Diversity Boston

Changes at the top

New breed of executives spearheads initiatives

Elizabeth Thornton has been chief diversity officer at Babson College since 2008. Elizabeth Thornton has been chief diversity officer at Babson College since 2008. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Annelena Lobb
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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Wanted: Diversity chief. Job description: Get buy-in from others.

As more organizations look to hire people that better reflect the communities they serve, many are hiring chief diversity officers to lead those efforts. While the position did not exist a few decades ago, a study last year of Fortune 500 companies by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles found that of 490 companies, 307 had an executive dedicated to diversity.

But as the role becomes more common, so do the challenges.

Analysts and executives say the biggest hurdle a diversity chief faces is how to convince everyone within the organization — from the top to the bottom — that diversity is a companywide initiative that doesn’t reside with a single person or department.

“You have to change the culture,’’ said Simma Lieberman, an independent consultant in Berkeley, Calif., who works on diversity issues. “To do that, your conversation has to be about how what you’re doing benefits everybody.’’

For Lisa Coleman, that conversation begins at the top. Coleman, who started as Harvard University’s first chief diversity officer this year, is the special assistant to Harvard’s president, Drew Faust.

“We share information regularly,’’ she said. “To have that commitment from the top is crucial.’’

But Coleman said it’s equally important to get others lower in the organization’s hierarchy involved in diversity initiatives, too. Since she started in her new job, Coleman has been spending anywhere from a day and a half to three days at each of the university’s schools, meeting with deans, faculty, staff, and students to assess where each institution stands on diversity efforts. She also is speaking with some established organizations to see how she can best work with them, from a student services diversity group to a faculty development and diversity working group.

“You don’t want your CDO to become the end all and be all — the lone representative for diversity within an institution,’’ said Coleman, who held a similar role at Tufts University for three years.

The idea of having a single person or department oversee diversity issues isn’t new. Companies have increasingly hired people from different backgrounds as they realize the link between diversity and the bottom line.

According to data on about 506 US companies published in the American Sociological Review last year, firms reporting the highest level of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of diversity from 1996 to 1997. In fact, the study, by sociologist Cedric Herring, found that racial diversity is a better gauge for how well a company will do than its size or age, or the number of employees it has at any given work site.

In the past decade, analysts say, organizations have been moving the diversity position from a low-profile human resources role to the C-suite to give that person more power and the ability to better influence those in the corner offices — and throughout the organization. From the 1980s to much of the 1990s, diversity roles had been more obscure, low on the organizational chart, or limited to compliance functions, according to a report by Billy Dexter, a partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, which examined the chief diversity officer’s role. But the emphasis on the business case for diversity only grew with shifting US demographics, and as lucrative opportunities opened up in emerging markets such as Brazil, India, and China, he said, and big companies began elevating the position to a senior level in the late 1990s.

“Companies looked at diversity and inclusion efforts and said, ‘Wow, this is a business issue, and we need to be strategic about it,’ ’’ he said. In hiring a chief diversity officer, Dexter says, companies need a person with “a specific skill set to be able to create the strategy, get buy-in, and then get other people to implement the strategy.’’

To do that, the person holding the diversity job needs to have power within the organization, said Greg Almieda, president of Providence-based Global View Communications Inc., which develops strategies to help companies maximize diversity.

“In some — underline some — organizations, being in human resources continues to marginalize’’ the diversity role, he said. “Companies aiming to make the most of someone in the diversity function should take the chief diversity officer out of human resources, where the position often resides, and elevate it to an executive slot.’’

Some local organizations are among those that have elevated the diversity role. The University of Massachusetts Boston, for instance, is replacing its affirmative action director with a new chief diversity officer.

But as the number of chief diversity officers grows, so does the confusion within some organizations about whose job diversity really is. Elizabeth Thornton, who has been chief diversity officer at Babson College for two years, said that while Babson staff and students have been welcoming, some people in other organizations think that the diversity chief is supposed to be the sole person concerned with diversity. In fact, she says, it’s everyone’s job.

“I’m not responsible for diversity — we all are,’’ Thornton said. “I didn’t want to be that person that they look at and say, ‘I don’t have to worry about diversity anymore, Elizabeth will do this.’ ’’

As a result, Thornton said when she started her job at Babson, she got everyone involved, from the president to faculty to students.

In fact, one of her biggest efforts was working with Babson’s president, Leonard Schlesinger, to appoint a Council for Inclusiveness and Community, a group of 35 students, faculty, and staff, each on a two-year term, to help reach the school’s diversity goals. The group is divided into subcommittees that work on issues from creating an inclusive campus environment to the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, students, and staff.

“For diversity to work, you have to embed that mission of inclusiveness and diverse representation throughout the entire college,’’ Thornton said. “The trick is to engage everyone in diversity.’’