Why We Do What We Do: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

By: Tim Gordon

2020 has not been the year that anyone expected. At most, it has destroyed lives, families, companies, industries, futures, and dare I say, hope. At least, it has changed the way almost everyone thinks about everything. It’s a lot for 5 months. It pales in comparison to the suffering that many BIPOC communities, and specifically the Black community, have faced for decades, so the last 5 months have felt like a planetary revolt to me. Mother Nature finally got tired of waiting for us to figure this all out on our own, and said ‘enough.’ The national outcry, and subsequent protests of the murder of George Floyd had a visible impact on our team. At the same time, quarantine had forced us into these perceived personal “bubbles,” where watching these events unfold on TV and social media seemed like a bizarre, detached experience – a continuation of the disaster flick that Covid unleashed on us. It took more than a moment for me to realize that this is happening. With that realization, we talked about it. First, about how it made us all feel, and second, about what we were going to do about it.

I’ll admit, having grown up comfortably in the suburbs – not spoiled, but not wanting for anything I needed – while also going to high school in West Philadelphia, I struggled with this issue. I never fully understood what I was supposed to do about racism, besides not be racist. Be nice to people, treat them fairly, respectfully. At the same time, when I saw successful people of color, I frequently thought to myself, ‘they undoubtedly had to work harder and overcome more than I would have to find myself in the same place’ – and not because I’m so awesome. Was that racist? Or was that an acknowledgement of the stacked deck that I inherently knew existed. Either way, what could I actually do about it? That uncertainty about what action to take or what real impact I could even have, made entering into our open team discussions about the state of race relations in our country both exciting, and extremely uncomfortable.

As we unpacked our personal perspectives on this, and then transitioned into what we can and want to do about it as a company, that trepidation has given way to energy. The more we talked about it as a team, the more I realized that there are things that we can actually do to make a difference. As an executive search firm, we have the opportunity to elevate people of color, women, and other marginalized communities, by displaying for our clients all of their glory and competency.  If we can change the composition of leadership for the better in the organizations we partner with, we can make a tangible difference. I don’t want to overstate this, and we are coming to this endeavor with humility, open hearts, and open minds. We have a lot to learn, and know that the things we do will not change the world. But they might change the world for a family and therefore a generation. We find ourselves in a unique position where our day-to-day work demands that we expose talented people to opportunity, and in doing so, also fine tune our own expertise, that, when shared with the next generation of talent, has the potential to change their trajectory. We can change the way we execute on, and deliver our work, and we can be deliberate in elevating and exposing talent of color to opportunity. We can also leverage our expertise to give back to marginalized communities, volunteering our time and know-how to prepare individuals earlier in their careers for the road ahead.

Search, Invest, Give Back. Those are the 3 pillars that we’ve built our company around, and so create a framework for injecting DEI efforts into our core infrastructure. ‘Aequitas’ is Latin for Integrity and Equity. Up until now, that provided a nice dual meaning for how we approach our work, and our willingness to take equity in our clients for doing it. As we enter our 7th year of operation, that Equity translation holds new meaning, and requires that we turn inward to dissect how we do things.

Search

We created an additional layer of transparency with our clients at key milestones in the search process to show them (and us) how we’re doing, and will be setting clear metrics internally around diversity and inclusion targets for each of our engagements. We refactored elements of our database to make research efforts more effective as we aim to hit these targets, while ensuring that search cycles remain on track, and that we can approach each search with the same sense of urgency that we always have. We’re also being deliberate in seeking out diversity in our networking conversations, understanding that if referrals don’t come from a new place, the results won’t change. Our scorecards are being reworked to measure “Culture Add” as opposed to “Culture Fit,” as we’ve come to recognize that this is a distinction with a critical difference. On one hand, diversity among the leadership of our clients is excellent, with multiple female Founders, and CEOs of color – sometimes both. This is exciting. Diversity among our placed leadership, however, is not where it needs to be. We are working internally to determine if this is due to our unrecognized biases, a particular skill set, how our process is structured, the industry as a whole, or some measure of all of those things. As we unpack the drivers and underlying issues, we hope to see a shift in the diversity of our candidate slates, and resultantly, the executives our clients hire. We’ll have more to share on this as we continue to develop a longer-term roadmap as a team, but we’re already implementing a number of best practices.

Invest

We are not a traditional active investor, in that we don’t write checks to fund companies. We’re willing to convert our search fees into equity, and we’re approaching our 10th portfolio company in that fashion. We are working on some exciting things related to DEI and traditional investing, but those are further off, so in the near term, we’re thinking about investing in different ways. We have held a number of Virtual Roundtables on DEI, attended by top talent leaders from healthcare companies across the country. They have been fascinating, and we – as well as the participants – have learned a great deal in a short time. We want to continue to democratize knowledge in that way so that we can all get better. We have also launched a private Slack community for those talent leaders to share resources in service of their respective DEI goals and initiatives. Similarly, we launched The Health Talent Exchange as a way to create more visibility for people from all walks of life into a robust, active job market. We are engaging with a handful of academic institutions that have respected healthcare programs to find ways to support the next generation of entrepreneurs, with a specific focus on underrepresented communities. So while this may not be invested capital, it is an investment of time, money and expertise that builds some momentum.

Give Back

Our team has gotten a great deal of joy from donating our time to a handful of local organizations in NYC, largely with underserved youth. As a core component of our business however, we have not been engaged enough, nor have we looked creatively at how to make sure that our volunteerism doesn’t just impact a point in time, but rather has sustained, long term impact. We are talking internally about organizations that will allow us to bring some of our expertise to young leaders from underrepresented communities to help them gain an edge earlier in their careers. We are also restructuring our content going forward to include more diverse voices, and considering ways to convert work with clients of color into an investment into the cause. We are being thoughtful in sharing specifics, as these things take time to do responsibly, and I want what we choose to do to be sustainable, lest this be a couple of pages of virtue signaling, without much to back it up.

Integrity and equity within a process can and does lead to the feeling of integrity within every client and candidate we work with. We may not be tweeting about it, we hope our actions speak for us. We will fumble along the way, probably put our feet in our mouths, and be humbled throughout the process. But real change is necessary, and we know it won’t be easy. We have come to understand that, while well-intended, our objective focus on competencies and accomplishments doesn’t get the full picture. There are a litany reasons why we don’t see more leaders of color, and none of them have anything to do with competency. So we’re digging deeper into the data, changing the way we think about research and where we source talent from, and structuring our processes accordingly.

At the end of the day, we help people rise to positions of leadership, and what better way for us to contribute to this cause, than to tap into that unique ability to help executives from marginalized communities rise to leadership.  Will it end racism in our country?  No.  But it’s a start.  And it’s a real tangible thing that makes us part of the solution.