Blog Post

What 40 Global CDOs Are Saying About Increasing Diverse Representation in Leadership

By Casey Russo
June 22, 2022

Diverse talent across senior leadership is crucial to advancing DEI in the workplace. Yet most organizations report that the demographics of their senior leadership teams have barely changed. Data from Seramount’s Inclusion Index measuring organizations who are using established DEI best practices to create inclusive workplaces shows minimal movement in racial and ethnic representation. At the most senior levels, corporate executives were 2 percent Black, 2 percent Latine/Hispanic, and 8 percent Asian, up very slightly from the previous year.

Nearly 90 percent of our CDO Collaborative partners say that despite increased representation at lower levels, demographics at senior leadership remains largely the same. Here are the common themes we heard from them at our inaugural roundtable in April 2022:

Nearly every industry is struggling to increase diverse representation in leadership.

Nearly every CDO across industries agreed that their organization is struggling to diversify at the top. More than 80 percent of CDOs reported that progress has been made at more junior levels, but low turnover or movement in senior leadership positions has been a barrier to advancing the DEI strategy. That is why it is so important to have adequate data and analytics about representation and the causes of a leaky pipeline. To increase diversity in leadership, organizations must first expand diversity in the leadership pipeline and successor talent pools. An organization that can pinpoint areas of opportunity to recruit, retain, and advance diverse talent is more likely to have qualified diverse talent when leadership opportunities do arise.

“For me, one of the biggest barriers to advancing DEI is getting traction with our current leadership team and having something stick. CDOs are change leaders, and they don’t see it as that. Having senior leaders understand the magnitude of the work we do and the impact that it has on employees is a constant battle. Patience is key to be a Chief Diversity Officer,” said one CDO.

Without diverse voices at the table, it becomes impossible to drive change.

CDOs expressed that many leaders are still trying to ramp up and understand the basics of DEI. This means that CDOs are spending a lot of time on education and awareness and less time connecting DEI to the overall business strategy, which inevitably slows progress.

“It’s about being able to see DEI as a major differentiator. At this stage, there should be shared accountability across the organization, where the organization leaders can see it is about representation AND operations, as well as the outcomes of the organization and people’s ability to innovate around DEI. We need to not just say an organization is meritocratic but create a real meritocracy,” said one CDO.

Real change requires more leadership accountability structures and allyships.

More than 80 percent of CDOs believe that addressing this issue will require two things: secure senior leader allies and embedded accountability systems that reinforce equitable senior leader promotion and hiring decisions. White men still hold most power positions in corporate America—they are 90 percent of CEOs and 80 percent of board members. Creating DEI advocates and amplifying inclusive behavior among this group is critical to implementation of initiatives and building consensus. Change management strategies for linking DEI goals to compensation, embedding objectives into performance management and performance reviews, and creating truly inclusive and empathetic leadership as well as their challenges of holding people accountable will also be vital.

“We must shift to putting white men to work and understanding their role in driving this change. People of color and women didn’t get themselves here, it will take white men’s partnership to get them out of here. This concept of ‘developing’ women and people of color—shouldn’t it instead be developing men to drive change? We need to coach managers and white men on their journey to drive change,” said one CDO.

Diverse leadership is key to ensuring that a workforce is well represented in decision making, but despite deliberate efforts, many organizations continue to struggle with achieving a diverse leadership bench. To achieve diversity among leadership and successor pools, HR and DEI leaders need to partner with senior business leaders across their organizations to evaluate current systems, processes, and stakeholders.

To support CDOs in surfacing innovative practices from exemplar organizations that have seen significant improvements in diverse senior leadership representation, Seramount is spending the next several months researching this topic. Seramount will debut the findings of this research and facilitate in-depth discussions on this topic on September 16th and October 5th. To learn more about the research or how to register, please contact Martha Baum.

Update, October 2022:

Download the Research Executive Briefing: Increasing Diversity Among Senior Leadership

About the Author

Casey Russo
Associate Director, Product Marketing