In some ways, it feels like we’ve turned the clock back to the days prior to the tragic passing of George Floyd. The societal and systematic progress that began in the aftermath now faces new threats. Between a recent supreme court blow to affirmative action and a group of attorney generals calling for stronger curbs to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), it’s hard not to wonder—how can Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) keep the momentum of corporate equity moving forward?

There’s no doubt that elbow grease will be required. The recent backlash against DE&I has been dramatic, with the reported attrition rate for DE&I roles rising to 33% compared to 21% for non-DE&I roles at the close of 2022. DE&I’s perceived lack of business impact is one major cause. Monster’s 2023 Future of Work report found that 11% of employers claimed DE&I programs are among the first to go when cutting costs—behind company events and bonuses. But despite a recent string of CDO exits, our experts say diversity leaders aren’t entirely to blame. “A number of people took on these roles to bring about systemic change, but the organizations are not ready,” says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s Chief Diversity Officer.

Keeping that in mind, here are three ways DE&I leaders can adapt to these new headwinds in order to keep progress on track.

1 Bring your own data to the table

Going forward, the most important agenda item for DE&I leaders will be to connect their purpose with their organization’s business strategy. Highly diverse businesses are reportedly 36% more profitable than competing businesses with minimal diversity. However, the job now is to demonstrate that with data from your own firm—that means not only encouraging inclusivity within other segments of the business but also actively measuring how those diverse business units perform compared to the status quo.

In the past, some diversity leaders’ arguments may have been seen as ambiguous, says Flo Falayi, an associate client partner in Korn Ferry’s DE&I practice. “Leaders need to go a step further and be able to concretely say, ‘if we increase diversity in a given sector by a specific percentage, our firm is going to see a specific increase in outputs.'”

2 Turn DE&I into an engine for growth

Recognize the advantage of diversity when trying to expand markets. Through helping to establish employee resource groups (ERGs), for instance, CDOs can leverage the perspectives of diverse cohorts to both identify and co-create for missing markets. The recent movie “Flamin’ Hot” offers an apt example of this; based on a true story, the film follows a Mexican-American janitor at Frito-Lay who convinces the company’s CEO to adopt a spicy new flavor of chip in order to reach the Latinx market—giving rise to the wildly popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which is now a reported billion-dollar brand.

“Get everybody involved in the product innovation,” says Mike Solomons, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s DE&I practice. “People build things for themselves based on their own needs and experiences.”

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3 Build allies and partnerships

A lack of peer support from within organizations has been a major cause of CDO burnout. One study found that the average CDO tenure was only 1.8 years—compared to a reported average C-suite tenure of 4.9 years. Now more than ever, CDOs must impress upon other members of leadership that if they don’t join as partners, their initiatives won’t be able to benefit from the enhanced innovation that diversity has to offer. “DE&I is a heavy backpack for one person to carry every day,” says Saunders. “Having others be willing to share the weight will make every endeavor much more successful and worthwhile for an organization.”

Looking to make sure DE&I remains a vibrant part of your company's business and culture? Talk to us.