It’s no secret that Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) throughout the country are struggling. In many cases, the issues they face are forcing them to walk away from their organizations less than two years after taking on their roles (for comparison, the average tenure of a CEO is five years).
The reasons for this are as numerous as they are sobering. CDOs rarely have the same decision-making authority as other executives in the C-Suite. They are often paid far less and have much smaller budgets available to them. Many CDOs also feel isolated, particularly from their CEOs.
The list of challenges doesn’t end there: CDO positions are often created haphazardly, without a clear understanding of their objectives and responsibilities. When they try to draw attention to problems within their organizations, they are frequently ignored or even ostracized. And, if and when they do leave, many organizations simply hire someone else to fill their spot, without considering why they left in the first place—let alone making any attempt to fix those issues.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that so many CDOs are throwing in the towel. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you are a CDO, there are steps you can take to set yourself and your program up for success, even if it seems like everyone around you is setting you up for failure.
What you will learn:
The Snowball Effect
Most CDOs come to their positions determined to make massive change. When change doesn’t happen on the scale or timeline they hoped for, disillusionment and hopelessness can set in.
We have found, however, that when CDOs shift their mindsets, they are better equipped to stave off these negative feelings. That is why we often recommend that our clients—and you, if you are a CDO—focus on taking advantage of “the snowball effect”: a situation where something increases in size or importance at a faster and faster rate.
In essence, that means asking yourself what you can affect in each interaction. Where is your power? Whom can you team up with to start rolling that snowball down the hill? While it’s easy to dismiss making small changes as settling for incrementalism, enough of them over a long-enough timeframe will add up to truly substantial change.
One reason for this is that, as you start to make more and more changes—small as they may feel in the moment—you will begin to get a reputation as someone who can make an impact, even when the deck is stacked against you. When that happens, you will likely get more responsibility and more power to fulfill that responsibility. Put another way, the snowball will really start rolling.
Use the RIR Protocol
“Okay,” you’re probably thinking. “That’s all well and good, but where do I start? What sort of steps can I take to create change, especially since I don’t have support from my leadership?” Good questions. Our recommendation: Start by mastering the RIR Protocol.
The RIR Protocol (RIR stands for recognize, interrupt, repair) is a tool that will empower you to create a safe space, which will create a ripple effect throughout your organization. And, because the Protocol is effective whether or not other people in your organization are familiar with it, it becomes a tool that you can use anytime you (or another employee) feel triggered.
The first step of the Protocol is to recognize how you feel when someone says or does something that offends or hurts you. Name the emotions that come up to yourself. If you are working with someone who has experienced a triggering comment or act, you can guide them to identify the emotions they are experiencing, as well.
Then, interrupt what’s happening. While this can be done in several ways, asking the other person why they said what they said or did what they did—and approaching that question from a place of authentic curiosity—will allow you both to begin exploring what happened in a safe way. Again, you can coach others to do this, too.
Finally, move to the repair phase. In other words, find a way to move forward so you feel comfortable continuing to engage with the other person. Perhaps that means asking them to get a coffee with you and talking about a neutral topic. Maybe it means sharing more of your feelings and thoughts about what happened with them over lunch. Whatever your repair looks like, this step is crucial to creating trust and fostering healthy lines of communication.
Get Your Energy Back
If you’re like many CDOs, you are close to burning out (if you aren’t already there). Cornell Verdeja-Woodson expressed this feeling—and the reasons for it—perfectly in a LinkedIn post he shared about a year ago. In it, he said, “Fighting to have your work valued, to have your voice heard, and wanting people to care about DEI as an important business imperative is so exhausting. I’m tired of fighting with these organizations!”
We understand. In fact, we have felt that way ourselves. When you feel like you are facing an uphill battle and not getting any wins, it’s exhausting! But, with the RIR Protocol, you do get wins. Even better, as you master the Protocol, you will find—as we ourselves have found, and as so many of our clients have found—that negative interactions become less and less draining.
This is not to dismiss how difficult your role as a CDO is. But, the Protocol can help you shift from feeling like you have to constantly fight to feeling like you can collaborate and find common ground. This will help you both protect your mental and physical health and maintain the energy you need to keep moving forward. Best of all, you can support others at your organization to do the same.
And, since the Protocol is free and doesn’t rely on the other person to work, it is accessible no matter what your budget is or how supportive your organization’s leadership is. Keep practicing the Protocol, and eventually, your snowballs will turn into an avalanche.
One Spoonful at a Time
Desmond Tutu said it best: “There is only one way to eat an elephant—a bite at a time.” In other words, when something seems daunting or impossible, the best way to tackle it is by focusing on doing a little at a time.
When it comes to your role as a CDO, nothing could be truer. Hold onto the realization that even if they feel incremental, small but strategic changes create big results.
Think about it: In 1964, landmark legislation legally ended institutional segregation in this country. In 2008, our nation elected its first Black President. In 2015, same-sex marriage became federally legal. And in 2020, the first female, first Asian-American, and first Black Vice President of the United States took her oath of office.
These big changes, along with so many others, only came about because millions of people were willing to take small steps, day in and day out, in their own small spheres of influence. And, they were willing to keep taking those steps, even when their actions felt futile. As hard as it can be, to make an impact, you must do the same.
Remember: With the RIR Protocol, you no longer are fighting this battle alone. Because it is a tool that fosters healthy communication and deepens collaboration, it allows you to involve other people in creating change. That magnifies your impact and helps you become more resilient to the challenges facing you. Bottom line, by modeling the Protocol and guiding other people in your organization to use it, you can help foster the culture of equity and justice you’ve been striving for all along.