Three steps to create more diverse consulting firms

We’ve written before on this blog about the consulting industry’s historic challenges around diversity and inclusion; while firms are no longer the “old boys’ clubs” they once were, most still have a long way to go before they become truly reflective of the societies in which they operate.

As we documented in a recent white paper, people of colour remain under-represented at many firms, particularly at the partner level. And while the Black Lives Matter protests of the last few months have shone a particular spotlight on issues of racial inequity, many leaders within the industry are also becoming more aware of the need to do more to turn their organisations into more welcoming spaces for women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and other historically under-represented groups.

But that can sometimes feel like an almost insurmountably challenging task. Sweeping away structural imbalances accrued over multiple generations is not the sort of thing that can be done overnight, nor is it something that can be achieved without concerted, deliberate effort at every level of an organisation, from the top down.

So what can consulting firms do if they are truly committed to the diversity and inclusion agenda, and want to convert that ambition into meaningful, lasting change? While there are countless individual actions that firms can take—some more impactful than others—it can be helpful to think of them in terms of three major buckets.

Firstly, firms need to closely scrutinise their recruitment practices through a diversity and inclusion lens. While most firms (we would hope!) are not actively discriminating against certain groups of candidates, there are plenty of opportunities for implicit bias to seep into the hiring process. For example, many firms rely heavily on informal personal networks to source candidates for senior roles—which has the effect of making it harder for candidates who don’t fit the mould of a “typical consultant” to get noticed. This doesn’t mean that firms should eschew the use of such networks completely, but they should work to ensure that candidate slates don’t consist entirely of people sourced from them.

Additionally, many leading firms rely heavily on a small number of elite universities for filling their graduate intakes. And since the student bodies at many of these universities tend to be disproportionately white and wealthy, that naturally has a limiting effect on the diversity of those intakes. Broadening the range of institutions you recruit from can therefore have a dramatic effect on the diversity of your business.

Secondly, firms can make structural changes within their organisations to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment. After all, there is little point in hiring more people of colour—for example—if those individuals then find that they don’t have the same opportunities for career development as their white colleagues. An obvious first step would be to create dedicated networking groups and mentorship programmes, but some firms have gone further and have created “shadow boards” composed of lower-level employees tasked with providing ongoing feedback to senior leadership team members and holding their feet to the fire.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all, firms need to recognise their own limitations in this area, and look for opportunities to bring in outside perspectives to help them tackle their diversity and inclusion challenges. We are all necessarily limited by our own points of view; no matter how good their intentions are, it will never be possible for any partner to identify for themselves all of the barriers to access that exist within their firm. That’s why it’s critical that industry leaders learn to work with outside advocacy groups and campaigners, who can both validate the diversity and inclusion work that’s already been done and pinpoint opportunities for improvement.

Of course, there is no silver bullet capable of instantly transforming a consulting firm into a diverse and inclusive organisation. But the three steps outlined here—reviewing hiring processes, making structural changes, and seeking the counsel of outside experts—collectively represent a crucial piece of the puzzle for any firm looking to take its commitment to representation to the next level.