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Among all of corporate America’s problems with job retention, one of the most concerning is the turnover in a newly prominent role: chief diversity officer. CDOs tend to stay in their roles only two to three years, about half the tenure of other C-suite officers. For many CDOs, as well as their colleagues, this is the result of one thing: frustration.

How did a role that so many companies created with great fanfare in the racial-justice movement of 2020 become a dispiriting job for many–and what can be done to improve the situation? From Day One talked with people who’ve held the job, as well as experts in the field, to get to the sources of the problem and look toward solutions.

To start with, the scope of the job is unlike almost any other top-leadership role. “Leading our inclusive culture efforts is an honor that requires a diverse skillset and the ability to anticipate the needs of a vast array of audiences,” said Vanice Hayes, chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer for Dell Technologies. “As rewarding as the job is, it can also be taxing. At times, it can feel like you're trying to solve world peace, like you’re a teacher, a counselor, a politician, a lawyer, a historian–you name it.”

A New Kind of Career Path

As befits a job that’s freshly emerging, there’s no traditional career path that leads to the CDO position. Read the resumes of ten chief technology officers, and you will see very similar backgrounds: advanced degrees in computer science or engineering, a track record building products or designing systems, years of experience managing tech workers and operations. The resumes of chief marketing officers and chief financial officers are similarly consistent. Even new C-suite additions, like chief information security officers and chief human resources officers, have identifiable backgrounds. By contrast, leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) who have spoken at From Day One events have included executives who began their careers in law enforcement and the ministry.

Graduate-school programs on how-to-be-a-CDO are still relatively new, points out Rachel Marcuse, the chief operating officer at ReadySet, a DEI-focused consulting firm. “That being said, we see successful CDOs come from varied backgrounds and experiences, including finance, HR, culture, and products or services. Deep expertise in DEI is crucial and can come from a combination of professional background, education, and lived experience.”

There is little consensus on the ideal resume for a chief diversity officer, but we may not need one. Andrés Tapia, the global DEI strategist at the management-consulting firm Korn Ferry, who was himself a pioneering CDO in the early 2000s, said that when he coaches clients on what to look for in a CDO, background doesn’t matter. He looks for someone who can think strategically, integrate perspectives, communicate well, and influence powerful people in the company. “Notice how non-functionally-specific those are,” Tapia said.

Though a handful CDOs have been around for decades, the majority have been in the role only a few years. The field is developing, and the recent swell in CDO appointments is in part a reaction to the ineffectiveness of the corporate DEI programs of the last 20 years. The old way may have been wrong, but it’s not clear what the new, right way will be. Still, DEI practitioners are looking in earnest.

“Coming into the role, depending on your previous perspective, you may think ‘I got this,’ but then when you get there, you realize it is quite expansive,” said Hayes. “Your previous perspective may have been both accurate and potentially narrow or limited in scope. So the way I handle that is just through focus: How do I make sure every single person that comes to work feels like they're included? Everyone should have the right to enjoy an inclusive work culture. That’s my baseline.”

Vanice Hayes, chief of culture, diversity and inclusion officer for Dell, will be speaking at From Day One’s Austin conference on Oct. 26 (Photo courtesy of Dell)

The chief diversity officer at Indiana University Health, Lisa Gutierrez, believes that without self-awareness, CDOs will repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. One of the biggest “is to only use your lived experience. A lot of people say, ‘Well, I have a lived experience.’ And I go, ‘I do too, but in the D&I space, it’s not just my lived experience, but everybody’s.’ The practice has gone to short-handing diversity work into just a couple of things,” she said. “If I were a newer practitioner right now, I’d be looking at what didn’t work in the past, and get into the front of the line of not doing that.”

Why CDO Is a Different Kind of C-Suite Job

Newly minted CDOs, whether or not they have the right experience or expectations, are not to blame for turnover. The C-suite has yet to accept that the CDO is a different kind of executive. Unlike other executives who own a department and run a P&L, the work of a CDO doesn’t happen in a single department, and there’s seldom an elaborate financial statement.

“We don’t own much,” said Channing Martin, who is the CDO at the advertising company IPG. “You’re being held responsible for diverse talent coming in the organization, but you don’t own recruiting. You’re being held responsible for developing underrepresented talent or women being promoted, but you don’t own L&D, you don’t own talent management.”

The job, then, is influencing other executives to make DEI a long-term priority. “What works is when the leaders who run P&Ls start to own responsibility for DEI. That’s a game changer,” Martin said.

Tapia has found that in some cases, the C-suite appoints a CDO without much thought to qualifications or expectations because a figurehead, not an executive who influences global operations, is what the CEO wants. As a result, the key performance indicators for the role are simplistic: we want more people of color, we want more women leaders.

When this is the case, the CEO isn’t likely to value long-term strategy, and the work becomes programmatic. “If you’re not a strategic thinker, you’re going to become a tactical leader,” Tapia said. “The death knell of D&I is a tactical leader in charge because D&I lends itself to a lot of very fun programs, a lot of tactics,” Tapia said. “But they don’t bring about transformation.”

Executives like the sound of “unconscious bias training,” but “the nonsexy stuff is a structural and policy change that takes a long time,” said Martin. For example, designing a global system for employee self-identification. “That’s tedious and time-consuming and not fun. It requires legal insight, the risk team, the privacy team, the HR team, and the IT team to transform technology systems. Those are the things that really change an organization, but that could take a year and a half, two years.”

The programmatic CDO is also reduced to being reactionary. “You shouldn’t have to wait for somebody’s murder to be designing social-justice strategies,” Gutierrez said.

The Importance of Learning the Business

Many companies underestimate the amount of business acumen CDOs need. “Now you’ve got employment lawyers that are becoming HR leaders. You’ve got MBAs that are becoming HR leaders. As the HR function is being asked to be more of a business operation, you’ve got to have a skill set that can make that happen. And I think the same is going to be true for the diversity function,” said Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, a virtual HR training platform.

Chief diversity officers can be more effective by immersing themselves in their organization’s business, like those in the role of “HR business partner.” Said Gutierrez: “You have to understand the business of the business. The CDO has to fold themself into the natural rhythm of the business and find opportunities to change it.” For example, Gutierrez said that the “rhythm” of one of her previous employers was the Six Sigma framework for process improvement. “Six Sigma is about reducing variation. Diversity is about increasing variation, but in the methodology there are places to build variation in.”

When ReadySet advises on CDO appointments, Marcuse said, “we want CDOs to really understand the organizational mission or business and have substantial leadership or executive experience.”

Martin acknowledges how hard it is to set meaningful quantitative goals when there is no P&L. “There’s a standard of corporate governance, there’s standards around strong financial analysis. There’s no standard in DEI,” she said.

Measuring effects on employee behavior is a good place to start. For example, instead of counting the number of people who participate in unconscious-bias training, Martin says, look for the results, like when employees are celebrated on a peer-to-peer recognition platform, “how many people are responding when a woman is recognized, vs. a man?”

What are the stakes involved in CDO success? Aarti Shyamsunder, the global head of DEI at Accenture’s YSC Consulting, told Fortune recently that the cost of CDO turnover is significant, even if it may beunquantifiable. The loss is more than one of dollars and cents, “it’s about the message that it sends out, the loss of reputation, the suspicion or fear that it might cause, especially in minority group members’ minds. With all these sorts of intangible costs, it’s impossible to put an amount on it,” she said.

Tapia believes a good CDO sets the tone. “A smart, strategic, influential CDO will say to the leaders, ‘I’m happy to take the role. I am your right person, but I’m not the one that’s going to change it. You are. I’m going to work with your CEO and the C-suite because the only ones that can change anything in this organization in terms of culture and processes and priorities are the C-suite.’”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.