Growing Into the CDO Role

There is no comprehensive manual to adequately prepare a new chief diversity officer for the role. So, what’s a fledgling diversity executive to do?

One way to develop crucial competencies is to focus on peer networking and development within and across industries, said Carole Weinstein, conference program director of the Conference Board and chief learner at Learning Works, a diversity, human capital, learning and talent development consulting firm.

“There has to be a lot more peer development among HR people, learning people, diversity people and business people because if you keep the [work] separate, the more efforts have to be made to make the business case for what can be done if people work together,” she said.

One way to create an environment that fosters continuous peer-to-peer learning is to get rid of artificial hierarchies and enable colleagues at all levels of the organization to collaborate and contribute to each other’s growth, Weinstein said.

Having access to and the support of executive leaders in the organization is also key to being effective in a diversity leadership role.

“Without the top leadership influence … it doesn’t matter how well you develop the diversity leader, they’re not going to be able to do a whole lot,” Weinstein said.

A discussion of diversity executive competencies should consider the value of diversity certifications as well. Certifications are relatively new, and whether or not executives should attain them as a prerequisite for stepping into a chief diversity officer role is still under debate.

“It’s critically important to define the knowledge, skills and attributes that CDOs and their secondary leaders, etc., need at their respective levels,” Weinstein said. “They are somewhat different, and too much certification these days is very generic and questionable. So unless there is a more defined approach to what the knowledge base needs to be — and that’s shifting all the time — and the skills that are needed to use that knowledge, they won’t have value.”

Diversity, much like any other business area these days, is a constantly evolving field — a moving target, as Weinstein describes it. An example of this would be something seemingly simple like how fluid the definition of terms such as “global” and “domestic” can be.

“While companies may not operate globally, their demographics are, so you can’t have one without the other and understand that,” she said. “Therefore, you could say all people need a global mindset, which would be one piece of certification. Some certifications include that, some don’t, but if you don’t, you’re missing a critical [piece].”

The generic nature of diversity certifications today can render them ineffective in a sense, but with some fine tuning, they could increase the efficacy of an aspiring diversity leader.

“Certifications are good for what they theoretically teach you — you need to know how to build strategy; you need to know how to link to business outcomes; you need to have a sense of what learning and development is about; you need to have a sense of metrics,” Weinstein said.

Certifications need to be attuned to the intricate issues facing today’s diversity executive. Otherwise, it’s a piece of paper without much relevance. Further, there are certain core skills that anyone who hopes to be successful in the diversity field needs to have ingrained.

“They have to be critical thinkers; they have to be able to solve they have to be able to draw on the collective [or] on the community, not just themselves, so they need excellent communication skills; they need to be able to have dialogues that are not comfortable,” Weinstein said.