Setting DEI Leaders Up For Success
Despite high demand for DEI leadership, these roles have recently been marked by a revolving door. Amid pressure on organizations to deal with racial division, less-than-inclusive environments for all genders, and broader inequities within the workforce, many organizations have been in a rush to hire DEI directors over the last few years.
Some organizations have opted to promote BIPOC employees to these positions, while others have created new roles for their brand without a clear vision around DEI. These roles have seen high turnover, many leaving for varied reasons, including:
- Lack of financial resource allocation
- Unrealistic expectations
- Inadequate support from senior executives
- Failure to grant decision-making power to new directors
Lack of Financial Resources
Many DEI leaders leave their roles because they lack the fiscal resources to help them perform optimally. Investment is an essential factor in cultural transformation, and failure to provide a budget for DEI leaders to undertake their responsibilities will undoubtedly lead to turnover. These leaders get the message that their organizational roles are unimportant, which is both demoralizing and demotivating.
Real change takes time. Many organizations hire DEI leaders hastily, hoping and believing that they will change years of marginalization within months. This is unrealistic, as these new leaders need to gain a foundational understanding of the inner dynamics of the organization before they can begin to make recommendations, gain buy-in and facilitate necessary changes.
The best way organizations can handle this is by having honest discussions with their DEI leaders in order to set organizational goals with realistic targets—and a plan for how to measure efficacy long-term.
Inadequate Support from Senior Leadership
In many organizations, senior leadership positions are essential to daily operations. However, the same view oftentimes does not hold for DEI leaders, as their work may be considered less important. Whether that is voiced in boardrooms or not, the undercurrent is that DEI continues to be viewed as box-checking and optics management—as opposed to a foundational component of conscious business relationships.
It would be more beneficial to all if executives offered their DEI leaders as much support as possible. They can begin by creating a communications strategy with their DEI director as the subject matter expert—and then being vocal about their commitment to creating a more psychologically safe workplace.
Organizational executives must be intentional in promoting and supporting these efforts. This can be through compensation, inclusion among the senior leadership team, and granting ownership of a budget and the decision-making authority to use it as needed. Only then can DEI initiatives have a chance as long-term success.
Failure to Understand the Impact of DEI
Many organizations have failed to comprehend what they need to do to make DEI initiatives successful. Unfortunately, many do not yet see diversity, equity and inclusion as strategic change management initiatives that impact each and every aspect of the organization. Until senior leaders develop a fundamental understanding of the impact of this work on the system as a whole, many DEI leaders will continue to exit.
So, how can organizations ensure DEI leaders thrive in their roles?
An organization, its executives, and employees must make a DEI leader’s work meaningful. They can achieve this in a multitude of ways:
1. Recognize DEI Leadership Work
The first step in setting DEI leaders up for success requires recognition of the deeply personal passion that brought these people to this career in the first place. The personal connection prevalent in DEI leaders today may make their jobs that much more exhausting. Their work revolves around their dedication to ensuring diversity of workforce, equity among all stakeholders and inclusion efforts to ensure that employees feel seen, heard, valued, respected and a sense of belonging.
2. Change Existing Systems and Practices
Developing successful systems begins with setting realistic goals for DEI leaders. To do this, organizations should undertake initiatives, such as:
- Ensuring a change in any policies or systems that may hinder DEI initiatives;
- Hiring DEI leaders based on qualification and prior experience, giving them financial support and decision-making power
- Engaging in recommended DEI training programs for employees across the organization.
3. Ensure Organizational Buy-In
If there is little to no leadership buy-in within an organization, DEI leaders begin to question if they can ever make a real difference. Lighting the way for their success only makes an organization stronger on all levels, which is especially important during times of financial flux. The reality is that senior leaders have a choice. They can either choose to continue resisting the collective shift towards a more equitable world (and be mandated to do so in the near future), or they can set their DEI counterparts up for success—and thereby create sustainability for their organizations as well as a positive impact on all stakeholders.
About the author
Kelly Campbell (they/she) is the founder of Consciousness Leaders and an inspiring keynote speaker. They are a Trauma-Informed Conscious Leadership Coach to self-aware visionaries. She writes for Entrepreneur and has written for Forbes. Kelly hosts "THRIVE: Your Agency Resource", a popular podcast for creative leaders. They are the author of "Heal to Lead" (Wiley, 2024), a radical new book on transforming past trauma in order to uncover our innate leadership power.