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Choosing The Right Chief Diversity Officer

Recent events have mobilized for-profit and nonprofit organizations nationwide to increase their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Not only are these actions being seen and felt on an internal level, but—understanding that now, more than ever, their history and actions are under heightened visibility and scrutiny—organizations are making extra efforts to ensure their positive changes are known publicly. As a result, the role of the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) has taken center stage as an essential role and a critical contributor to the reputation, growth and overall success of every organization. This has left many organizations scrambling to hire a leader who can internally develop, build and/or ensure continual evolution of DE&I initiatives.

Unfortunately, under the pressure of time and the desire to “do the right thing,” the decision to select a leader for the function is often a knee-jerk reaction, rather than based upon an in-depth evaluation of the strategic and immediate challenges facing the company. A consideration of what the organization ultimately wants to achieve and what steps it needs to get there is often a side-thought.

Over the years, in many cases we have watched the CDO function become a revolving door of well-intentioned leaders who lack support from their CEO and don’t have clear direction as to what needs to happen in order to develop a comprehensive diversity and inclusion function.

The drivers of, and business case for, DE&I are many. They can include the desire to serve a diverse constituency or customer base; market segmentation; public relations, communications and talent, in all its facets; and acquisition, development, management, and retention objectives. However, without a clear alignment to organizational strategy and a road map to address these organizational opportunities and challenges, the CDO and his or her function is doomed to fail, typically losing the attention of the CEO and leadership team after a couple of years. Consequently, all parties become disillusioned with progress and decide to move on. This is why we see high turnover in the function.

However, a CDO can have a significant positive impact on an organization—and many examples exist demonstrating how a clear strategy, clear direction and a DE&I leader has enabled the organization to drive towards its desired goals. In these cases, success is achieved because the objectives of the DE&I function are aligned with the overall objectives of the organization. The DE&I function cannot exist in a vacuum. The efforts must be woven into every part of the overall business.

A successful DE&I leader understands this as well as the need to have two components in place. First, CDOs themselves must have the ability to work with each leader, learn their business and support the goals of that team. Secondly, leadership must be open to this type of partnership, as the CDO cannot drive this effort alone. The CDO must enjoy the full support of the entire organization—from the CEO to entry level staff—and the commitment to DE&I should be clearly established as a core value of the organization.

Of course, in addition to the pieces mentioned above, the organization needs to select the right DE&I leader in the first place—which cannot be achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach. Many organizations will fall back on appointing the senior-most person of color or woman within their organization to lead the DE&I function, an approach that has met with mixed results, at best. While these leaders often have significant institutional knowledge that can sometimes be a benefit, they may lack the in-depth practical knowledge of the myriad tactics and opportunities needed to successfully drive a DE&I function through an organization.

Ultimately, in choosing a CDO, an organization must recognize that the role can be a very tough and visible leadership position and that the CDO will be called upon to achieve many different tasks. A CDO needs to have courage and be dedicated, as they will be discussing topics that may become uncomfortable to some within the organization. They must be able to overcome hidden barriers as well as deal with colleagues who do not clearly see the value of the effort or the function. They must be able to identify champions within the company and know how to demonstrate both their own value and the value of the function. They must be patient, as the issues around DE&I continue to shift along with business drivers, customer demand and societal trends. Lastly, they must be goal-oriented, continually striving to make the organization inclusive and a better place for all to work.

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