The Rainbow Disruption: Ensuring the Good People Win- Four Tips for Future DEI Executives

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which ignited a global reckoning regarding the ongoing racial trauma persistently experienced by Black Americans, corporations around the world publicly announced commitments to advancing and accelerating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. According to a LinkedIn Talent Solutions article from 2021, hundreds of thousands of companies made posts on the platform about DEI, mostly to communicate millions, (and in some cases billions) of dollars in commitments toward the advancement of racial equity and the announcement of new Chief Diversity Officer roles. A McKinsey & Company article from November 2022 corroborates this point noting, “The rate of new CDO hires in 2021 was nearly triple the rate of hires in the previous 16 months” and that more than 60 Fortune 500 companies appointed their very first DEI leader after Floyd’s murder.

Over the last two years, we undoubtedly saw progress on many levels, but at several companies, advancement of this critical work came at the expense of overburdened, under resourced, and oftentimes emotionally spent Chief DEI Officers. Korn Ferry’s research on this topic revealed that the average tenure of CDOs continues to shrink dramatically with more than 60% of leaders from S&P 500 companies departing from 2018-2021, reducing average tenure to just two years.

As increasing amounts of early in career talents and mid-level management professionals in organizations highlight a desire to explore careers in the DEI space, it is imperative that companies prioritize the experience of DEI leaders to avoid continued attrition and lack of job satisfaction. If we are to maintain pace though, there are a few key tips that up-and-coming future DEI executives can exercise to excel in this space and drive progress:

  • Fully Integrate and Embed DEI Strategy into Global Corporate Strategy: Long term viability and sustainability of DEI programs requires systemic embedment of DEI practices and approaches into ways of working in organizations. The DEI strategy cannot be an independent and autonomous unit; rather, it must be integrated into the broad corporate strategy to credibly challenge the system and advance the work congruently across HR, Marketing/Brand, Product, Technology, and other business units. Neglecting this often leads to deprioritizing of resources, lack of shared accountability, and reduced executive leadership engagement, specifically during times of economic downturn and a perception of an easing of external social pressures.
  • Invest in Yourself: Like practitioners in any field (legal, medical, engineering, etc.), continued investment in DEI skills and knowledge is necessary to honing your expertise. Amidst the hustle and grind of what at times feels like social firefighting, it is vital that you continue to expand your core and expanded competencies in this space whether through advanced intercultural communication or studying the philosophy of equity in greater depth, this will help to elevate your experience as a global business leader.
  • Prioritize Your Own Mental Health and Wellbeing: As the age-old airline adage goes, ‘Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others’. In many cases, DEI practitioners have lived experience of the same trauma rooted in so many -isms and -phobias that we are seeking to mitigate in our workplaces. On an ongoing basis, practitioners take on the deeply emotional narratives and experiences of discrimination, microaggressions, harassment and more that employees might be feeling at work. This leaves DEI leaders emotionally drained and forced to compartmentalize personal experiences and often unable to navigate our own emotions on certain topics. Prioritizing your wellbeing and exploring mediation, therapy like that Adult mental health therapy specifically, and other tools is critical to positioning you in the right headspace to effectively lead and steward this vital work.

Although many have posited that progress seems to have stalled on corporate commitments in this space, I remain cautiously optimistic as several brands are continuing to move the agenda forward at a realistic pace. While at times this work can feel daunting, overwhelming, and even lonely, DEI practitionership is exciting work that with the right resourcing and authentic commitment can change lives and experiences at work and beyond. And this the exact intent of my firm The Rainbow Disruption-to democratize and spread the impact of this work to reconcile so many social ills and ensure that the good people win.

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