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4 myths about diversity and inclusion leaders debunked

The chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer at Marcus Thomas defends the role and explains what it takes to make a difference.

4 myths about diversity and inclusion leaders debunked
[Source image: Creative-Touch/iStock]
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After the year we’ve had, it should come as no surprise that the number of chief diversity and inclusion officers (CDIOs) in the U.S. and around the world is on the rise. The sudden and rapid elevation of diversity, inclusion, and discrimination issues in nearly every aspect of our lives resulted in more visibility and increased demand for the role of CDIOs across the business world.

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Of course, like anything that quickly rises to prominence, CDIOs have been on the receiving end of a sudden and forceful wave of controversy from both the business community and the general public. As someone who’s been in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space for some time, I’ve heard it all: “The role is just for optics,” “CDIOs don’t even do anything,” and, of course, that the position is seen as a “revolving door” in many organizations.

It’s understandable that there are so many people who don’t understand the value of this job and the services we provide to businesses across the globe. After all, the position itself only began appearing prominently in the business community in the last decade. However, a hallmark quality of chief diversity officers is meeting people where they are on their DEI journey and providing them the resources they need to move forward. By addressing a few common myths about CDIOs, it is my hope that I can help some move past criticism and into understanding to jump-start their own DEI journey.

Myth #1: The role is just for optics

In the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, conversations about race and inequality at a systemic level made their way into our homes, workplaces, and communities, and the general public began to put businesses, leaders, and organizations under a microscope to see if their views and values aligned with their own. As a direct result of this, I saw many organizations react by hiring a CDIO without having a philosophy or approach in place to support the holistic implementation of DEI strategies. In those cases (of which there are many), the role was, in fact, implemented for optics.

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However, that is not always the case. When we look at the larger climate of corporate America, the majority of organizations cite diversity and inclusion as important and critical to innovation. They know it’s an important issue. What sets organizations that are hiring for optics apart from those that are hiring for evolution is how much they are willing to prepare and support DEI initiatives or an incoming CDIO. Those organizations that are ready to prioritize the implementation of DEI initiatives and invest in them are the ones that truly understand the value of a DEI practice and bust this myth.

Myth #2: CDIOs don’t do anything

The responsibility of a chief diversity and inclusion officer is to work across the organization to optimize culture, align the diversity and inclusion goals with business outcomes, and be able to respond to changes or policies that occur outside the company that affect its culture.

It is not to provide instant results or transform an organization’s entire workforce, structure, or practices overnight. The truth is that shifting institutional structures, mindsets, and practices requires a great deal of behind-the-scenes work that is often not visible to those who are not in it every day. That doesn’t mean the work isn’t happening. Frankly, the lack of visibility given to internal DEI work is also due, in part, to wins and progress in this space not being celebrated at the same level as, say, a new business win.

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To give you a better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes, here are a few things that your CDIO is probably working on:

  • Developing comprehensive strategies with key performance indicators and healthy budgets to support company-wide initiatives that promote and prioritize DEI.
  • Defining recruitment strategies, including pipeline development and partnership opportunities, to ensure that your workforce reflects the communities that you serve and the industries that you work in more broadly.
  • Building trust on all levels of the organization and collaborating with leadership and internal champions to create micro and macro learning experiences and safe spaces (internally and externally).
  • Cultivating relationships and partnerships (internally and externally) with the goal of expanding your visibility and building community with industry practitioners, champions, and advocates.
  • Establishing and forming affinity and special-interest groups who will help to support and advance the work.

Myth #3: There’s a lot of turnover in CDIO positions

Is there some truth to this one? Yes. But for CDIOs to be successful in their roles and have a sustainable impact, they must be met with an unwavering level of commitment and support from the CEO and company leadership. If that’s not happening, then yes, a lot of people will go in and out of the CDIO role.

If they’re not positioned in a way that allows them to gain visibility and access into company-wide strategies, conversations, and relationships in their efforts to shape culture and drive business outcomes that embrace DEI, then they can’t do their job, which can result in an abandoned post.

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But that doesn’t have to be the case. When strategically and purposely positioned, well-funded, and properly supported, CDIOs can do their jobs as intended.

The first mistake that many organizations make is not aligning CDIOs with other C-suite executives (most important, the CEO), which keeps them out of crucial conversations that impact the business. The second mistake is not providing a healthy budget that allows CDIOs to implement scalable and robust initiatives within the workforce, workplace, marketplace, and community. This can involve budgeting for tech and tools to allow measurement of DEI, ensuring that learning and development programs are available and funded to align the company with industry-wide initiatives like sponsorships, and supporting philanthropic efforts and community organizations.

At the end of the day, we must remember that all journeys, regardless of how big or small, begin with just one step and the courage and will to take another step toward your goal. If you’re a leader and you’re at a place in your DEI journey where you are ready to hire a CDIO, congratulations. That’s a huge step. Just remember to be prepared, be invested, and don’t always believe what you hear about us.

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Elise James DeCruise is the chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer at Marcus Thomas.