4 Lessons Successful Enterprises Follow When Hiring Their First DE&I Executive
Louis Montgomery Jr. | December 7, 2022
Over the last couple of years there has been an ongoing, necessary, and unprecedented focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) prompted by the events of 2020 and protests demanding change. Business leaders have finally begun to recognize the racial inequities embedded deep within the systems we operate in everyday, including our workplaces. They’ve also realized that to continue to thrive, businesses must represent the communities and consumers they serve. Many organizations have responded with the commitment to change the way they operate. As a result, many organizations are searching for their first DEI professional.
In a recent webinar, I had the opportunity to lead a group of panelists in a discussion about their leading-edge efforts around hiring an inaugural DE&I executive and putting measurable strategies into action. Ian Lee Brown (VP/Chief Diversity and Belonging Officer at Duke University Health System), Sasha Diskin (Vice President, Talent, Diversity and Inclusion at Horizon Therapeutics), and Paula Frey (Chief HR Officer for Echo Global Logistics) all shared their thoughts and experiences with more than 100 attendees over the course of an engaging one-hour conversation. Here are some of the takeaways:
Recognizing When and Why to Hire a DE&I Leader
Not every organization reaches the juncture to hire a DE&I executive at the same time, though it’s long been on the business world’s radar. In fact, an SHRM study shows 62% of organizations have allocated little to no resources to this framework. For those looking for cues that they should pursue DE&I aggressively, the panel offered some valuable reminders.
For both Horizon Therapeutics and Echo Global Logistics, their leadership had already been in active discussions about the need for intentional work and a more assertive approach to drive and deliver on their DE&I strategy. So, the events during the summer of 2020 served as a catalyst to be more proactive to meet the needs and align with the values of the employees, investors, and the communities they serve.
As Sasha noted, “We really identified the need to have somebody who was going to lead us from a programmatic perspective, bringing together many stakeholders from across the organization, as well as external stakeholders to do the work and do it well.” For Paula, there was a recognition that a DE&I leader adds extra accountability. She said, “Without the dedication of someone who wakes up every single day thinking about how to make this a better place to work, [DE&I] oftentimes ends up on the back burner.”
Even beyond the moment of activism stemming from the murder of George Floyd, there has been the growth of a movement and expectation from larger segments of the workforce. Ian pointed out how major social unrest, divisive politics, and even the pandemic caused people to reflect on the harmful impacts of racism and start dialogues around it.
The growing appetite for anti-racism is reflected in an EY survey that found that 36% of all U.S. worker demographics (49% of Gen Z and Millennials, respectively) would make their decision to stay with a company based on that organization’s public positions on social issues. With DE&I so critical to a growing segment of the workforce, corporations need to recognize that the best time to hire a dedicated DE&I leader, if they haven’t already, is now.
Identifying the Right Person in the Executive Search Process
There is always a steeper grade of difficulty when it comes to identifying and hiring talent at the executive level. For many organizations, vetting DE&I leadership is entirely uncharted waters, often requiring guidance to define requirements, source top candidates, and screen for cultural fit.
The starting point is often an exploration of requirements for the role. Prior to their executive search, Echo Global Logistics conducted a needs assessment with external advisors to pinpoint where the organization was with DE&I efforts and flesh out the type of person who would thrive within the role. Both Paula and Sasha emphasized the importance of defining what the role entails and determining the requirements needed.
Sasha talked about seeking out leaders who could speak to results. She said, “For us, it was really important to find someone who had demonstrated making progress and guiding change in the areas of diversity and inclusion. What were their results? What were their strategies and plans? I think we had a lot of interesting conversations relative to that.”
Paula focused on how their organization sought out someone who could take on the role of a teacher. She highlighted a key lesson for any enterprise early in their journey: “It was very important to us that we had someone who was approaching [DE&I] from a teaching and learning lens […] I think our DE&I leader brings that to the table. She’s very much a teacher and educator.”
Beyond that, all the panelists recognized that searching for talent by themselves could cause delays in their progress. Paula observed how some of her peers who had conducted searches for DE&I leaders in the past struggled for 12 months to find the right person. Working with an executive search firm with demonstrated experience in finding this type of talent, enabled them to expedite the process and connect with DE&I leaders who would strive to understand their business as they elevated their DE&I structure and strategy.
Evolving Your Business with the Role
Hiring a DE&I leader is the inciting incident of a new journey. One thread that became clear across the conversation with our panelists was that there are innumerable opportunities to learn and evolve as their new executive settles into the role. That said, how have these organizations learned and adapted within the last two years?
At Duke University Health System, one mainstay became focused on inclusive leadership, developing leaders who were willing to be self-aware, empathetic, and eager to amplify the diverse perspectives around them. Ian said, “Driving [DE&I] in such a way that all of us own it can lead to what we believe could be an even stronger culture of belonging.” The lesson from this strategy is that encouraging all your leaders to be DE&I champions is a surefire way to have the framework take root in your organization.
After hiring our DE&I leader, Echo Global Logistics recognized an opportunity for DE&I to extend to every corner of their organization. Paula said, “During the first year, she was heads down, focused internally with our employees. In the last three or four months, her focus has been on supplier diversity.” This was an exceptional reminder that a DE&I mindset should influence every aspect of the business, destroying systemic barriers while elevating the variety of perspectives that can enrich your decision-making capabilities.
Measuring DE&I Effectiveness
How are you measuring success? This question was top of mind for many of the webinar attendees, and each of the panelists had some thoughts on metrics and how their enterprises were adapting to improve them.
One area of focus was on engagement survey results. Since engaged workers have been shown to be 17% more productive than their peers, it’s key to satisfy the needs of those who want DE&I allyship as part of their work culture. By including DE&I questions in their employee surveys, Echo Global Logistics was able to gauge whether their actions were moving the needle.
In the EY survey about DE&I, the majority of respondents defined the concept as a pursuit of “equitable job opportunities” across an organization. For Sasha, that meant reviewing workforce composition, as well as the feelings and perceptions of their employees ascertained through engagement surveys. With this data, they’ve collaborated with external providers to help them with diversity job boards, as well as directing their own efforts to build bonds with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other partnerships.
Ian takes that a step further by reviewing leadership diversity, measuring their increase of Black Indigenous People of Color leaders (BIPOC) and promotion rates. Looking at the analytics, they have recognized an opportunity to build more time with Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE) partners, going so far as to even use outside-the-box recruitment strategies to reach those talent pools.
To Wrap It Up
As our panelists shared their stories, challenges, and best practices with our audience, one clear message emerged. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a concept with a fixed timeline of transformation. It’s an ongoing process that requires top-to-bottom acceptance. As Paula said, “Approach DE&I as if it is a journey. An initiative implies there’s a start and a finish and [this movement] has no finish. It will continue to evolve […] We basically want to show up and be better than we were yesterday.”