The CEO-CDO Partnership

Over the past decade, I worked in academia where I could comfortably write about CEOs’ commitment to diversity, and the need for them to hold people accountable. As a consultant, I often worked with chief executives on what to do about diversity, what to say and how to demonstrate commitment. 

Now that I am a CEO, and I realize that holding others accountable is easy; holding myself accountable is hard. But it can be done.

Many chief executives care about diversity. However, many of us have not examined our intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for caring. A fellow CEO said to me at lunch the other day, “Look, I have not walked in your shoes. There is only so much I am going to actually know about what it’s like to be excluded. I grew up in a time when everybody was treated fairly, so I care about making sure my organization is fair to everyone.”

I said I understood, and then I talked him through the reality that diversity is not about fairness. It’s about access, opportunity and leading from a place where
diversity is woven into the ecosystem of the organization.

The Right Talent Mix
The Right Talent Mix

When I took the reins as CEO, I thought I knew all there was to know about diversity. After all, I’ve done the work and published seminal pieces on the topic. I was wrong.

Chief executives are trained to get things done, to protect shareholder and stakeholder interests. This means that we must be decisive and take action. With that in mind, I put together several permanent cost-reduction teams whose singular focus was profitably, sustainability and efficiency. The teams were visibly diverse. I thought my work was outstanding.

It was a mess.

I did not consider that the team had to present recommendations in a matrix organization. Visible diversity alone was not enough. While the team came from different parts of the business, I failed to vet them for an understanding of how the business worked and how their recommendations would affect its operations. This vetting would not have necessarily eliminated diversity on the team. In fact, as the CEO, it would have given me the opportunity to have a team that was visibly and geographically diverse, and an asset to the business.

The chief diversity officer is a critical component in these kinds of discussions. Though many chief executives believe this intrinsically, they simply don’t act on it. I’ve found many of my CEO colleagues want to give the title chief diversity officer, but that person tends to be neither chief nor officer. Too many of us still believe diversity is something nice to do — not something critical to a company’s survival.

We have human resources write the position description, and then we’re not involved until the selection. But the position description is often about diversity experience, rather than a combination of business and diversity experience. A true chief diversity officer is the CEO’s partner.

This person should have the business acumen to help chief executives drive diversity as a business imperative — not to strictly count heads, deliver training and programs, but rather to embed diversity into an organization’s ecosystem. The organization must know that when CDOs speaks, they are speaking for the CEO.

I am a new CEO, and I have much to learn. For instance, we have to deploy the same intestinal fortitude for diversity as we do for the rest of organizational life. But we must start with ourselves, hold ourselves accountable and build inclusive — as well as profitable — organizations.