Succession Planning with Race and Gender at the Center

March 2019

By Mike Markovits


I thought I knew everything about succession planning. What else could I possibly learn after a quarter century leading this activity at two global companies with world-renowned leadership development practices? As it turns out, I still had a lot to learn.

But let me back up. I first learned succession planning as a young human resources professional at GE, where Session C was a studied and replicated set of tools and processes. Jack Welch devoted a month out of each year to succession planning, and GE was considered to have the gold-plated standard in that arena.

Then I went to IBM, where I had global, corporate-wide responsibility for succession planning. IBM was different than GE in many ways; I learned some variations on familiar approaches and also created and introduced some new tools and processes. When I left, I thought IBM reflected the new best practice in succession planning.

What I did not know during my twenty-five-plus years at these two prestigious corporations was how to notice and correct for gender and racial biases, and how to build gender and race equity into a succession planning process. I have learned this in the last seven years working at AchieveMission and consulting to nonprofit organizations across the United States.

Early in my years with AchieveMission, I remember introducing the basic tools of a Talent Review – the 9-box and successor chart – to a well-regarded youth services organization serving predominantly people-of-color. After the senior leadership team completed the 9-box on the direct service and middle management layers of the organization, we stepped back and looked at the distribution of names in the 9-box. With surprise, we noticed that the box for low-performing and low-potential staff contained exclusively people-of-color. In contrast, white staff members were uniformly perceived as medium-to-high performance and medium-to-high potential. At the time, we brainstormed actions that we could take; for example, the organization developed and implemented a mentoring program for staff-of-color.

While implementing a mentoring program was a good talent development action, in retrospect we did not explore deeply enough why we saw the 9-box distribution that we did. Key questions that we could have asked ourselves include:

  • Were managers trained on race and gender equity and implicit bias prior to assessing their direct reports for the succession planning exercise? Were there differences in how different managers assessed members of their teams? Was there an individual manager or two who supervised the preponderance of identified “low-performing / low-potential” individuals?
  • In addition to individual causes for the “low performing / low potential” assessments, were their systemic causes for the 9-box distribution? For example, were employees expected to “sink or swim” or was there active coaching and support for people, especially people new to their roles?
  • In the actual discussion during the Talent Review, were there opportunities for alternative insights about identified “low-performing / low-potential” individuals to be shared, or was there more of a groupthink mentality that did not allow for pushback? If some degree of groupthink was present, what explains that phenomenon? Is it an indication of bias?


One essential piece of succession planning is for the assessors to initiate a conversation amongst themselves about trends related to race or gender (or other relevant diversity criteria for your organization). This conversation can surface blind spots in our leaders and in our talent development practices. Questions to ask during this discussion include:

  • What trends do you notice related to race and gender when you review the Talent Review data?
  • What questions surface for you as you look at the Talent Review data?
  • What are possible hypotheses for what has led to this data?
  • What actions could we take to address the trends we see in the data?


Thanks to my nonprofit sector partners, I have now learned quite a bit about how to pay attention to race and gender equity in a succession planning process, and I’m sure there is more for me – and all of us – to learn and incorporate into our talent development. What is now undoubtedly clear to me is that I can and should be a bold observer, facilitator, and guide for organizations, helping them to focus on race and gender equity as they implement and execute succession planning.

Recruiting With A DEI Lens

By Edith Buhs, Principal

Creating a race equitable workplace has become an elevated priority. In our work, we’ve heard many times that our clients want to take action, but aren’t sure how. Equity in the Center’s recent report “Awake to Work to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture” describes a cycle of change – awake, work, work – as organizations transform from a white dominant culture to a race equity culture. Awake, the first stage, focuses on building a workforce of individuals from different race backgrounds. In nonprofits, this is not a small task.  While about 40% of the American workforce is non-white, only 18% of nonprofit staffers are. In smaller and midsize organizations it is common for hiring to be largely unstructured, or even completely ad hoc, which makes hiring new staff who feel similar to the interviewers and existing staff nearly inevitable. Plus, nonprofits can’t retain and promote staffers of diverse backgrounds if they don’t get hired in the first place. So, getting “awake” in your hiring is a good place to start. Below are a few approaches we recently used with a client that you can adopt and adapt. Try them out, talk to your peers, reach out to colleagues in other organizations. Let us know what you learn and how you make changes that matter.

Write a better Job Description

  • Textio’s great Word Nerd blog guided the language we used and the posting length. Their research shows long listings have a drop off in applicants. Aim for the sweet spot of 300-700 words.
  • We named how diversity, equity and inclusion figures into the responsibilities and qualifications of the role, i.e. “execute a strategy that generates a high quality and diverse workforce. . . develop and institute diversity and inclusion initiatives . . . cultivate a safe, fulfilling and respectful work environment free from discrimination and harassment that promotes the wellbeing of staff.” Not hiring for a talent role? Here’s what it sounds like for a foundation policy position: “Ensure the policy agenda reflects and advances the Foundation’s commitment . . .  to reducing racial and ethnic disparities.” Or, for a manager in a youth leadership nonprofit: “Demonstrated ability to work with diverse teams of young adults, which includes experience coaching young people and working with diverse populations.”
  • We expanded the EEOC statement: “We are an equal opportunity employer that values diversity of all kinds. We encourage candidates from all backgrounds to apply for this opportunity. It is our policy to ensure that all individuals are treated equally without regard to age, color, disability, gender, marital status, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, expression, gender identity or veteranstatus, and that all are given every opportunity to succeed.”

Reduce Your Implicit Bias in Screening

As a small team without an applicant tracking system or automated screening, we did it “by hand.” Our team worked to counterbalance our implicit bias by:

  • Using a spreadsheet to track candidates and to be sure we were looking at every application and communicating with each person after every round.
  • Using two reviewers with different identity characteristics.  In our case, this meant different racial, age and geographic backgrounds.
  • Reviewing applications in large batches.
  • Instead of sorting resumes into simple yes, no and maybe piles, we compared applications against the minimum qualifications in the posting and then held those candidates against the highest priority abilities to find ones to phone screen;
  • Testing our ratings with each other by asking why we scored two candidates differently, checking that candidates with similar scores really did seem similar, and ensuring that our ratings were backed by data.
  • This wasn’t a highly scientific process (few in the nonprofit world are. Google is a different story) so when candidates from diverse (non white-normative) backgrounds were just outside our cutoff, we tipped them into the next pool on the guess that, despite our efforts in a biased world, their match to the role may have been underestimated. We’d look to the next round of vetting to get a better view.

Structure Your Interviews

Research shows that unstructured interviews (asking off the cuff questions, letting a conversation unfold organically) are terrible at selecting top candidates, in spite of the fact that interviewers prefer them (no prep, no directions, no design to follow – what’s not to like?). The bad news is that unstructured interviews are more likely to allow implicit bias to sway results. Iris Bohnet’s work, How to Take the Bias Out of Interviews, informed our approach. We rooted out opportunities for “I just liked her” or “I didn’t get a good feel from him” to seep into the selection process by honing in on the competencies needed for success in the role. Using our Inquiry Design tool (download sample here), we predesigned questions for each layer of interviewing (phone screen, first in-person interview and finalist round) to explore a deeper layer of data in each round. All candidates were asked the same questions in every round, interviewers took detailed notes and then compared and tested their assessments in debrief meetings.

No Stony Faces and Bad Cops

We believe that each person’s true capabilities and potential match with the job comes through more if stress and anxiety are minimized. Interviews are nerve racking, especially for the introverts among us and those with time constraints in their on-the-job and off-the-job schedules. We aimed to put candidates at ease by connecting personally at the beginning of interviews and smiling a lot. We appreciated their interest in the role. We told them what to expect in each type of interview and gave a clear point of contact for questions. We shared expected next steps and updated candidates when our timeline slowed down. With a nod to Vu Le about salary cloaking, for candidates who advanced from the phone screen, we shared the salary range to find mismatches in salary requirements early on and value everyone’s time. Further on this spectrum, some employers are fully transparent about salary ranges in postings and tell candidates what topics or even questions to expect in interviews. (Note too that the client is based in New York which, like Massachusetts, forbids asking about salary history during job interviewing. This regulation is spreading, so look for it to come to your city or state!)

We believe these are good practices for every hiring process. A little upfront investment in the way you hire one or two people can create the tools, training and pool of interviewers you need to make every hire better. These are early and essential pieces of creating a workplace that is more diverse, inclusive and equitable. Let us know if you’d like to upgrade your hiring with doable, practical steps like these. To explore another piece of the puzzle, look for our next blog post on training interviewers.

"Yeah, but..."

November 10th, 2017

By Ankita Jhaveri


As an immigrant South Asian woman, I can’t separate inclusion and equity from my daily life. If only I had a penny for every time someone changed my name to Anita or Nikita, or commented on the fact that I don’t have an accent even though I was born and raised in India, or asked if I speak Hindu or Indian or compared Bhangra to screwing in a light bulb. The list continues.


And as an immigrant South Asian woman working in the nonprofit sector, I can’t separate inclusion and equity from my professional life. How do I ensure that I am not just a number, meeting compliance? That I am not tokenized as a person of color on a mainly white team? That organizations are creating a culture and conditions that allow for my full and authentic self to show up, and then keep showing up over and over again? And how all of my team members are able to do this – equally and without being vulnerable each time – with the wealth of their experiences and strengths.


At a recent training on Racial Justice, a white woman asked the question “what is my role when doing this work? What is the right thing for me to do? How should I behave in my organization as we elevate this work?” At first, I was perplexed by the question because the idea that there is a “right role” or “right behavior” is foreign to me.  My experience tells me that we all must do what we can, and that it may look different for each person. There is no one story – we all have our own. My experience as a person of color is different than that of my Latina or African American colleagues, and so I do what I can from where I sit. The key being, doingwhat you can do. And in the same way, my White colleagues must do what they can, and that will invariably look different for each one.


And as I sat with the question throughout the day, I couldn’t let go of the idea of power dynamics. In situations where I have not been able to bring my full self to work or could not exercise my leadership, felt undermined, or couldn’t tell my own truth, all had one thing in common – lack of space. Lack of space to speak up, lack of space to do the work in a way that is mine, lack of trust that I can do the work. And it often begins with “yeah, but …” The idea that some power must shift, there must be some letting go is inevitable if we are to do this work, to do it well, and to do it in a way that is authentic and long-lasting.

Leading From Where You Are

Join AchieveMission’s Mikaela Seligman for Leading From Where You Are at Our Common Future on Wednesday, October 26.

Let’s get real about it. We exercise leadership by speaking to and acting on what is most meaningful to us, by doing the work of mobilizing the resources to act on our really tough challenges. No one hands that to us. What we are given is authority. What we take up (or avoid) is our leadership. How we get it to stick over time is execution.

I began to put the pieces together when I studied Adaptive Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Through the course and then serving as a teaching fellow, I was able make sense of the profound failure I had experienced some years earlier as a charter corps member in Teach for America. I couldn’t see the system nor discern the lessons that could inform my day-to-day behavior. I experienced the whole thing as personal and it left deep scars. After the course and ensuing years of personal and professional practice, my vision of leadership expanded, and the possibilities of leading grew with it.

Now with AchieveMission, we integrate this framework and a number of powerful practices to support individuals and organizations to diagnose their challenges, guide essential conversations, generate internal alignment to drive informed decision making, and enable teams to exercise leadership at all levels.

If there was one thing I would recommend to read before joining this session it would be an Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Work of Leadership” by Ron Heifetz and Don Laurie, originally published in 1997. It is an oldie, but a goodie.

"Let's Talk About Race," My Boss Said to Me

August 23, 2017

By Paola Peacock Friedrich


Countless years in this brown skin, over 100 stamps in my passport, study sessions with Cornel West, and I was wary of this invitation. In the fall of 2016, I was asked to lead the first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team at AchieveMission. I said, no. As one of two people of color in our small firm and not yet a member of the leadership team, I was worried that somehow this invitation was at odds with my professional goals. I wanted to lead our consulting practice in a few years, multilingual and brown as I am. I wanted to continue to learn our talent management and leadership development practice. I wanted to be seen as a leader in strategic thinking, in partner engagement, in client impact, and in adult learning. I was worried that I might be tokenized and that I would not have the informal authority to influence the initiative in a deep and meaningful way. So, I said no.


When I think back to one of my greatest leadership failures, I think of this moment when my boss said to me, “Let’s talk about race…will you lead?” In essence, though not exactly, I had said, “no thank you.” My response tormented me. It was completely in conflict with my values and existence. I could already see that what I was disguising as perseverance and focus was actually born from stubbornness, righteousness, and fatigue.


Today, in the wake of vibrant expressions of violence, anger, and hate, I am again haunted by my initial wariness. My hesitation did not come from a tension between my personal values and our work contributing to diversity, equity and inclusion; it came from self-doubt. I wrestle on a daily basis with my identity as a mother, a Latina, and a leader in US K-12 education. My mother was one semester short of earning her college degree in Psychology at the UNAM in Mexico City when she and my father came to the United States in 1974. Both of my parents devoted their every waking moment to my education and that of my two sisters. They chose a magnet school for me in San Diego where I delved into a French immersion program in first grade. The forty-five-minute bus ride each way and the richness of learning that I experienced with Madame Bell that year absolutely set the course for my life.

Now, as mother of two young boys, I often struggle to feel adequate in my devotion to their lives and education. I began my Doctoral studies at Harvard with Diego at 11-months old, and gave birth to my second son, Francisco, just as I began my residency year and Doctoral Capstone. The demand on me as a leader, a learner, and a mother is something that I had not anticipated. I was raised to believe that I would and could contribute meaningful work, be a leader in my field, and have a family if I so chose. These elements of my identity were never at odds with each other until I began to truly transform and grow as a leader. I searched for female role models who had done this before. What I found was that, anecdotally, many phenomenal leaders of color did not have children while their white counterparts did. I am often torn between knowing how to uphold the overwhelming devotion to my family that my parents continue to model together with the desire to delve deeply into a demanding career and learning.



In August 2016, I returned to work and said, “ok, let’s talk about race at AchieveMission.” I was not sure where to begin. I knew my own experience of how race intersects with poverty, education and health through my family, community, and travels across the world. But how should we hold race here, at AchieveMission, both as a team and with our clients? In true AchieveMission fashion, I did not do this alone. We formed a phenomenal team of reflective and courageous people, committed to building a learning relationship with one another where we could explore race. We started with our ultimate area of expertise: ourselves. Our conversations were by no means easy. They did, however, lay a foundation for us to support and probe each other. Then, we began to craft a practice where we would hold a conversation that isolated race after every client facilitation. The first time we did this, we smiled nervously. We did not know how to begin, and we remembered Glenn E. Singleton’s principles for Courageous Conversations about Race, namely: speak from your personal experience, isolate race, and agree to the fact that you may feel unresolved at the end of the conversation. After a few rounds we gained comfort exploring how race showed up in the room, in our own minds, and in our interactions with others.  And we began to find a flow.


Today, I hold my initial hesitation and self-doubt in check with the help of others. I see my roles as mother, learner, and leader more aligned than ever, and I try to allow the dimensions of my identity (and the tensions they bring) to fuel my motivation and devotion to bringing about true equity for our families and communities.


Today, if you said to me, “let’s talk about race…right here, right now,” I would respond, “claro que si.”

We Don't Need Another Wake-up Call

We all mourn and grieve this week for the loss of life in Charlottesville.

And this feels insufficient to the needs of this situation and the larger context of normalized bigotry and discrimination in this country. I decry the feckless and inauthentic response of this President to violent white nationalists (i know no other kind honestly) marching publicly and with the implicit permission of a system of white supremacy.  As Heather Hayer reminded us and would be doing right now if she were alive, if we are not outraged, we are not paying attention.  Of course, she wasn’t the first person to say that, nor was she the first to die in this line of fire, and this was not the first of these incidents. She knew that.  It was why she marched.  I know that too. I (choose to) turn away sometimes – and I know that this society allows me to. I also know that to be black in this country is not to be able to ever turn away.

Eight months ago, on December 4, 2016, I posted this on Facebook,  “We chased the Klan out of Danville va and Pelham NYC on Saturday. Cowards. They drove through a town 35 miles away, a “car” parade. A New York Times reporter said he found their “exalted cyclops” hiding out in a Days Inn.  We shut shit down – and built of love and community and strong legs and minds, this is only the beginning.” With a car load of friends from DC, I had gone to show the KKK that they weren’t going to be able to take over this small town, to intimidate its black residents (this way anyway), to have my feet move on what deepest fears about the emerging realities of this administration’s rhetoric and oppressive action.  We left that one day high from the experience of making a difference. It feels sort of naive now.  As if we could chase this out, expel it, move it out of our mainstream white dominant frame.   We didn’t and couldn’t.   The reality is, this too is America.

In the middle of the last century, one of our nation’s great prophets, James Baldwin, wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  For those of us who experience the world as white, in which group I include myself, we need to hold this rage alongside people of color, not to have it shouldered only by those who experience the discrimination, and systematic oppression day in and day out. I know that to be black in this country is to experience an America where you have to work twice as hard to get half as much.  I recognize that I can’t even begin to understand.  And I can’t stop trying, stop learning and stop showing up. We have a role.

Let’s also look at “leadership” in this case, or the lack of it.  The most senior formal authorities have advanced laws and policies that empower hatred and bigotry.  The conditions that encouraged this past weekend’s organized public march are undeniably real with deep roots in our country’s past. They yield a toxic harvest today. The truth is that white supremacy is also a present threat to our organizations and our communities.


For more on how to see and confront our participation in a white supremacist system, read too this post and links from my friend, sector colleague and AchieveMission board member Monisha Kapila —


We don’t need another wake-up call to keep doing our work, exposing and confronting prejudice and unchecked authority in all its forms.

But the explicit personal race hatred on display in Charlottesville and, lets be honest, this White House, can complicate addressing the sources of systemic inequities including unconscious bias, institutional racism, oppression, white fragility and opportunity gaps in our own organizations.   It can be tempting to let ourselves off the hook because we are saturated with images of people doing much, much worse.


We can’t let up, not now, doing the daily work – having the conversations, looking to where we even put up barriers that prevent equity and inclusion (through mindset and practice), and taking them down – over and over and over again.

We can imagine and move into a different future, dismantling the mindsets and systems that stoke and implicitly condone or allow systemic oppression in all of our communities across the country.  Together, we can.


– Mikaela Seligman, Principal

Statement on Charlottesville

We express our deepest sadness for the violence and loss of life in Charlottesville, VA and strongly repudiate the message of hate, bigotry, racism and intolerance expressed by the perpetrators. It is critical that we work to build communities that ensure equity and justice for all. We join many others in visibly standing up for equality and inclusivity, consistent with our values and vision of a just and equitable world.

– The AchieveMission Team


Click here to read a more in-depth perspective from one of our leaders.

Getting Real - The First Step

I am a big consumer of podcasts.  I love their range and where they can take me in sixty-odd minutes during a long run or a car ride.  I can look underneath the political (un)reality, through the highly attuned café chat of three brilliant youngish economists in Vox’s The Weeds; in This American Life I can get glimpses into the stories of America, as we are and aspire to be.


I have listened to This American Life for many years, before the App Store and the whole world of podcasts exploded.  And, a few weeks ago, I was reminded of why I keep coming back.  In one story, a young girl in a talent show practically flails herself to joyful exhaustion in an interpretive dance to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”  The correspondent, Hana Joffe Walt, describes the girl’s performance not as “good” in the classic sense, but as “super confident” and, yes, “real.”  “The audience lost it,” Joffe Walt says.  “It was her.  The stage gave her a place to perform something that she is interested in, something that she really is, something that is true.”  She was all in.  It got real.


We often see our kids get real in ways we long to as grown-ups.  They ask the questions they want answers to, push into new situations with curiosity and raw fear, and cry when they are sad.  And then, at a certain age, that changes…. they begin to imagine what they think others see.  Real becomes dangerous.


Ok, now for the talent and leadership connection if you didn’t see it coming….

In our workplaces, our own obsession with performance and managing the situation to its rightful outcome can disconnect us from our deepest longings and reasons for doing the work we do.  We begin to believe that getting real is too dangerous.  It doesn’t get us promoted. It looks bad.


This is what the work of leadership and talent is really about—creating the conditions that allow everyone to show up, and then keep showing up over and over and over again.  It is why I care so deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion, why our team is consumed with creating workplaces that advance crucial missions through the fullness and diverse perspectives and experiences of their teams.  It is why the term “performance management” is a bit of an oxymoron—it is so much less about managing performance than about amplifying it, about knowing that people, in all of their flaws and unrefined interpretive dances, are the ones we have been looking for.


– Mikaela Seligman, Principal

AchieveMission Featured in Independent Sector Quarterly Article


See this recent ISQ article examining our collaboration with six high impact nonprofits!

“….Beginning in early 2015, these six organizations engaged with AchieveMission in a six-month human capital management (HCM) consulting and training program to help establish the culture, structure and processes necessary to implement their strategies and drive social change….” 

Click here to read more

Tell Us What You Need

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