katherineJacobsBreaking the Modern Glass Ceiling: Incorporating Inclusive Hiring Practices in Your Next Executive Search

By: Katherine Jacobs In: Diversity and Inclusion| Leadership

6 Dec 2009

[Editor’s Note: On October 22, the Council hosted a “Leadership Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion in Philanthropy.” The convening brought together more than 50 foundation and nonprofit leaders, trustees, and search firm executives to discuss a newly released report—Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership. In this post, Katherine Jacobs, an expert on the nonprofit executive search world, discusses proven strategies and tactics, and offers grantmakers practical tips on incorporating diversity and inclusion in the executive search process.]

In the world of executive searches, there’s nothing new about cloning.

For all the talk about diversifying candidate pools, thinking outside the box or seeking new perspectives at the outset of a search process, decision makers often overlook important steps when considering what it means to diversify leadership within their organization. As a result, if unwittingly so, even searches with deep pools of candidates offering organizations new perspectives in race, gender, experience and skill, can skew towards hires who are strikingly similar to their predecessors.

As consultants committed to inclusive search processes, we’ve noted over the years some of the repeated challenges organizations face when attempting to diversify leadership. One of the easiest is to identify what we call “feel-right” decision making.

What we mean is this: At the beginning of many searches and during the interview process, we often hear the following refrain from clients—“I’ll know it when I see it.” This feel-right approach poses a challenge to an inclusive hiring process. Why? For two reasons: first, knowing it when you see it assumes you’ve seen it before and second, many “diverse” candidates who offer an organization new perspectives are just that—new.

Even the best intended decision makers can have trouble being fair to all candidates in a process when using the feel-right approach. One of the most universal principles in human psychology is the positive relationship between similarity and attraction. We are most attracted to those who are similar to us—to those we know and understand—and diversity is by definition different. If decision makers rely too heavily on the gut feelings that guide what feels right, they can develop unintended biases towards ‘familiar’ candidates. Doing so will stymie the progress an organization can make toward diversifying its leadership.

In order to be mindful of a tendency toward the familiar, consider the following:

  • Define diversity within the search context and discuss in earnest what it might mean for your organization to move beyond what you already know.
  • Take the extra step at the beginning of the interview process to set clear metrics for candidate evaluation. Then, be mindful of prospective biases toward the more familiar candidates after each interview.
  • Be mindful (especially during the final stages of the search process) that similarities are easier to identify with candidates who already look, talk or act like you and that these points of connection can enhance that feel-right moment. You can help keep unintended biases in check by putting a little extra effort into both finding commonalities and identifying ways to value the differences candidates from diverse backgrounds bring to the candidate pool. By doing so, you’re giving them the same opportunity you would give to someone more like you.
  • Celebrate the excitement of what you’ve found in common with a new leader, but remain sensitive to supporting differences. By being cognizant of supporting your hire’s specific needs as well as preparing your organization to work in concert with a new leader, you and your hire can build each other, and your organization toward a stronger, brighter future together.

Katherine Jacobs is vice president and managing partner of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, an executive search firm with offices in Boston, Washington, DC, Europe, and Latin America. Jacobs’s colleague, Laura Gassner Otting, founder and president of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, also blogged about her experiences in working on nonprofit executive searches in Diversity and Inclusive Practices in Executive Leadership Searches: Insights from a Pro.

2 Responses to Breaking the Modern Glass Ceiling: Incorporating Inclusive Hiring Practices in Your Next Executive Search

Michael James Reid

May 28th, 2011 at 11:09 am

We share the same strong opinions.


Michael J. Reid

Michael James Reid

May 28th, 2011 at 11:10 am

I’d like to share this with my Inclusive Diversity Search Group on Linkedin.


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