Chief Diversity Officers: Raising the Bar within Academic Medicine

Two decades ago it was considered a major milestone when an organization created a chief diversity officer position within its leadership structure. Today, CDOs are in relative abundance, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the position: What role should a CDO have? Who should he or she report to? How much of a difference can a CDO really make upon an organization? Left unanswered, these questions create an impediment to a CDO’s ability to succeed.

Witt/Kieffer has strived to bring greater clarity to the role of the CDO as part of its ongoing efforts to support diversity within executive leadership—particularly in the healthcare, higher education and not-for-profit sectors. In 2011, the firm conducted a major survey of higher education CDOs, querying them about what challenges and changes are shaping their work. One of the findings of that study: most CDOs need to be jacks-of-all-trades, and sometimes all things to all people.

“The successful diversity leader needs negotiating, diplomatic, communication, and analytical skills in addition to educational credentials,” noted Witt/Kieffer’s Oliver Tomlin and Lucy Leske. (Tomlin is a vice president in the Education, Not-for-Profit and Healthcare practices, while Leske is vice president and co-leader of the Education practice.) They concluded: there is still much work to be done in helping higher education institutions appreciate the critical importance of the CDO. The role and organizations need to mature.

Academic Medicine CDO: More Than a Figurehead?

Continuing this theme, Witt/Kieffer has supported the recent work of the Association of American Medical Colleges to encourage the maturation of the CDO role within the world of academic medicine. The culmination of that work is a substantial new report, “The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer in Academic Health Centers.”

The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer in Academic Health CentersThe AAMC report—based upon a series of meetings and workshops with AAMC diversity leaders—further sheds light upon the significant barriers that many CDOs are still facing.

“I would rather them not fund a position than to create one that is doomed for failure or is simply a figurehead position,” one CDO is quoted as saying. “It’s got to be a real position with stature and authority to move things forward. The CDO should not exist in isolation and needs to have the resources necessary to partner and be a player with the other department heads and vice presidents.”

In many academic medical centers, fortunately, the CDO is getting his or her due. The CDOs who provided input for the AAMC report listed several “areas of priority” in which they are making a difference, yet can still exercise greater influence:

• Academic diversity engagement
• Supplier diversity and business development
• Community engagement and partnerships
• Creating a climate of inclusion and support
• Affirmative action and compliance
• Addressing disparities in care and outcomes within the patient experience

The role is maturing and the impact of CDOs in academic health centers is being felt. The goal now, the report concludes, is to “raise the bar” in terms of what is possible for CDOs, and what organizations can do to further embrace leadership diversity.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)


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