The role of a Chief Diversity Officer: Four competencies crucial to success

Second in a two-part series

This is the second of a two-part series. Last week, we looked at the origins of the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role and how it evolved. This week, we’ll examine its core competencies and role at CU.

Theodosia Cook
Theodosia Cook

We are all learning a great deal about effective diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leadership in these trying times. Four competencies are crucial to success – compliance, strategy, implementation and diplomacy.


CDOs need to have a strong understanding and grasp of legal context to ensure they can respond to crisis. While DEI work should be proactive (not just reacting to crisis), many see DEI work in moments of highly visible crisis.

In the first critical moments of a crisis, confusion abounds, emotions flare and facts are often murky. DEI crises often include issues related to Title VII, Title IX, ADA, 504 or internal policies. Repair work when cultural breaches occur can often involve short-term responses like statements and programmatic efforts, as well as longer-term solutions like investments and resource reallocation. But before any solutions come to the table, it is critical to have DEI leaders who are aware of the compliance issues and the realm of possibilities given the legal context. This is often overlooked as we speed to discussion and advocacy around meaningful, transformative solutions that provide healing and restoration for the community.


Effective CDOs need to be strategists. Strategy is about assessing viable paths to accomplishing a goal and is concerned with assessing progress, alternatives and, more specifically, cultural, educational, programmatic and financial impacts. Without a strategic lens, there can be mismanagement of resources, lack of clear prioritization and the creation of initiatives that may not be sustainable in the medium or long term.

It is often assumed that CDOs are only advocating for and from their lived experience, especially if they identify with minoritized communities. Effective CDOs think strategically about what is possible, what other industry institutions are doing, what will matter most to affected constituents, and have a grounding in DEI principles like equity, which seeks to center historical context and fairness.


Strategy alone is not enough. Great ideas and frameworks die on the shelf every day. Effective CDOs are able to communicate goals, lead teams, check in on progress, pivot when roadblocks are encountered and ultimately drive to measurable results. Without an implementation tool belt, it can be difficult to move from awareness of DEI issues to institutional and organizational change as it relates to policies, processes and culture.

We can discuss the issues with great/timely insights, frame them with accurate historical context and care a great deal about creating open space to share, but without the ability to harness momentum and lead others to goals, often through lateral management (i.e. managing others without formal managerial authority), DEI can be dismissed as “occasionally profound discussion groups” at best.


The final competency, diplomacy, cannot be underscored enough. In casual conversation, DEI work is seemingly synonymous with notions like “difficult conversations” for a reason. Building awareness of our individual and collective histories can be stirring. Working to build consensus about how to address disparities given such vast differences in awareness (or outright denial of historical facts and contemporary quantification of disparity) requires a great deal of tact, persistence and conviction on the part of DEI leaders.

Diplomacy allows engagement with communities in moments of great crisis and harm, and deals with the reality that those moments and feelings often need to be translated at tables of power that may be very removed from that sentiment and lived experience. When DEI leaders happen to share in those minoritized identities experiencing harm, this process of being an advocate in often radically opposed spaces can be painstaking and soul-wrenching – especially given the need to remove oneself from our own lived experience to create room for all to grow in their awareness of the issues, regardless of the starting point for beliefs and values.

Change can be scary, but just as the scientific management movement built a path to where we are today with regard to asking better and deeper questions about human capital, the role and work of a CDO can help build our path to the future of belonging and thriving. With compliance knowledge, strategy, implementation and diplomacy, DEI leaders can support and lead the organization with raising awareness, executing on new approaches to bring our community together, and ensuring that all people have what they need to thrive.

We have a real opportunity to see this historical moment as a significant industry and functional evolution, and invest behind the structure necessary to reach what is intended by the creation of CDO roles and maximize DEI thought and action leadership. If we start with understanding, valuing and respecting the work of diversity officers and leaders, and structurally support them, together, we can pave a path to success.

Theodosia Cook is Chief Diversity Officer of the CU system.

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