Enhancing diversity leadership by embracing diversity leadershift: Filling the talent pipeline

In his bestselling book, Leadershift, renowned author John C. Maxwell offers 11 steps leaders can take to embrace “leadershift.” Defined as “the ability and willingness to make a leadership change that will positively enhance organizational and personal growth,” a leadershift perspective enables leaders to adapt to marketplace disruptions, correct their course and lead through any challenge. This article takes Maxwell’s perspective a step further by exploring how leadershift can move companies toward another critical goal: enhancing diversity leadership.

February 27, 2023



As highlighted in Closing the C-Suite Leadership Gap, an array of data supports the business case for diversity leadership. Companies with a more ethnic and culturally diverse workforce are 36 percent more likely to outperform their peers and companies with more diverse management teams are more innovative – equating to 19 percent higher revenues. Clearly, the need for more diverse leaders goes beyond the feel-good social component. It’s today’s imperative for businesses to thrive.

Still, the numbers continue to indicate black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) populations are underrepresented in C-suites and boardrooms, and advancement opportunities for BIPOC leaders and entrepreneurs are trailing behind.

How do we change the system? It starts with intentionality at the top that commits to a diversity leadershift, beginning with investing in filling the “talent pipeline.”

How do we change the system? It starts with intentionality at the top that commits to a diversity leadershift, beginning with investing in filling the “talent pipeline.”

Studies have found a top reason for the lack of diversity in executive roles is a lack of diverse candidates in the pipeline – the pool of high-potential prospects who can readily fill a position when it opens. These can be internal candidates who are prime for advancement or external candidates who have been vetted and prequalified. The process for an optimum pipeline fill is threefold, summarized below:

One: Create inclusive internships and fellowships

A diversified talent pipeline is the gateway to a diversified workforce. Internship and fellowship programs are a prime way for companies to strengthen their pipeline of future employees generally and focus on improving the talent pool of diverse candidates specifically. Internships provide opportunities for undergraduates to build experience, while fellowship programs are typically designed for candidates at the graduate school level or higher to focus on professional development.

Cast a wide net in your intern and fellow recruitment search. Reach out to schools, community groups, and professional associations to connect with diverse students and promote your company’s learning opportunities. Consider partnering with an organization that specializes in identifying and vetting high-potential candidates. A recruitment partner can ease the burden on your recruiting staff and help you develop a robust curriculum for training before interns and fellows begin their assignments.

After selection and training, onboard interns and fellows into your company and its culture, coach them throughout the program and conduct an exit interview to understand and learn from, the pros and cons of their experience. Assessing their knowledge base before and after their intern or fellowship experience to gauge program effectiveness and continue to develop your offerings.

A diversified talent pipeline is the gateway to a diversified workforce.

Internships provide obvious benefits for students in creating real-world job experience. They’re also beneficial for companies as a way to “try out” candidates to evaluate their potential as employees, and develop skills so they can hit the ground running when they start work at your company.

For fellows, these opportunities help build professional recognition and credentials, typically providing a forum for conducting specific research on the job or completing a project related to the fellow’s field of interest. For your company, fellowships offer an avenue for expanding your presence in your industry and for discovering and retaining diverse talent. Fellows and interns can serve as ambassadors for organizations positive PR or visibility. You may also find new ground for innovation, as the fellows focus on research and analysis can help your company solve problems and create pioneering solutions.

Two: Recruit diverse candidates – with intentionality

As discussed in Closing the C-suite Leadership Gap, diversity recruiting is an intentional practice of hiring candidates using a process that is free from bias for or against any individual or group of candidates. It still aims to find the best possible candidate, but structured to give all applicants, regardless of background, an equal opportunity.

As mentioned above, internships and fellowships to targeted groups are an excellent means of encouraging promising candidates in your industry to get experience and jumpstart – or further — their careers.

An abundance of additional strategies can help you recruit a diverse workforce. Find channels, online and offline, where diverse candidates congregate and connect with them directly instead of waiting for them to find you. Channels can be determined as networking with universities and engaging in candidate mapping – tracking interactions candidates have with your companyto cultivate future relationships. Develop a diverse candidate referral program, encourage your diverse employees to refer their connections and give them the tools they need to promote your company. Create a company culture and policies that visibly and consistently embrace diversity. Incorporate this value into your corporate brand at every touchpoint.

No need to go it alone. Find a good search firm partner, one who goes beyond presenting more diverse candidates to including diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at every recruitment touch point. Leading search firm DHR Global, for example, embeds DEI into the full continuum of the search and selection process.    

Three: Design formal leadership development and mentorship programs

A study from The Leverage Network finds that within one prominent industry, health care, Black executives wait two to three times longer than their white counterparts to be promoted from vice president and director roles. This pattern of “hiding in plain sight” – executives who are clearly well-qualified for promotion but are somehow overlooked – is rife for change. Another study finds that “leapfrog” leaders, C-level executives who are promoted from below the second layer of management and leap ahead a step, often outperform their peers who were selected from the senior leadership team. All research leads us to the same conclusion: we need a more expansive and inclusive, ways of evaluating leadership potential and advancing BIPOC candidates to top executive roles.

One way to put qualified leaders on the fast track to promotion is by offering formal leadership development programs. These initiatives help build leaders’ strengths, giving them the tools and techniques to gain visibility to become natural choices whenever top positions open. Program topics are typically wide ranging, from improving productivity and reducing attrition, to enhancing team building and learning techniques for better decision-making. Research finds that participants who had received leadership training saw a 25 percent increase in their learning capacity and a 20 percent increase in their performance.  

Another way to advance diversity leadership is by providing diversity-focused mentorship programs. Studies have shown these programs boost representation from the BIPOC community in management positions by as much as 24 percent. Mentors widen their lens on how to provide opportunities while their protégés find more open doors to expand their skills and move up. One way of achieving the focus on diverse employees is through employee resource groups, or ERGs – voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster an inclusive workplace aligned with the organizations they serve. 

By embracing a diversity leadershift mindset, companies can bolster their ability to better perform, retain diverse talent and fill a robust diverse pipeline.

Creating a mentorship program at your company can be a straightforward process. Begin by understanding mentee needs and then recruiting a group of mentor leaders who are well-suited to support and advise. Pair mentees and mentors by aligning goals and skills. Encourage regular, meaningful exchanges. Collect feedback and gauge outcomes to continuously fine-tune your program.

At the foundation of effective leadership, development and mentorship programs should be “cultural competence and humility”- the ability to understand and respect values, attitudes and beliefs that differ across cultures- and to consider and respond appropriately, combined with the principles of humility for self-reflection and the lens of self-biases. Intentionality in the search, selection and development process, can help companies evolve from traditional evaluation and create a more inclusive model that seeks and celebrates differences.

Building a diverse and inclusive workforce is an abiding priority for most organizations, but many lack clear direction on how to make it happen. By embracing a diversity leadershift mindset, companies can bolster their ability to better perform, retain diverse talent and fill a robust diverse pipeline. An additional value-add can be a boost to personal effectiveness, as people of all backgrounds instinctively gravitate to inclusive leaders. As well, this can increase closed door sponsorship, which supersedes mentorship – that’s a topic for another article.

Philip Burton

Managing Partner

Philip Burton currently serves as Managing Partner for DHR Global, working in the Diversity and Healthcare Practices. He is also the founder of InHuevation, a social impact enterprise that advocates for eliminating barriers of access in health care, technology, innovation, and venture capital.

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