To diversify the C-suite, it's going to take work

Katy Smith
Eric Douglas Keene, Keene Advisory Group

The opening sentence of a December story in the New York Times said it all: “It is no secret that the corporate world has a diversity problem.” The story—written by one of the very few Black print journalists working today, Lauretta Charlton—went on to detail how sustained diversity and inclusion efforts at the nation’s big companies are failing African-Americans, according to the results of a recent study. Case in point: As of June, only five Fortune 500 companies had Black CEOs—Lowe’s, Merck & Co., M&T Bank, Tapestry and TIAA. 

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The reasons are varied, according to the study, “Being Black in Corporate America,” which was based on interviews with 3,736 professionals of all races and produced by the nonprofit Center for Talent Innovation, which is funded by large corporations including Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Morgan Stanley and Disney. Chief among the roadblocks to Black people in the C-suite is a lack of Black professionals in the first place. The report found while they comprise 10 percent of college degree holders, just 8 percent of working professionals are Black, and only 3.2 percent are senior-level executives and managers.

When you layer on the challenges faced by people tasked with recruiting diverse candidates for top-level jobs, the picture grows starker. Eric Douglas Keene, founder and president of Keene Advisory Group, says the basic infrastructure of the search world works against identification of diverse candidates, which his Chicago-based boutique firm has made its specialty. Keene, who grew up in Shaker Heights and regularly returns to Cleveland and Columbus on business, spent the first part of his career at strategy and executive search behemoths McKinsey & Co. and Russell Reynolds Associates, and he’s seen firsthand how conflicts of interest keep many diverse candidates off the table for executive searches. Large firms balk at asking candidates who work for other clients to interview for new positions. “They are what we call off-limits in the industry,” Keene says. 

And searches can fail if there isn’t engagement at the highest levels of an organization. “If the top leadership has not bought into this, then everything that you execute beneath it is really just a Band-Aid,” Keene says. A truly robust search goes beyond networking to include technology and dedicated researchers, he says. The excuse that there were no qualified candidates who were also diverse doesn’t cut it.

“It’s both/and, not either/or. And I’m flagrantly borrowing that from the former chief diversity officer of Case Western Reserve University, Marilyn Mobley, when I use that phrase,” Keene says. “It’s particularly poignant when we speak about issues of diversity and inclusion. Our hypothesis is that there are fantastic qualified candidates of color and women who are out there. It is incumbent upon the search firm and the companies to go out there and find them.”

Katy Smith is editor of Columbus CEO.