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Author's photos with the "Creating an impactful CDO position" caption
Creating an impactful CDO position

by Nakia James-Jenkins (she/her), Josh Baquedano (he/him), and Isabella Cassell (she/her)

“In conversation with On-Ramps'' is a series that captures discussions we’ve had about the issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers. In this edition, three On-Rampers with focused experience filling Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) positions discuss what to consider when hiring for this role and how to structure it to effect concrete organizational change.

The role of a Chief Diversity Officer

Isabella: From my experience, a CDO is a member of the leadership team who can take a step back and look at organizational culture holistically. That can be the work of HR, but I think a CDO even more so is brought in to look at operationalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in a way that affects every department. The role of the CDO is to remove silos within the organization. 
Josh Baquedano: I agree with what Isabella just said, especially the last point about this really being the type of role that operationalizes system, structures, and policies, and values across an organization. 

I think the other thing to keep in mind when hiring for these roles is that it looks a little bit different at every organization, and every organization's needs are really specific. A CDO is the type of role where there's often a set of acute challenges that need to be solved almost immediately, as well as a broader strategy that needs to be implemented long term.

Nakia James-Jenkins: I absolutely agree with all that has been stated. I’d emphasize that a CDO should not be a siloed practitioner, even though sometimes it is designed that way, unfortunately. 

Organizations need this role because every leader within an organization has a vertical that they're responsible for moving forward, and equity should be built into each of those verticals. But the organization and its leaders also need one leader who is responsible for establishing an overarching vision for how equity should be exhibited in the actions of each member of the organization, regardless of their level.

The purpose of a CDO is to set that strategy and make sure that it's actually being integrated up, down, and across the organization. When there's no one watching and asking folks to be better at different stages of their tenure in the organization, it can get missed. So, I think this role is both visionary and implementer, but in a very different way than someone who is responsible for the finance department, the HR department, or fundraising and operations. This needs to be someone who looks across all verticals.

Broader than diversity 

Josh: I think the role ties into diversity, but I've worked on multiple searches for this type of role, and none of them have actually been called Chief Diversity Officer. I think the push there is to focus the role on the equity piece that Nakia is talking about and to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the context of the organization’s values. The intention of the role is to ensure those three themes are being extrapolated across every single vertical at the organization. Often, when I ask an organization what the priority work for this role is, they say that they need someone to define these values at the organization. Diversity is very much a part of it, but I think it's even broader than just that one word.

Isabella: I totally agree with you. Over the last two years or so, organizations have put a lot of focus on the specific language and words they use to define these values. When a lot of these discussions started, everyone used “diversity” as this blanket term. I think sometimes that word lacks the specificity and nuance that organizations actually need. That’s why we see organizations coming up with their own acronyms and their own definitions of these principals. I’ve seen similar positions called “Chief Equity Officer” or “Chief Diversity and People Officer.” 

A CDO’s role in hiring and recruiting

Nakia: As Josh said, this role is different at each organization. Some organizations have HR report directly to this leader, while other organizations do not have that combination. No matter where this role sits, there needs to be a partnership with HR. That’s because the impact that this role has on recruitment is really creating equitable hiring practices from first touch—meaning this role is involved from the time an organization is sourcing candidates, through the hiring process, and once the candidate is hired. I want to elevate that it's not just about recruiting, it's also about retention. This role plays a key part in retaining talent and making sure that they're having the best employee experience possible, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any of the differences that we highlight and identify.

Josh: I agree with that very strongly. When interviewing candidates for these types of roles, a lot of the most impactful anecdotes are around candidates in previous roles being able to put together a process or a strategy that gets at the specific themes that Nakia is describing—a strategy that relies less on a quantitative goal from a recruiting perspective. 

Sometimes reaching a quantitative goal is the specific challenge when an organization is growing their team or looking to recruit more frontline staff members who reflect the community they serve. But even then, it’s essential to  make those new hires feel well positioned to succeed in their job and feel like a strong part of the culture at the organization. There still needs to be an emphasis on creating an inclusive culture at the organization that goes beyond reaching certain quantitative benchmarks. It's really hard to separate the recruiting component of this type of role from the culture building and value defining components.

Isabella: I completely agree. When it comes down to it, the search and recruitment process is the first touchpoint that future employees have with an organization’s culture. The role of a CDO, or someone in a similar role, is to ensure that the process reflects the organization’s values in a way that is not overly simplistic or tokenizing. They need to figure out how to highlight their organization's values through this process, while still considering the organization’s broader goals. Being that it's the first touchpoint, it's really a crucial part of the employee journey.

Creating a new position or bolstering an existing role

Isabella: I’ve seen a lot of organizations creating their first role like this, but I’ve also seen many organizations that have had people in these positions less formally or in conjunction with other responsibilities. I think there's recently been more of a focus on having a specific leader championing this work. I’ve seen organizations becoming clearer on really having this person be a part of the leadership team to signal a true commitment to this work externally and internally.

Nakia: Yes, I think the racial pandemic that we all have recently lived through has elevated the desire for organizations to either create this role or intentionally verbalize their commitment to the work. We read lots of statements from organizations about their commitment to the work, but some of those statements had backlashes from the organization’s internal team stating that the statement didn't align with the experiences of their staff of color. I think 2020 really has put pressure across all of the social sectors, and other industries, to either create a role or publicly declare how the work is being done in house.

Josh: To the point Isabella made about the importance of where the role sits within the organization, we've seen organizations position equity work in a number of different areas prior to launching a search for an equity leader role. The most discerning and strategic candidates for these types of roles always ask who this role is reporting to. Is this role reporting to the CEO, the president, or the Executive Director? Strong candidates want assurances that existing leadership is bought into this work and that they’ll have clear lines to leadership. So much of the change that CDO’s make happen is so deep within an organization that they really need the buy-in from the biggest decision makers.

Nakia: Absolutely. I would also say that candidates for these types of positions are often questioning the intentionality and the commitment level of the organization’s leadership. The CEO or the Executive Director is responsible for the culture of the organization, whether officially or unofficially.How they voice their commitment to the work sets the tone for whether or not this work is a priority. Giving the CDO a direct line to the CEO or Executive Director sends the message that this work is a priority for the organization.

Isabella: I've had potential candidates decide not to opt in if the role is not reporting directly to the CEO because when they worked in organizations where the role wasn't part of leadership, they could never get traction. To attract strong candidates and make this role effective, organizations must prioritize it by positioning it in the C-suite.

Josh: I've had that experience as well.

What to consider when hiring a CDO

Nakia: I think the first thing to consider is the purpose of the role. There needs to be a very clearly defined purpose for this new leader. Then that purpose should be used to identify clear expectations of this role and expectations of how other leaders will partner with this role. Those three pillars are super important before you even start to talk to a search firm about the possibility of the introduction of this role. 

Josh: I have two thoughts here. First of all, it is important to identify the explicit challenges and priorities an organization is looking to address because these roles always look different depending on the organization. It is crucial to really be clear about the top priority for this person to come in and solve. 

In some cases this person does need to lean more into the HR side of the work and have a background in operational strategic HR, in addition to having folded DEI and DEI values into each aspect of HR. Sometimes HR processes systems and strategies are strong, but it's really that DEI overlay that needs to be built in. You can focus more on someone who's done that at other organizations where the HR piece is well established, and that example extends really to the program side as well.

Organizations need to determine if, to start, this is a proactive strategy role or a change management role. Then they can tailor the core competencies for the position, and what they’re looking for. The organization needs to listen to as many people as possible to get different perspectives to determine what they need. 

The second thing to have in mind is more directly related to the hiring process for this position. Individuals with this expertise have been in high demand for the past few years. Candidates are getting a lot of recruiters reaching out to them about opportunities. They're seeing a lot of these roles popping up at elevated levels within organizations and at elevated compensation, which is all well-deserved. But that means that people aren't going to wait around forever for an organization to run through a hiring process. 

So organizations need to have a very well-defined process and know who the key stakeholders are in the process. There's a tension there, which is that because of the nature of this work you need buy-in from many people, but getting so many team members to buy in to a specific candidacy requires a lot of meetings for that candidate.

Candidates want to move through these processes quickly. It’s crucial to be strategic about who from the team gets looped into that process and meets with the candidates so that it still moves at a good pace for the candidates.

Isabella: Building off of that stakeholder piece, the first step we do in our recruiting process is a listening tour where we talk with different stakeholders and get perspectives on the role and the organizational culture. 

I think what's important to remember with these roles, is that more often than not, this work is already happening and being talked about by team members who are not on the leadership level. Other members of the organization are raising these topics and wanting to understand how things can be done better or more equitably. So, the person coming into this role and the way the search process is built has to really honor those stakeholder perspectives and the work they’ve already done, even if it wasn't at the formal leadership level. 

I think that's part of the equity piece: making sure all voices are heard and that previous work is recognized. Of course, there is the need to move a candidate through the process efficiently, but it is also important for an organization to acknowledge what has happened so far, perhaps in an informal way or outside of the leadership team.

Nakia: The intentionality of the role is super important and everything that we've said really dictates the success for the person and for the organization. The last thing an organization wants is to announce a Chief Diversity Officer and then that person doesn't stay longer than 18 months. To retain a strong CDO, you have to build a plan of success and a plan of action and support that allows this work to flourish and concretely transform your organizational culture.

The Takeaway

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating an impactful CDO position. Each organization faces unique challenges and requires a CDO role designed to meet those specific challenges. That said, there are some characteristics that CDO positions need for success. It is crucial that the role has clearly defined priorities, is not a siloed practitioner, and reports directly to the organization’s top leadership. Creating a CDO role that will attract strong candidates and make real change requires intentionality, reflection, and a genuine commitment to prioritizing equity from the start of the hiring process and throughout an employee’s tenure.