Four Barriers to Effective Diversity Leadership

I am disappointed that so many companies I’ve talked with lately have internal leaders for their diversity and inclusion initiatives who have passion but lack expertise … and have no budget to receive training or coaching. No wonder they are unable to influence the organization to recognize inclusion as a critical strategic element related directly to increased market share, employee retention, innovation, excellent customer service, safety or quality.

Well Liked and Well Rewarded

Businesswoman Walking on a TightropeA large number of people in these key diversity leadership roles were promoted from within. They have a great understanding of the history, culture and values in their organization. Typically they are well liked by senior leaders and they are rewarded for their pleasing personality or their ability to “get along” within the limitations of the existing system.

How likely is it that this person will recognize the changes needed or take the risk to be viewed as pushing for change? Unless they have extraordinary skills, or receive mentoring about change management and strategic positioning of diversity and inclusion they tend to focus on maintaining the status quo instead of leading the organization to a new and expanded state.

Fighting for Change

Businessman YellingOf course, there are some who have been promoted from within because they were viewed as either dissatisfied employees with good ideas … or people so passionate about diversity and inclusion that their ideas needed to be heard. These employees then get locked into the role of agitator and activist and are not provided the skill building they need to be viewed as strategic and productive. The promotion into the diversity leadership role quickly becomes frustrating to them because they believed the organization was ready for a change it was not … and they don’t know how to build alliances and position their arguments in ways that are likely to make the change happen.

Fast Track to Management

Businessman with TeamThere are a group of people in key diversity leadership roles who were perceived by senior leaders to be on the fast track to management and this assignment was viewed as a “developmental” role. It gives the incumbent a promotion into a certain level of management where they can be exposed to leadership process and expectations. However, they often have limited experience in the subject matter and are typically told they don’t really need any expertise because either (a) any one can lead this area or (b) it’s a temporary position they’ll only be in for a couple of years until something else opens up.

The Diversity Expert Who Isn’t

This is another pattern that is troublesome. The organization hires someone who worked in a diversity department in another organization or maybe even someone who was an independent consultant for a few years. This diversity leader knows more about diversity and inclusion than anyone else in the organization and is perceived internally as very smart on this topic. However, their actual knowledge and understanding is very limited to one aspect, or their previous experience was limited to programs that were more affirmative action oriented than inclusion focused.


Often this person has good ideas but they have very limited skills related to moving strategically from idea through implementation. The organization is happy because there are no major problems or conflicts and the diversity leader is happy because they are receiving a steady paycheck. It can feel like a risk to bring in new ideas when everything is going along just fine so they keep doing what they know to do but don’t take any risks. Comfort with what is blocks growth to what could be.

What’s sad about this is that the senior leadership (and sometimes the diversity leader) have no idea what they don’t know. They don’t know what they could be or could have that would contribute to growing their bottom line and improving customer service or employee retention.

The Answer

Gone are the days when an organization hires a consultant and hands over the strategy and implementation of their diversity initiative to that firm. It does still happen occasionally but it’s rare. I actually support companies hiring internal leadership for their diversity and inclusion initiatives because I strongly believe ownership should be within and disbursed throughout the organization.

But the majority of internal diversity leaders I’ve talked to recently are weak on diversity-related knowledge, ill-prepared to develop or lead strategically, are insufficiently funded to make a positive difference in the organization and are afraid to make waves because they know they are not perceived as valuable contributors to the growth and success of the company.

This is what disappoints me.

And the solution is relatively simple and relatively inexpensive. All it takes is a small investment in three things:

      1. Be sure internal leaders of diversity and inclusion initiatives have strong skills in strategic planning, conflict resolution and leadership development. Good communication skills and a pleasing personality are not enough to be successful in this role.
      2. Be sure internally developed strategic plans are reviewed by, or include input from, experienced professionals who not only have broad knowledge about diversity in the workplace but also interact with other companies from your industry and with companies representing other industries. Fresh ideas and unknown opportunities come from this external input.
      3. Be sure the organization invests in the internal diversity leader’s ongoing development and exposure. Going to conferences to build a national network of peers and to learn about the latest trends and changes should be required. Providing internal diversity leaders with a more experienced external coach or mentor is highly recommended. These are not expenses, they are investments in the success of the incumbent who has been charged with providing excellent advice and guidance within your organization.

Tracy Brown, President of Diversity Trends LLCOf course I’d like to be considered to help develop skills and strategy. But whether my company is hired or not, this external guidance, mentoring and training is critically needed.

Internal diversity and inclusion professionals can be a valuable resource for your organization’s strategic plans related to marketing, recruitment, retention, marketing, innovation and expansion. It begins with a healthy mix of subject matter expertise, skills in strategic planning, leadership development and conflict management, plus the ability to partner with leadership in an effective way.


  1. This is a fabulous piece and so perfectly on target. You’ve called it Ms. Brown! Would a top Fortune company hire a firm to do some “IV&V” for a major initiative? (That would be “independent verification and validation”). Of course they would. And with respect to diversity and inclusion strategies, I would always call on Tracy Brown and Diversity Trends. And no folks, I didn’t get asked or paid to say this!

    Ada Posey, Diversity & Inclusion Leader

  2. Tracy Brown is always ahead of the curve! Her vision for diversity and inclusion strategies will lead us to a more effective, efficient, productive and prosperous nation … if only we listen and learn.
    America cannot be taken seriously in the discussion among global leaders until we identify and resolve our racism.
    Corporate America has tremendous power in resolving this blight on our nation. I recommend partnering with Tracy Brown for success.
    L. Blake
    EMIS, Inc.

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