You’re a New Chief Diversity Officer…Now What?

Celeste R. Warren
  VP & Chief Diversity Officer, Merck

By Celeste R. Warren, VP & Chief Diversity Officer, Merck

You’ve prepared, you’ve sacrificed, you’ve made the necessary career moves and now you are the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for your company. The announcement has gone out and the congratulations emails have filled your inbox.

Now the dust has settled, you’re sitting at your desk in your new office and it’s quiet, very quiet. Then a rash of phone calls comes in, the CEO wants to meet with you, the CHRO wants to understand how you will integrate human resources policies and practices into your planning, everyone wants to know what direction you will be taking with diversity and inclusion now that you are the leader

So, you ask yourself “what direction will I be taking D&I and how do I even get started?”

It’s not uncommon when you become the leader of any organization that you feel a little “buyers’ remorse” when you get started but there is hope and a light at the end of the tunnel.

When you are first taking over the CDO role, you should have a deep understanding of the organization. What are its strengths and areas of opportunity as it pertains to diversity and inclusion? You should also have a strong vision of where you would like to take the organization. Once you have the organization’s current state and a vision of the future, you have to ensure that you have the resources to take the organization from where it is to where you want it to be.

Assessing where the organization is as it pertains to diversity and inclusion is a very important start to developing your strategy. If you don’t have that foundation, then you may be applying solutions to the wrong problems. You should assess the organization holistically, looking at:

  1. the people and their needs, aspirations and desires;
  2. the processes, systems and policies to determine if they are aligned to meeting the needs of both the people and the business;
  3. the actual practices to determine if they reflect the spirit of the policies and processes developed by the organization;
  4. the culture and subcultures to determine if it is an enabler or barrier to the needs of the people and the business;

In addition to assessing your organization internally, you also have to assess your organization from an external standpoint. Understanding where the company stands on diversity and inclusion issues is important as well. How has the company responded to issues in the external environment, whether they be political, economic or social? Where have they taken stands and spoken up on external issues? Have the CEO spoken out on specific issues?

The company may have signed on to coalitions with other companies with specific commitments. If your organization has done this in the past, what were some of these coalitions? A good resource to help you understand this is your Corporate Responsibility organization, your Government Affairs/Policy organization as well as your Communications/Media Relations organization. Once you have this information, it can help you understand where there is misalignment between the company’s internal values around D&I and its external presence and voice that would support its internal values and standards. Correcting this misalignment should be a component of your diversity and inclusion strategy.

Another very important assessment that has to take place when you first become a leader in diversity and inclusion is a review of the DI team and the supporting infrastructure.

When you get an idea of the gaps that need to be filled within the organization, you have to ensure you have the right personnel in place to develop, implement and sustain the strategy. Evaluating the individuals’ skills and capabilities is a crucial part of the role. Some not familiar with this work might think that D&I practitioners should only have “soft skills” like collaboration, empathy, listening skills and such skills are important for your team members to have, but also as important are other skills. Project management, organizational change, influencing and impacting leaders, strategy development and business acumen are extremely important in D&I employees. Taking an inventory of the skills of your team and putting together development plans for them to ensure they have the ability to drive D&I across the organization is important to the overall success of D&I within the organization.

In addition to assessing your team, you should also review the D&I infrastructure. What support and resources outside of your immediate team are in place as you work through the D&I strategy. Some D&I leaders leverage employee resource groups (ERGs) or affinity groups. ERGs can help to provide a continuous feedback loop. They can give you information on the pulse of the employee base segmented by the relevant constituency group. They can provide input into business initiatives, people strategies and new initiatives being planned. They can also be leveraged to help provide information to employees as it pertains to D&I. Other infrastructure might include Diversity Councils, or other diversity teams that may exists within the company. One of the things that is important to successful implementation of a D&I strategy is alignment. Ensuring the alignment of activities and initiatives to the overarching D&I strategy is critical for success.

Infrastructure also takes the form of partnership with other areas of the company such as Human Resources (talent management, talent acquisition, compensation and benefits, learning and development, etc.) Marketing (cultural alignment in marketing strategies), Communications (integration of key D&I messaging into internal and external communications) as examples are critical to the successful implementation of the strategy.

Infrastructure can also be described as systems and processes which support the D&I efforts. For example, is your IT accessible to persons with disabilities, are your facilities’ open space practices inclusive of employees diverse working styles?

Are the management policies and practices aligned with the company’s diversity and inclusion values? These are all aspect of the infrastructure that will need to be aligned to your strategy

One of the most important items that needs to be assessed is YOU as the leader of the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. What are your personal challenges, unconscious biases and blind spots?

Understanding these aspects of you along with any functional capabilities that you will need to develop will be crucial to leading the organization on its D&I journey.

Take an inventory of your skills, capabilities and experiences in both your professional and personal life.

Professionally, your experiences contribute to the type of leader you have become. Think through the skills that you have and also those you have not been able to acquire or those that are not as strong. Likewise, your personal experiences contribute to the type of person you have become. Take a hard look at your biases, your upbringing, your cultural paradigms. This focus inward will help you to understand how you need to grow and expand your own horizons as a diversity and inclusion leader. It will explain your reactions to issues that are happening both inside the company and outside in the world and help you to recognize them and understand how it might impact the decisions you make the direction you give your team. Blind spots in these areas are very detrimental to D&I leaders as you attempt to lead your team and the organization on this journey.

Once you have done your own personal assessment, you can begin to put together your development plan that will close the gaps across the spectrum of business, leadership and D&I capabilities needed to be successful in this new role

You’ve now completed your assessment of the organization, the D&I team and supporting infrastructure and yourself as a leader, you can begin to put together your strategy for the organization.

You should determine the organization’s and your D&I vision for the company. What are your aspirational goals for the organization? Creating a purpose statement helps in setting the direction for your strategy. A well written purpose statement helps to ensure that you stay focused on the priorities that will help you achieve your strategy. Whenever you are questioning whether an initiative, approach or plan helps you to achieve your strategy, you can fall back on the purpose statement to ensure that you stay on track. It also helps to maintain alignment to the strategy.

Your diversity and inclusion strategy should be holistic. Foundationally, it should include a strategy to achieve, maintain and/or grow a diverse workforce. Working with leaders within the Human Resources organization is critical in this aspect. Recruiting and Staffing, Learning and Development, Talent Management and Compensation and Benefits are four areas within HR where partnership is critical to being able to create a diverse workforce. As a diversity and inclusion leader, it becomes extremely challenging if you haven’t cultivated strong relationships with your colleagues within human resources to integrate your D&I strategies into the people policies, practices and procedures.

Another aspect of your diversity and inclusion strategy should include plans and initiatives to create an inclusive work environment. It’s not enough to have a diverse workforce, you have to be able to leverage that diversity to drive business outcomes. Strategies to create inclusive behaviors within leadership and managerial teams is important in driving inclusive environments. Leveraging data from employee opinion surveys and other pulse surveys is also a good source of information in determining areas of the organization that may have challenges in this area.

Linking diversity and inclusion directly to your business is also a critical area component of your strategy. I have said many times that at the intersection of diversity and inclusion and business performance, a company does create a competitive advantage. As the leader of your company’s diversity and inclusion, you have to understand the salient components of the company’s business strategy. D&I cannot be viewed as an entity that sits outside of the business, that is not creating value to the business and helping to drive shareholder returns. Working with the different areas of the company and establishing relationships with those leaders is important in integrating D&I into the fabric of the organization. Do you understand the marketing, manufacturing, research and development strategies? Do you know how to read the financial reports and understand what is driving the revenue? Do you have insights into what are the top priorities for the company, the CEO, the management team and the board of directors?

Once you have developed your diversity and inclusion strategy, you have to align your resources to drive that strategy. These resources include human, financial and any others resources you will need to implement your strategy. As you go through your company’s budgeting process, you will need to ensure you have enough funding to implement the different initiatives required to drive your strategy. Many D&I plans have fallen short from not having enough finances to drive critical initiatives.

Writing and implementing the diversity and inclusion strategy involves creating an organizational change plan as well. Outlining a change management and communications plan is instrumental in enabling the successful outcomes of your strategy to create the inclusive culture for the organization. Diversity and inclusion are about mobilizing the organization to create change. Research has shown that a large percentage of strategies fail because they don’t implement a change strategy. Also, partnership with communications organizations is critical as well. A well thought out communications plan to share the strategy is important, so employees, managers and leaders know the company’s values around diversity and inclusion. The communications plan also helps to let them know the role each of them can play to drive the strategy.

Finally, the journey is an evolution. You and your team should periodically revisit, refresh and course correct so you are consistently driving the change you are trying to see. My experience of developing Human Resources strategy over twenty years is remarkably align with Porter’s handling of the 4 Forces that determine success. Companies, industries, external socio-economic factors are always changing, and your diversity and inclusion strategy will also need to evolve with those changes. Your strategy has to be agile to adapt to these changes both within and outside of the company

Becoming a Diversity and Inclusion leader is a great accomplishment. It is something to be proud of and to celebrate. As you go about implementing your strategy, take the time at certain milestones to celebrate the successes. Whether that be after finalizing your strategy, when you been able to implement some of your plans or even when the teams need a little bit of uplifting, taking the time to pause and celebrate helps to keep the team engaged, revived and ready to continue the journey

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