How to Help Your CEO Become a Leader in Diversity and Inclusion

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As the leader and often the face of a company or institutions, chief executive officers (CEOs) or presidents play a pivotal role in representing their organization during times of political and social strife. This includes understanding how issues in these areas may affect underrepresented or marginalized employees, customers, and stakeholders and how to support these individuals. A chief diversity officer (CDO) can be instrumental in helping to foster this understanding.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) recently conducted a pulse survey to gauge how U.S. corporations responded to the many social and political controversies that took place in 2017. The findings showed that nearly 65 percent of CEOs were key members of their organization’s rapid response teams when it came to addressing crises that touched upon broader issues of diversity and inclusion in society, such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.

However, just because a company’s or institution’s leader is willing to step up during such times does not mean that he or she understands — or is prepared to publicly address — the many nuances of diversity and inclusion and how these are intertwined with social and political issues. I have personally witnessed, as I’m sure many of you have, well-meaning senior executives say things regarding diversity and inclusion on a public platform that made me cringe. Some CEOs and presidents, for example, believe that simply hiring more women and minorities is what diversity is all about. People of color, underrepresented groups, and diversity advocates may detect these sentiments and assume the organization’s leadership just “does not get it.”

What CEOS Learn from CDOs
For these well-meaning individuals to become true advocates, spokespersons, and role models when it comes to supporting diverse employees, clients, and stakeholders, they need to understand the perspectives and challenges of different groups on a deep and personal level. This often requires working closely with a CDO who can help guide an organization’s leader in obtaining these viewpoints, as well as developing an understanding of his or her own biases.

In essence, it involves CDOs enabling and supporting their CEOs and presidents in having specific transformative experiences that result in a broader and deeper understanding of diversity and inclusion.

If all this sounds to you like a significant challenge, you are absolutely right.

The position of CDO is increasingly recognized as one of the hardest jobs in many industries, as it requires you to be an expert in tasks as varied as reimagining hiring processes and partnering across multiple divisions. I would add being an effective executive coach to that list. Diversity and inclusion coaching requires the ability to guide an individual through a process of self-discovery and personal betterment. In the case of the CDO – CEO coaching relationship, this means enabling and supporting a CEO to be a true champion of diversity and inclusion.

Steps Toward Understanding
Following are five steps CDOs can take to help a business leader achieve this goal.

Establish the need for coaching. Ask your CEO or president to take assessments, such as implicit association tests, designed to measure hidden biases. While not perfect, they provide a starting point for discussing potential areas of improvement. If possible, supplement these tests with surveys that ask employees and clients across various demographics to assess how much the CEO and the organization understand the challenges they face in the workplace and society. This can provide a realistic sense of where the CEO is in his or her journey towards being authentically inclusive.

Develop a plan. Determine specific areas to target for development. Let the CEO or president decide these with you. Ask him or her what changes he or she would like to see in light of the results of the assessments and surveys in the first step and what outcomes he or she hopes to achieve. Even if the area chosen is different from what you would select, there is always an opportunity to circle back to other topics as your new pupil grows in understanding of diversity and inclusion issues. Also determine at this time how often you will meet; ideally, you will have sessions at least once a month.

Prepare for each session. Prior to each coaching meeting, choose a specific area to work on (e.g., how employees view themselves as included or excluded in corporate culture) and provide concise teaching materials, such as short articles or TEDTalks. Provide an agenda for each meeting that includes time for topic exploration, application, and commitment.

Dig deep and always get a commitment. As a general rule, a CDO should speak less than 30 percent of the time during coaching sessions and should use most of that time asking questions. Ask the CEO or president what he or she learned from that day’s reading or video and how this information can be applied to the company. One of the most difficult but important steps is ensuring he or she is prepared to actively engage in the application of this knowledge rather than simply delegating authority to someone else. If the CEO decides a town hall meeting would be an effective way to hear the concerns of employees from underrepresented groups, for example, make sure the CEO plans to attend and engage in this meeting rather than leave it up to human resources.

Continue the process. As you end one coaching cycle, begin planning for another. This is also a good time to assess progress by such measures as retaking implicit association tests. Remember — and remind the individual being coached — that developing a more inclusive mindset and understanding diversity and inclusion principles is an ongoing, long-term progression.

As an executive coach, I can tell you that guiding CEOs and presidents through self-development and discovery is one of the most challenging responsibilities of being a CDO, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Helping a business leader become a true leader of diversity and inclusion positively impacts their entire organization, its clients, and the CEO or president as an individual.●

Joseph Santana is chairman of the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) Chief Diversity Officer Board and president of Joseph Santana, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information, visit This article published in our April 2018 issue.