By Allison Wyatt
Edgility Consulting has always been committed to increasing the proportion of leaders of color at education organizations and schools that serve our youth in underserved communities. But up until about a year ago, despite having leaders of color represent two-thirds of finalists that we presented to our clients, our actual placement rate of leaders of color was stuck at 50%.
We knew that the problem wasn’t the candidates, but rather the system. “Talented, ambitious, and qualified people of color are ready to lead, but they are thwarted by assumptions about race, the idea of ‘cultural fit,’ and preconceived notions of what a leader looks like,” write Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther of the nonprofit Building Movement Project in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. In their report Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, Thomas-Breitfeld and Kunreuther go even further, urging organizations like our own to “present viable candidates across race as well as educate boards and executive-level staff on race-conscious hiring” and that we be asked about our success in finding and placing candidates of color.
We also knew that, not only do children (those of color as well as others) benefit from having leaders of color at the helm, organizations themselves benefit substantially by having those most impacted by racism and discrimination leading the work.
However, leadership is far from equitable across the nonprofit sector and even in the public education system. Just 10% of nonprofit leaders and board members are non-white, and although educators of color make up 18% of teachers and 20% of principals, their ranks decline to just 8% of district superintendents and 10% of state chiefs.
We had done a lot of work to expand our networks and proactively source candidates of color, building strong, diverse pools of candidates in which 66% of final candidates were leaders of color. However, we couldn’t manage to get the selection numbers to budge.
So we got to work.
We were confident that we had found viable candidates, and that we could continue to find more as diversity work advanced in other education organizations across the country; in the meantime, we set out to address the implicit biases that pervaded the system, organizations, practices, and people with which we work – including on our own team.
Four Ways we increased Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our Search Process and Increased our Placement rate of leaders of Color by over 50%
What We Did
First, we educated ourselves. In addition to scanning the literature on removing bias from recruiting, we started a team book club that has included reading and discussion of written work including “How to be an Antiracist” by historian Ibram X. Kendi and “The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias” by social psychologist Dolly Chugh. Not only do we reflect on these books personally and professionally, we also challenge ourselves to make concrete changes to our work and our client engagements as a result of what we learn.
In that spirit, we began to ask our clients to include more diverse perspectives on their selection committees – and began to administer both anti-bias testing and training for these participants. As Race to Lead notes, “targeting the people who hire executive leadership on racialized attitudes before a search is in progress helps to lay the groundwork needed to make decisions that address racial bias.” We have selection committee members take the Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed by Harvard University researchers to surface “thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control” related to race (although other tests are available that relate to gender, age, ability, and other characteristics).
Next, we more consistently enforced using standardized selection practices and rubrics, and stopped allowing exceptions – including those that appeared to come from a good place but could be used to mask discrimination. “Employers should take a few steps to lessen the influence of personal fit—the similarities between an interviewer and the candidate—and to better articulate the company’s cultural values,” notes a Fortune article on how “cultural fit” is often used to perpetuate homogeneity. “Make sure to communicate to managers and potential employees alike the distinct elements of your corporate culture and how each is aligned with business goals. Then, use data and checklists to evaluate how well each candidate truly fits, rather than relying on subjective judgments of a hiring manager. Give candidates surveys and structured interviews to test traits and behaviors you have shown to correlate with better on-the-job success and retention.” In addition to ensuring that interviews and selection rubrics map onto relevant competencies that can be measured objectively, we also began to dissuade clients from unfair practices like “informal” reference-checking early in the process (which can stem from biased expectations for some candidates and an unfair advantage for others).
Finally, to combat selection bias as well as the racial wage gap, we strengthened the information and training we provide to our clients on compensation. For all of our executive searches, Edgility conducts a compensation analysis and recommends a salary range – and we strongly advise our clients to be upfront with all candidates about the amount, either in the job posting or early in the interview process. To combat gender and racial wage inequality, some companies have adopted our recommendation to ban salary negotiations entirely, but others are opting to simply ensure that they offer all candidates (and employees) the same information about compensation levels, decisions, and negotiation options. For example, HR Magazine writes that social media company Buffer publishes online its formula for determining pay levels and the amounts and mix of compensation employees receive “including an explanation of each element used to set pay and equity levels and a spreadsheet listing the compensation levels for its 37 employees, as well as salary and equity formulas and calculations.”
In response to these actions, we’re pleased to report that in the last two years, 77% of the searches conducted by Edgility have been filled by leaders of color. We have brought forward the same proportion of leaders of color in our candidate pools and into the final round of interviews (about 66%) but we believe we have helped more of our client organizations identify and eliminate the biased practices that led them to select only white leaders previously.
Now that more of their leaders more closely mirror the students and communities they serve, the work ahead for these organizations is far from over. They will need to focus on retaining those leaders so they can make a difference in addressing educational inequity in partnership with those marginalized populations.