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In a previous article, I explored several reasons Black diversity officers struggle and how their CEOs can help. That opens the door to more straight talk about how the leaders themselves can step into their success and how their executive colleagues can be part of that success story.
I focus on diversity leaders who identify as Black for three reasons: a majority of diversity leaders in America are Black, their Blackness matters and the opportunities they have are familiar to every diversity leader. At this point in history, inclusive leaders are learning to focus on race and keep other aspects of identity in view simultaneously.
Let’s look at four ways you, as a diversity leader — or as one of your executive peers — can thrive in this vital role.
1. Ensure that the Diversity Leader’s role is scoped and resourced for achievement
The ‘DEI Why’ has to be clear and achievable. Yes, it’s crucial to have an aspirational vision for the work, but the successful DEI leader equips other leaders to build their point of view around DEI and lead more inclusively. When you are a high-performing Chief Diversity Officer, you lead a center of excellence that improves company results with talent and customers by reducing bias and generating opportunity.
So your success as a DEI leader is at serious risk if soaring expectations for what you will achieve languish from a laughably small budget and insufficient sponsorship.
The CEO and CHRO come in here, ensuring that the agenda, objectives, resources and metrics owned by the diversity leader are reasonable, impactful and communicated. Like any investment, the right team and an actual budget will produce returns.
Every executive peer to a diversity leader should be asking a behavioral question: How am I substantively supporting our CDO’s success?
2. The organization is investing in the Diversity Leader’s development
Diversity leaders get to improve like every employee. The right commitment to a Black CDO’s growth includes two investments:
- Business Savvy — Integrate the CDO into the business’s goals, challenges and budgeting core, certainly in policy development, key customer relationships and strategy building with the Board. Center DEI in the company by centering the senior diversity leader in how decisions are made and resources are assigned.
- Competency Building — Every executive has room to grow. CDOs need active, personal guidance for establishing their brand, optimizing their strengths and minimizing their shortcomings. Black diversity leaders, in particular, require empathetic and honest feedback because white colleagues, in particular, may have been afraid to provide them with the right mix of praise and coaching for improvement. If you’re a white executive like me, commit to care and honesty to grow a relationship of trust with your CDO.
3. The Diversity Leader relies on influence partners
The critical context for executive success is peer relationship quality, especially for Black DEI leaders. If trust is “the making and keeping of promises over time and across differences,” and accountability is “behaving in ways that grow trust,” then it is no surprise that diversity leaders of every identity thrive when surrounded by high-trust relationships with their peers in senior leadership.
You know you’re an influence partner for your CDO when you’re asking yourself two questions: How can I follow their expertise and leadership to become a more effective and inclusive leader myself? In what other ways am I supporting her success?
One of my favorite metrics, especially if you are a black CDO, is the number of executives influence partners you enjoy.
4. The Diversity Leader is disciplined about self-care and leads with an authentic voice
I’m speaking directly to Diversity Leaders here: You know it’s going well when you’re not struggling to care for yourself, and people are listening to you. You succeed when work is not overwhelming, your voice and agency are growing, and your self-doubt finds little traction. Personal renewal is a challenge for every senior leader — for every adult human, for that matter — and the amount of energy you are spending to remember to care for yourself and then doing so is an excellent indicator of your efficacy as a DEI leader.
To those who serve as an influence partner to a Black CDO in particular, I offer this: attend to their wellness as friends and colleagues. Are they taking vacations? Are they working 60 or more hours every week? Do you regularly hear them laugh? Are their teams hitting deadlines and generating good ideas? The pandemic is teaching us to lead with genuine empathy, and diversity leaders in your organization deserve as much honest care as you can.
The senior diversity leader in your firm, and their team, embody and lead the organization’s commitment to DEI as a strategy to dramatically grow the company’s performance and character. If you’re in such a role, dial into your success factors, and deprioritize everything else. To focus like this, secure the support from those above you and a growing circle of your influence partners. And if you are a peer to a Chief Diversity Officer, you can play a key role in her success.
When diversity executives thrive, the DEI initiative produces results for the business. So we need our CDOs to succeed. Each one of us can help that happen.