The benefits of organizational diversity are, by now, well known. In fact, a recent study by discovered that 72% of companies that offered diversity and inclusion (D&I) training in 2018 saw an increase in profits. Good D&I training, according to the report, “should no longer be considered an afterthought, but rather as a way to drive real change, ensuring a pipeline of diverse talent that will foster innovation at your organization.”

Realizing the real business impact diversity and inclusion can have, many organizations now have chief diversity and inclusion officers (CDOs) on their executive teams. The CDO’s role, according to Louis Montgomery Jr., practice leader for human resources and diversity officers at Korn Ferry, “is to help their organization attract, develop, retain and fully realize the value of a diverse workforce.” CDOs report to either the chief human resources officer or directly to the chief executive officer, and they “work closely with their human resources counterparts on … such items as recruitment strategies, succession and development planning, employee engagement, and culture.”

“An organization’s people are [its] most valuable asset,” says Sandy Cross, former senior director of diversity and inclusion and now chief people officer for PGA of America. “Having an individual [who] is solely focused on investing in talent, deeply understanding what matters most to that talent and then bringing that to life in a way that inures to the benefit of the business is extremely powerful.”

Becoming a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

H. Wes Pratt, chief diversity officer of Missouri State University, says he joined the university in 2008 as a coordinator for diversity outreach and recruitment, then became the interim equal opportunity officer and then the permanent director of institutional equity and compliance. In 2016, he was appointed CDO.

“There are a lot of paths to get [to the CDO role],” says Montgomery. Many CDOs start out in human resources, but people have also become CDOs with backgrounds in law, engineering, social justice, corporate affairs or another area. “The key is that they have demonstrated interest in doing work that helps the organization toward a diverse and inclusive culture,” he says.

Cross says that the “high-value components” of the path to CDO are “working in any area that allows you to develop a deep understanding of your business holistically, build relationships with internal and external constituents, and develop as a trusted leader who is thoughtfully strategic.” She recommends that L&D professionals wanting to become CDOs “operate with a growth mindset.” This field is continuously changing with each new generation of talent, and “staying on top of and ahead of cultural shifts will be essential to your ability to be effective in the lead-up roles to CDO.”

The CDO should be a resilient leader with influence in the organization and “a strategic operator who understands the business and the social environment in which it operates,” says Layne Kertamus, founder of Asperian Nation, which works with organizations on their neurodiversity and inclusion programs. Experience in talent management and training “is an asset,” he adds.

Korn Ferry research has identified three important competencies for CDOs: courage and persuasion, conflict management and a strategic mindset. Montgomery adds that to be a CDO, “first and foremost, you have to be an organizational strategist. You need the ability to take business strategy and align it to talent strategy. Being able to be an effective persuader [is important].” It also takes courage, because you have to be able to tell executives when they’re not acting inclusively or “why the needle isn’t moving.” Managing conflict is important, because “you may need to change the status quo, and there will be resistance.”

A recent Russell Reynolds Associates study identified four areas of expertise, or “archetypes,” for the CDO: human resources (45% of CDOs), D&I (30%), business (17%), communications (13%) and legal (11%). The study also identified five key competencies, saying that successful CDOs are “strategic executors,” “data-savvy storytellers,” “influencer champions,” “savvy and authentic communicators,” and “pragmatic disruptors.”

CDOs must have strong communication skills, according to Pratt. “They must be persistent while developing and increasing relationships with various [stakeholders].” The ability to train could be an asset; as Pratt says, promoting diversity in an organization “begins with awareness, knowledge and skills development in order to create the cultural consciousness/competencies that value what all stakeholders bring to the institution and/or organization.”

Kertamus recommends earning a graduate degree and adds that skills and credentials in training, organizational design, cultural studies, social justice, human resources, employment law, strategic decision-making, project management and public relations are helpful. “Be willing to be creatively deviant on D&I issues and always curious,” he adds.

Career Prospects

“This is probably the best time ever to work in diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Montgomery. D&I is in the public eye and on executives’ agendas. “More than ever, organizational leaders understand that talent matters. The only way they can differentiate their organizations is through talent, which is increasingly diverse.”

According to data from, diversity and inclusion job postings increased 18% from 2017 to 2018 and 35% from 2015 to 2018. Furthermore, a February report from RedThread Research and Mercer found that the global market for D&I technology is valued at “approximately $100 million and growing,” suggesting there may be job opportunities there as well.

Unfortunately, the Russell Reynolds Associates study found that 53% of companies on the S&P 500 index have a CDO or equivalent position, and at organizations that do have a CDO, those executives “often lack the necessary resources or organizational support to make lasting changes.” Developing the ability to advocate for yourself and your team and make the case for diversity to business leaders should, therefore, be a key competency for CDOs. It’s also one that training managers know well.

Montgomery believes that the CDO role can be a stepping stone to the chief human resources officer (CHRO) role, and, indeed, Cross is proof that serving in a D&I leadership role can help you make that leap into the head “people” role. Understanding the competencies required of each role on your journey is key. The next step? Continuous learning and confidence should do the trick.

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