Abstract image of diverse hiring

How to Recruit and Build a Diverse Strategy Team

As much as companies promise and commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, corporate strategy remains a male-dominated and less-than-diverse field, especially at the senior levels. Some chief strategy officers (CSOs) have made it their mission to change that reality.  

In the first episode of The Chief Strategy Officer Podcast, we heard from two of them. Alok Agrawal, CSO & Head of Ventures at Celestica, and Nicolas Chapman, former EVP and CSO of Teradata, have made tremendous strides in shifting the diversity levels of their strategy offices. The episode was moderated by another diversity-focused strategy leader, Kalina Nikolova, SVP of Business Operations and Strategy at Yahoo. The CSOs discussed the real hurdles they overcame to bring more diverse hiring to their strategy function.

They shared: 

  • Advice on how to set realistic objectives to support your DEI hiring initiatives.  
  • How to influence and work with human resources (HR) to fill your hiring pipeline with more diverse candidates.  
  • Actionable steps to fight unconscious bias and make your job descriptions and interview processes more welcoming to diverse hires.

Key questions covered in this podcast episode:

  • (2:40) What specific steps have you taken to increase diversity on your strategy teams?
  • (11:50) What has worked well to address unconscious bias?
  • (19:24) What kind of help did you get along the way that was especially effective?  
  • (26:44) What structures did you put in place to provide additional onboarding and support to diverse candidates after hiring?
  • (35:32) What are some specific benefits you have been able to observe, measure, or gotten feedback on?
  • (38:48) What first steps would you recommend to other chief strategy officers who want to increase diversity in their strategy offices? 

"You have to commit that you’re going to do this because it might be hard. It’s probably going to be hard. And, unfortunately, in 2024 it is still often hard. You have to be in a mindset that you’re going to get this done."

Increasing Diversity Hiring on Strategy Teams

Both CSOs emphasized that increasing diversity hiring on strategy teams starts with developing a robust pipeline of diverse candidates. Agrawal accomplished this by targeting networking events in local job markets and at university clubs. He recommends that the senior leadership team, including the CSO, should have a presence at these events. He also found success doing his own personal outreach to candidates on LinkedIn.

“I think that showing the seriousness of me personally reaching out to that candidate over LinkedIn has helped a lot. That really gave a strong emphasis on how important diversity and inclusion were to my hiring,” he said. 

Through Agrawal’s efforts, Celestica transitioned from a strategy team that was zero percent diverse by any measure to a team with 50 percent women and 90 percent visible minorities.

"I think that showing the seriousness of me personally reaching out to that candidate over LinkedIn has helped a lot. That really gave a strong emphasis on how important diversity and inclusion were to my hiring."

Chapman added the important starting point of defining what diversity means for your organization. He recommends identifying specific groups that lack representation as well as goals and metrics to measure progress. At Teradata, his leadership team conducted a market analysis of representation in the tech industry and representation in industry more broadly in the United States to set goals for the company’s recruiting efforts. The advantage of starting with defining diversity is that it brings focus to what you need to accomplish. 

Another essential factor in the journey to increasing diversity hiring is making an organization-wide mindset shift.

“You have to commit that you’re going to do this, because it might be hard. It’s probably going to be hard, and, unfortunately, in 2024 it is still often hard. You have to be in a mindset that you’re going to get this done,” said Chapman. He set this mindset shift into practice by adjusting specific hiring practices, such as crafting job descriptions and interviews to be more welcoming to diverse candidates and help to mitigate unconscious bias. 

Addressing Unconscious Bias

Chapman explained some alterations to hiring practices that enabled Teradata to hire more diverse candidates, such as adjusting job descriptions, using a standard set of interview questions, introducing case studies at the director level, and digging deeper into situational interview questions. His team reduced job descriptions from two pages down to between half and three-quarters of a page. They shifted the language to reflect principles and directions so more people can picture themselves in the role. They also brought the company’s commitment to seeing everyone’s full potential and hiring diverse teams into the first line of the job description. 

Many organizations use situational interview questions to get an overview of how a candidate would deal with certain situations on the job. However, most high-level candidates are trained in preparing curated stories that don’t give much insight to the interviewer. Chapman suggests asking deeper questions to explore the candidate’s thought process and the actual words and actions they chose to handle the situation. 

Agrawal agreed that all humans have unconscious biases that we must address. He found success using an interview rubric and panel-style interviews that included the CSO, business unit leaders, peers, and HR 

“If you have four or five different people at different angles, we are more likely to get the whole story of the candidate,” he shared.  

He also recommended asking candidates about their life stories and offering open-ended questions that allow candidates to take the response in the direction of their choice. This can give additional insight into their background, personality, and style of working. 

Interviewers and hiring managers should keep an open mind when interviewing candidates from diverse cultures. Even with rubrics and structure, those structures were developed within the hiring culture, so they may bring up instances where the candidate does not act or answer in the way we think they should. Allow some space for interpretation and a willingness to be wrong. 

"If you have four or five different [interviewers] at different angles, we are more likely to get the whole story of the candidate."

Remember as well that the candidate also has a decision to make in whether they would like to join your organization. Be transparent about where the company is on its journey to diversity and your commitment to hiring a more diverse slate of team members. Give the interviewee a chance to ask questions about the mission. Recognize that some candidates may not want to be the first or the trailblazer, so it’s important to give them a realistic picture of the current state of the organization. Being transparent can also help spread awareness in the marketplace about what you are trying to do.

Agrawal added, “Candidates talk. You can see the websites where you can see what candidates say about companies. And it helps that flywheel to move forward that every interview is an opportunity to be an ambassador of your company’s DEI strategy, no matter who the candidates are or what happens. That’s frankly the way you should treat each conversation.” 

Quote from the Chief Strategy Officer Podcast

Enlisting Help from Inside and Outside the Organization 

Transforming your hiring practices is never a one-person job. The CSOs acknowledged they didn’t have all the answers, so they actively sought help from HR, internal experts who had successful diversity programs, and professional peer networks. Agrawal looked to other diverse teams to understand their case studies and how they made progress. He and Chapman also spoke with CSO peers in Outthinker Networks to ask for advice. “I leveraged this network and got a lot of help in terms of recommendations for people to reach out to,” Chapman said. 

Agrawal also advised to listen and talk to more people with diverse backgrounds. This will help you understand and appreciate where people are coming from.  

“It’s just having an openness to talk to people of different genders, from different cultures, from different backgrounds,” Agrawal said. “The beauty of a strategy role is we get to do that already. Our day-to-day job just makes us better and more open to becoming self-aware of these unconscious biases and the best practices to get away from them or resolve them.”

"Our day-to-day [strategy] job just makes us better and more open to becoming self-aware of these unconscious biases and the best practices to get away from them or resolve them."

Both CSOs recommended enlisting HR as a partner in diversity hiring efforts. Chapman suggested being open to adjusting job titles to account for systemic bias. The pool of former vice presidents of strategy or former consultants at the associate principal is limited. Some diverse candidates may have been held back by unconscious bias in the industry. He discussed hiring directors into VP levels who seemed like they had been prevented from advancing further in their organizations.

Celestica has also made a more aggressive effort to hire exceptionally high-diversity levels into entry-level positions. Then, they can develop talent internally to fill the talent pipeline. “It may take five to ten years to get them to senior levels, but that is the most effective way to create the pool,” Agrawal said.

Onboarding and Supporting Diverse Candidates after Hiring

Hiring a candidate is only the beginning of their relationship with the company. Increasing diversity in hiring requires commitment and extra effort across the organization. Once the hiring process is complete, diverse candidates may need extra attention and support for advancement. 

Agrawal discusses developing a clear onboarding plan that covers important contacts to talk to and relationships to get things done in the organization. Celestica set up a mentorship program to match people with similar backgrounds or career journeys. He also recommends choosing to give high-performing diverse hires assignments to highlight their skills and provide visibility.  

He explained: “You have to give them things that will highlight what they can do… Make the conscious assignment to give them platforms like that. Obviously, the person has to earn it, but you have to be willing to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to consciously do that for them because I know that’s going to be an important part of their development.’” 

"You have to give them things that will highlight what they can do... Make the conscious assignment to give them platforms like that."

Specific Benefits and Outcomes of Hiring a Diverse Strategy Team 

A team of diverse candidates brings a wealth of experience and perspectives to your organization. Chapman explained, “The diverse candidates I have hired have been willing to question orthodoxies very productively and start new conversations as a result. Within a couple of weeks, I started getting exceptionally positive feedback about these people – about the way they question things and the way they engage. And I don’t know that it is because they were diverse candidates, but I think it has something to do with it.” 

The nature of strategy work is trying to predict future scenarios. The more diverse thoughts, perspectives, and questions you can gather becomes increasingly beneficial. A more diverse team can have a positive influence when it comes to implementing the strategy.  

Agrawal added, “I found the diversity of thoughts brings in a better understanding of where people are coming from culturally – to know that in China, they’re going to think about this, or coming from another background might think about it differently.” Having a broader array of mindsets as you think through implementation lets you know where there might be flags for things to consider in your approach. 

The CSOs described additional qualitative benefits to bringing in more diverse team members. Agrawal said, Our employee satisfaction on the strategy team has increased noticeably since I joined. And I believe that diversity is part of it... It’s just a different feeling on the team, right? Just more people to talk to, more interesting experiences to share. It makes people happier and like each other better and, I think, be happy at their jobs.

"It's just a different feeling on the team, right? Just more people to talk to, more interesting experiences to share. It makes people happier and like each other better and, I think, be happy at their jobs."

Taking the First Steps 

No matter the current levels of diversity in your strategy organization, accept that this is a journey. Shifting your hiring approach is a transformation that will involve changing mindsets and the way you interact with people. It is likely to be a company-wide effort.  

“I think the important thing to pick up is, just like any good journey, take it one step at a time. Take a few actions, see the results, and do more and more,” says Agrawal. His number one recommendation is to make a conscious decision of intent with the leadership team because you can’t do it alone.

Chapman echoed Agrawal’s advice. Start by defining your current state and gathering a coalition. “The people who have to be in that coalition are your boss, a couple of your peers, and HR,” Chapman added. “In a company of any size, you’re not going to get the engine to work without HR being on board.”

By taking those first actions and leveraging the recommendations from this episode of The Chief Strategy Officer Podcast, you’ll be empowered to bring more diversity to your strategy office. 

"I think the important thing to pick up is, just like any good journey, take it one step at a time. Take a few actions, see the results, and do more and more."

Episode Guest Bios

Alok K. Agrawal: With over 15 years of finance and strategy experience, Alok K. Agrawal is a seasoned executive who drives the strategic direction and execution of Celestica as its Chief Strategy Officer. Celestica (NYSE: CLS) is an $8 billion global corporation focused on highly engineered solutions for hyperscaler data centers (primarily networking and compute products, inclusive of Generative AI applications) and industrial markets (primarily for green energy, medical device, and semiconductor equipment applications). Alok is a member of the Executive Leadership Team and reports directly to the CEO.

Kalina Nikolova: For over 25 years Kalina has been working as a navigator plotting the course for companies to work better today, and prepare for the future: from Saatchi & Saatchi where she led Zenith Media in Eastern Europe to Deloitte where she consulted clients like S&P, McGraw-Hill, Meredith Publishing, and Cablevision; as EVP of Strategy at Viacom Sales, and currently as SVP of Business Operations and Strategy at Yahoo Advertising. Kalina’s approach to growth and transformation is centered on human potential and building collaborations across internal silos, and among unlikely partners in the ecosystems; and is informed by deep understanding of the technological, business and societal changes. Igniting innovation and energizing culture and diversity, Kalina creates the playbooks that empower people and organizations to unlock potential with purpose.

Nicolas Chapman: Nicolas Chapman is a close CEO and Board partner who has been recruited repeatedly by CEOs to take on the most future-critical corporate re-sets and turnarounds, and growth and M&A initiatives. He has a career-long record shaping strategic decision-making across the enterprise to win in software, technology, and advanced manufacturing markets. As Chief Strategy Officer at Teradata and at Imperva, and as a Partner at McKinsey&Company, he developed and implemented strategies that drove transformational change. He has a deep commitment to ensuring that employees reach their full potential and believes this is only possible with an effective strategy for inclusion. Nicolas lives in San Diego with his husband and 20-month-old son. They are also expecting a daughter this year. Nicolas is fluent in English, Mandarin, French and Hungarian.

Are you a chief strategy officer or strategy, innovation, or transformation executive interested in joining one of our networks? Click the button to apply below.

0 0 votes
Event Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
We would love to hear your thoughts.x
()
x