The CEO Balancing Act

I have spent much of my career researching, writing and consulting fororganizations on the importance of diversity and inclusion. I have also spent time in the field as a practitioner. As an academic, I presented robust theory andinnumerable conference keynotes and workshops, and it was exhilarating.

I am now entering a new role as CEO of a 250-plus employee organization of vendors and other affiliates, most of whom espouse a belief in diversity, inclusion and cultural competence. So I have to ask myself: What will I do about diversity and inclusion as CEO?

I’m evaluating my various and complex experiences, memories, values, disappointments, victories and opinions relative to diversity and inclusion. More importantly, I’m asking myself how does it help or hinder my work as a CEO? Am I a black man first and then a CEO? Or I am a CEO first and then a black man?


I have decided to do two things in my first six months. First, I’ll learn the business. Second, I’ll decide who will ultimately be responsible for diversity and inclusion and how I’ll hold them and myself accountable for success.

I now work for a strategic issues andresearch firm. Our clients are small, medium-size and large organizations with vexing business issues that they want to reduce or manage. For example, many of our clients turn to us for health care advice and to envision its effect on their business. Others seek advice on how to design global employment plans for their present and future workforce. Others want to know how to do business in an increasingly geopolitical marketplace.

I recall telling my students when I was in academia to first learn the business. I am now doing that from a number of levels. I have to be sure my cultural lens is crystal clear and without obstruction.

Most of us have heard of or experienced a dysfunctional diversity and inclusionorganization. This often happens because the CEO, chief human resources officer and chief diversity officer have very different ideas about diversity.

Generally, the CEO is focused on risk minimization, the bottom line and looking good by doing the right thing. He or she has to walk a fine line between being a D&I champion and being seen to simply talk about diversity.

The CDO generally focuses on building diversity programs. Programs are great, but they have beginning and end dates. This weakens their business power. Consider this: You never hear if the chief financial officer is having a program during finance and accounting week. Why is D&I different?

The CHRO may believe some of the CDO’s work belongs to HR, thus the CDO is usurping organizational terrain. This potentially unhealthy relationship can have disastrous results.

Diversity and inclusion encompasses the people and the operational sides of the business. So, job one for me is to give HR and diversity the space and resources to work together and to hold them responsible for turning a blank diversity canvas into a highly effective organizational reality.

As the CEO, I am ultimately responsible for diversity and inclusion. I am accountable to my leaders for financial performance, bringing the organization to scale and bringing the very best thinking forth.

Of course I am a novice CEO and have not faced any of these challenges, yet. Or have I? Maybe my canvas is not as blank as I think.