Time to Switch Up the CDO Role

If I had to sum up the position of chief diversity officer within higher education in one word, it would be this: diverse. There is no prototypical CDO, nor is there a well-worn path by which one becomes a chief diversity officer. Further, there are few consistent roles and responsibilities across institutions, and little consensus about what the future CDO will be asked to do.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If a leadership position is too structured or regimented, it can be stifling. It is easier for executives to think and act outside the box if the box is not clearly defined. Yet as the CDO role continues to evolve in academia, there is a real need for more formalization around the position. This would give it increased prominence and leverage among executive peers and, in the eyes of up-and-coming leaders, credibility as a career destination rather than an accidental (though enjoyable) stop along the way toward something bigger.

The good news is that the CDO has come a long way in the past decade or so, gaining appreciation and, in many cases, full-fledged acceptance among top administration. In 2011, my firm conducted a survey of nearly 100 academic diversity officers, finding that slightly more than half considered themselves members of their institution’s leadership teams. Approximately one-third reported directly to their president, while one-fifth reported to the provost. Smaller percentages reported to human resources, academic affairs and student affairs, which I take to be a sign that the position has gained widespread respect. The strength of organizations such as the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education is testament to this growth.

Backgrounds of these sitting CDOs varied widely. Most had played integral roles in academic diversity initiatives and strategy, but some were previously faculty, or administrators within various departments (from enrollment to HR to academic affairs), or leaders of affinity groups. Some CDOs had transitioned from corporations or consulting firms. Years of prior experience in diversity leadership positions ranged from almost none to more than 15 years.

The Current State
We also inquired about what makes a good CDO. Among the primary qualities cited:
• The ability to influence the institution’s strategic plan.
• The ability to engage senior administrative staff.
• Organizational leadership and strategic planning skills.
• Public relations and communication skills.

In my daily work I come across many college and university chief diversity officers who exhibit these qualities. But great leaders need institutional support as well, and most chief diversity officers still face major obstacles — including a lack of funds, resources, accountability and buy-in from top administrators — that limit their influence and efficacy. In other words, while the CDO has arrived in the halls of leadership, he or she is often treated more like a charmed guest than permanent resident.

Chief diversity officers bear some responsibility for this predicament since it is they who must better define the position and what it can do — to codify its roles and responsibilities, establish and share best practices, and solidify the status of CDOs across academia. One reason they have not done so effectively is turnover in the ranks; chief diversity officers make very attractive candidates for other leadership roles and tend not to stick around for long tenures. As soon as they get comfortable in their positions, they often move — to become presidents, provosts, deans, faculty, foundation executives, consultants and more. This is understandable, but it seriously depletes the ranks and hinders the ability to make consistent progress.

Eyeing the Future
As a follow-up to our 2011 survey, we recently conducted another focused on succession planning, asking specific questions about whether chief diversity officers were grooming successors and taking steps to ensure continuity in the position upon their eventual departure. Forty-nine CDOs responded to our request. (Data was presented at the NADOHE eighth annual conference in San Diego, and a report will be issued later this year.)

A majority of those surveyed note that they have no formal means to identify and develop successors. Only 6 percent stated that they conduct succession planning as part of their institution’s succession efforts. And yet more than half expect to leave their posts within three years.

CDOs and other academic leaders recognize this problem. They are beginning to identify potential successors and establish mentoring and leadership development programs for the next generation. Through NADOHE and other groups, they are giving shape and structure to the position across institutions.

These efforts cannot come soon enough. The CDO has come a long way in academia, but can do more. The danger is that individuals asked to fill diversity officer positions in the future will not be able to live up to what are now heightened expectations.

Oliver B. Tomlin III is a senior partner in the higher education and health care practices of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.