Chief diversity officers: why tenure is low, turnover high

The average tenure of CDOs is now 1.8 years, roughly one-third of other executives
Average tenure for a CDO is now less than two years, about a third of other executives, and turnover is high. Are organisations setting CDOs up to fail?

Remember when the chief diversity officer (CDO) was all any corporation could talk about?

Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd amid calls for corporate pledges to reduce bias in the workplace, companies scrambled to hire CDOs.

Positions dedicated to DEI quadrupled from 2017 to 2022 in the US, with the rate of new CDO hires nearly triple the rate of hires in the previous 16 months, according to McKinsey.

In short, the chief diversity officer saw the fastest hiring growth of any C-suite role in 2020 and 2021.

But hiring for the position has dwindled, falling 4.5% in 2022, even as other executive roles grew, a recent LinkedIn report finds.

Not just that, but chief diversity officers keep leaving.

Announcing their departures this month, Netflix’s first head of inclusion Verna Myers, Disney’s CDO LaTondra Newton, and Uber diversity chief Bo Young Lee – the latter to take a leave of absence.

The BBC’s creative diversity director Joanna Abeyie is also leaving her role after just 18 months. Her replacement will be the BBC’s third creative diversity executive in just two years.

Nike too is struggling to retain its CDOs. In November, Jarvis Sam left the role after just five months. He was the third diversity head to exit the brand in three years.

While you could argue these cases are isolated and executives across the board leave roles all the time – the numbers tell a different story. 

The average tenure of a chief diversity officer now stands at 1.8 years, roughly one-third of other executives, according to recent data from executive search firm Russell Reynolds. 

As someone who has been in the DEI space for seven years, and formally in a CDO role for the last three, Devin O’Loughlin has witnessed first-hand the short tenure and high turnover of this particular C-suite role. 

Devin, who has served as Global Chief of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at global marketing and advertising agency RAPP for the last three years, says there are a number of reasons for this, but most stem from a lack of support, resources, and company-wide commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Many companies filled the role after the murder of George Floyd because they felt they should, but did so without really knowing what those practitioners would need in terms of support – to not only thrive but baseline survive,” says Devin.

As well as leading the DEI discipline globally for RAPP, which has a talent base of 1,600 professionals in 17 offices, Devin also serves as global co-chair of Omnicom Group's LGBTQIA+ employee resource group, OPEN Pride. RAPP is part of Omnicom Precision Marketing Group.

“Truthfully, I don’t think companies have quite grasped the role yet. I think the whole ecosystem and the way the DEI discipline has been positioned has set DEI practitioners up to fail.”

Devin O’Loughlin, Global Chief of DEI at RAPP believes companies haven't quite grasped the role yet

Devin points to small teams, silo mentality on DEI, lack of executive support and limited connectivity in the role as challenges that can, and do lead to burnout. Not to mention the nature of the role itself which demands a constant battle against systemic inequality. 

"It can be exhausting because not only are you trying to change institutional level policies, but also systemic ways of working both within the organisation and also across the marketing and advertising industry – one that hasn’t historically been the most progressive, open. accepting or diverse.

“You are also dealing with real people who are navigating traumas,” she adds. And while there is a lot of honour in such work, says Devin, it can also be heavy. "It can be difficult to find time to recharge and fill your own cup when you’re always trying to pour into others and keep everyone baseline.”

While Devin is well-supported in her DEI role at RAPP and has a good-sized team both in the US and globally, she says most DEI teams are small, just one or two people. “From a bandwidth and sheer resource perspective, you just can’t get everything done, especially if you are looking to bring in a global perspective or push out global initiatives.”

More crucially, it is the positioning of the DEI discipline as a silo function, lumped in with HR, and where connectivity to other disciplines is limited, that is a huge barrier to success – and a reason why many CDOs feel unsupported and ultimately leave.

“Organisations should make sure the DEI lead or team report to the central C-suite instead of locking them into the HR discipline. Without the support, you are not going to be able to make the change.”

That Devin has direct access to both the CEO and the finance chief at RAPP is crucial in securing support and ensuring success, she says. Such connection means all leaders better understand how the DEI discipline works, why it’s important, and what is needed to succeed. 

“A lot of what we do in the DEI discipline is long-tail and behind-the-scenes,” says Devin. “Beyond the sexy, interesting upfront panel discussions and the activations around Black History Month, it’s the stuff you don’t see that takes time to come to fruition, sometimes up to a year – and this takes organisational buy-in and investment.”

Devin says she has had plenty of conversations with DEI practitioners who feel supported or are told they are supported by leadership but aren’t given the space or financial support to do the things they need to do – such as being able to partner with organisations to flesh out their recruitment pipeline, or to find new partners to expand their accessibility endeavours.

For DEI to be successful as a discipline, it needs to be embedded across the organisation and this is only possible if there is communication with, and buy-in from, all C-suite leaders.

Connection to the C-Suite crucial

“The biggest way to impact a CDO’s success is to help them build their network. They need to be empowered to develop strong relationships with the different discipline C-suite leads."

As well as working with the HR team to understand RAPP’s people, processes, policies and protocols, Devin works alongside the finance team to understand how the company can better get a handle on things like supplier diversity.

“I work with our strategy and creative teams to understand how we can better infuse DEI considerations into the work from the very start rather than just force it at the end or get to the end of the campaign with a client and think, oh shoot, we missed the mark there.”

To have even greater impact company-wide, Devin also works directly with the account leaders, which means having tough conversations with clients, pushing back when they don’t want to diversify their creative or think outside the box.

Devin urges organisations to empower DEI leaders to have these conversations with clients and especially within the marketing industry. “We’re culture creators and makers, so empowering the DEI leads to have those frank conversations with clients can only help the direction in which brands move.”

Also, it creates more opportunity for the bottom line.

“You don’t know what you will unlock when you give the opportunity for a DEI practitioner to have a conversation with a client. There are equal opportunities for both the agencies and brands to improve in terms of profitability and brand recognition.”

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