Image of four executive colleagues talking in office.

A large sector of the corporate world remains stuck in compliance-focused DEI despite the efforts of their chief diversity officers to move forward. Those in CDO positions recognize that their C-suite colleagues are often the barriers to corporate DEI initiatives. 

How do we dismantle these barriers so diversity professionals can do their jobs effectively? How do we build authentic executive sponsorship of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts? 

WMFDP | FDP Global offers cutting-edge, bespoke training opportunities to address these challenges. Our DEI&B Professionals Learning Cohort empowers diversity professionals to engage and communicate with senior white male leaders in their company. And the Leadership Accelerator Series guides C-suite executives through the work of acting out their DEI sponsorship. Contact us today to learn more.

Applying a Project Management Model for Systemic Change

White men hold nearly 90% of Fortune 500 CEO positions, leaving the corporate power structure still staggeringly white and male:

“…no Fortune 500 company board fully represents the demographic population in the United States.” Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity 

With this stark fact to contend with, how can an organization’s executives and diversity professionals work together for change? How can they recognize and remove the DEI barriers that have historically been put in place by the C-suite leaders? How do non-diverse boards and CEOs implement their sponsorship to include an increasingly diverse workforce? 

Barriers to corporate DEI often include white male executives who don't support their diversity professionals.

For answers to these questions, we look to an existing corporate process: project management.

In project management, the executive sponsor owns the following tasks:

  • Setting expectations and plans that align with the organization’s overarching mission and stated goals
  • Ongoing interdepartmental communication and buy-in to keep everyone on the same page
  • Advocating for and facilitating access to resources and funding to keep the project moving forward

Executive ownership of these responsibilities is critical in DEI. 

Without it, your C-suite leaders become obstacles to change. Without it, your diversity colleagues are left untethered from the company’s mission, growth and success. 

However, when CDOs advocate for themselves with assurance, and leaders act on their sponsorship with confidence, DEI efforts remain anchored and move forward without barriers. 

Executive sponsorship of DEI is far more than compliance and checkboxes. It’s a heartfelt commitment to long-term, sustainable efforts that create a sense of belonging for everyone in the organization. And it helps executive teams and their diversity colleagues create clarity, consistency, collaboration and consensus.

Let’s look at how this relationship can work from both perspectives.

CDO Role: Securing Executive Sponsorship from the C-Suite

Diversity professionals often have a challenging task when it comes to getting executive buy-in and collaboration for DEI initiatives. They face a lack of communication, resources and access to the stakeholders and decision-makers. 

Image of Black executive woman at desk, frustrated.

And if key leadership is white and male while the CDO is not, access is even more elusive. It devolves into insiders vs. outsiders. As a diversity professional, you have a hefty responsibility. You also have a powerful platform if there is meaningful and authentic action from the leadership. 

How do you engage with the executive team – likely mostly white men – in hard conversations around race, gender and identity? How do you guide their efforts to align with yours in building a workplace that fosters belonging? How do you help them move past fear and uncertainty and stagnation?

Here are some crucial steps to move your organization past DEI barriers:

Establish a Team Mindset

Your role as the CDO cannot create organization-wide change on its own. That obligation cannot rest on one person’s shoulders. You need and deserve to have all decision-makers in the conversation as you set goals and make plans to reach them. 

Approach all of the stakeholders together to present this work as a team effort where everyone is striving to meet the same objectives for the company. Although you’ll likely have one direct report as your work continues, initial planning and goal-setting conversations need full executive buy-in.

Acknowledge How Challenging the Work Is

Image of Black woman speaking seriously to colleagues.

The corporate world rarely celebrates or rewards vulnerability in its leaders. Yet, DEI work demands precisely that. Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts require a humble spirit and a willingness to learn uncomfortable truths – this is not the typical space executives like to inhabit.

As the diversity professional in your organization, take the time to acknowledge the challenges and fears that are part of this learning process. Be proactive, bold and insistent about what you need to accomplish your stated goals. At the same time, be vocal in recognizing that this is hard work, and you’re in it together.

Talk Money

At the end of the day, revenue and profit reign supreme in the corporate world. Companies must examine each action’s impact on the bottom line. 

Fortunately, the link between a diverse, inclusive workplace and profitability is clear. Prepare yourself with the relevant financial stats and their implications for your company so that your communication with the C-suite team is speaking their language. When you demonstrate the strong connection between DEI and profit, you are more likely to receive the funding and resources you need.

Surround Yourself with Support

Diversity professionals experience high levels of turnover, and it’s no surprise. Their work is emotional and often overwhelming, and it’s one of the few roles that touches every part of an organization. 

Image of woman leaving office with box of belongings.

Connecting with a community of others in the same space offers support and encouragement as you navigate this job. Joining a cohort of diversity colleagues allows you to share ideas and troubleshoot concerns to help avoid burnout.

The WMFDP | FDP Global DEI&B (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) Professionals Learning Cohort provides just this level of community support and understanding. We help you identify ways to engage with C-suite leadership in a way that is productive and safe.

Now, let’s shift to the other side of this relationship, the C-suite leadership.

C-Suite Role: Executive Sponsorship for DEI Efforts

If your CDO or other diversity professionals need to come begging for resources, buy-in or communication to move initiatives forward, there’s a problem. If they feel unheard, unseen or as if they’re simply there to check the diversity box, then your DEI efforts are dead in the water. And you’re likely to lose that person altogether as they will seek employment elsewhere.

Things don’t have to remain this way. 

Courageous leaders take action in practical, meaningful ways to ensure they aren’t stumbling blocks or hindrances in crucial DEI work. And they do this even when they’re afraid of making mistakes. Bold leaders commit to the work and stay in the work to break the status quo. 

Image of diverse executives, collaborating and smiling.

To put your executive sponsorship into action, here are some critical steps to take:

Embrace Aligned Goal-Setting

Collaborate closely with your CDO or other diversity colleagues to set actionable DEI goals that align with your organization’s stated mission and objectives. Set clear targets for each leader, each department and the company as a whole, based on your CDO’s expertise.

Facilitate Clear Communication Among All Stakeholders

Reaching your organization’s goals requires ongoing, transparent communication. Seek your diversity expert’s input regularly and make it simple for them to remain in communication with you and other decision-makers. Your CDO should feel safe and welcome to reach out for clarification, support and facilitation.

Ensure Investment in and Access to Resources

As with anything in business, when it comes to DEI initiatives, money talks. 

Hiring a CDO or diversity expert is merely performative if you don’t create appropriate funding and resources that allow them to meet their goals. Executive sponsorship means putting your organization’s financial resources to work to achieve genuine culture change. 

Commit to investing in the following:

Image of diverse job candidates sitting together.

You cannot cultivate a place of belonging without investing in the resources to make it happen. And this investment is likely to pay excellent dividends in the form of talent retention, customer engagement and profitability.

Put Your Leadership in Action

If you’re not actively making systemic culture change, you’re not leading inclusively. You’re placing an outsized burden on your CDO and other diversity professionals. 

You deserve to feel empowered in this work, and you have the right to find your authentic voice as you do it. With facilitated support through programs such as the WMFDP | FDP Global Leadership Accelerator Series, you will translate your words into action. 

This powerful cohort experience transforms your team into committed agents of change within your workplace and beyond. Through courageous conversations and bold vulnerability, you learn how to partner with your DEI colleagues to create and sustain an inclusive, equitable work environment.

DEI Is Not Solo Work

Expert facilitators help you dismantle the barriers to corporate DEI. Image of smiling froup of coworkers in a seminar.

The overarching theme regarding barriers to corporate DEI is relationship. A company’s chief diversity officer cannot work in a vacuum, existing merely to check a compliance or PR box. The CDO, CEO and whole executive team must work in relationship with each other to do this vital work. However, this is much easier said than done without expert help. 

WMFDP | FDP Global offers unique cohort-style learning opportunities that allow you to identify the best ways to move the needle in your organization’s diversity efforts. We have options for executive leaders, diversity professionals and entire management teams. Our expert facilitators walk alongside you without shaming or blaming, allowing for authentic growth and engagement.

Connect with us today to learn more about these programs.