Advice & News

January 19, 2023

Leading the Way for Diversity to the C-Suite

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The pace of organizational transformation has quickened in response to the new geopolitical and cultural reality that has emerged over the past few years, with many organizations preparing for an unstable and uncertain future. Organizations from all industries are adjusting their leadership priorities, management responsibilities, and decision-making frameworks, particularly in relation to equity and climate challenges. The C-suite is being fundamentally changed by this environment. Some jobs are being raised and redefined, while others are being developed to meet the demands of remote and hybrid working, such as the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Remote Officer, and Chief Diversity Officer in advancement. Nevertheless, some disparity still exists in the move from middle-level positions to the C-suite.

In 2022, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) launched a new strategic plan entitled "Championing Advancement." The plan centers on defining the competencies and standards for the advancement profession, and leading and championing their dissemination and application across the world's education institutions. CASE is a global, not-for-profit membership association with a vision to advance education to transform lives and society.

Core to the CASE strategic plan is recognizing that institutional advancement must improve its understanding of diverse communities and create more equitable and inclusive environments for staff and students of diverse lived experiences. CASE is determined to identify and eliminate pervasive systemic barriers through the CASE Opportunity & Inclusion Center (OIC). The OIC provides training, builds advancement capacity, and develops a diverse professional pipeline at all levels of advancement.

At the OIC, we understand it's vital for middle managers to learn and gain confidence in their industry and career journey before they can take on the more difficult and demanding roles in C-level positions. This is considerably tougher for people who have had diverse life experience and marginalized identities, including race, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation.

To address this challenge, CASE created the Minority Advancement Institute.

Overview of Minority Advancement Institute (MAI)

Established in 2006, the MAI program's main objectives are to promote the management, leadership, and mentorship of professionals from various backgrounds in the sphere of advancement. MAI draws professionals who have the ability to move into senior management positions and have different experiences and historically excluded ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation, and age identities. At MAI, lectures and dialogues are combined with case studies and small group activities to promote thought-provoking intellectual discussions. Over 327 professionals have taken part in the program, and more than 20% of them are currently serving in leadership roles.

Lessons from Successful MAI Participants

The OIC has interviewed MAI participants to identify lessons from their experiences with the program and in their careers.

When asked what they would have changed to better prepare themselves for the C-suite as middle managers, their responses ranged from two extremes. Some supported the idea of wanting to learn more about the operations of advancement and the university, which would serve as the basis for advanced work. Others believed that their education had helped them with the fundamentals of business operations and systems management, which somewhat mitigated their burden.

Dino Hernandez has held several vice president roles since his participation in MAI. He shared that his hardest challenge was "learning that you still had to do your primary job while also leading and managing a team of professionals. Your time is managed very tightly on a daily/weekly basis. One day it is 90% fundraising and 10% management (including managing up), and then the next day, it totally flips."

Anita Walton, a first-time vice president, shared, "One of the hardest transitions was no longer being a specialist or having a laser focus on one specific issue. The transition required managing up and down the organization simultaneously."

When asked to share any mistakes they've made or witnessed others make as a first-time vice president, the MAI participants discussed their difficulties creating and leading teams, as well as their finding and hiring talented individuals. Others claimed that underestimating how much time, energy, and effort it would take to complete the task correctly was their biggest blunder. They soon discovered that the volume and pace of work were endless. And that it was their responsibility to determine the most effective and efficient way to use their time, energy, and effort.

The MAI participants were also asked what advice they would give to middle managers seeking leadership roles. They identified the five following tips.

5 Ways to Move to the C-Suite

1. Follow the Money

Diverse professionals need to take care to avoid being cast into narrowly related or unprofitable roles. To avoid becoming caught in the "frozen middle," you need to have a deep understanding of the critical components of the organization's profit-generating tasks as a versatile professional.

2. Find a Sponsor

Sponsors offer guidance and a venue for questions while providing a unique viewpoint on the responsibilities of C-level executives. Having someone who can give you frank, helpful criticism is imperative. The majority of individuals who participated in the study agreed that sponsorship was crucial to their professional success.

3. Connect and Commit to Your Profession

The most essential resource for every C-suite executive is having access to a network of important contacts. Each person's version of this is unique and comes from years of relentless networking and relationship-building. A key selling point when applying for C-level employment is your network. Simply put, working hard is not enough!

4. Kick the Imposter Syndrome

Being a middle manager attracts attention for more reasons than just the job description, particularly if you don't fit the typical profile for someone who holds that position. It might eventually affect you if your skill set is continually judged, questioned, and devalued. You must build your confidence that you are worthy of the C-Suite and deserve to be given consideration.

5. Digital and Technology Expertise is Table Stakes

All C-suite roles must be able to travel between and integrate the digital and physical worlds with ease. Understanding how data, digital, and deep tech are transforming the context in which businesses function is a core talent today.

Final Thoughts

Based on feedback from these interviews and other leaders, CASE has created the Executive Advisors Program, which provides counsel and serves as a sounding board to help diverse executives navigate complex situations. Having senior, experienced leaders who come from diverse experiences advise newly appointed leaders of diverse lived experiences allows for authentic conversations based on shared understanding of the systemic barriers that exist in the field of advancement. The connections created through the Executive Advisors Program provide professional development and enhance retention, which benefits both the individual executives and CASE member institutions.

It is not easy to make your way into C-suite as a person of a different lived experience, but it is possible with the right sponsorship, networks, and training. You might just surprise yourself (and them) with what you're bringing to the table.

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