Hail the new chief

Chief diversity officer role has clout and direct pipeline to CEO

The chief diversity officer is becoming a more popular role in the United States. It exists in a range of Fortune 500 companies, from Johnson & Johnson and Aon, to American Express and Citi, to GE and Lehman Brothers. These leaders have clout, big budgets, high-calibre staff, and they report to the CEO or the executive committee, according to the New York-based Center for Work Life Policy.

In Canada, the position is still the exception rather than the rule. In fact, Jane Allen, a partner with professional services firm Deloitte in Toronto, is the only chief diversity officer (CDO) Canadian HR Reporter could find.

“My mandate is to ensure that we have a diversity strategy that’s linked to our business strategy,” says Allen.

The main focus of the diversity strategy is to attract and retain the best talent, she says.

“Our only business is the talent of our people. We don’t manufacture anything, we don’t sell products — we sell our people. If we don’t have the very best people, then we won’t be able to grow our business.”

Allen, who has worked for Deloitte for 12 years, took on the newly minted role of CDO in January while maintaining her responsibilities as the lead partner for the firm’s power and utilities consulting practice.

While it’s not uncommon for the CDO to be responsible for a business function as well as diversity, it can be overwhelming for one individual, says Laura Hertzog, acting director of equal opportunity and diversity and inclusion programs at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) School in New York.

“For people who have these jobs, their day jobs are very intense,” she says. “What tends to get sacrificed is the diversity part of the portfolio unless you give them sufficient support.”

At Deloitte, the greater emphasis is always given to the diversity role, says Allen, but maintaining her client duties is an important part of helping her understand the role of diversity in the business.

“We felt it was important for a partner in the firm to continue to have one foot in the marketplace and working with clients so that I maintain a good understanding of what our clients and people are working on day to day,” she says.

Allen has a team of two managers and a half-time associate partner who work with her on the diversity portfolio. She also works closely with the marketing communications group as well as the diversity council, comprising 18 people assigned by the CEO, which advises senior management on diversity issues.

Part of the firm’s diversity strategy is to ensure all talent management processes — recruitment, promotion, performance reviews, succession planning — are done through a diversity lens, says Allen.

“We want to identify the people who can really make a difference, the real decision makers, the real influencers, and hold them accountable for acting in a manner that encourages a culture of diversity,” she says. “When we promote people, we want to ensure that the definition of a leader includes a sensitivity to, and understanding of, diversity.”

While Allen reports directly to Deloitte’s CEO, the reporting structure for a CDO can vary from organization to organization. However, it works best when the CDO reports directly to a top executive, says Hertzog.

“If the company is trying to give the perspective that this position is integral to the business, I think it helps get that done if you have the person reporting to a senior business leader,” says Hertzog, who ran a CDO roundtable at the ILR school (see sidebar).

The CDO is responsible for guiding efforts that help nurture and develop diversity in the organization and, as such, the position’s responsibilities reach into every part of the business.

One of the key responsibilities of the CDO is to look at the core HR policies that pervade the company’s culture that are, very often, holdovers from a time when the majority of the workforce were white men, says Karen Sumberg, assistant vice-president of communications at the Center for Work Life Policy. The CDO must then look at changing these policies so they are more mindful and encouraging of a diverse workforce.

“The rise in companies having the chief diversity officer shows they’re placing a new importance on diversity. With talent shortages coming up, with boomers retiring, talent management becomes a key issue,” says Sumberg.

While the CDO title can carry a lot of clout, in different organizations different titles carry different levels of respect. In some, director is the second highest title someone can hold while, in others, executive vice-president connotes C-suite status.

“You need to make sure whatever the title is, that it is in congruence with your organization’s own structures to tell people that this is being taken seriously,” says Hertzog. “In your organization you may need to say ‘chief diversity officer’ because you’re very serious about this and other people don’t take things seriously unless they have the word ‘chief’ in front of them.”

Michael Bach, who is based in Toronto, is the director of diversity for KPMG Canada and the head of diversity for KPMG Global. Bach is a former manager in KPMG’s IT consulting practice and has held the director of diversity role since its inception two years ago. He has a staff of three people and reports to both the chief HR officer and the CEO.

“I’m here to remove barriers. At the core, we want everyone to be able to bring their whole self to work and we want everyone to feel they have the ability to succeed regardless of anything other than their ability to do their job,” says Bach.

Through training, education, communication and community outreach, Bach’s role is to help create an inclusive culture. This extends to every aspect of the business, including ensuring candidates are representative of the community and the work environment is welcoming to all groups, says Bach.

“It’s about getting everyone to think about diversity in everyday life in everything they do,” he says.

Like Allen at Deloitte, Richard Venn wears two hats. He has been CIBC’s national diversity champion for the past three years (the role has existed for about eight years) and he is the bank’s senior executive vice-president in charge of corporate development.

In each business unit throughout CIBC, there are employment equity and diversity committees that meet quarterly to review representation numbers and the plans and programs in place to increase diversity. There is also an annual congress to bring people together from across the business to discuss diversity issues, says Venn.

Unlike Allen, Venn doesn’t have a staff to help him with the diversity portfolio. Instead, he provides support for each of the people who are responsible for diversity in the business groups and connects them to the CEO and the rest of the senior leadership team.

What's on the CDO resumé
Skills to look for in a CDO

Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School established a chief diversity officer (CDO) roundtable in 2006. The roundtable developed a list of competencies for CDOs, which it will release this summer.

Among the top competencies is the ability to be an advocate and the ability to understand and make the connection between the firm’s diversity efforts and financial profitability, says Laura Hertzog, acting director of equal opportunity and diversity and inclusion programs at the school.

Regardless of the CDO’s professional background, she needs to be flexible and be able to communicate with a variety of audiences, with the ultimate goal of making diversity initiatives part of the business and not just a stand-alone program, says Hertzog.

Latest stories