A decade ago, when chief diversity officers were nearly unknown, it was a breakthrough to invest in diversity as a C-level priority. Today, about...

By Julie Kampf

A decade ago, when chief diversity officers were nearly unknown, it was a breakthrough to invest in diversity as a C-level priority. Diversity metrics showed that companies were serious about their commitment, and the growing number of CDOs worked hard to deliver that message internally and externally. Today, about 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a CDO or similar executive, according to the Wall Street Journal. CDOs appear often on panels and in other public forums speaking on the importance of diversity, and many take appropriate pride in metrics that show increases in recruitment of executives from diverse backgrounds. Companies that have added or expanded a CDO position during this tough economic period deserve applause.

But businesses are about to face talent management challenges unlike anything they’ve seen before, and that will dramatically increase demands on chief diversity officers. As 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age each day, the U.S. talent pool simply isn’t growing fast enough to replace them. Globally, the workforce is shrinking across advanced economies, and an estimated three in ten employers worldwide already find it difficult to fill positions because of talent shortages in their markets. To complicate matters, within the next ten years U.S. employers will be managing five generations working side by side for the first time. Diversity will be necessary for survival, and the focus will broaden from traditional metrics to an emphasis on diversity of thought, background and experience.

More than any other executive, CDOs can help companies shift their focus away from narrow skill sets and toward diverse thought that may originate in a different industry, process, country or culture. They can show companies how to integrate multi-generational work styles, building loyalty from the baby boomers who will work 90 hours a week to the millennials whose technical savvy comes with demands for flexibility. Properly empowered, CDOs can not only make the business case for diversity but also show the business results that depend on having the right talent.

To achieve those results, the best future CDOs will have rigorous training, including direct experience with P&L (Profit and Loss) as well as deep human resources expertise. They will have a close understanding of other cultures that may be based on experience living abroad, and they will have knowledge of psychology, sociology and all the nuances of the demographic shifts that affect the workforce. They will be able to focus less on building awareness of the value of diversity and more on building a culture of diversity. They will be thought leaders, and they will be viewed as vital not only to the top companies in any industry but to any company that has 500 or more employees. They’ll transform the workplace.

These changes will happen because the best organizations understand that talent is their most precious resource and that diversity helps them compete. Companies that don’t act soon will be left behind, and some won’t survive. Those that do act will have the chance to enter a new era of innovation guided by a next-generation chief diversity officer.

Julie Kampfis President and CEO of JBK Associates. Kampf has much experience in the field of consulting on recruitment and retainment in the workforce.

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