5 essential skills for federal agency chief diversity officers

Accelerated by a White House executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), many federal agencies are fast-tracking a relatively new C-suite role: the chief diversity officer. A recent memo from the Office of Personnel Management encourages agencies to create such a position, if they haven’t already.

However, many newly minted federal CDOs are challenged in meeting their objectives. The Government Accountability office reports agencies, so far, have “mixed success in increasing workforce diversity.”

But workforce diversity is just one benchmark. More broadly, a CDO needs to support workplace cultural transformation, incorporating DEIA principles across the organization and throughout the employee lifecycle, while helping agencies meet their missions.

To achieve that high bar, CDOs (and those aspiring to the job) need a broad skillset, one that incorporates both hardcore business abilities and nuanced “soft skills.”

With that in mind, Accenture Federal Services teamed with the Partnership for Public Service to develop an eight-week Chief Diversity Officer Bootcamp to help prepare talent for this emerging role. As our participants learned, the following five skills are essential for any federal CDO to truly drive transformational change while operating within the federal government’s guardrails.

#1 DEIA practitioner basics: With an ever-changing DEIA landscape, a CDO can struggle to know where to begin and how to amass the necessary skills to be successful. Understanding the evolution of DEIA and the basics of inclusive leadership are paramount in being successful in this space. There is more to DEIA than just “lived experience” and a passion for the work. He or she must move toward obtaining the certifications and exploring the development opportunities that help to establish their reputation and capabilities in this space.

 #2 Business acumen: The CDO needs to be operating in lock step with the agency’s overall strategic goals. This requires high-level business acumen and the ability to translate and implement sometimes-broad mission statements into concrete actions.

In addition to strategic planning, a successful CDO needs a core set of executive capabilities to connect the dots between meeting the mission, on the one hand, and the people who do the work on the other. This requires cultural competence, as well as a working understanding about what it takes to be both a good team member and a strong executive leader.

#3 Change management know-how: Not every C-suite role requires a leader to drive organizational change. In fact, the CDO role may be unique in that regard. Thus, the CDO’s function is all about creating new organizational awareness, new ways of interacting, and new business models that both recognize and respond to an increasingly diverse cultural landscape. Change management means the CDO will be responsible for articulating an emerging vision driving home research that shows more diverse organizations outperform less diverse ones. The CDO needs to work with colleagues across the enterprise to drive adoption – and meaningful change – across the agency.

 #4 Coaching ability: The complex interpersonal nature of the CDO’s sphere of influence requires this executive to have strong mentorship skills. Some federal employees may encounter far greater diversity in the workplace than in their personal lives. That can make the CDO role particularly challenging and requires them to be intentional about understanding their fellow colleagues’ experiences and perspectives.

DEIA is nuanced; people come to the table with a variety of understandings and divergent approaches. As a coach, the CDO needs extraordinary sensitivity, as well as a greater-than-usual sense of decorum and respect for confidentiality.

#5 Talent Management Expertise: Finally, the CDO needs to possess many of the skills that typically fall under the human capital umbrella. They’ll need to understand the employee life cycle, including how to acquire, develop and nurture talent, as well as how to build and implement career paths within the organization.

Fluency in the basic blocking-and-tackling of talent management is imperative to align the CDO’s efforts with big-picture organizational goals and federal agency mission requirements.

Overall, the CDOs mandate is broad. The Harvard Business Review recently reported on a study in which many CDOs say that — so far, at least — “attempts to combat racial injustice had largely been performative, and had not fostered long-term organizational change.”

To drive meaningful change, CDOs can themselves seek out and embrace a wider set of business and leadership skills. With a broad toolbox of capabilities, CDOs can more effectively support federal agencies in moving the needle forward on their DEIA journeys.

Adam C. Jones is the human capital diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility practice lead at Accenture Federal Services. Kevin Johnson, II is the Partnership for Public Service’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility

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