What it Takes to Be an Effective Leader

Two experts examine how chief diversity officers effect real change

Redia Anderson and Lenora Billings-Harris, both of whom have a long and nationally recognized history in diversity work, have collaborated to write Trailblazers: How Top Business Leaders Are Accelerating Results Through Inclusion and Diversity (Wiley; $27.95). The book provides a look at best practices as demonstrated by some of the most influential chief diversity officers in corporate business. The authors have identified professionals from companies that include Shell Oil Co., Verizon Communications Inc., Ford Motor Co., American Airlines Inc., and IBM. Anderson shares her thoughts about their work.

What can readers expect to get from this book that’s different from others on diversity?
To my knowledge, this is the first book on diversity written by someone who has been a CDO and written from that perspective. So, one of the big differences is the practical insights and tips around what you can do to implement inclusion and diversity … so that it lives and resonates, and so that people get the sense that it’s part of the culture. To do that, what are some of the behaviors that you as a leader should be involved in? If you’re a CEO, what is your role and responsibility in terms of engaging the rest of the organization and holding them accountable for results? If you’re an individual within the organization [and] you’re not sure how to plug in, this book will give you some very practical ways you can get involved.

What are some of the biggest obstacles to following through on the intentions of making diversity a part of the company culture?
In this kind of work, there is rarely a silver bullet. That being said, I think one of the biggest obstacles is not having a clear strategy around what you are trying to achieve. You can’t boil the ocean. There may be a lot of things you want to do, but you must focus on the one, two, or three things you’re going to do over the next couple of years, see results, and then move on to some of the other things that need to get done. You must have a long-range view and understand what your business strategy is and how diversity and inclusion tie into that. Is it through marketing, talent management, or community involvement?

Where do you want to put your focus? It doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive, but you do need to have a finite number of small things that you are going to address and then go after them.

What determines how influential the chief diversity officer is in an organization?
Having positional authority, particularly those who report to the CEO—they are part of the C-suite. They understand fully what the expectations are around how to drive diversity goals; they are part of the leadership team. They go after running their business the same way [any other] business unit manager would go after driving his or her business. They understand what’s required to move things through their culture. They have a keen business sense and understand the market they’re in—which is critical to their success and ability to influence others. The CDOs we interviewed are not wallflowers; they’re not faint of heart. They are not people who sit back and wish things were different. These are individuals who are the conscience of the organization, who expect and believe that they can make a difference.

That focus must come through solid business objectives. Isn’t that correct?
If diversity and inclusion is some standalone thing outside the mainstream of how you do business, then it’s not going to help your business to be profitable. All business objectives are directed to satisfy customers and clients and help the business grow. If diversity is not part of that operations agenda in the same way—how is it adding to our business growth? How are we managing our talent so that we can meet client needs?—then you have a fundamental problem.

We’ve often heard that it’s important to monitor, measure, and reward evidence of inclusion, but would the CDOs you interviewed penalize, remove, or dismantle what may seem to be ineffective diversity structures or behaviors?
People like to be recognized when they do a good job. The trailblazers we talk to in this book tend to lead from a standpoint of rewarding people for heading in the right direction. They focus on rewarding and recognizing individuals and those parts of the organization that are doing things well and then make sure that that is showing up in the compensation. You also have to talk about who is making progress. If you’re making progress, you’d rather report that. If you had an executive who was not actively engaged in the change management efforts, the CDOs would see that as an obligation and requirement to help that person put a plan in place.

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