The "Team-Playing" Chief Diversity Officer

Strong-willed activism made the difference a generation ago, but the best diversity leaders now impact their firms with different skills; a new Korn Ferry study.

The challenges Chief Diversity Officers were tasked to solve when they first started appearing in Corporate America two decades ago often were galling: giant pay discrepancies, workplace harassment, even hiring discrimination. Back then, the most effective CDOs were often the loudest, going it alone as they fought for credibility to right organizational wrongs.

Now, however, the diversity and inclusion issues organizations face are considerably different. Few organizations have policies that openly work against women or people of color. But leadership experts say there are some organizations that don’t realize the business benefits committing to diversity, while most companies struggle to diversify their leadership ranks. The different challenges now require CDOs with considerably different skill sets, says Andres Tapia, Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm's Diversity & Inclusion practice. “Counterintuitively, they are much more similar to current C-suite leaders than to diversity activists of years ago,” he says.

Tapia, along with colleagues Louis Montgomery and Karen Huang, have conducted rigorous assessment on more than 60 diversity leaders. In their new paper, “The next generation chief diversity officer,” the trio determine the best of the best had in common. They based their research on the Korn Ferry Institute’s KF4D model, which measures the competencies, skills, traits, and behaviors of more than 7 million executives across all industries and job functions.

The top diversity officers were go-getters, but they all had the ability to manage conflict and persuade. That makes them exceptional network builders. Indeed, the ability to influence others is essential, the trio argue, because the current diversity issues are more likely to be solved with collaboration than by the efforts of a single individual. These top leaders also are strategic thinkers.

Indeed, this best-in-class group shares a lot in common with some members the c-suite. The best diversity and inclusion leaders score more social than top CEOs and marginally more data driven than the best CHROs. “But by and large, all three have very similar personality trait profiles,” Tapia says.

The findings are important for organizations looking for new diversity leadership. But, as importantly, the findings are useful for existing diversity leaders who haven’t yet reached the top of their profession. Tapia says members of this group can start asking themselves a fundamental question: Can they shift from being problem-solving activists to team players who can work behind the scenes to alter how businesses operate?

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