The Chief Diversity Officer Role Is Rapidly Evolving: What It Really Takes to Succeed

After a five-year tenure at Nike, Jarvis Sam left the company in late November, just six months into his role as chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer.

To outsiders, it might have seemed like Sam gave up the jackpot: an influential role at the world’s biggest footwear brand, where he oversaw some of the company’s most impactful inclusion efforts, such as an apprenticeship initiative aimed at promoting diversity in design and a program that hires retired WNBA players into Nike jobs.

But Sam’s desire to broaden his impact in the DEI sector — something deeply personal to the openly gay and Black leader — was pulling him in another direction.

“Our goal is not necessarily to be aligned and stick with one brand forever, at least not in my philosophy of how I do the work,” Sam told FN in an interview. “I view this work as heavily aligned to change agency.” Sam now works with various companies and leaders (some retail related) via his recently launched DEI consulting and strategy group, The Rainbow Disruption.

As the third person to leave the chief diversity officer role at Nike since 2020, Sam’s quick departure spoke to a trend among chief diversity officers. That is, they don’t tend to stay very long. The average tenure for CDOs was just 3.4 years in 2022, according to leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates. To Sam, these short tenures can be a byproduct of a highly change-oriented job. “With any [transformative] role, there has to be a moment of transition,” he said. “Because at some point, the systemic change should become the reality of experiences.”

Not every CDO story is as positive. According to a 2022 survey of professionals from consulting firm Korn Ferry, 35% of respondents said their leaders don’t adequately support the role of the CDO and diversity efforts overall. According to Tina Shah Paikeday, Russell Reynolds’ global head of the DEI practice, some companies might hire a diversity officer “with good intentions,” but fail to give them enough resources as they would any other function, which can also drive turnover.

“Therefore, those chief diversity officers aren’t able to make the kind of change that they’re looking for,” said Paikeday.

It could also be a question of supply and demand for an increasingly desired role. Between 2018 and 2022, the percentage of S&P 500 companies with a CDO role jumped from below half of those firms to 75%, Russell Reynolds found.

“What we’re seeing is a true increase in demand with a limited supply of people who have the expertise and reps under their belt to be able to do this,” said Paikeday.

Given these factors, retail companies that best support the role via funding, manpower and access to top leadership have the best shot of attracting — and retaining — top DEI talent.

What makes a successful CDO?

Colleen Mitchell, who arrived at Nordstrom in August as a senior director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, said she’s lucky to have the data, resources and funding she needs to do her job at Nordstrom. She reports to Nordstrom HR chief Farrell Redwine and oversees a team of four people focused on diversity. She also has access to the company’s internal data to help measure opportunities and progress and gets face-time with CEO Erik Nordstrom, who is the executive sponsor of DEI.

“For a chief diversity officer, that’s a chef’s kiss,” Mitchell said. “It really is an ideal situation.”

Mitchell, who previously served as the head of DEI at Petco and held a similar role in Amazon’s global customer fulfillment division, said she was attracted to Nordstrom because of the company’s existing infrastructure. Nordstrom in 2020 outlined a set of concrete DEI goals, including increasing Black and Latinx representation in people manager roles by 50% by the end of 2025. Having this framework meant Mitchell’s role would focus more on the implementation of predetermined metrics rather than creating — and petitioning for — an entirely new program from scratch. It also meant Nordstrom was willing to invest funds and hiring power to bolster this unit.

“One person who’s underfunded and under-resourced is not going to solve the organization’s problem,” said Mitchell. “Organizations need to enable a person in this role to help the organization and all of us get there together.”

Diversity is a business imperative

At the corporate level, many companies are beginning to see DEI as a business imperative, which further cements the CDO as a position of broad influence at an organization. “We’re doing it not just because it’s a ‘good business’ thing to do; we’re doing it because it’s important to our business,” explained Craig Rowley, a senior client partner in the consumer sector for Korn Ferry. “Particularly in retail, you need to make sure that your organization understands diversity, because that’s who your customer is.”

This mindset impacts how companies organize their DEI functions. Are they siloed to the HR side of the business or do they work in tandem with business leaders across sales, merchandising and marketing? More and more, as investors, customers and consumers pressure companies to disclose and improve diversity efforts, the connection between DEI and business performance is strengthening.

“[Corporate] boards are very focused on culture,” said Janice Reals Ellig, founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Alongside business performance, boards are scrutinizing programs and progress, which further emphasizes the impact of a DEI leader. Meanwhile, boards are also diversifying themselves as they aim to reach gender parity and racial diversity as well.

David Casey, who joined Tapestry in May as its first chief inclusion and social impact officer, said he sees his role through a business lens. “I lead with the fact that I am at the table as a business leader, just like any other business leader,” said Casey, who joined Tapestry after more than a decade leading DEI at CVS Health. Casey reports to the global chief people officer and indirectly reports to the CEO and board of directors at Tapestry. This level of access, he explained, is crucial to effect change across the entire company.

“The CEO should have visibility into the role, and this role should have access to that level of the organization,” Casey said. Not every company has its CDO report directly to the CEO, but Mitchell and Sam agreed that having access to these leaders is vital to make substantive progress.

CDOs have a unique perspective

If DEI is a business imperative, it can be helpful for leaders in this sector to understand the intricacies of their company. Given the relatively recent surge in demand for leaders in this role, CDOs often enter the field with prior experience from a different or adjacent sector in the organization, such as retail sales, talent or supply chain.

Lauren Guthrie, the VP of global inclusion, diversity, equity, action and talent development at VF Corp., said her prior merchandising experience — and ability to measure progress with a business mindset — is an asset when it comes to succeeding in her role. Guthrie officially started working in DEI in 2020, when she felt compelled to speak up about her experience as a Black woman and mother in the workforce during a challenging period of racial reckoning across corporate America. She had previously led an employee resource group at VF meant to support multicultural diversity, while working in a merchandising function.

In her prior roles, connecting with consumers across a spectrum of identities was essential. Now, Guthrie has found it is also the basis of her position in DEI. “Merchandising is an advocacy role; it requires a lot of empathy,” she said. “So much of that is what we’re trying to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity and equity.”

Guthrie’s background is not an outlier. Before her DEI role at Nordstrom, Mitchell worked in operations. Macy’s CDO Shawn Outler came from licensed businesses, food services and multicultural development. And at Kohl’s, chief DEI officer Michelle Banks got her start as an assistant store manager, which she said made her naturally more inclined to approach the role from a business perspective.

“My natural instinct is to drive top-line sales,” Banks explained during a panel at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in January. “Coming into a diversity role, the thing that was really important for me was to help everyone understand that diversity, equity and inclusion is the right thing to do. But there’s a business imperative attached to it if we’re going to be able to be relevant to the customer moving forward.”

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