Setting the Stage for Equitable Leadership Transitions

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Editor’s Note:  Laurie Price is our guest contributor this week. She is a partner with Julia Burns in the Florida-based consulting firm Clarity Transitions. Laurie shares the challenge all organizations, schools, governments and businesses face – attracting and retaining diverse talent.

If you’ve seen one nonprofit board, you’ve seen one nonprofit board.  There are those that drive change and those that prevent it.  Boards that raise money and boards that don’t.  Those living in the weeds and those that function at nosebleed heights. 

But regardless of how they operate, Boards are recognizing that equity needs to be considered in how leadership transitions are handled.  For some it’s an early glimmer, and for others more apparent, but the proverbial camel’s nose is in the tent and it’s a welcome sight.  Ultimately, an organizational culture of inclusion and equity would ensure that succession planning and transition processes are attentive to apparent and unconscious exclusions and biases, and embrace leaders that make equity the standard within the culture, policies, and practices of the organization. 

In our practice, Clarity Transitions works with a broad range of nonprofit organizations, helping to build bench strength and promoting healthy succession planning and implementation.  As part of this work, we support Boards as they prepare to search for new organizational leadership.  Many Board members work in corporate environments and have already been exposed to equity touchpoints in talent recruitment.

Our process often begins with an identification of the key needed attributes for the new CEO, and the development of a position posting.   The sticking point for Boards around attributes is not the qualitative characteristics of potential candidates, but the desire for candidates to have already established relationships with potential funders.  This desire for key relationships to already be in place can create biases against younger candidates and candidates of color.  Reminding Boards of their responsibility in onboarding the CEO, and in helping her or him to build those lucrative relationships can help mitigate the bias.  This reminder is an opportunity to reinforce the value of a fresh perspective. 

Happily, we have seen Boards move past inflating education requirements for leadership positions by recognizing the value of experience and potential, versus degrees. 

The biggest challenge that we see in promoting equitable leadership transitions is attracting a broad candidate base.  Positions are generally pushed out through industry-specific postings, nonprofit center job banks, LinkedIn and other social media. Occasionally through Indeed.   We also rely on direct correspondence, from us and the Board, to influencers who have relationships with potentially qualified candidates.  We are explicit in our collective effort to approach as diverse a constituency group as possible. 

As consultants, it’s easy to see and experience our community’s talented current and potential leaders of color.  Despite the efforts above, we and the sector are challenged to effectively reach and invite diverse audiences to consider becoming involved as a volunteer leader or paid staff. Until we can better directly connect more effectively with communities underrepresented in leadership (Blacks, Indigenous, People of Color, the LGBTQ community), and create organizational cultures where they feel being welcomed and belonging, we will continue to struggle.  We also have to demonstrate that nonprofit careers are good jobs and paths to provide financial security,

As the hiring process progresses, we do find that Boards are mindful of the wording of interview questions and reference checks to ensure that they are equitable across all candidates.  Setting the tone with warm introductions creates a welcoming environment for the Board and the interviewees.  Ensuring that every applicant receives a letter or a call about their status is apparently no longer the norm and has triggered positive feedback – even from those who never move forward. 

Once the selection process has concluded, Clarity Transitions does offer support to Boards for the onboarding of new candidates, though it is rarely utilized.  Regardless, we remind Transition/Search Committees that the work does not end with the new hire.  It’s essential that a system of support be established for the new CEO – especially for those younger, less experienced, and/or bringing a diverse lens.  This support should come directly from Board leadership, augmented by a mentor or coach. 

As we reflect on our work supporting Board leadership searches, we are left with a variety of questions:

  • Are there unexplored avenues of recruitment that could grow a broader and more equitable candidate base?
  • Has the nonprofit sector failed to make organizational leadership appealing to people of color and younger generations? What efforts are needed to expand interest?
  • How can we capitalize on Board attention to equity, improve compensation and organizational culture where needed and expand the pool of those attracted to our organization?
  • How can organizations support their first leader of color?
  • Is there sector-wide work to be done to create a more inviting and welcoming culture?

At Clarity Transitions, we continue to be concerned that selection processes may have embedded biases that prevent qualified individuals from ascending to leadership positions.  While we are seeing Boards with greater sensitivities in these areas, historically people of color have not received equitable development and promotion opportunities.

Yet our experience in supporting Boards through leadership transitions leads us to believe that the key to equity is not just the selection process, but also in our ability to reach and attract broader talent, from both inside and outside of the organization, to the Board’s selection process.  Until we can attract wide-ranging talent, we will be unable to achieve true equity.