Blog Post

Why Your CDO Can’t Own Your Corporate DEI Strategy

By Subha Barry
January 18, 2022

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have always been the responsibility of the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and their team. DEI leaders are utilizing best practices that include mandatory DEI trainings, diverse interviewer panels and candidate slates, sponsorship and women’s leadership programs, building Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and more, but they are still saying that progress for change is slow, even when engagement is high. Something within the organizations needs to change fundamentally. Asking more of the same from these teams clearly is not the answer.

In a series of interviews and roundtables with 40+ CDOs at Fortune 500 companies, conducted between January and April of 2021, the topic of how to build and sustain authentic engagement in DEI work throughout the organization has been top of mind. One CDO told us, “We’ve been committed to this for years, but it’s frustrating how slow change has been—we celebrate if we move a metric half a percent a year.”

CDOs don’t have the capacity to drive systemic change, are bogged down with blending compliance with existing best practices, or are just plain burned out. “Everyone expects us to put something in place that will solve what are long-standing problems in our society—we’re a microcosm of the larger world,” another said.

DEI-Driven Model to DEI-Enabled Model

What we learned in our interviews and subsequent deep-dive roundtable conversations was a collective belief that until DEI is fully embedded within organizations and ownership and accountability exist across functions, we will continue to see more of the same: slow progress. “There’s too much unfocused activity and urgency, a rush to get to a finish line; it’s going to take time to embed DEI in everything an organization does,” one CDO told us.

Going from a DEI-driven model to a DEI-enabled model is a necessary next step to see real change in corporate America. Instead of having a CDO’s team serve as a central function that “owns” DEI for the entire company, the work of creating and leading a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and culturally competent workforce is spread across business and talent leaders throughout the organization. Where CDOs typically would be solely held accountable for DEI metrics, with a DEI-enabled model, business and talent leaders would be held accountable as well.

This model enables CDOs to serve as a guide for business and talent leaders in integrating DEI into their strategies and plans and to provide advisory support in integrating and embedding DEI into managerial workflows, routines, and decision-making. But there are roadblocks.

Resetting the Corporate Mindset

CDOs described major challenges in shifting the DEI mindset. Even the highest-performing, most influential CDOs at the most progressive of companies, those who have been working on this shift for years, acknowledge that this is an incredibly difficult task. Having a willing and experienced leader certainly helps, but they don’t often know how to change the mindset and create DEI advocates at every level across their massive, often global, organizations.

Others we spoke to might not have the expertise or tools to support business leaders in making this systemic change—not to mention that many work with business leaders who don’t see DEI as their responsibility and don’t have the skills or the will required to integrate and embed DEI into their strategy and plans.

Challenges abound, but distributing accountability across an organization is the only way to turn this moment into a movement. If the past has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that the time to act is now, while enthusiasm is high, before attention and budgets are shifted elsewhere.

Turning a Moment into a Movement

According to Seramount’s 2021 “Pledge to Progress” research report, which examined corporate America’s progress when it came to combating racism one year after the murder of George Floyd, we found that 95 percent of corporate executives were committed to helping their company combat racism. But of those committed executives, a staggering 79 percent felt the focus on DEI was blown out of proportion. On top of that, over one-third felt forced to support DEI efforts. This is despite all their public pronouncements in support of progress and social justice.

Change might be happening at a pace that leaders aren’t comfortable with, but meaningful action is needed now to meet the demands of the moment. In our report, we learned that 83 percent of employees are fully committed to combating racism within their organizations. Corporate leaders need to understand the issues, because if progress continues to be slow, employees, especially Millennials and Generation Z, will leave and join other organizations that share their same values.

Shifting the corporate executive mindset is the key to unlocking true progress and avoiding regrettable talent losses. With corporate DEI needs rapidly changing (CSR, ESG, and more can fall under the scope of DEI), leaders need robust research, insights, and practical tools to keep up with this evolving space. Most do not want to do this work alone. And that’s where we come in.

Introducing the CDO Collaborative

Our goal at Seramount is to help our corporate partners build stronger, more inclusive workplaces, and we recognize the immense challenges and rewards that come with the CDO role. As our partners often remind us, it can be challenging to be the voice constantly having to tell an inconvenient truth.

To help CDOs do their jobs effectively, shift the corporate approach to this work, drive true accountability, create meaningful champions for this work across the executive team, and be a true agent of change, they need support and community more than ever. We are proud to announce the launch of Seramount’s CDO Collaborative. This forum serves CDOs and executive leaders charged with advancing corporate DEI. We are building a community of committed and progressive practitioners dedicated to creating authentic and sustained engagement with DEI among the executive leadership team and across their global organizations.  

Yes, there are existing conferences where ideas and trends can be heard, and many CDOs have built-in networks of peers to turn to. However, in our interviews, CDOs described these gatherings as “Groundhog Day,” i.e., featuring the same issues and problems every time, with little forward progress as a result. Rarely can CDOs participate in a forum where the collective experience of the CDO and a commitment to deeply understanding of how to drive change across complex systems and organizations are at the very center of the agenda.

Seramount’s CDO Collaborative will facilitate conversations and shared learning among CDOs around common DEI priorities, all informed by rigorous research and analysis designed to surface and pressure-test innovative ideas and solutions. Our proven research methodology will identify how CDOs at companies around the globe are making change happen. Our collective commitment to continuous learning will help get the buy-in needed at the leadership level to implement our findings and strategies across entire organizations. Together, we can change the status quo.

To understand if your organization’s DEI priorities are a good match for the CDO Collaborative conversation, please contact Martha Baum.

About the Author

Subha V. Barry
Subha Barry