Building Diversity From the Ground Up

As corporate America embraces the business benefits of weaving diversity and inclusion into its organizational fabric, the role of the chief diversity officer is in the spotlight. These individuals have backgrounds in HR, marketing, finance, operations and an array of other business functions. But they all have one goal: to create customized diversity strategies that provide an advantage to their organizations.

According to a Wall Street Journal article published earlier this year, which cites a study by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, approximately 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a CDO or an equivalent executive role for diversity.

CDOs without predecessors are in a unique position to set the stage for an organization’s diversity and inclusion. But they may not take advantage of the opportunity because many never expected to land such a role.

George A. Ramirez, chief diversity executive and executive vice president at Union Bank, said he never expected to serve as the company’s first chief diversity executive, a position created in March. For the past 35 years, Ramirez has been a banker — 26 of those years with Union Bank.

Union Bank has nearly 11,000 employees, but Ramirez will focus on diversity efforts for those at the senior vice president, executive vice president and senior executive vice president levels. He reports directly to President and CEO Masashi Oka.

Albert S. Dandridge III, partner and chief diversity officer at law firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, is also new to the role. Dandridge was named chief diversity officer in August 2011, following thorough assessments and planning to boost the firm’s diversity efforts.

The planning process involved creating a diversity task force, which recommended ways the firm could improve its existing diversity initiatives. The task force decided to focus on four areas: culture and environment; vision and leadership; recruitment; and retention and advancement. The first two were directed to the firm as a whole and the last two toward attorneys specifically.

What resulted was a diversity action plan reviewed and finalized by the firm’s executive committee. Dandridge was the chairman of the task force and of the diversity committee and was chosen to lead diversity at the firm.

Lay a Solid Foundation
Steve Pemberton assumed the newly created position of chief diversity officer for Walgreens in February of 2011. He was previously chief diversity officer at, where he also ran one of the company’s recruitment businesses.

At Walgreens, a national drugstore chain, Pemberton oversees diversity for the entire workforce of 250,000 employees. Though he had expertise and experience in the diversity field prior to this role, Pemberton wasn’t sure what to expect when he was asked to be Walgreens’ first CDO. He said he wanted to be a sponge, learning as much as possible about the pharmacy’s history and culture so he could create a customized strategy instead of repurposing a one-size-fits-all.

“I did not want to err on the side of coming in with a predetermined perspective and then try to impose a blueprint on an organization that might not necessarily see it the same way,” he said.

Understanding the company’s history is critically important to help build a strategy, because he said a CDO can go through different evolutions of a diversity and inclusion strategy, and without that business insight, still not understand what goals need to be met.

It’s key to come in with an open mind and do one’s homework: Ask the right questions, listen and learn at the beginning. Pemberton said this meant meeting with critical stakeholders in the company to learn about Walgreens’ history as well as in what direction it was headed.

Within the first month, he met with everyone on the executive team to get their input. He also met with some of his colleagues at the store level and received feedback that he considered while formulating a diversity strategy.

One question he said he was not afraid to ask: Tell me how this would not work. And, as expected, he got candid answers. One piece of feedback was: “This is just another program and not part of an overarching strategy; it was certainly not going to succeed.”

Instead of shying away from it, Pemberton used the constructive aspect of the comment to avoid potential missteps and to help him connect the diversity strategy to the overall business strategy.

“If you come in with, ‘Here are the things we’re going to do in the first 30 days — here’s all these activities,’ and as much bandwidth as you would have had for something like that, there would have been a degree of resistance: ‘Oh, here we go, another series of activities,’” he said.

Collaboration Is Critical
Ramirez used a similar approach to jumpstart executive diversity initiatives at Union Bank. He said first he took time to really listen, network and plan instead of diving headlong into the work. His first step was to gain clarity from his CEO to ensure they were on the same page in terms of goals. Next, he met with other stakeholders in the company. Since Union Bank already had a diversity and inclusion program in place, Ramirez met with the person responsible for it, as well as with the company’s talent management and development leader.

“I needed to quickly understand: What’s the strategy around D&I overall? What’s the strategy around talent management and development? Because they’re inextricably intertwined — they have to go together,” he said.

Ramirez also scheduled appointments with all members of the company’s executive committee to understand what they believed the company was trying to accomplish with the initiative. This face-to-face intelligence gathering was an important step in helping him build the company’s diversity strategy.

“This is a really sensitive, highly political, highly emotional subject, so I really wanted people to have an opportunity to talk to me in a very confidential way,” he said. “I was able to very early on understand how we as a company feel about the subject, how we could position this issue and the initiative and how it could serve as a base for the strategy that I’m building.”

Diversity and inclusion can only be successful if it’s a team effort. Therefore, new CDOs must be prepared to work with stakeholders in other business functions. For instance, Pemberton reports directly to and collaborates on a daily basis with Kathleen Wilson-Thompson, senior vice president and CHRO at Walgreens.

“It was and has been so important to have strategic and design conversations with her,” Pemberton said. “I came to the table with a long-held belief that creating side cars and bolting on renditions of diversity is not particularly effective or sustainable,” he said.

That’s one reason it was important for Pemberton to get buy-in from his peers on the HR leadership team — so that he wouldn’t duplicate functions across the organization and waste resources.

Similarly, Dandridge said he understands how crucial collaboration is to the success of diversity initiatives. So he — along with the diversity committee, composed of representatives from all offices in the firm — sought buy-in from every member of the firm.

“I wanted as much participation as possible. I didn’t care what you did; I just wanted you to do something,” he said.

Members of the diversity committee follow up with the attorneys, and the effort has generated almost 100 percent buy-in from the firm’s attorneys.

The Next Step
With today’s continually changing business landscape as a backdrop, it’s hard for a diversity executive — or any business leader — to accurately predict or project a strategy five to 10 years down the road.

“The business dynamic changes so quickly, it’s nearly impossible to identify a strategy that you can say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to go with,” Pemberton said.

Setting goals, however, can help keep diversity executives on track to achieve certain milestones along the way. Pemberton communicated within his first six months in office that within three years he wanted Walgreens to be a best practices company for diversity and inclusion.

Also, when looking ahead, Ramirez cautions fledgling diversity leaders against the tendency to want to wait for all the stars to align perfectly before making a move.

“On several occasions … I was tempted to wait until we could do more things to really open up the dialogue about D&I — especially at the executive level,” he said. “Yeah, it’d be great to have the strategy down. Yeah, it’d be great to have everything sequenced appropriately, etc., but sometimes you have to seize the moment, and you have to take calculated risks.”

Ramirez has embarked on a leadership symposium for female leaders and executives of color slated to launch in November. So while meticulous planning and preparation is part of the process, new diversity executives often can get wind in their sails by taking action.