Many disability leaders refer to “the ceiling” blocking the upper levels that they are rarely appointed to. Openly identifying as disabled can end an otherwise promising career, and is one of the biggest risks facing a disability leader.
Many organisations refer to a lack of disabled candidates for their senior vacancies, particularly at executive and board level, yet they continue to use “merit” based appointment processes which result in the exclusion of disabled candidates.
Few organisations are proactively responding to a lack of disability diversity on their current executive team by focusing on who is coming after them. Will the next round of appointments increase disability diversity? Not if current strategies are any indication.
Organisations seem to have abandoned succession planning to resolve their lack of diversity. Rather, they persist in scanning externally for suitable candidates for executive and board positions, and then lament the lack of disability diversity available. Large budgets are spent on recruitment firms who also have no real solutions to offer that will change the status quo.
Organisations and executive recruitment agencies repeatedly throw their hands up and declare “we tried, there were just no suitable candidates, so nothing can be done.” Challenging historical assumptions takes commitment and strategic thinking, yet the response so far has been to continue trying the old methods which have repeatedly failed; appointments based on “merit”, and hoping that fully formed senior disability leaders will just turn up.
It is time to challenge the way things have always been done if disability diversity is to be achieved.
According to a 2018 study by Harvard Law School, the median tenure for a CEO is 5 years. This means action taken now may see a different looking executive within 5 years – a relatively short timeframe. The disability diversity situation has not changed in over 3 decades, yet within 5 years executives in many organisations could be different if progressive action were taken now.
One way that organisations could be more proactive is in their succession planning. If each member of the board and all senior leadership positions had a shadow, who openly identifies as a disabled person, then the lack of disabled people in decision making ranks would change within 5 to 10 years.
No more waiting for decades for some entry level or graduate program people to trickle up. That strategy has been tried consistently for 35 years and has completely failed.
When organisations are unable to find suitable candidates, they should be appointing a high potential disabled person as deputy, or 2IC, to the non-disabled person who is being appointed now. The disabled person can then succeed the non-disabled person 5 to 8 years later when the first person moves on. During that time they will have benefited from mentoring, on the job learning, and an expectation that their high-level capability will be deployed.
Within a few short years a much larger bank of high potential disability leaders will be developed, with the ability to stay within an organisation or move further afield, in the same way that others do in the workforce. These strategies have worked for achieving greater diversity in gender and are increasingly used to build the presence of other diversity groups.
There is no lack of suitable disability leaders. There has simply been a lack of appropriate disability leadership development and strategies to take advantage of the available talent.
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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person.