Blog Post

Five Pieces of Advice for New and Aspiring Chief Diversity Officers

By Subha Barry
June 22, 2023

In today’s uncertain times, when diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are under attack, it’s important for Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) to remain vigilant. DEI is being targeted as “woke” politics, and related legislation is being passed across the United States. Programs at colleges and universities are being cut. DEI budgets are being reduced. It’s not easy. Especially for a Chief Diversity Officer who is just starting out in their role and who might not have a built-in support network as our current Chief Diversity Officer Collaborative members do.

Our CDOC is a community of committed and progressive practitioners dedicated to creating authentic and sustained engagement with DEI among their executive leadership team and across their global organizations. I wish something like this had been available when I was starting out. Knowing that you are in it together can be a very powerful thing.

I’ve been reflecting on when I started working as the CDO at Merrill Lynch. Not only was this a first for me, but it was also a brand-new position at the firm. Creating the first of anything is a nerve-racking experience. I felt the enormous pressure to succeed, and I wanted to lead with heart and align my work with my values. The phrase “if I knew then what I know now” has never been truer for me. I’ve found myself thinking about the advice I would give to myself as a young Chief Diversity Officer and DEI champion just starting out. Here are the five things I would tell my younger self:

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You are braver than you think and more resilient than you believe, and the skills that you will lean on the most will not be learned in classrooms or books. You will learn them by taking risks, being adventurous, and being empathetic, kind, and generous. But most important, don’t be afraid to fail. We often learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

Trust Will Be the Foundation of Every Great Relationship

For that, you will need to take the risk to trust someone who may let you down or prove unworthy of it. But unless you do it, you will never acquire the wisdom and judgment to be more discerning. Failure while building trust is one of life’s greatest teachers. Once you’ve learned to be discerning, learn to trust yourself and listen to that inner voice. And the people with whom you have built trust will become mentors, guides, sponsors, friends, and well-wishers. They will either affirm your inner voice or caution it. You will never have to go it alone.

Become an Observer in Your Own Life

When you train for a marathon or for excellence in any sports, you build muscle memory by repeated practice. Building judgment and trust is very similar; you practice it repeatedly to build a different kind of muscle memory. By being that observer, you won’t allow every experience to sear you permanently. You will become your own best advisor, guide, champion, coach, therapist, and teacher. 

Stand Up for Your Beliefs

Early in life and in your career, the only person you may be leading will be YOU. And that’s okay, because you will get to practice on yourself ideas that you will impart to others later.  Remember that courage without fairness—or a sense of fairness without the courage to act on it—will not be impactful. Be courageous about standing up for what you believe is right, because when this is paired with a sense of fairness and justice, it will pave the pathway to leadership. 

Listen More than You Speak

God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, so make sure you listen twice as much as you speak. Diversity of thoughts, perspectives, and ideas will result in stronger outcomes, so try not to lean into the familiar just because it feels comfortable. As a Chief Diversity Officer, seek insights from people who agree with you, and more important, those who disagree with you. It’s the listening to the other perspective that gives you the full picture. 

If you are interested in learning more about joining Seramount’s CDO Collaborative, please contact us here.

About the Author

Subha V. Barry
Subha Barry