6 Traits That DEI Executive Recruiters Look For - Senior Executive

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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Hiring and Recruiting 5 min

6 Traits That DEI Executive Recruiters Look For

Senior Executive | DEI spoke with high-level recruiting experts about what they seek when placing Chief Diversity Officer candidates — patience and flexibility are key.

by Molly Cohen on September 15, 2022


  • Candidates need to be adaptable and willing to adjust frameworks based on changing stakeholder priorities

  • Potential CDOs can demonstrate their future success by sharing examples of programs they’ve led

  • Inspirational candidates are likely better equipped to lead organizational change

Over the past few years, following a nationwide response to the death of George Floyd, there’s been a surge of interest in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) jobs with a 55% increase in openings since June 8, 2020. This resulted in passionate individuals applying to DEI jobs, but employers remain focused on candidates with proven leadership experience initiating strategic change. So, how do organizations determine the difference between a great versus a good Chief Diversity Officer?

Senior Executive | DEI regularly speaks with executive recruiters specializing in DEI roles to understand the latest hiring trends. Here’s what many tell us they look for in a great Chief Diversity Officer candidate:

1. Ready to lead organizational change

CDOs must have a vision and be capable of inspiring buy-in. “I think the most successful diversity officers have the ability to meet the organization where it is, and at the same time to be able to help craft a vision as to where the organization wants to go,” says Louis Montgomery Jr., a partner at JM Search, a firm that places DEI professionals at publicly traded companies, large nonprofits, and universities. He also leads its Human Resources and Diversity Officers of the Executive Search Practice.

Candidates can demonstrate this by sharing an example of how they led organizational change at prior jobs. For example, some candidates transitioning to DEI from HR might discuss how they fostered company culture with employees. Being able to demonstrate leading organizational change can help candidates demonstrate their competency as they transition into the DEI field, where many of the positions are inaugural DEI C-suite positions that require eight to 10 years of experience.

“Executive teams desire DEI leaders who can be strategic thought partners providing insight into how DEI can move the business forward,” says Toya Lawson, partner at Bridge Partners LLC, which places candidates at nonprofit and for-profit businesses, from the Hershey Company to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

2. The ability to influence and carry culture.

Being able to easily create connections is critical when it comes to influencing and leading company culture. Recruiters are looking for “someone who can forge relationships easily and demonstrates strong listening and problem-solving skills,” says Liz Bernich, partner of executive search at Caldwell Partners, an executive search team that places DEI professionals in a range of sectors from institutions to foundations.

Candidates who have experience building relationships with stakeholders and understand how to get buy-in from executive leadership will stand apart in the application process.

The ability to carry a culture often comes down to a passion for DEI work. Many CDOs have a personal investment through their own unique lived experience. It’s important for candidates to embody the inclusive culture they are trying to achieve.

3. Knowing what works — and bringing repeatable frameworks with them

The best candidates “have frameworks around things they know that have worked,” Montgomery Jr. says. Candidates should be able to demonstrate the tools they have used in the past, and how they can be adapted for different situations.

Perhaps the candidate developed a new employee resource group to support underrepresented employees or initiated a mentorship program to improve a gender gap in leadership roles. Showcasing examples of frameworks you’ve built will illustrate your ability to initiate programs from ideas into actions.

Senior Executive DEI Think Tank is a criteria-based membership community for chief diversity officers and senior-level DEI leaders at large organizations to share difference-making tactics, trade valuable resources, and seek the counsel of experienced peers in a private, confidential setting.

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4. Flexibility

“At the same time, they don’t come in with the idea of here’s the solution for our challenge,” Montgomery Jr. continues. “Rather, they’re willing to listen and ultimately adapt to whatever the organization needs.”

Candidates should understand that DEI initiatives will change over time due to a variety of factors, from fundraising levels to stakeholder needs. If candidates can explain how they’ve adapted a previous plan, they’ll demonstrate their ability to be flexible in the face of change.

5. Patience

Another skill great CDOs need to have is the ability to persevere to reach long-term goals. “A DEI leader must be patient,” says Lawson. “The work of DEI does not happen overnight. Change takes time, perseverance, and grit.”

During your job search, be ready to share an example of a long-term project that required resilience in the face of pushback from senior leadership. Demonstrating patience is critical in the DEI realm, where changes in funding or stakeholders can shift project timelines.

6. Strong relationships with senior leadership

CDOs will perform best if they have a foundation of support from the organization’s leadership team. Internal candidates for CDO roles have an advantage if they’ve already forged relationships with senior leaders as an active partner in the company’s DEI initiatives to date.

As an external candidate working with a recruiter, you’ll want to demonstrate success in building strong working relationships with leaders and stakeholders at previous employers. And you should challenge potential employers to demonstrate the same in return: Make sure “they are leaning forward to say this is something that they want and need versus something that they feel they’re being forced to do, either internally or externally,” says Montgomery Jr. “It’s something that folks have to believe in.”

How does your senior leadership team support your DEI staff? Share your thoughts in our Linkedin Leadership Think Tank.

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