Outlook for the Chief Diversity Officer Role

by Beverly Harvey

What You Need to Know Right Now to Level Up as a CDO

The good news for those looking to enter or level up in the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role is that it is a growing role. The not-as-good news is concern that having the role in place is not enough for organizations to effectively rise to the challenge of diversity and inclusion. “Hiring a chief diversity officer is not a silver bullet for a diversity problem,” writes Alison DeNisco Rayome on TechRepublic,” and organizations require cultural changes over time to increase inclusivity. In addition, many CDOs say they lack the support, resources, data, and clout to make a real difference.

A 2018 report by Russell Reynolds, “A Leader’s Guide: Finding and Keeping Your Next Chief Diversity Officer, notes that 47 percent of companies on the S&P 500 index currently have a chief diversity officer or equivalent. Driving the role’s growth, in part, is the research-backed recognition that a diverse workforce boosts a company’s revenue. A 2018 McKinsey study, using 2017 data, found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity on their executive teams were 35 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

The CDO role has also garnered significant attention on college campuses. George Leef points out that over the last several decades “the number of college administrators has grown far more than the numbers of students and faculty,” and the highest growth has been in diversity officials. “Chief diversity officers attempt to institutionalize diversity in higher education,” says Rhonda Brown, CDO at Occidental College.

The majority of CDOs come from a background in diversity and inclusion or human resources, while some come from other functional areas, such as sales and marketing, management consulting, and the legal field. “The key is that they have demonstrated interest in doing work that helps the organization toward a diverse and inclusive culture,” says H. Wes Pratt, a CDO profiled by Taryn Oesch.

For bite-sized looks at what CDOs at nine well-known companies have been up to, see Selena Templeton’s article in ITSP magazine.


Key Competencies for the CDO Role

The minimum education requirement for a CDO is typically a master’s degree. A doctorate is sometimes required, especially for university CDOs. Prospective CDOs usually have 5-10 years of experience, although the Russell Reynolds report noted that 63 percent of CDOs in its study have been appointed or promoted to their roles in the past three years.

Persuasive communication skills are critical for CDOs, as they will likely need to attain buy-in for their initiatives. Some of these additional CDO competencies and characteristics were suggested by the report “Creating a Competency Model for Diversity and Inclusion Practitioners,” by Indra Lahiri for The Conference Board:

  • Change management
  • D&I [diversity and inclusion, also sometimes expressed as “DEI,” for diversity, equity, and inclusion] expertise and global perspective
  • Business acumen
  • Strategic mindset
  • Integrity
  • Visionary, resilient leadership
  • Conflict management
  • Political savvy
  • Collaboration
  • Influence without authority
  • Innovative problem solving
  • Ability to navigate corporate culture
  • Ability to showcase ROI for diversity and inclusion initiatives
  • HR competencies (total rewards, talent management, organizational development, work and life balance, training, compliance, and employee relations)

Level-Up Tips

Chief Human Resources Officer is often the next step for CDOs; in higher education, the CDO role can pave a path to college president. Here are a few suggestions for those seeking to break into the CDO role, expand their horizons in an existing CDO role, or even rise beyond the CDO role:

  • Crusade to prioritize diversity and inclusion. As noted, many CDOs feel stymied by the C-Suite’s failure to prioritize diversity and inclusion. “Many D&I initiatives are disconnected from business priorities, and CDOs often lack the necessary resources or organizational support to make lasting changes,” notes the Russell Reynolds report. The report also found that CDOs can significantly affect D&I success, particularly when they have the authority and skills to set D&I strategy. When the CDO is vaguely defined, it’s easy for the executive team to not take it seriously. Thus, a new CDO should deploy diplomatic, political, and persuasive skills to push for a well-defined role and high priority for diversity and inclusion. Understanding the business and the social environment can help in cultivating influence.
  • Build working relationships with top leaders at the organization. Developing a deep understanding of the business and the types of challenges that you face will also help you build credibility and trusting relationships with other leaders. “Ensuring that CDOs have the ability to influence and enact change is crucial,” states the 2017 report, “The Critical First Year: What New Chief Diversity Officers Need to Succeed,” by Charlene Aguilar and Jennifer Bauer. That ability won’t come solely from building relationships, but those connections comprise a good start. The organization must understand that the CDO isn’t a superhero or knight in shining armor; establishing a diverse and inclusive culture is a team effort. Nicole Roach writes about having gone on a listening tour when she first began her position as associate vice president for diversity and inclusion of Webster University.
  • Be a change agent. Simply managing change will not be enough to get the job done for most CDOs. “In the most successful cases,”” the Russell Reynolds report states, “the CDO is galvanizing the leadership team around a shared change mandate that leads to defined outcomes.”
  • Make the most of your first year on the job. Strategize early successes – and be clear about how your organization is measuring success.

CDO Trends to Watch

  • The definition of diversity broadens. Increasingly, the scope of diversity is spreading beyond gender and ethnicity and into areas such as age and sexual preference. Kayla Kozan observes that aging populations and greater numbers of workers people delaying retirement, age discrimination is gaining particular attention.
  • Executive leadership itself is becoming more diverse. Noting that companies like Netflix, M&T Bank and Uber all increased diverse leadership within their organizations, Janice Gassam stated in Forbes, “more diverse leadership representation is a good indication that companies are beginning to understand the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”
  • Companies increasingly use data to measure the effectiveness of diversity initiatives. Among the resources many CDOs say they are deprived of is data. “One of the big bottlenecks for increasing workplace diversity has been relying on practices that sound good on the surface but haven’t proven to be very effective,” Kozan asserts. To reverse these practices, companies will equip CDOs with the data they need.

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