Are Diversity and Inclusion leaders an endangered species?

17 July, 2017
Fleur Bothwick

My co-author Charlotte Sweeney and I have recently been guests on a radio show called Out of the Comfort Zone which is hosted by Dr Wanda Wallace (you can listen to the radio show at ).  Our episode is one of the most downloaded from the station – showing a real interest in this area.  

The topics Wanda chooses are aimed at helping managers move from being subject experts to leading a team of experts – often quite a hard transition to do successfully.  I think it’s quite usual to feel vulnerable when making that step up to leadership.  I can remember when I took on my role of D&I lead for EMEIA I really struggled with its ‘strategic’ nature.  In the previous job I could measure my success/impact quite specifically – e.g., last year I rolled out a sponsorship programme for 50 high potential women; 200 Partners attended Inclusive Leadership training; we launched a new accessibility policy.  In my EMEIA role I am influencing others to do the delivery, so what’s my value now – I believe many looking in, often the people who are assessing us, under estimate what it takes to be a good D&I lead.

Certainly the average head-hunter doesn’t understand – too often I take a call from a researcher who talks about a ‘new, challenging global D&I role, etc., etc.’, which turns out to be reporting to a relatively junior leader and paying the equivalent of a top secretarial salary (and no offence to secretaries).  I was reminded of this again at a global network event that I attended.  A D&I lead from an insurance company was there and during a group discussion she said with great confidence that all you needed to do a good D&I job was to have access to data and people insights.  This took me right back to the reason that Charlotte and I decided to write our book.  There are far too many people in the system that think they can do a great D&I role because they are passionate about something – gender, the LGBT agenda, social mobility, you name it.   Passion does not equip you to be an effective D&I leader.

What you need is a number of skills and at the top of my list would be experience of change management, an understanding of the business, an ability to influence at all levels and most important, resilience!  The Conference Board developed a really helpful competency model which I often share with colleagues who are keen to get in to D&I.  

It is made up of seven categories and their related competencies:

  1. Change Management - Organizational Development; Corporate Communication; Critical Interventions
  2. Diversity, Inclusion, and Global Perspective - Cultural Competence; Negotiation and Facilitation; Continuous Learning; Complex Group Dynamics; Judgment and Subject Matter Expertise
  3. Business Acumen - External Market Knowledge; Holistic Business Knowledge; Diversity and Inclusion ROI (Return on Investment)
  4. Strategic External Relations - Corporate Social Responsibility; Government / Regulatory; Strategic Alliances; Diverse Markets/Supplier Diversity; Brand / Reputation Management
  5. Integrity – Ethics; Resilience; Influence; Empathy; Communication
  6. Visionary & Strategic Leadership - Diversity & Inclusion Future State;  Pragmatism; Political Savoir-Faire (At HQ and Local Levels)
  7. HR Disciplines - Total Rewards / Talent Management / Organisational Development / Work and Life Balance / Training;Compliance;  Employee Relations

This is a pretty impressive list and I would argue that to be truly effective, you do need all of the above, but I’m not good at what I do because I’m a woman so understand the female population; or that I have an autistic son so understand neuro –diversity; or that I’m a working mother so understand the challenge of work and life integration.  Yes, it all informs my understanding, drives my empathy and fuels my commitment to make change, but without the skills and experience that I have developed throughout my career, I wouldn’t be able to effectively tackle the change agenda that comes with the job.  Good D&I leaders are not an endangered species, but we do need to make more noise about the value that we bring to the role.  

As Charlotte says in our book ‘You wouldn’t give someone who is passionate about spreadsheets the role of finance director just because of their passion, so why is the bar positioned so low at times when looking for a D&I professional?’.