With things looking like the economy might turn a corner, effective nonprofit hiring and recruiting has come into greater focus. Sally Carlson, Managing Partner of Carlson Beck LLC, who spoke at the Social Impact Advisory/Thrive Alliance’s Managing for Resilience Speaker Series, discussed how effective hiring may require us to question our closely held beliefs about what job applicants are a good fit. Sally founded Carlson Beck in 2011 to focus exclusively on nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Her nonprofit clients have included the Obama White House, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Arizona Community Foundation, Melinda Gates’s Pivotal Ventures and various international NGOs.
Sally, what specifically drew you to focus recruiting exclusively for the philanthropic sector?
Sally Carlson: When I pivoted my firm to focus exclusively on the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, I had been a 20-year volunteer at the board level with nonprofit organizations. I was working my day job in management consulting, capital markets, private equity, and real estate investment management. It was very interesting but wasn’t as personally gratifying as my volunteer work in the nonprofit sector. And then during the Great Recession, the private equity and real estate industries shut down. Firms were going through multiple rounds of layoffs. We all remember what that economic environment was like. But the doors were kept open and the lights on at my firm because of the nonprofit sector. Many of these nonprofit organizations had multi-year grants. We did actually some of our biggest and best work during the economic recession. That includes working for the Obama White House. That time demonstrated there is a real business here. As we’ve all learned to pivot in different ways, I could pivot the focus of my firm to service exclusively nonprofit and philanthropic entities. And it has been great. I wake up every day joyful to do this work, because I get to work with interesting, smart, mission-driven, purpose-focused professionals.
You opened the door to ask you about working with the Obama White House. When you’re hiring for very public organizations or figures, like a White House administration, or Melinda Gates, I imagine the recruiting process is very rigorous and could, if it goes wrong, be a public disaster. What can smaller organizations learn from that?
Sally Carlson: One of the things that is true for both the search that we did for the White House, as well as the search work we’ve done quite recently with Melinda Gates and Pivotal Ventures, is there is a level of rigor that the client brings to the table. They have a process or they have clarity on what they’re seeking. And they need someone to be a thought partner and then an execution partner to go out and find great talent. They’re also very good at expectation setting and expectation fulfillment as a partner. I will say one thing that was true for the White House search was it is the only time in my entire search career where I slept with my phone and that was because if the White House called, they expected you to pick up and they didn’t care if it was 4:30 in the morning. They could be calling to ask how the search going and you need to be ready to answer.
As professional nonprofit recruiters, we need to have an understanding of the broader talent pool, we’re hearing from the talent pool and then narrowing it down for the client. And it’s that commitment of transparency, the commitment of researching the candidate as well so that he or she would not embarrass you. For her investment and incubation firm Pivotal Ventures, Melinda Gates will have an idea of the area for impact that she would like to see and then she will work with the team to structure a proof of concept, invest in it, and then run it for two to three years. If it is successful and impactful, it will get scaled. But it’s a very nimble and feels very much like a technology organization, technology-based and enabled. One of the things I can say about both environments, the White House and Pivotal, is just the caliber of professionals. You really feel like these are best in class and very, very mission driven.
Remote work has changed the recruiting landscape with a number of people, particularly toward the tail end of 2020, having been hired remotely. Can you talk a little about the opportunities and the challenges have that kind of process?
Sally Carlson: If someone would have told me even a year and a half ago, “Sally, you’ll work with a client who you’ve never met in person. You’ll be in partnership with a search committee and a board of directors for a CEO search and you won’t meet any of the candidates in person. The client will not meet any of the candidates in person and yet they will go through a process and they will hire a CEO, whom they will then onboard virtually,” my head would have exploded. But clients were doing exactly that. And so during 2020, we opened, executed and close multiple searches at multiple levels throughout the country. One of the things that virtual recruiting and hiring has demanded is that it requires more communication and more interaction. You’re trying to really get to know the person in a way that pre-COVID you would have done in a café over coffee, or maybe gone out to lunch or breakfast. Now it’s yet another zoom meeting. And it’s multiple zoom meetings because you’re really trying to establish a rapport to get a sense of the person. They’re trying to do the same with all of the search committee members. And then there is what we call meet-and-greets with staff, which we’re very explicit are not interviews, but an opportunity to meet the candidates and for you to ask questions and learn about them. We ask the staff to ask the candidates about what they view to be the challenges and opportunities for their organization. Oftentimes, staff responses to that question is very different from the board’s response. That will reveal some of the internal or external challenges that particular staff member is experiencing in the execution of his or her responsibilities.
It’s almost like a reverse interview in which the candidate is now interviewing the staff on what he or she could do to make things better.
Sally Carlson: Exactly and it’s a way for the candidate to learn more about the staff members. The candidate has an opportunity to talk about his or her vision for the organization, and also talk about what they would need from the staff in order to be successful in the CEO role and how they would approach management team building collaboration, etc. So it’s revealing without being an interrogation, because we have had some meet-and-greets become more of an interrogation. And let me just say, that goes in a bad direction really fast.
You’ve touched about things going wrong and you’re often brought in when internal recruiting hasn’t worked. What are indications that an interview could suggest a candidate is a good or bad fit?
Sally Carlson: Just table stakes is an alignment with the mission; are you passionate about this organization’s mission. And that that can be true in the private sector as well. That alignment and interest mission is critical. If you don’t have that, it’s probably not going to go very far. From there, we then look at how does the professional meet the qualifications the client has said they’re seeking. Does this person have the skill set to do the job. From an equity perspective, are there areas in which this professional would need some enhancement or professional development training in order to be more qualified, because we want to identify that and call that out to the client. If that is the case, we need to broaden the talent pool and look at more diverse professionals. Whether a candidate is perceived as good or not so good is a function of how the client perceives culture fit. That’s the particularly tricky part of diversity, equity and inclusion, which is if you’re looking for people who are a good cultural fit, what we encourage our clients to do is really open the aperture of how you’re defining culture fit. Because it is human nature to define cultural fit as only replicating the staff you already have. So if you really want diversity, you actually may want a professional who’s going to take you out of your comfort zone. Into a place that’s a little more uncomfortable and where there’s going to be some organizational learning.
This is a great segue into DEI. There’s been years of evidence that show that diverse teams is not just a question of fair, but actually delivers better performance. When did you start seeing interest in DEI recruiting by employers? And what’s different now?
Sally Carlson: When we think of diverse hiring and if you look at the long arc of work, it goes back to the 60s and the equal rights movement. If you look at diversity, equity inclusion and some of the early definitions of it, it actually was gender-focused. Where it was how do we increase the number of women on our teams. Diversity hiring continued with the advancement of the LGBTQ rights movement. Within the last 20 years, employers looked to increase LatinX hiring, certainly in California, but also broadly in the South. It’s been within the last five years and hyper focused within the last 12 to 14 months post the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that really exploded DEI nationally and internationally. Now the number one ask we get from clients is a slate of diverse candidates. Then we get into a whole discussion of how they define diversity. When clients say “diversity” what they almost always mean is mean is race and ethnicity. We just want to explicitly call that out and ask, “Is that what you mean? Or are you thinking along gender lines, sexual orientation lines, religion, age, lived experience socio-economic backgrounds?”
You’ve said you’ve had to challenge some clients that what they wanted was not actually the right approach. Could you talk about some experience and examples of that work?
Sally Carlson: We were working on a CEO search for a community development organization and the search committee very explicitly said, “We would like a professional of color to be the next CEO.” The search committee was populated by a very diverse group of professionals along racial and ethnic lines. We presented five candidates, four of whom were professionals of color and one was a white female. After the search committee interviewed all five candidates, they did their debrief where they talked about the relative strengths and areas for professional development or perceived weaknesses on each of the candidates. As I was listening to their comments, I recognized they really wanted a white, hetero-normative male. The areas for professional development reflected the individual’s cultural normative background. So I said, “You’ve asked us for professionals of color with their own unique lived experience. But you’ve basically said you want Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE.” I told them to talk amongst themselves, because they had some unconscious bias going on. So engage with each other to figure out what your priorities are and how you’re going to view a professional who brings their cultural background with them. Determine how you will work with that individual in order to engender their success.
A number of years ago I heard a Black founder of an investment company with a very diverse staff acknowledge that managing diverse teams was not easy. It required much more intervention from managers and HR due to miscommunications.
Exactly, it’s harder than it appears. I think of diversity like the balance sheet of an organization. It’s a snapshot in time. It’s your statistics. We have X percentage of our employees who are African American, X percentage who are API, X percent LatinX, etc. It’s a set of statistics, a set of numbers. The harder part is the “inclusion” part of the DEI. That is like your income statement, which reflects the activity every day. How you’re driving revenue every day. Your inclusionary actions have to be that dynamic. They have to be woven into the human capital model. This is how we include all of our employees and what they bring to the table. Sometimes that’s via affinity groups. Sometimes it’s having specific training. Then the equity portion is like the statement of changes in financial position, which oftentimes illuminates where an organization has invested their capital. We encourage and advise our clients to look at how much DEI work have you actually done before they hire. So in preparation for asking for a diverse professional to join your team, good candidates will look at the organization’s website and review the board. If the board is not diverse, that is a red flag. In this very, very focused environment of organizations wanting professionals of color, leaders now have choices in ways that are exciting. But it also means it’s also highly competitive. Organizations have to distinguish themselves. And we have heard from executives of color who’ve said to me, “Sally, I don’t want to be the sharp point of the spear.” If this organization wants diversity, they need to demonstrate that they’re already on a path and they were taking it seriously. This versus hiring the CEO of color and saying, “Look, we’re a diverse- aware organization!”
Several years ago, we were asked to find the Executive Director for an organization where the person would follow the longtime, 33-year, founding executive. The board and the staff actually had a lot of clarity and alignment on the profile of the desired new executive. What we failed to ask at that time was, “What would you do if you actually get that person? What’s your capacity to be flexible, to be accommodating or adaptable?” We placed a professional who checked the boxes that board and staff had on their respective lists. The person lasted less than three years and I know that during much of that three-year period, it was tough sledding for everyone. There was a lot of friction. The new executive brought a lot of technology change, which the organization had said they wanted to bring them into the 21st century. The staff’s hair was on fire every day, learning new systems. So we’ve learned now to explicitly ask those questions about adaptability.
How do you recommend organizations proactively seek out diverse candidates, particularly if they don’t just appear through the standard hiring process?
My recommendations for everyone trying to find talent is to tap into your networks, and ask your staff, your board members and other colleagues tap into their networks. Reach out to professionals networks of color. Also look for explicit affinity groups by race and ethnicity. So it could be, for example, black CFOs in the Bay Area. I serve on the Board of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. It’s a national organization that enables me to work with a very broad active network of AAPI professionals. There’s a whole alumni group of folks who have graduated from the historically black colleges and universities so you can start there. We’ve intentionally been building our networks and our access to these types of alumni groups over the last 10 years. Reach out to everyone you know, but the challenge is you don’t know everyone. That’s our goal.
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