Chief Diversity/Equity and Inclusion Officers

Do they have the authority and access to succeed?

(The final part of a three-part series on Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace)

By Alan Letton, PhD

According to LinkedIn, the fastest appearing C-suite executive officer position from January 2020 through September is that of the Chief Diversity Officer, up 86 percent.

In a 2018 study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, diverse leadership teams earned nearly 50 percent of their revenues from innovation. Organizations that have a diverse mix of employees presenting varied experiences – which present different strategies, approaches, designs for solving a problem and creative solutions – are seen to produce the most effective and profitable solution vs. organizations that lack diversity.

SCORE reports that diverse teams are more innovative, perform better financially, and make more informed and faster decisions. Despite the many benefits associated with inclusive cultures, leadership remains challenged with incorporating diversity into their organizations. Pre Covid, the job of the CDO was challenging. Today, even more so. The officer must be proficient in multiple and interdisciplinary skills as well as being well versed in strategic planning and comfortable with ambiguity as we navigate day-to-day activities. It becomes more important than ever for the CDO to have access to the C- Suite as the officer formulates and adjusts policy in a continually evolving workplace.

But how is one person, the CDO, supposed to transition a company into a more inclusive environment, and what happens to the CDO’s personal advancement, what conditions must be in place in order for the role to be impactful? Consider the following:

· Employees of color make up much less of the corporate organization at every level, compared to white employees – men and women alike.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are key tenets of a healthy workplace culture. Over the past few decades, DE&I has taken many forms. Coming out of the 60s, there was a vision to incorporate more African Americans into the corporate management structure. Riding On the back of equality opportunity initiatives, the politics of the times challenged the idea

of set-asides or directed initiatives targeted at communities of color, primarily Latina and Black communities. Corporate leadership, avoiding the sensitivities of political engagement, embraced a broader view of diversity to represent a more multi-cultural engagement. Diversity began to include a wide range of multi-nationals and other groups, losing its focus on the original Black and Latina communities.

Clearly, a multi-cultural DE&I effort has value, but the challenges revealed by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement demonstrates a need to keep a focus on US communities of color due to their unique history here in the US. The issues and barriers for inclusion are historically and structurally different than those for the greater “diversity” community. This is also true for LGBTQ communities. Figure 1 below is a representation of the complexity of a diverse & inclusive culture. Each community has its own culture, its own needs, values and expectations, elements of which are not common to all groups. The key to creating an inclusive culture is finding that sweet spot where all communities are valued and respected.

Culture from the inside...

Figure 1 – Graphical Representation of the CDO’s world

So, what does this mean for the CDO? As a member of the Black corporate community, I was always advised to stay away from CDO-like positions. There is an unwritten rule in corporate America that you succeed to leadership from positions that impact revenue & profitability. How often have you seen the senior VP of HR matriculate to a CEO position? I was always advised that a CDO role is a kiss of death for one’s career. Whether this is true or not, the numbers demonstrate the near impossibility of someone to move from a CDO role to a more significant leadership role in an organization. Traditionally, these roles are limited in autonomy, financial control, and ability to influence strategy and critical decisions. As CDOs become more common, their career development and corporate performance needs to be addressed as well.

From a strategic perspective, strategies in this position will be complex yet must be comprehensive as illustrated in Figure 1. Ideally, initiatives for communities of color should be managed differently than those for LGBTG communities which should be different than those for women, and so forth. The breath of tools, knowledge, and analytical capabilities necessary to support CDO positions are accessible through external communities and should be a criterion by which CDOs decide whom they work with. CDOs need the autonomy to work in opposition to the traditional thinking of senior management and the resources to evaluate the community and integrate into the corporate strategy. This is a new type of risk that corporations must become comfortable with.

During my years in corporate leadership, I was often asked to serve in the capacity of a CDO. My experience and advice from others helped me to determine the best way to execute my efforts. First, I would report to the President or the CEO and not to the HR manager. This initiative had to be aligned with the business of the company and directly tied to strategy and execution. For this reason, reporting to the CEO brings the voice of inclusion to all corporate activities and decisions. Secondly, I used data analysis and strategic planning processes to identify key strategic issues within each community and aligned these issues with the organization’s business objectives before formulating recommendations for the rest of the senior team. It’s important to point out that I was already a member of the senior team in the later portion of my career and therefore brought a P&L accountability to my efforts.

The BLM movement brings a new demand for diversity officers to address old issues of exclusion, bias, and discrimination. The challenges that faced this nation in the 50s and 60s are still with us, proof that the approaches of the past did not work in creating an accepting and inclusive culture. In talking with organizations about diversity, I ask them to choose a representation of their vision. “Is it gumbo or lobster bisque?” I would ask. In my mind, these are the two extreme representations of inclusion. In the bisque analogy, we expect all cultures to become homogenized, to obtain some monolithic identity which usually is that of the previous culture. As for gumbo, each individual element (andouille sausage, shrimp, chicken, etc.) is suspended in a roux that is shared by all. This approach recognizes the individual cultures and their value to the larger culture. Most people think of things in terms of bisque and not gumbo. Gumbo is hard . . . but oh so delicious!

The CDO must learn to listen to each community, learn to navigate process and insight using appropriate tools, and integrate that information into the overall performance of the organization through strategy and execution. All CDOs must reach out to a greater community of experts that traditionally they do not have access to. This is not simply an HR problem, but a problem of strategic integration, resource alignment, and corporate skills development just to name a few. Let’s not repeat the errors of the past. Let’s build a community of empowered CDOs and supply them with the resources and experiences to move in a positive, definitive way. We are here to help you on that journey.

You ask any organization to describe their culture and you’ll hear all the platitudes; “We are a driven high-performance . . . “, “We are a community of entrepreneurs focused on value creation . . . , “We are an organization that values the contributions of all . . .“ These are all great sounding statements that usually fail to translate into reality. Think about this:
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