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6 Reasons Black Diversity Officers Struggle and What CEOs Can Do to Fix It

If CEOs want to promote racial equity in their workplaces, they need to do much more than just hire a few Black and Brown people for token positions.

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It is no secret that black diversity officers face an uphill battle in their roles. Despite numerous studies proving the value of a diverse workplace, these officers are often left to fight the relational, cultural and institutional barriers that prevent them from achieving real progress. Here are six reasons Black and Brown diversity officers struggle and what CEOs can do to fix it.

Note: Diversity leaders from other identities may also face many of these struggles.

1. Diversity leaders are set up for failure

Organizations often set Black Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) and other diversity leaders up for failure by expecting them to solve all the diversity challenges within a company. This is an impossible task and places too heavy a burden on these individuals. In many cases, they are also given inadequate resources to create meaningful and sustainable change.

How to fix it:

Organizations must set realistic expectations with their DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) leaders. They should provide them with the resources they need to succeed. Additionally, organizations should create diverse leadership teams that work together to solve problems so that identifying and acting on DEI opportunities is a distributed and firm-wide expectation.

2. CEOs and other top leaders are not genuinely committed to DEI

Many CEOs and top leaders may pay lip service to the DEI, but they don't take substantive and concrete steps to improve diversity within their organizations. A lack of commitment can make it impossible for diversity leaders to succeed. Either DEI is an actual business priority, or it is just performative.

How to fix it:

CEOs and other executives must hold themselves and be held accountable for their commitment to diversity. They must make and keep promises to their employees, customers and communities to deliver on the business-building power of DEI. Additionally, they should be transparent about the organization's efforts and progress.

Related: Fake Job Interviews: The Dark Side of Wells Fargo's 'Diversity' Efforts

3. Diversity leaders often face resistance from executive peers

When diversity leaders try to make enterprise-reaching changes within their organizations, they may encounter overt and covert pushback or sullen cynicism from other members of senior leadership. This resistance can make it difficult for CDOs to implement necessary changes.

How to fix it:

Organizations must create an environment where diversity leaders can succeed. This means equipping executives with the tools needed to deepen their DEI point of view, leading to more inclusiveness in their business units and markets. This also includes clear and activated agreements about how to help DEI leaders effectively respond to peer pushback.

Related: How to Use Executive Search Recruitment Practices to Foster Diversity and Inclusion in Your Workforce

4. Diversity leaders often feel alone in their journey

Isolation is a common experience for executives, and that is particularly true for CDOs. Their peers may not know how to support them, and some do not care to. Add an unclear business rationale, a dysfunctional reporting structure and a lack of resources… and we can see how isolation and loneliness are built into the CDO role. It is a bad mismatch for leaders who are often social and emotionally intelligent.

How to fix it:

Make sure the executive managing the CDO — typically the CHRO, sometimes the CEO or COO — is profoundly engaged in the success of DEI in the organization. This includes providing them with mentorship and networking opportunities inside and outside the company. Additionally, organizations should ensure that executive peers work hard to build relationships with CDOs and publicly value their contributions.

Related: Stop Expecting Marginalized Groups to Lead Diversity Efforts. It's Time For Allies to Step Up and Put in the Work.

5. The level of the team and whiteness are usually correlated — the more senior the team, the whiter it is likely to be

Note: Please remember that I'm a white guy who is merely stating an observable fact about places dominated by white people.

This challenge around representation can make it difficult for people of other racial identities to succeed in organizations — "I need to see it to believe it." The pipeline to executive roles is self-fulfilling, so it is no small challenge to build a new mix at senior levels. And when the CDO is the only person of color at the top of the house… please refer to the previous point on isolation.

How to fix it:

Invest in preparing high performers for senior roles by sourcing talent more inclusively and centering DEI capability as a job qualification. Also, establish more robust connections in communities and through social media so that a new mix of external talent is also available when hiring.

6. Diversity leaders often burn out quickly

Diversity leaders burn out quickly because of their heavy burden: their average tenure in a CDO job is under two years. Their burnout is due to the cumulative impact of points 1 to 5. In addition, less than 20% of incoming CDOs bring prior experience in such a role, so the hiring, onboarding and early development are especially vital for people in DEI roles.

How to fix it:

Set realistic expectations with your CDO, prepare and support them, provide them with the right resources, help them navigate conflict, and hold their peers accountable for building high-trust relationships.

The fact that Black and Brown diversity officers face immense struggles is no surprise. For years, studies have shown the value of a diverse workplace, but many organizations are just now starting to explore diversity, equity and inclusion's powerful potential. If CEOs want to promote racial equity in their workplaces, they need to do much more than just hire a few Black and Brown people for token positions. They must listen to what diversity officers are saying and provide them with the resources and support to do their jobs effectively.

Related: Why Diversity In the Workforce Is Imperative

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