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It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist – The Ampersand February 2021

February 1, 2021

Dear Friends and Colleagues,


In the face of mounting (and long overdue) pressure on organizations to bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront of their hiring practices, we have been asked these past few months more times than in the few years prior, “How?”  As in, how does your firm actually go about undertaking a truly diverse search, attracting truly diverse candidates?  Just last week a not-for-profit Board Chair asked us “how do you balance the quest for diversity with the lure of the celebrity status of a well-known executive who wants to join your Board?”


The narrative has (mostly) moved beyond the “why” of the imperative. That, in and of itself, is progress. (For those still wondering, it’s good for business, it’s good governance and it’s the right thing to do).


That our clients are pressing us on the “how” of it is evidence that they’re serious. There’s the what, too. We usually ask that one. What do you mean by diverse? For diversity comes in many shapes, forms and sizes. That’s a post for another day.  For now, let’s focus on the how of it.


The answer, as with being Governor General, is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do it well if the search firm you hire is diverse in both deed and disposition, non-cynical in its commitment, industrious in its outreach, and open-minded in its travels, the outcome is more likely to be diverse. Diversity begets diversity. It’s not something a search firm can credibly do by white-boarding it at a retreat, writing some fresh web copy and adding it to their list of offerings. It has to come from within and with honesty. To find and attract truly diverse candidates, you must first know where they are and, at a very human level, who they are. More importantly, you must know who you are. And you must take an inclusive approach to the search. Without inclusion, diversity in and of itself will not lead to the desired outcome. You must take the time to reflect on your unconscious, or even conscious, biases, and consider, interview and recommend candidates that you might otherwise not think to include. Avoiding tokenism and opportunism, the proverbial box checking reflex because, you know, all this diversity and inclusion stuff, requires genuine understanding, an open-mind and a kind heart.


Through circumstance and necessity as much as foresight and strategy, we find ourselves out front on this. Not because our firm is diverse and inclusive in makeup, which it is, but because it’s diverse and inclusive in attitude. And not in a save the whales kind of way. I mean, yes, we should absolutely save the whales but our motivation is as much about social capital as it is about actual capital. You see, the answer around here is always ‘yes, we can do that.’ ‘No’ is a luxury afforded to the established. Around here, the refrain is “a search is a search”; a mantra that has led us down more rabbit warrens than your average hare. The sheer miscellany of our track-record, the absence of ego, the hard-wired hustle and gleeful gumption to put in the work and venture into new territory, take on fresh clients in different geographies and industries, and throw ourselves at new problems with an almost sadistic fervor has positioned us in a way that has uniquely, and rather conveniently, prepared us for this day.


Would we like to do more public company CEO searches for multi-nationals?  Sure. Could we do a great job? I’d like to think so. But our strength lies in our variety and we’d never trade in our pancake houses or heli-ski operations or cannabis companies any sooner than turn our backs on Saskatoon or Medicine Hat or Prince George. For the truth is, the firm that throws itself fully into a lower fee-paying search for a deserving not-for-profit can easily stretch up into the C-Suite of a public company; it is much harder to travel in the other direction. And the secret is, the variety and breadth of the stakeholder community on all those little hairy (hare-y?) searches, is the feedstock that powers our little machine.


We’ve all likely heard variations of the jar of rocks metaphor. As the story goes, a philosophy professor once stood up before his class with a large empty jar. He filled the jar to the top with large rocks and asked his students if the jar was full. The students said that yes, the jar was full. He then added small pebbles to the jar, and gave the jar a bit of a shake so the pebbles could disperse themselves among the larger rocks. Then he asked again, “Is the jar full now?” The students agreed that the jar was now full. The professor then poured sand into the jar to fill up any remaining empty space. The students then agreed that the jar was now most definitely full. There are versions where the professor then pours water into the jar at which point the jar was, again, full but I think by this stage in the lecture the professor has surely made his point and is just being a jerk.


The metaphor here is that if you start with putting sand into the jar, you will not have room for rocks or pebbles; your jar will be full but opportunity will have been missed. It’s the order that matters; the chance to fit into the smaller cracks where competitors and other predators can’t — or simply won’t — go. By preventing pride from getting in the way of accepting an interesting mandate we were diverse long before it was cool. Borne of survival we have always been industry, geography and functional agnostics gathering all the sand and pebbles we could scoop. But an interesting thing happened on the way to surviving. All these varied and at times unglamourous searches — each rewarding in its own way if not compensatory — introduced us to the most amazingly broad and, I dare say, diverse people you could ever meet.  Our diversity isn’t a product of who we are as much as who we know.


You see, every time you take on one of these new and less traveled mandates, there’s no precedent. No old source list from last time. You have to bring the rigour and hustle and discipline and work that goes into charting a new space; mapping, understanding and immersing yourself in a novel and different and diverse community of people. You can’t simply reshuffle the deck and place the usual suspects into a new role; onto an old Board. There are no usual suspects for every search is inherently unusual. Every search is new and different and requires a fresh start and a thorough process underpinned by intellectual honesty, not bias or predetermination. Which brings us back to our former Governor General.


Had the Prime Minister actually done a thorough search, genuinely seeking the very best candidate, there is simply no way Julie Payette would have gotten the job.  What was it the Board Chair asked us last week?  ‘How do you balance the quest for diversity with the lure of the celebrity status of a well-known executive who wants to join your Board?’ Or represent the Queen, I’d add. An iota of diligence would have resulted in her former employers at the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee raising serious red flags about her behaviour with co-workers and subordinates.  This is reference checking 101, taught on the first day of recruiter school.


“A number of us were blown away when she got appointed,” said a former board member at the Canada Lands Company (CLC), the Crown corporation that owns and operates the Montreal Science Centre. “This is a Crown corporation owned by the government…you would have thought they’d call to check out her credentials.”


This is not uncommon. Organizations, or more commonly, individuals battling their own insecurities, often become transfixed by the star power, the allure of the ‘get’ and once locked onto the target, the myopic focus prevents other candidates from coming into view. There’s a tendency to not do the extra work; to be attracted to the high profile glamour names, be they from the oil patch or from outer space. Trudeau ignored the advisory committee process to instead make his personal pick of Governor General, likely swept up in the celebrity status of the former astronaut than the actual requirements of the job, and now we’re on the hook for a $150,000 annual pension and over $200,000/year in the form of a lifetime expense program.


At the root of his failure lies the most basic principles of diversity and inclusion. Biased by his own perceptions and beliefs, excluding the voices and thoughts of others, foregoing the opportunity to collaborate with the advisory committee, he fundamentally neglected and completely misjudged the importance of inclusion in his decision making. Add to that the discomfort of having to explain your botched process to your client when your client is the Queen of England. Blimey!


As noted by Forbes, diverse and inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time.  It has been well documented by McKinsey, KPMG, and the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index Annual Survey that more diverse organizations are better able to attract top talent, improve stakeholder relations, have stronger employee satisfaction scores and more informed decision-making. Better yet, I surmise, significantly reduced likelihood of screaming, belittling, publicly humiliating, and even physically threatening the staff, as Payette was alleged to have done.


Oh, and it’s good for business, too!


“Think like a businessperson: You’re looking for a return on your investment. And that’s what inclusion is – it’s all about return on investment. You’re investing in the future of the business, the division, the country. I’m convinced that, going forward, you will see a differentiation for those organizations that truly understand what inclusion means and then those that stay behind and view it purely as a cost of doing business. Inclusion is an investment. It’s not a cost.”


Rod Graham, former CEO, Dexterra Group, CEO Roundtable on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion


Diverse and inclusive outcomes are driven by diverse and inclusive process. Diverse process is led by those who come by it honestly and who come to it with clean hands. To attract diverse candidates, it is essential that an organization demonstrate a strong culture of inclusivity, where employees feel safe sharing their perspectives and are recognized for their unique contributions. Without an inclusive culture, diversity and inclusion is just web copy and white papers. Diversity transcends gender and skin colour and ethnicity; diversity is an ethos, a way of thinking and being, rather than merely doing.


One thing it’s not? Rocket science.