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The CDO Can’t Go It Alone: Systemic Diversity and Inclusion

We’ve found that systemic change, not a quick fix, is required for meaningful progress. But what is a quick fix? Does it include hiring a diversity lead such as a Chief Diversity Officer? Hiring a diversity leader sometimes brings a certain confidence that culture change has officially arrived. Without a person in that role, no single person is tasked with tracking progress,  creating a strategic diversity plan, integrating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) into communications, holding leaders accountable for change, and more. But when CDOs are expected to go it alone, outside of system-wide progress, they find themselves without critical support and access to key leadership, and end up as overwhelmed and isolated as those they are trying to support.

Who Owns the Change?

Culture changes when leaders take action to change it, and all leaders have a responsibility to create an equitable and inclusive community. Some must stand up to resistant stakeholders; some are needed to unite the members of an organization, whether it consists of employees in a profit or nonprofit, or the faculty, students, and staff of an educational environment. Whether it’s the retention of employees and students or the initiation of policy changes, we encourage the clear establishment of DEI goals assigned to leaders who are held accountable for progress – by a full-time, well-resourced CDO tasked with tracking leadership responsibility and carrying the strategy forward.
It sometimes happens, however, that it is the CDO who is expected to stand up to resistant stakeholders, retain employees or students, initiate policy change, and more. Rather than being expected to single-handedly achieve these objectives, we envision a successful CDO role as one that supports those who make it happen. This is the path to sustainable change in DEI.

When a crisis does arise, it’s the trust and understanding developed between leaders and the CDO that speeds resolution and bolsters organizational resilience.

Build from a Framework

Institutions become especially vulnerable when there is no overall holistic plan that engages every part of the organization in DEI change. Working in the absence of a strategic plan limits the scope of the solution and the possibility of sustainability over time—and puts undue pressure on individuals and employee resource groups (ERGs) to make up the difference.

Many organizations have found that a systemic framework is needed to drive and measure DEI changes precisely because it is holistic, tested, and engages leadership across the community. The Inclusive Organization Framework, a cutting-edge diagnostic tool developed by IBIS, gives organizations a clear appraisal of how thoroughly they have embedded Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in their policies, procedures, and programs, and what changes are needed to ensure DEI success. Using over 400 best and emerging practices drawn from across all industries, the IOF helps organizations identify what they are doing well to increase DEI, what needs improving, and what additionally they need to do to build their competitive advantage.

In educational settings, the Inclusive Excellence model authored by Damon Williams et. al. serves this function. Starting from a framework makes it much easier to lay the foundation for a DEI strategic plan distinct from, but corresponding to, the strategic plan.

Without an owner who can hold leaders accountable for culture change, these changes do not happen. Let CDOs enact strategic agendas, meet with leaders, hear from the organization, propose policies, and centralize disparate DEI initiatives – within a system-wide initiative executed by multiple partners.

All Communications Can Reflect DEI

A communications lead who builds an effective relationship with a CDO is more powerfully situated to respond to racial issues with awareness, and to imbue standard communications with DEI values. We’ve found that organizations that practice transparency and review standard communication process with their CDOs have a more successful outcome and resilient culture.

We always recommend having a crisis management approach in place ahead of time, but we also encourage our clients to take it further: as a communications lead, seek out input and invest in building a relationship with the CDO ahead of time. Reward leaders who seek input; when it comes to diversity and inclusion, seeking knowledgeable input to overcome blind spots is strength, not weakness. If a seasoned marketing professional putting together materials seeks out and acts on feedback from the CDO, for example, the result will be better—and the bonds will be stronger.

When Everyone Belongs

Lasting change isn’t easily found in countless disconnected initiatives. A successful DEI strategy that surpasses individual champions and integrates into the system can be far-reaching, connected to everything from hiring policy to recruitment to career development, and centralized by a well-positioned owner – ideally, a CDO who turns the wheel, not re-invents it. The stakes are high: the success of our organizations depends on our ability to create cultures in which every person belongs. Let’s do everything we can to help make DEI sustainable.

Shilpa Pherwani, the Principal of IBIS and a leading expert on diversity and inclusion, guides global organizations on leveraging diversity as a business advantage.

Cedar Pruitt is a Senior Consultant at IBIS who specializes in inclusive leadership and culture in organizations that include start-up companies, competitive universities, and everything in between.