Elite Performance Partners: How to hire for diversity
Written by Anna Edwards and David Slemen — January 26, 2021
EVEN a quick flick through the staff profiles on this website will tell you that elite football in this country has an issue in terms of diversity.
Of the 436 staff listed at the 20 Premier League clubs, who work in fields including executive, coaching, sports science, medical and analytics, only 18 are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
That equates to 4% of the total, which is in stark contrast to the 14% of the UK population who are from BAME groups, according to the 2011 census, and the quarter of players in the Premier League and Football League who are.
In fairness, clubs recognise this too, which is why more than 40 have signed up to the Football Association’s Football Leadership Diversity Code - as have we. The Code sets hiring targets across senior leadership and coaching roles in the men’s and women’s games.
What you'll also find in the staff profiles is that only 16 of the 436 staff listed (3.7%) are women.
We believe that diversity of all kinds is a business imperative, as well as one of morality and equity, because different views, perspectives and opinions create positive friction and foster diverse thinking within an organisation.
Diversity stops group-think and allow leaders to see there is often more than one solution to a problem.
So how do we go about creating change when for so long elite sport in this country (players aside) has been dominated by middle-aged white men (like David)?
How do we, as recruitment consultants, magic up diverse candidates when they have historically not been given opportunities to gain the required experience in so many leadership and backroom roles?
Until we create a system in which kids from all walks of life are able to come out of school and see equal opportunities in football, allowing a diverse group to grow into the leaders of the future, then one thing is clear: we must hire for potential to hire for diversity.
Below are the six key things we believe must be remembered when hiring for diversity.
1. YOU CAN’T MAGIC CANDIDATES OUT OF THIN AIR
If diverse candidates have not had access to opportunities, or haven’t seen a particular path as being viable for them, then the result will be a largely homogenous candidate pool, as we see in the upper ranks of coaching in the UK.
While younger candidates from different backgrounds are starting to come through, they are inevitably less experienced and often only see themselves in certain environments.
This is similar to the issue that tech companies have faced when looking to hire senior women in recent years. The industry hadn’t encouraged women applicants at entry level, because STEM subjects were less popular among girls, meaning role models weren’t created.
Thus the pool of prospective female candidates with more than 10 years’ experience remains small.
This is an issue that is being addressed, but calls for certain quotas, such as 50% of shortlists having to be women with a certain level of experience, remain unrealistic in some fields.
2. YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE
The issue of role models, which we alluded to above, is an important one. No candidate can aspire to a role they can’t see someone like themselves occupying.
To create role models, it’s crucial that good, diverse candidates are hired into high-profile roles and that an environment is created that will allow them to thrive and be high-performing, showing others that it can be done.
3. RETENTION IS AS IMPORTANT AS RECRUITMENT
Focusing on diversity without focusing on inclusion doesn’t work.
Hires will only stay if they feel welcome in a workplace, meaning culture must be assessed and adapted to embrace new groups. Once this happens, good people will stay and become visible, creating a virtuous circle in which others apply through an open process.
4. TO HIRE FOR DIVERSITY, YOU HAVE TO HIRE FOR POTENTIAL
To hire for diversity, you have to hire for potential, which means building a candidate pool via a pathway from school - as tech companies now have after encouraging girls to study STEM subjects.
But what does this mean in reality? When the candidates aren’t there, ready and waiting, how do we meet well-intentioned quotas, creating role-models and changing the narrative?
Learning to assess potential, as well as - and sometimes instead of - experience, allows you to hire a more diverse workforce.
It enables you to hire more junior candidates than you may otherwise have done. These candidates have the latent ability but not the evidence yet, so you need to put a strong and complementary team in place around them, allowing them to grow, using your resources and support, rather than expecting them to have already done so elsewhere.
Likewise, you can bring in candidates from other geographies or, where viable, from other sports too, so they can be the role models for the next generation.
The new Head Coach of the England Lionesses is a case in point. While the FA would ideally have liked to hire an English woman coach, they didn’t believe the right talent existed at the time.
Instead they chose Sarina Wiegman, a great female role model, to take over from Phil Neville, even though she was from a different country (Holland).
What these candidates lack in seniority, knowledge or nationality, they will make up for in diversity of thought, experience or background.
5. HOW TO HIRE FOR POTENTIAL
To assess potential, first and foremost you must prioritise what matters. This means understanding that no candidate, whatever their background, experience, gender, ethnicity or age, will ever be the perfect fit.
In fact, we would argue that no-one is ever more than an 80% fit, and that if they are, they probably aren’t the perfect hire, because there should be room for growth within the role.
This means creating an evidence-based approach that allows you to assess candidates against agreed criteria, allowing you to understand their strengths and areas of development, setting appropriate KPIs and putting the right team around them so they can thrive.
It also means concentrating on cultural fit – ie who will do well within the organisation and how does it need to shift to welcome others from different backgrounds?
For many more diverse candidates, repeat interaction will be key to them feeling comfortable. So general assessment days, in which the two parties get to know each other, can be far more useful that an intense recruitment process when there is no specific need for it.
6. APPROACH THEM UNTIL THEY APPROACH YOU
Diversity targets are useful, as are commitments such as the Rooney Rule, but they still require candidates to 1. hear about an opportunity and 2. have enough confidence to believe they could get the role.
Only then will they apply.
Working as we have on coaching roles within the FA, we know how hard it is to get white, middle-aged, English coaches to apply, let alone diverse candidates, for the reasons stated above.
Until you have established role models, you will have to go out and search the market, tapping candidates on the shoulder and taking time to explain why it might be worthwhile for them to apply.
This is always best done by a third party who can give honest advocacy and explain the benefits and challenges that come with any move, as opposed to a sales process that doesn’t build trust.
But then again, we would say that, wouldn't we?!
- David Slemen is a former professional sportsman and the founding partner of search, selection and advisory firm Elite Performance Partners. Anna Edwards joined EPP as a Managing Partner in 2019 and heads up the company's coaching and mentoring services.