Why the Head of Diversity is the Job of the Moment

September 2, 2020

The job of the moment is not software developer, UX designer, or Amazon Prime delivery driver. It is, instead, a job for which no one can agree on the ideal candidate, best practices, core responsibilities, or even the name of the role.

But there is a growing consensus that this position — whether you call it head of diversity and inclusion or chief diversity officer or diversity director — will be critical to an organization’s ability to grow, innovate, and compete for talent.

Long before the worldwide call for racial justice and impassioned protests that came in the wake of the fatal attacks on Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, organizations had increasingly sought leadership for their nascent diversity and inclusion efforts. According to LinkedIn data, the number of people globally with the head of diversity title more than doubled (107% growth) over the last five years. The number with the director of diversity title grew 75% and chief diversity officer, 68%.

  • Diversity leadership roles are on the rise: Growth of job titles globally over 5 years (2020 vs. 2015): Head of Diversityn+107%, Director of Diversity +75%, Chief Diversity Officer +68%

LinkedIn data also shows that there has been a 71% increase worldwide in all D&I roles over the last five years.

  • Diversity roles up are up 71% over last 5 years

For many organizations, the outcry over systemic racism has intensified their focus on D&I, making diversity and inclusion as much a moral imperative as a business priority. Getting it right won’t be about checking a box; it will be about thinking outside the box.

“This isn’t the same as a sales target,” says Damien Hooper-Campbell, the new chief diversity officer at Zoom Video Communications. “This isn’t the same as rolling out a new product feature. We’re dealing with human beings and we’re dealing with some stuff here that people have a hard time talking about — especially at work.”

Industry analyst Josh Bersin recently headlined a blog post: “Chief Diversity Officer: The Toughest Job in Business.” Others have echoed that sentiment. Joy Fitzgerald, the CDO at Eli Lilly, told the Wall Street Journal: “You’re dealing with polarizing topics, and these topics and issues are very nuanced. There are not a lot of best practices you can point to that are easy or quick.”

To understand the soaring interest in this position and the challenges for those who hold it, let’s look at how the role has evolved, who the people are who hold it, what their teams have done to move their organizations forward, what they need to flourish, and what the future holds for them.

Companies are investing in diversity and inclusion to drive business results and spark innovation

The interest in diversity — gender, racial and ethnic, LGBTQ+, age, and ability, among other dimensions — and inclusion has touched nearly every corner of the world. Given all the headlines coming out of the United States in the late spring and early summer, it may surprise you to learn that the United Kingdom employs almost twice as many D&I workers (per 10,000 employees) as any other country. Australia, the U.S., Ireland, and Canada round out the top five.

  • Countries with the most diversity roles. Number of diversity & inclusion employees per 10,000 employees.  United Kingdom 1.93, Australia 1.04, United States	0.73, Ireland 0.71, Canada 0.45, Switzerland	0.44, United Arab Emirates 0.38, Belgium 0.33, Germany 0.32, South Africa 0.29.

Our data shows that the No. 1 D&I job title globally is diversity manager, with director of diversity coming in at No. 2, head of diversity at No. 4, and chief diversity officer at No. 6.

  • Most common diversity roles: Number of LinkedIn members currently holding these titles: Diversity Manager 4,297, Director of Diversity 2,502, Diversity Officer 1,594, Head of Diversity 1,035, Diversity Consultant 853

To understand what companies hope their growing D&I teams will accomplish, it helps to look at how the diversity function has evolved.

In many cases, companies originally named a head of diversity in the aftermath of a discrimination lawsuit to make sure companies hired and promoted people in a fair manner that also followed applicable law.

Over time, mounting research began pointing to the benefits — increased sales, revenue, stock price — of having a more diverse workforce. Reports and data from McKinsey, Deloittethe Corporate Executive BoardGartnerHarvard Business Review, and others buttressed the argument that doing the right thing was also doing the right thing for business.

“You have to be clear,” says Fiona Vines, the head of inclusion and diversity and workforce transition at the Australian mining powerhouse BHP, “about why this is good for business. I’m unapologetic about that.”

More recently, companies have embraced diversity and inclusion as a way to trigger creativity. “Over the last 20 years,” says Cindy Owyoung, the vice president of inclusion, culture, and change at Charles Schwab, “we’ve seen this incredible shift to looking at diversity as much more of a driver to innovation.”

The facts back up this shift. “We did this research at Deloitte many times,” Josh Bersin says, “and found that the diverse teams are more innovative. They feel more creative. People feel safer in a team that’s diverse. People speak up more. And that includes generational diversity, not just racial and national diversity.”

As a bonus, LinkedIn data shows a positive difference in the brand perception of companies with a diversity and inclusion function versus companies without one.

  • Companies with diversity and inclusion employees are  22% more likely  to be seen as an  industry leader with high-caliber talent,  12% more likely  to be seen as an  inclusive workplace for people of diverse backgrounds

Companies with a D&I team were 22% more likely to be seen as “an industry-leading company with high-caliber talent” and 12% more likely to be seen as an “inclusive workplace for people of diverse backgrounds.”

The current pandemic caused many companies to tap the brakes, at least momentarily, on their D&I efforts. LinkedIn data shows a dip in the number of D&I jobs posted immediately after the COVID-19 lockdowns. But the data also shows an enormous upward spike since the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in late May and early June.

  • Job posts for diversity roles have increased by 4.3x on LinkedIn since June 2015.

The chief diversity officer wears many hats

Fiona Vines started as a banker and then slid into HR, tackling learning, business partnering, and talent programs for Bankwest and ANZ in Australia. A leader at ANZ invited her to coffee, where he told her that the company’s diversity programming had gotten “a bit messy” and asked if she would be interested in coming in to try to fix it.

“I said, ‘For goodness’ sake, why would I want to do one of those lame roles?’” she recalls, quickly pointing out that this was eight years ago. “’They don’t actually make any difference to anything.’” She took the job nonetheless and discovered how far off base her dismissal had been.

“It gave me this amazing platform,” she says, “to drive incredible cultural change.”

And it is that opportunity to be a change agent that seems to drive many of the CDOs we spoke with, some who started as bankers, others as lawyers, and still others as marketers and advertisers.

According to research done by the management consulting firm Russell Reynolds, the majority of CDOs for S&P 500 companies have experience in HR or other D&I roles. But 33% have experience in organizational development/learning and development; 31% in marketing/sales; 30% in talent acquisition; 25% in corporate social responsibility; and 16% in legal/compliance.

If you’re recruiting for an open CDO role, you’ll probably want to look everywhere. You’ll probably have to. How else will you find anyone — let alone a slate of candidates — who can move nimbly between so many roles? The CDO is expected to be a therapist, advocate, coach, advisor, educator, and perspective broker.

“You should also be involved,” says Damien at Zoom, “in conversations around compensation and promotion; in helping leaders when they are having doubts about what to say to thousands of employees the day after George Floyd is murdered; in product reviews that help your company think more inclusively about what they’re putting out; and with conversations with legislators when we’re talking about policy.”

Toughest job indeed.

Something that arises in nearly every conversation with a chief diversity officer is their unofficial role as chief conversation officer — they’re the go-to person when it comes to facilitating the most difficult discussions in the workplace. “Most of us have been taught, ‘Don’t talk about politics at work,’” Damien says. “’Don’t talk about religion. Don’t talk about gender. Don’t talk about race.’ So, this role is being asked, inside of a corporate space where most of us put on a façade, to get people to trust each other enough — in the middle of their traditional day-to-day responsibilities — to have a tough but needed conversation about race.”

Cindy Owyoung seconds that emotion: “All of these conversations can be so uncomfortable for people. It makes the role incredibly difficult because it’s not just about the rational, it’s about changing hearts and changing minds.”

D&I teams around the world are moving the needle

Companies that take their D&I efforts seriously don’t have the luxury of complacency. There are no victory laps, no resting on laurels, no cries of “It’s a wrap.” Gerri Mason Hall, the chief diversity and social responsibility officer at Sodexo Americas, says her team’s tagline is “Inclusion never stops.”

But while total victory remains illusory, innovative D&I teams can claim small wins with enviable programs and emerging best practices that are moving the needle. Here is a quick sampling of compelling work being done at companies that are gaining traction with their D&I efforts:

Driving leadership accountability

Sodexo has developed a diversity scorecard that is reviewed and reported monthly. The quantitative part, which accounts for 60% of the scorecard, captures how many women and minorities are hired, retained, and promoted. The qualitative part, the other 40%, examines aspects such as mentoring and support for ERGs. “I don’t want to mislead anyone,” Gerri says. “It’s not the end-all and be-all. But it is an absolutely important tool for us.” It’s worth noting that 41% of Sodexo’s North American leaders are from underrepresented groups and 40% are women.

HCL Technologies, headquartered in Noida, India, has a similar tool. Their dashboard tracks how many women, if any, report to the CEO, to his direct reports, and to their direct reports. Anuradha Khosla, the VP of HR who heads diversity and inclusion, presents the results to the board of directors each quarter.

Teaming up with supply chain partners

BHP has a complex supply chain made up of over 9,000 partners globally with whom the company spends $20 billion (U.S.) annually. BHP decided to bring its vendors, contractors, and consultants along on the company’s D&I journey. “We call it the supplier multiplier,” Fiona says.

BHP has worked with its outside equipment providers to improve the boots, helmets, and clothing offered to women employees. They have also engaged Caterpillar, Liebherr, and Komatsu to create heavy machinery that requires less strength and is more ergonomically designed for women. The changes are good for everyone. Fiona says their own data shows that their more diverse teams are significantly safer, more engaged with lower absenteeism, and more productive in some areas.

Educating employees

Rather than suppliers, Zoom is bringing customers along on its D&I journey. Damien Hooper-Campbell joined the videoconferencing darling as its first chief diversity officer the week after George Floyd was killed. Already, he has helped launch Zoom Talks, a program to help employees learn more about each other’s backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. The first talk focused on Juneteenth. Following that, Zoom partnered with Time for a nine-part series called “Race in the Workplace” that features Shaun Harper, the founder of USC’s Race and Equity Center. Zoom Talks are available to all  employees and some clients.

Fostering professional development

 JPMorgan Chase’s Advancing Black Leaders program is an initiative that D&I practitioners at other companies eye enviously. The program, launched in 2016 when only 3% of the firm’s executives or senior-level managers were African American, aims to help the bank recruit and hire external Black talent and retain and develop the talent that is already in-house. According to John Rice, the CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, JPMorgan formalized the developmental coaching that white men have long benefited from informally.

Nurturing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

When Cindy Owyoung came to Charles Schwab three years ago as the CDO, the company’s ERGs were not as robust as she thought they should be. So, that’s where she focused her effort. In two years, membership in the company’s ERGs grew 75% and the number of ERGs grew from eight to 11. But, most importantly, the ERGs became more active — this year alone, they are scheduled to host 650 events in support  of recruiting and developing diverse talent and better serving Schwab’s diverse clients.

Developing D&I ambassadors

The Dutch brewer HEINEKEN operates in 70 countries. “We know that the opportunities for inclusion and diversity can be different in the Netherlands, Brazil, or New Zealand,” says Pascale Thorre, the global inclusion and diversity head for the company. “What we needed were people in each country who would be trained and knowledgeable to cascade the discussion we want to see happening on inclusion and diversity and also to size the opportunities.” Pascale has trained 100 volunteer ambassadors who are making recommendations to local management about D&I initiatives. They’re also sharing the best practices they’re developing for their regions with their ambassadorial colleagues around the world.

Many obstacles litter the path to a company achieving its diversity and inclusion goals

Achieving diversity and inclusion is difficult, no matter which corner of the world your business is headquartered in. No one has nailed it. D&I efforts, no matter how well intended and how loudly proclaimed, can be undercut by a lack of resources.

An executive search firm told Sandra Sims-Williams, the SVP of diversity and inclusion at Nielsen, that anyone interviewing for a CDO role should ask about reporting structure, size of team, and size of budget. “Because,” Sandra notes, “you really are window dressing if you don’t have money to do this.”

Sandra knew coming into her current role in January that she would have the single most important thing every D&I team needs — support from the CEO. Nielsen CEO David Kenny is also the company’s chief diversity officer. “He has the power and the influence to have people hear him,” Sandra says.

But even with lots of love from the CEO and the board of directors, diversity and inclusion efforts face a range of challenges:

  • HQ-centricism. Damien, who still hasn’t visited his new company’s headquarters near his home in San Jose, says he recently had a Zoom meeting with colleagues overseas. They told him they were excited to work with him and to hear what kind of initiatives he would be rolling out. He appreciated their welcoming enthusiasm, but replied: “What do you want to do and what’s relevant to you locally on the ground? And how can I help to empower you all to drive diversity and inclusion in the way that’s most relevant to you where you’re based?” One size does not fit all — which is what drove Pascale to create a worldwide ambassador program.
  • The D&I silo. Having diversity and inclusion specialists may inadvertently send a message that they’ve got it covered, that everyone else can ignore it. “It goes back to education and awareness,” says Cindy at Schwab, “and helping people understand that it can’t be one person’s job to drive this as a priority for the company. Everyone has a role to play.”
  • Perception. Some businesses view diversity and inclusion as a talent acquisition issue. Or a compliance issue. Gerri Mason Hall says it’s an obstacle when people view it as simply an HR program that’s not on par with other business indicators. And she suggests that companies are well served when they talk about their progress against D&I ambitions in the same way they talk about sales, revenue, customer loyalty, or NPS. “Our CEO does in fact address these issues,” she says, “and incorporate them in his messaging, as does our global chief people officer.”
  • D&I team burnout. The work demanded of a chief diversity officer is not for the faint of heart. “As practitioners,” Damien Hooper-Campbell says, “we sometimes put pressure on ourselves to be supernatural. We don’t take care of ourselves enough while we’re out there trying to take care of others.” Which may help explain why the average tenure for someone as a CDO is only three years. While the protests for Black Lives Matter have brought focus and attention to D&I teams, they have also dramatically increased the workload and the emotional strain on the teams and their leaders. “We get in our own way sometimes,” Damien says, “by not putting our own oxygen mask on first.”

Final thoughts: Diversity and inclusion will be increasingly seen as a business function rather than as an HR function

Both Anuradha Khosla in India and Gerri Mason Hall in the U.S. told us that over the next five years they see the focus shifting to inclusion as increased representation becomes business as usual. “I see clear measures,” Anuradha says, “emerging of inclusion and diversity linkages to business metrics and business growth.” Adds Gerri: “The way we use a scorecard, it will become the norm in HR practices.”

Cindy Owyoung takes it a step further and predicts D&I will no longer report to HR. “Some companies are now positioning their D&I teams as a direct or dotted line to their CEOs,” she says, “so you’ll see more D&I teams interacting and being embedded directly within business functions, as well.” She sees the influence of those teams spreading beyond talent into marketing, product development, and corporate strategy.

The diversity leaders we spoke with, while wearing a host of different titles and responsibilities, were in agreement that the current moment, emphatically shaped by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, feels different and gives them reason for hope.

Both Damien Hooper-Campbell and Gerri Mason Hall pointed to the same harbinger of positive change: The Washington, D.C., franchise of the National Football League deciding to drop Redskins, an affront to many Native Americans, as its nickname after pressure from advertisers and the business world. “I do feel that the corporate world will lead,” Gerri says. “Government and regulation have their place, but the impact of the corporate world creates speed.”

Damien notes that a lot of companies got flack for publishing statements, making donations, and posting black squares on social media to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “I get it,” he says. “But when a CEO signs something public facing, they’re now accountable. Like no other time I can remember, candidates and customers are making decisions based on how real a company is when it comes to its investment in society and making this world better for other people. So, yeah, I think it’s different. I do. I pray it is.”

If the head of diversity is the job of the moment, this may also be the moment that needs the head of diversity.

This post was co-authored by Cesar Zulaica Pineyro


Diversity  and Inclusion job titles and job posts are roles identified within the HR function that contain terminology or keywords related to diversity, inclusion, and belonging, such as Head of Diversity or Chief Diversity Officer, among many others. Unpaid and training roles were excluded from the analysis.

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