How to Become a Chief Diversity Officer - Senior Executive

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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Career Resources 6 min

How to Become a Chief Diversity Officer

Corporate diversity leadership roles are growing in volume and prominence. The paths to becoming a DEI leader are varied.

by Dawit Habtemariam on April 7, 2022


  • The job market for chief diversity officers has surged in recent years

  • Many corporate diversity leaders have an HR background

  • There’s not yet a widely-sought professional certification specifically for chief diversity officers

The job market for corporate diversity leaders — whether called chief diversity officers; or chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officers; or senior vice president of diversity — has been heating up these past few years. The share of C-suite hires that were chief diversity and inclusion officers soared 111% year-over-year in 2021, way up from 84% year over year in 2020, according to LinkedIn. In 2020, job openings for DEI executive and leadership roles more than doubled, according to Glassdoor.

Some of these roles were created as part of heightened awareness of racial injustice brought on by the murder of George Floyd and many others in 2020. Companies made serious commitments to DEI and needed new leaders to develop and roll out bold initiatives. “In the summer of 2020, [among] companies and humans around the world, there was a kind of an amplified focus on this work in the diversity space because of the murder of George Floyd, all the social unrest,” says Kraft Heinz chief learning and diversity officer Pamay Bassey

Many companies appointed their first chief diversity officers in 2020. “We made a number of commitments. One of those commitments was to amplify the work we were doing in diversity and inclusion. My role became chief learning and diversity officer [in October],” says Bassey, who started at Kraft Heinz as chief learning officer in December 2018.

Many companies had preexisting DEI initiatives but decided they needed a full-time executive to guide and implement a broader DEI strategy. “When I joined the company [in December 2020], we weren’t starting from scratch in our DEI journey. We had employee resource groups in place, for example, and there had been different initiatives happening in the organization,” says Nadine Augusta, real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Previously, she was Goldman Sachs Americas’ head of diversity and inclusion. “My goal was really to implement a global DEI strategy that will serve to guide us on our journey forward.”

At smaller and newer companies, DEI efforts are usually folded into other roles until the company is large enough to support a dedicated DEI role. In August 2021, for example, VaynerX, a growing media company founded in 2016 and with over 100 employees, appointed Vanessa Vining as its first chief diversity officer. “There was a need to have someone in this type of role within the organization as they continue to grow and to flourish. They wanted to make sure that diversity permeated throughout their organization,” she says.

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Skills and Training Needed to Be a Chief Diversity Officer

Most job postings for chief diversity officers require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but there’s not yet a widely-sought professional certification specifically for chief diversity officers. “There’s no degree anywhere for diversity, equity and inclusion. They’re just now even developing certification,” says Myra Briggs, managing director of Audeliss, an executive search firm for diverse talent. “The skill, the knowledge set just isn’t out there formalized to the point where people can certify it, or put a degree on it or anything else like that.”

Related article: Execs, Test Your DEI IQ

Even at big-name companies, experience as a chief diversity officer at a smaller firm isn’t a prerequisite. Only 18% of the chief diversity officers at S&P 500 companies were chief diversity officers in a previous role, according to management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

Still, DEI experience of some sort helps tremendously when applying for chief diversity officer roles, and it’s best if it’s reflected in your title at your current role even if you’re juggling other duties. “Make sure you get the title. Get the title — diversity, equity and inclusion manager, director or whatever it happens to be,” Briggs says. “When we’re recruiting, we’re recruiting based upon the title a lot of the time in the beginning, if there’s not a network connection.”

What most helps candidates for chief diversity officer roles is having extensive experience working with people. “Any position that is consistently working with people, and is tasked with picking up on trends throughout your organization, as it relates to people…have the backgrounds that folks have as a chief diversity officer,” says Briggs.

Chief diversity officers most often have a background in human resources. “Looking at all significant past roles, HR remains a common starting point for many diversity leaders,” according to Russell Reynolds Associates. People with such backgrounds might have experience with training, learning and development, hiring practices and surveys — common responsibilities of a chief diversity officer.

In addition to HR executives, chief talent officers also often migrate internally into the role of chief diversity officer, says Briggs. “Those are some of the places that I’m seeing the chief diversity officers emerging from, and normally what happens is they have organically been pulled into the work by their current company,” says Briggs.

Before becoming New York Life’s chief diversity officer and head of talent management in 2015, Kathleen Navarro served as vice president of New York Life’s life and long-term care department, where she was in charge of HR there. By 2015, she was working very closely with talent management and talent acquisition operations across all of HR and transitioned into the chief diversity officer role.

Individuals from HR and similar departments also have the advantage of hands-on experience analyzing employee data. “The reason that these different role profiles are sort of shoo-ins for the chief diversity officer is because they have a keen ability to evaluate the cross-section between quantitative and qualitative data,” Briggs says. “What a lot of people don’t know is that at the chief diversity officer level, there’s a lot to do with data evaluation, numbers and really being able to tell us what the survey means.” Being able to derive and bring to life narratives from data is essential, she says.

How to Become a Chief Diversity Officer Without HR Experience

Someone can be promoted to the chief diversity officer role if they have a track record of actively participating in their company’s employee resource groups, DE&I councils, DEI workshops or other initiatives.

For example, at global PR firm MikeWorldWide (MWW), Amber Micala Arnold was the account director of corporate communications before becoming its vice president of DEI in October 2020. In 2018, Arnold had founded MWW’s DE&I Council.

Maureen O’Neill, senior vice president of strategic client experience and the diversity and inclusion officer for law tech firm Consilio, was previously an SVP of strategic engagement. “When I became part of the Consilio family [in 2018], l learned that it had just formed a diversity and inclusion program, so I raised my hand and asked to get involved,” O’Neill says. “I had the privilege of stepping into the role of our diversity and inclusion officer in January 2021 when my predecessor left.”

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