Updated: May 27
Chief Diversity Officer Turnover is High. These Veteran Leaders in Diversity are Proof That It Doesn’t Have to Be.
The demand for chief diversity officers (CDOs) has skyrocketed in response to the sustained outcry against systemic racism re-ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Increasingly, Corporate America acknowledges it must be part of the solution to ending institutional bias but just cannot seem to keep these leaders at their companies longer than three years.
Newly hired CDOs step into the position with aspirations of leading enterprise-wide business initiatives designed to optimize success in the workplace and marketplace through equity, diversity and inclusion. Instead, many encounter headwinds in the form of an unaccepting culture, lack of leadership commitment and dedicated resources, and depart the position within 36 months with little progress to show for their efforts.
During a webinar entitled, “Chief Diversity Officers – Set Up to Win,” equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) consultancy firm, Inclusent, discussed the high turnover of CDOs with an exceptionally qualified panel of EDI leaders including Sharon Hall, partner at Spencer Stuart; Keyra Johnson, CDO at Delta Air Lines; and Magda Yrizarry, CDO at Verizon.
Over 100 listeners in the audience exited the webinar with the following takeaways:
1. “When Chief Diversity Officers aren’t resourced, they move on.” - Sharon Hall, Partner at Spencer Stuart.
With 23 years of experience at Spencer Stuart, 20 of which have been spent developing and integrating the firm’s diversity practices, Sharon Hall has figured out to the month how long it will take new CDOs to move on.
“Whenever I get a call from a newly placed chief diversity officer, I always say, ‘It sounds wonderful. Keep your resume updated,’ because I know within 36 months, the job is pretty much going to be over,” Hall said.
“I cannot tell you how many people call me back in 38 months and ask, ‘how did you know?’”
During the webinar, Hall enumerated several reasons for this rapid turnover, but singled one out as the most consequential.
“The biggest reason that there is high turnover is that these jobs are not resourced,” she said. “A company will hire a professional to be chief diversity officer and say, ‘well, thank God we've got that done.’ But the work is not done.”
Rather than equipping CDOs with team members, budgets and engagement, the rest of the executive team will return to business as usual. Meanwhile, CDOs new to the role are expected to transform the company’s culture and measure and sustain those changes. According to Hall, that’s not enough to retain a highly-qualified CDO.
2. “Sometimes it’s not just about being solution-oriented. It’s about solving problems.” - Keyra Johnson, Managing Director and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines publicly disclosed its strategy for addressing racial inequality within its organization. Keyra Johnson, CDO at Delta, is at the helm of that effort. In her experience, successful CDOs are able to work through the nuanced problems of racial inequity with creativity and strategic thinking.
“When I walk into a room, I'm assessing the audience,” Johnson said. “I'm thinking about a problem. It may feel like the same game and the same message, but I have to play it differently in that moment. It really takes creative problem solving.”
In Johnson’s view, part of that means finding ways to integrate EDI practices into all aspects of the business.
“I'm the DEI person, but at the end of the day, I can talk to you about engine parts,” she said. “I can talk to you about outsourcing. I'm interested in our route schedule. I'm interested in understanding the impact of COVID on our business.”
New CDOs may feel pressured to stay in their lane, but addressing a problem as pervasive as systemic racism requires navigating traffic no matter what lane it’s in.
“We have to make sure that we're finding ways to incorporate the discipline, thought leadership and point of view that we bring to the table into the natural course of the business each and every day,” Johnson said.
3. “We need to be bridge builders.” - Magda Yrizarry, Chief Talent and Diversity Officer at Verizon
Magda Yrizarry has been with Verizon for the past 30 years, the last 15 of which have been in the company’s CDO role. According to Yrizarry, successful CDOs must possess humility, confidence and excellent emotional intelligence to narrow the gaps in EDI.
“There are certain dualities that have to exist,” Yrizarry explained. “We need to be bold and courageous. We also have to be gracious and patient. We have to be open and flexible and adaptable. We also have to be firm and zealots for justice and equity.
“We have to be willing to learn as much as we want to teach, and we have to be willing to change as much as we want others to change.”
Yrizarry also urges CDOs to see themselves as essential to the company’s profitability.
“You have to care deeply about the business, how the business makes money and what the business pain points are as you communicate the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said.
A growing body of evidence identifies diversity and inclusion as major profit drivers, a reality that CDOs can leverage to integrate EDI practices throughout the companies they lead.
“You have to find those places of connection with what matters to other people in the organization. Otherwise, you'll find yourself on an island. CDOs must “seek unity without uniformity” Yrizarry said.
The Bottom Line: CDOs Can’t and Don’t Have to Do This Work Alone
Leaders in the EDI corporate space are motivated by a strong desire to lead the necessary change in the powerful business community that results in more inclusive and equitable practices in the workplace, procurement, customer interactions and community investments.
“It’s not just a job; it’s purpose driven work, “ Bill Hawthorne, chief strategy officer at Inclusent, said in the webinar’s opening.
For many diversity leaders, the summer of 2020 solidified the importance of that purpose. Inclusent was formed to aid corporations walk out their commitments to becoming anti-racist organizations.
“My hope was that this flurry of activity would result in the hiring of chief diversity officers who would significantly move the needle on the three key areas of EDI Inclusent is concerned with: workforce procurement, inclusion, and community investment,” Hawthorne said.
Collectively, Hall, Johnson, and Yrizarry have nearly 60 years of experience working in EDI. Their staying-power is an encouragement to new recruits that while CDO turnover is common, it isn’t inevitable. CDOs rooted in a network of other EDI experts are well-equipped to withstand the challenges associated with combating company-wide racial inequities.
CDOs need sustained support from within their companies’ executive teams for long-term success, but outside help can dramatically improve EDI outcomes. EDI consultancies like Inclusent offer the expertise, strategies and legal support necessary for the creation of truly anti-racist organizations.
If you’re ready to optimize success in the workplace and marketplace through impactful and sustainable EDI strategies, connect with Inclusent today.