How to Cultivate Diversity in Leadership

This board room illustrates a company that has diversity in leadership.

A growing number of employers are prioritizing diversity in their hiring practices. That’s good news for entry-level job seekers from traditionally underrepresented groups, but it hasn’t always led to more diversity in leadership.

Entry-level hiring for women and people of color is approaching representative numbers in the U.S. workplace, but those numbers fall off precipitously for management and especially senior executive levels. For example, women of color account for only 4 percent of senior business leadership positions.

Diverse leadership teams tend to cultivate increased rates of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the organization, with better rates of retention and promotion for women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community.

How do you create an environment where highly qualified and motivated employees from diverse backgrounds want to grow their careers? The following tips can help you get started.

Understand the Benefits of Diversity in Leadership

A growing body of research shows that businesses with leadership that reflects the diversity of the marketplace are more likely to appeal to a broader range of customers. Organizations with diverse leadership teams are more efficient, more likely to come up with innovative solutions, and earn higher profits than those that don’t.

A reputation for prioritizing DEI initiatives, including increased diversity in management, can be a recruiting advantage at all levels, since an increasing number of applicants are asking employers about their DEI initiatives during the hiring process. This trend is most pronounced among Gen Z job seekers, with 86 percent stating that diversity is an important factor when considering an employer.

Finally, since 30 percent of employers lack a DEI strategy, a comprehensive approach to diversity hiring and promotion at all levels can give your organization an advantage.

Develop Talent From Within

Many employers think that emphasizing diverse hiring for entry-level jobs will automatically increase diversity across their organization at all levels as employees grow and develop and earn promotions.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Without diversity in leadership across teams and at the executive levels, diverse workers don’t tend to receive the nurturing and mentoring they need to progress in their role. Retention, especially for top performers, becomes a challenge, and employees you may have invested resources into recruiting and training may end up leaving only to flourish with one of your competitors.

The best way to end this cycle is to honestly assess your current recruiting and internal promotion processes. Ask yourself tough questions, such as:

  • Do you tend to neglect internal talent in favor of outside applicants when leadership roles become vacant?
  • Do you have policies in place that encourage mentorship?
  • Do you provide your employees with opportunities to learn about career and professional development?
  • Is your company culture nurturing for all?
  • Do your hiring and promotion practices perpetuate unconscious biases?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you have work to do. You’ll need to focus attention on increasing diversity at all levels—entry-level, middle management, and executive roles—to compete with companies that excel at DEI.

Recruiting at the Entry and Mid-level

Some of the following recruiting best practices for entry-level hires can be employed to improve diversity for every role in your company, from intern to CEO:

  • Consider implementing a blind application process. This means stripping off applicants’ names, addresses, and the names (and graduation dates) of the schools they’ve attended.
  • Reach out to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and institutions with diverse student and alumni populations and forge relationships with their career services departments.
  • Create targeted internship and fellowship programs for people of color and other underrepresented groups.
  • Many sectors have professional organizations for people of color (for example, the Society of Black Engineers). Reach out to those in your field and ask about recruiting opportunities at all levels.
  • Use a script for interviews that asks the same questions of every candidate and assemble a diverse hiring committee for every role.

You might even choose to take more radical steps, such as forgoing resumes altogether, which data shows can improve fairness in hiring and diversity in leadership.

Recruiting for Leadership Roles

Some organizations require that diverse candidates be among the finalists for all leadership roles. However, this policy can backfire. Applicants know the difference between a pro forma interview that is being carried out to fulfill company policy and a fair process where they are being given real consideration.

When gauging whether candidates have the leadership skills required for a role, consider roles outside of the workplace. Are any of the applicants for the role veterans with command experience? Have they taken on executive roles in nonprofit organizations or professional associations? Have they engaged in project management, complex event planning, or mentorship within their community?

All these experiences can help develop management skills and should be weighted accordingly when considering internal or external candidates for leadership roles.

Make sure you reward work on DEI initiatives as highly as you reward other accomplishments. Women are twice as likely as men to spend time on DEI initiatives, and since this time is often not considered part of their official job responsibilities, it’s labor that is often overlooked when it comes to promotions.

Consider investing in robust career re-entry programs to increase diversity in leadership, since statistically women are more likely than men to interrupt their career trajectory at mid-career to take care of children or ailing relatives, a reality that can hinder gender equity efforts in your management recruitment efforts.

Create a Culture of Inclusion

Is diversity a core value within your organization? If so, have you communicated this effectively in your employer branding?

You can increase retention, and thereby increase the likelihood that diverse employees will remain with you long enough to grow into leadership roles, by sponsoring affinity groups. Affinity and resource groups allow employees to come together to work on goals they have in common, provide support networks, and foster innovations that can improve your bottom line.

One of the most effective ways to ensure that DEI is a priority at every level of your organization is to tie DEI initiatives, including hiring, mentoring, and promotion, to management compensation. Once you begin implementing these DEI strategies, communicate them as transparently as possible to job seekers on your web site and highlight it in all your recruitment materials, including job posts.

Learn How to Increase Diversity Recruitment and Retention at Every Level of Your Organization

Employers who prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are more likely to recruit top talent and out-perform organizations that are less diverse. Our DEI Hiring Guide has the answers that will help you learn how to increase diversity in leadership and throughout your organization.