Since 1955, corporate board directors have selected a Fortune 500 CEO about 1800 times, yet fewer than 100 women and fewer than 6 Black women have ever been the CEO of one of these companies. Since the Fortune 500 is the epitome of corporate success in America, it is also a symbol of progress (or the lack thereof) regarding workforce diversity. The Fortune 500 CEO list will only become diverse when the positions that lead to the C-suite become diverse. We will see significant changes only when board directors insist on that diversity and require it as part of their evaluations of CEO performance.
CEOs can support this progress by educating themselves about the available talent pool to overcome the awkwardness many feel and display when interacting with people from traditionally subordinated groups. Then, the CEO should lead actions to create and implement an enterprise diversity strategy.
Three actions to support a diversity strategy for the C-suite:
- Reduce the traditional over-reliance on a few “head-hunter” executive search firms previously dominating the market. Those firms have traditionally not been diverse, so they do a great job recruiting people who look like them; only now have they started to change. Instead, I suggest that CEOs give the business to executive recruiting firms that operate in diverse social networks and behave as if they value diversity. (And stop using the term “head-hunter.”
- Clearly define and articulate valid selection criteria for the roles. These decisions are often made on a “gut level” and “I know who you know” basis. This feel, and this works to the disadvantage of candidates from under-represented groups,
- Sponsor and prepare internal candidates previously overlooked, including candidates from staff leadership roles. I know, for example, many Black women who have been bypassed over the years in favor of men who were less qualified or capable but who were “insiders.” As long as this practice continues, the C-suite will remain closed to these women.