career in terms of doing this work,” Shah Paikeday says. “It pervades everything from the work that I’ve done for a very long time, which is developing diversity, equity, inclusion strategies and programs, to being asked about this in every single search that I’m working on.”

For Rodney, “Each day we hear stories of what people are forced to endure due to their race, gender, orientation, or nationality. These experiences have been commonplace for decades—generations even. Corporations are responding with ‘we had no idea our employees and customers felt this way or were going through this!’ Each year, those companies spend billions of dollars on executive search and leadership consulting. This is one of the few industries that can have a meaningful, measurable impact if corporations wanted to move the needle on DEI. More corporations should start demanding minimum DEI metrics from our profession, and judge us on that.

Greenbaum “recognizes the impact we can make as a profession.” She says, “We are taking a leadership role, and we are proudly doing that, and we are making a difference. We’re not the ultimate deciders when it comes to selection, but we can have a huge impact both as trusted advisors and in the way we find talent. Every day we are strengthening diverse leadership and those leaders can change the world.” READ MORE

by Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants


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