Chief Diversity Officer Success Depends on Board, Executive Commitment
By Tory Clarke and Toya Lawson

Since the wave of protests in response to the killing of George Floyd erupted across the country and the world, the demand for Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) has dramatically increased beyond the 50% of Fortune 500 companies that already had one in place (63% of those adding the position in the last three years), according to Fortune magazine. Public response to recent social unrest have put the CDO in the spotlight and in demand.

However, CDO turnover is high with an average tenure of about three years, according to a Wall Street Journal article. Reasons a CDO moves on includes a lack of resources, unrealistic expectations, cultural pushback against change and inadequate support from senior executives.

Some would say a three-year average turnover is the right pace, as an organization moves from build to sustain it requires new leadership skills. A less charitable voice might say that the CDO becomes a scapegoat when unrealistic goals are not met fast enough.

How does an organization’s board and executive leadership help to ensure the success (and longevity) of their CDO?

From our experience, planning is key to successfully recruiting CDOs. No two organizations are the same and therefore needs differ significantly from one organization to the next. The most successful companies are those that engage in self-reflection before jumping to recruit this leadership role.

Whether you already are adding the role to your leadership ranks or finding a replacement, what exactly are the CDO’s responsibilities? How will success be measured? Will adding a CDO to your organization’s executive leadership team help to heal racial division and inequality within your company? Are your key imperatives external (branding, community outreach, new market development), internal (retention, talent development, employer branding), or both?

To answer these questions and stay true to the answers, support at the senior level is critical. This is where the board plays a vital role. The board’s number one responsibility is to help an organization determine strategy. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) must be embedded into that overall strategy, in order to be successfully implemented by the CDO. It goes without saying that the more diverse the board, the more effective and supportive their partnership will be with the CDO and other members of an inclusive leadership team.

We have seen hugely successful leaders join an organization and drive meaningful change and leadership teams considering the profile they seek in relation to their organizational strategy. And, once or twice,  we have seen well-intentioned organizations hire leaders on a change-agenda that the organization is simply not ready to implement (consequently, the CDOs left after a couple of years).

Below are some considerations for optimizing the success of the role, particularly for a board of directors to support, influence and optimize the CDO position:

Reporting structure: In an ideal world, the CDO should be the organization’s executive-level diversity, equity and inclusion strategist. As such, with an enterprise-wide perspective, the position should ideally report to the CEO where this leader will have the broadest oversight and the influence and credibility to drive systemic change that comes from a seat at the leadership table.

Leadership support: Effective diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives require support and commitment from the top, all the way through the organization. The goal should be to weave DEI into every aspect of an organization’s culture — not have it sit as a silo, initiative or program. The CDO should be not the only champion for diversity within your organization. From the board to the CEO to entry-level staff must be committed to DEI and it should be established as an organizational core value.

A dose of realism: Realistic expectations, goals and metrics must be set for the CDO to be successful. Aspirational goals are a good thing but setting an organization up for inevitable failure is not. The leadership team must know what they want to accomplish by adding a CDO and then establish ways to measure the results. The board should ensure that DEI is one of the lenses through which every strategic decision is made — considering it a business imperative, not simply a nice-to-have or a line on the agenda.

Investment: This work cannot be accomplished by one person. A dedicated budget and appropriate resources must be invested in the success of the CDO. A team must be put in place to develop and implement robust, impactful training programs.

Curiosity: Listen and learn. Have the CDO present at board meetings. Require an update in the same way you would of your CFO, ideally in-person rather than in report form. Ask questions, dig into nuance.

Courage: Talking about race, gender and sexual orientation topics are tough in any environment but particularly at work. Everyone on the team must be willing to recognize their own biases and be willing and prepared to be made uncomfortable. This includes the board — this is not a spectator sport. Be the change you want to see.

Patience: Part of the role of a board of directors is long-term planning, making decisions that will ensure the longevity of the organization they serve. The same applies here: statements can be made, PR firms and advertising agencies retained, new hires can be onboarded — but meaningfully changing attitudes toward diversity, equity and inclusion takes time. There are no quick and easy solutions.

If your organization is looking to embrace and embed diversity in the leadership ranks and build a more inclusive culture, hiring a CDO might be one option to consider — but do it purposefully and then stand by the decision. The support of a curious and inclusive board can really mean the difference between success and failure.

Tory Clarke is the co-founder and a partner at Bridge Partners LLC. Toya Lawson is also a partner.

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