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Developing Inclusive Leaders with Sulaiman Rahman of DiverseForce

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developing inclusive leaders

In the 2022 September/October issue we spoke with Sulaiman W. Rahman, the president and CEO of DiverseForce, about developing inclusive leaders.

Developing Inclusive Leaders

Tell me about DiverseForce. What’s the driving mission of your organization?

DiverseForce is a human capital solutions firm. We evolved from a professional network that we grew out of the greater Philadelphia area with 20,000 professionals of color where we focused on really engaging, empowering and connecting that audience. We engage them in community and civic involvement, empower them to advance their careers and grow businesses, and to connect with others who share similar interests.

Being part of that community, and connecting and talking to a lot of folks helped us understand what needs they had from a career and career advancement perspective, and some of the challenges of working in non-inclusive environments. When we started DiverseForce, we were very intentional about how to build talent pipelines — from entry level to the boardroom — and how to help organizations be more inclusive by attracting, retaining and developing that talent as well.

Tell me more about your leadership development program.

As part of our mid-to-senior level professional color leadership development programming, we focus on a program called DiverseForce On Boards. We partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to create a curriculum over six months that focuses on three areas. One is nonprofit board governance. Two is leadership development. Three is diversity, equity and inclusion. We launched that initiative in 2017. We now have over 220 graduates of the program, eight cohorts and our eighth cohort finished up in May. We’ve filled over 175 board seats throughout the region, and the motivation behind it comes from having personally served on a dozen-plus nonprofit boards over the years, from smaller nonprofits to more institutional boards in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Not only is it great to have a bird’s eye view of how organizations are run and the organizational challenges, but to be able to bring perspective provides the opportunity for huge impact in communities.

Why is it essential for community organizations to integrate diverse leaders?

Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector has traditionally been white led, where those closer to the dollars were closer to the leadership by way of boards. And those who are proximate to the challenges and those these organizations typically serve were not represented on the board. It’s so important to have those diverse perspectives and views to really make sure that accuracy of solutions and strategy starts in the boardroom.

How can organizations provide continued support for diverse leaders?

Often, companies focus on recruiting talent and don’t take the steps to retain that talent. Sometimes we’ll do exit interviews, but don’t do “stay interviews,” which I recommend. At the same time, check in on folks and see how things are moving. This goes across the board for all talent, especially for millennials and the next generation as well. Identify what their goals are and how the organization best serves them, and how they can best serve the organization. As a next generation leader, understanding that being a better mentor and coach to your talent is critical. Provide the opportunity to connect them with leadership development or executive coaches that also speak to how they navigate a world that is somewhat different when you come from a different lens or a different marginalized community. And make sure there’s a safe space to ask questions that are relevant to them, but also have the nuance to understand that navigating careers is different based on gender and racial ethnic backgrounds. It’s not a one size fits all. Lastly, make sure there’s stewardship and sponsorship opportunities for them as well, which is critical for advancement.

What advice can you share for organizations working on diversifying their leadership?

Go beyond just representation to inclusion and equity as well. Diversity is counting heads and inclusion is making sure the heads count. One way to start to diversify is when opportunities to hire and bring in new talent arise, make sure you have a diverse slate of candidates. And when you think about your final slate of candidates, have at least two or more diverse candidates. Identify where those diverse pools of talent live, work and play, and make sure you source in those areas. Also, as you go through your recruitment pipeline and get to final decision making, there should be at least two or more diverse candidates in that pool, which will tremendously increase the odds of the organization actually diversifying and having that culture add to the organization. In the final stages, also make sure there’s a process to check your bias. Every organization needs to go through the journey of learning how to check bias throughout. You can do this by having hiring panels and calling each other out in a constructive way on different biases. It’s also good to hire out of a third-party organization that can help to do that.

Last advice on developing inclusive leaders?

Leaders can understand that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are in many different areas of their business or organization. Many times we just see it very monolithically, but the key is in making sure they’re inclusive through many ways, such as board governance, executive leadership, talent management, organizational culture, vendor diversity and more. So, it’s many different domains where DEI can live. Make sure leaders are aware so they can be able to measure, monitor and enforce it from a leadership position as well.

*Photo courtesy of DiverseForce. 

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Brittany Howard

Brittany is the editor of Community Rec Magazine. Reach her at brittany@peakemedia.com.

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