Want to Build a Diverse Leadership Team? Start By Asking These 3 Key Questions

Jan. 17, 2017

DRG staff



If you are like most nonprofit leaders, you recognize the value of recruiting and retaining a diverse team for the success of your organization.

You may have worked on strategic plans that integrate diversity as a key pillar aimed at achieving laudable goals such as reducing poverty, improving health outcomes, or advancing the arts. You understand that focusing on diversity to reflect the communities you serve models the social change for which your mission-driven organization advocates. You ascribe to the notion that diversity is good for mission and good for business. And yet, you may experience the challenge of recruiting and developing a diverse team to help you achieve those goals.

You’re not alone. According to a 2014 article in Nonprofit Quarterly, there is a “glaring disparity in nonprofit leadership.” Studies show that 60 percent of nonprofits serve people of color yet only seven percent of nonprofit chief executives and 18 percent of nonprofit employees are people of color.

An organizational self-assessment that answers the “who, why, and how” questions should form the foundation of your recruitment and retention strategies. You can leverage diversity as both a moral and a practical business imperative by starting with these three basic questions:

1. Why are you seeking to recruit diverse talent?

Diversity should be more than just a buzzword in your organization. It’s important to have clear objectives that align with the values, accomplishments, skills and experiences of the diverse professional leaders you are seeking.

In my previous article, “Beyond Diversity: 7 Practical Steps to Successfully Recruit and Onboard A New Board Member,” I described how the board chair and CEO of a nonprofit recruited me for board membership. They did so by connecting my health care experience and my personal values with the goals of the organization.

Being able to articulate why diversity is important to your organization is an effective recruitment tactic that can help you become more intentional about diversity. Consider the goals you are aiming to achieve and how including more diversity on your board, leadership team, and staff could help you achieve those goals. This will present your organization with an opportunity to create impact.

What complex societal problem is your organization working to alleviate? Connect it to the talent you seek, and you will increase your chances of recruiting individuals who will be ready to join your cause. The added benefit is that when working on a diverse team, they are more likely to move your organization to solutions.

Economics professor Scott Page of the University of Michigan discovered through his research that diverse teams perform better at solving complicated problems and creating innovative solutions. He argued that diversity, when leveraged effectively, is not only good for mission, but also is critical for business and organizational sustainability. A fascinating aspect of his discovery was that teams with a mix of individuals who thought differently about how to solve problems outperformed the less diverse teams, even when the less diverse teams were made up of individuals who were more skilled at problem-solving. In other words, diversity outweighed ability.

2. Who are you seeking to recruit?

To determine whom to recruit, be clear on your understanding of diversity. Diversity can mean different things to different people. Fundamentally, diversity is about recognizing the meaningful differences in the identities of individuals working in an organization.

These identities may be visible or invisible and fall under the familiar, visible categories of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and national origin. They may also be the invisible differences such as sexual orientation, disability status, life experiences, military service, marital/family status, religion, personality profiles, and preferred work styles. These differences, represented in various individuals, make your organization diverse.

Authors Katherine Jacobs, PhD and Andrew Grant-Thomas, PhD, write about diversity being possible, and likely most meaningful, in the context of a group. They posit diversity as a characteristic of groups, not one person’s individual characteristic. For example, have you ever seen the following in a job ad: “seeking a diverse candidate” or a professional with a “diverse background”? This implies that a single person can embody diversity potentially leading to stereotyping and a check-the-box way of thinking. Furthermore, have you ever heard someone self-identify as diverse? It’s not likely that individuals reveal, “I am a diverse gay man” or “I practice a diverse religion.”

However, diversity goes beyond surface-level qualities like race, age and gender. Diversity of expertise, mindsets, viewpoints, ideas, life experiences, and backgrounds also helps to challenge the status quo.

3. How can you implement practical yet profound practices to position your new hire for success?

Diversity without its corollary inclusion sets new hires and their organizations up for failure.

Inclusion involves moving beyond recognizing and welcoming people with different identities. It focuses on actions to fully engage individuals so that they contribute their skills and ways of thinking to help the organization reach its goals.

Verna Myers, Esq., a diversity consultant, is often cited for her quote, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” This is a keen metaphor for describing diversity and inclusion. It normalizes what it means to not only be invited, but also to be engaged in the shared norms, affirming that the invitees are indeed welcomed and valued.

I’d like to take it a step further to highlight diversity as the opening, inclusion as the engagement, and belonging as the desired outcome. The group at the party became more diverse because different people were invited, they were asked to dance, which made them feel included, and they knew they belonged because no one stopped dancing to stare at them while they danced. In addition, no one told them that their way of dancing was “not how we dance around here.”

You can model your diversity initiative in a similar manner.

Start by conducting an organizational scan or diversity audit to discover how you can position your new hire for success. Will your potential new hire, for example, a Muslim woman, be the first and only or will she look around and see others on the leadership team representing a mix of talent? Naturally, adhering to legally required religious accommodations is one way to demonstrate belonging, another is making sure she has a robust on-boarding that allows her to get to know key stakeholders and influencers in the organization. Set her up for success by laying out quick wins to build confidence and connection. Invest in coaching and mentoring from the outset so she feels valued and supported. Find out how she prefers to receive feedback and recognition and respond accordingly. The sooner you understand her motivations for success, the better you can connect her motivation to advance your mission.

You may notice that the practices that I have outlined can work well with all new hires, regardless of the diversity they may bring to your team. Valuing, recognizing and supporting the people in your organization inspire growth, success and innovation. These things are also critical success factors for diversity.

 In my next article, I’ll share why most diversity programs fail and what we can do about it. I’ll describe the surprising things you do and don’t need to implement effective diversity practices.