One Giant Leap for Diversity: Being a Company’s First CDO

Imagine taking on a job no one had done before. Now imagine that job is one of the most senior in an organization whose employee population extends into the thousands. In addition, that job is to launch an entire function — a function still largely in its adolescence in terms of building credibility and driving business success.

Such is often the case for first-time chief diversity officers. To capture what it’s like to be the first CDO, Diversity Executive profiled four people who went through it. These are their stories.

Ken Barrett, General Motors Co.
Ken Barrett, General Motors Co. global chief diversity officer, has a message for those taking on the position as a company’s first: be humble.

“The biggest thing I realized is that I’m not going to be the all-knowing one who’s going to come in here and impart my knowledge on this very large organization,” Barrett said.

He became the automaker’s first CDO in 2012. Had Barrett decided to take a less humble approach, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would have questioned him. He certainly has the credentials.

A 28-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, eventually he became a commanding officer. Barrett said he honed his diversity skills as the head of the Navy’s recruitment efforts in the Southwest, covering the area from Los Angeles to Nevada and roughly half of Arizona. He would go on to hold diversity director positions in the Navy and the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense in Washington, D.C.

In April 2012, after being pushed by his network to expand his expertise into the private sector, Barrett accepted the role as GM’s first chief diversity officer. “My first car was a Camaro; it seemed like General Motors was the right fit for me,” he said.

With no predecessor to absorb knowledge from, Barrett said his first act as the top diversity officer for the 213,000-employee U.S. automaker was to learn the business inside and out. He also needed to conduct a litmus test on where the company was from a diversity standpoint.

He said what he found was encouraging. Even though the CDO role was new, the company already had a track record of diversity, including a number of firsts. For example, he said GM was the first major company in the U.S. to have a supplier diversity program in the 1960s. It was also the first to have an African-American — Leon Sullivan — on its board of directors in the 1970s.

Still, as the first CDO, Barrett quickly realized his job was to identify aspects of the company already touching the diversity and inclusion space, and then organize and facilitate those efforts into areas that needed greater exposure. He needed to break down silos, and get dispersed employees with diversity responsibilities at the same table and talking to one another.

“It was starting off simple,” Barrett said. “Anybody who had diversity in their title somewhere, let’s go find those people.”

Barrett said first-time CDOs would be wise to understand the business first. Diversity, he said, isn’t something that can be applied loosely; it has to match up to business needs, and every business and industry is different.

He also said newly minted CDOs need to understand that, at the outset, much of the job is about being a facilitator. “Understand the business piece, and then stop to see how the elements of diversity and inclusion can tie to the business.”

Nolan Atkinson Jr., Duane Morris
The spark that led Nolan Atkinson Jr. to become the first chief diversity officer at Philadelphia-based law firm Duane Morris came during a meeting in the late 1990s.

Atkinson, an African-American, noticed during the meeting that one of the firm’s minority law clerks wasn’t performing well enough to be offered a permanent position. “It really raised an issue about what we’re doing to increase diversity at the firm,” he said.

Atkinson had been a steward for diversity-based law firms nearly his entire career. In fact, his path to becoming a partner at Duane Morris came by way of a merger with a minority-focused law firm he created.

When Atkinson graduated with law degrees from Howard University and the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s, minority law graduates seldom got associate jobs at big firms. That prompted Atkinson to start his own firm and hire minority and non-minority attorneys — an effort, he said, to promote diversity.

But as time went on, more minority law graduates found jobs with large law firms, leaving Atkinson’s firm unable to compete from a recruiting perspective. In 1991, his firm merged with Duane Morris, bringing with it about 10 associates and partners.

That moment in the late 1990s meeting prompted creation of the Duane Morris Diversity Committee; Atkinson served as its chairman. In 2007, he said by itself the committee wasn’t effective enough in propelling the vision for diversity at the firm. Management decided to appoint a chief diversity officer, a role Atkinson said he took on because of his role as committee chairman and his external involvement in the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group, an advocacy organization for diverse lawyers.

Atkinson’s first recommendation as CDO was to have a diversity retreat, where all the attorneys in the firm could come together in Philadelphia for a weekend of “substantive discussion and networking.” The firm holds the retreat annually.

Atkinson said being the first CDO at a law firm is a lot like doing so at any other company in that there must be strong support from the top. The difference is a law firm’s leadership and structure is more horizontal. Partners take ownership in the organization and oversee individual practice areas, so there is often less bureaucracy.

Atkinson said it can be challenging juggling diversity duties with those of a practicing partner. Thus, diversity leaders at law firms with CDO ambitions should prepare to manage both. But like other first-time CDOs, Atkinson said it’s important to understand organizational structure and culture before driving diversity initiatives. “You’ve got to have a good understanding for the inner workings of the firm and believe that you can interact with any of those parts of a giant organization whenever it’s necessary to advocate for your cause,” he said.

Dr. Leon McDougle, Ohio State University
Wexner Medical Center
Dr. Leon McDougle was minding his own business as an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan when a phone call from the dean’s office changed the trajectory of his career.

The school was looking for an associate dean of diversity at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Would McDougle be interested in serving on a search committee to help fill the role? “At the end of that, she says, ‘Oh, unless, however, you want to apply for the job yourself,’” McDougle said.

McDougle applied and didn’t get the job. But the process piqued an interest in diversity. So when he received another call from Ohio State University asking if he was interested in running a new urban family medicine residency program, he asked that another title be thrown in: assistant dean for diversity and cultural affairs.

The school accepted, and McDougle, an Ohio native and OSU medical school graduate, was able to come home, leaving behind “that school up north,” a reference to the disdain Ohioans have for their most despised college sports rival.

With time, McDougle would rise through the ranks and earn tenure as an assistant professor. In July 2013, he was named the first chief diversity officer for the 16,000-employee Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

McDougle said taking on the role as Wexner’s first CDO taught him the importance of collaboration. In fact, he said he’s more apt to call the role chief collaboration officer than chief diversity officer. He also stressed the importance for first-time CDOs to obtain a baseline for organizational diversity coming in the door. Specifically, McDougle said diversity leaders coming in as the organization’s first need to press hard to ensure surveys and other diversity climate instruments are focused on the right questions.

For him, it was recognizing that diversity is not just limited to race and ethnicity — for instance, it all includes people with disabilities and the LGBT population — and pressing hard when diversity and engagement surveys don’t include questions addressing an array of diverse employee groups.

Another important tool McDougle said is important is evidence. He said his position as a CDO at an academic institution — not to mention a hospital — made it natural to take an evidence-based approach to diversity from the start. Further, such an approach could help CDOs at any institution to build credibility.

“Use evidence to make the case for diversity and inclusion, and frame programming from the very beginning to include outcomes evaluation,” he said. “And take a longer-term view of the assessment; that longer view may give you a more balanced and impactful viewpoint of what workforce diversity has accomplished.”

Lisa Garcia Quiroz, Time Warner Inc.
Lisa Garcia Quiroz was busy running Time Warner Inc.’s corporate social responsibility effort in 2007 when the company gave her a new function to oversee: diversity.

A Harvard MBA with a background in consumer marketing at Time magazine, Quiroz spent her early pre-CSR years deeply involved in magazines. First she launched a magazine called Time For Kids, a classroom news publication. Then she became the launch publisher of People En Espanol, a Spanish language spinoff of People magazine.

After nearly a decade on the magazine side of the business, Quiroz was asked to move to corporate to be the first head of Time Warner’s CSR function. Not long after diversity was added to her responsibilities, and she was officially named as the company’s first chief diversity officer in January 2012, serving as senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and CDO.

Quiroz said the biggest change that came was access to the C-suite, specifically to the CEO. She said it’s important for first-time CDOs to be assertive in harnessing that access because most of an organization’s energy and passion related to diversity typically comes from its leadership. Therefore, diversity leaders must build open lines of communication with other C-suite executives to build a solid foundation for whatever objectives they set out to accomplish.

“The way you engage with the company has to feel comfortable with the CEO and has to be reflective with what he or she values,” Quiroz said.

Quiroz also suggested diversity leaders who become the first CDO should open their ears. “I would spend a lot of time really listening to your colleagues. Go on a serious listening tour, and go back and look at every communication in the company on important things.”

Even diversity leaders who have occupied the CDO role at other organizations should heed caution when it comes to applying expertise, especially as another company’s first, Quiroz said. Likewise, companies shouldn’t approach recruiting chief diversity officers with the notion that being successful as a CDO in one organization means they will automatically be successful in another.

“The thing to be careful about is why were they successful at the company, and is it someone who has the leadership skills to really help them understand the culture of the company, to really understand the relationship with the CEO, and to really begin to shape a diversity agenda that people accept and not reject,” Quiroz said.

Frank Kalman is a senior editor of Diversity Executive Magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com