Five Ways CMOs Derail DEI

DEI is a topic whose time has come, yet it’s rife with complexity for marketers, communicators, and leadership teams. During our quarterly Marketing Growth Leaders™ gathering, we discussed the common obstacles CMOs need to avoid with DEI efforts.

The role of marketing leaders in shaping and implementing DEI strategy requires us to be transparent, vulnerable, and open to solutions.

We welcomed special guest Rohit Bhargava, the CEO of The Non-Obvious Company and co-author of Beyond Diversity. Bhargava and his co-author, Jennifer Brown, interviewed 200 leaders and DEI experts and provided rich perspectives.

Our “gloves off” discussion helped us avoid common pitfalls, avoid strategy “over-reach,” and share proven strategies. I’m confident our members are much better equipped to make DEI a successful element of their organizations’ purpose and growth strategy.

Few of us have been schooled in DEI, but most of us can explain it at a high level. The dictionary defines DEI as “a conceptual framework that promotes the fair treatment and full participation of all people, especially in the workplace, including populations who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination because of their background, identity, disability, etc.”

Photo courtesy of Susan Weber

DEI is a topic whose time has come, yet it’s rife with complexity for marketers, communicators, and leadership teams. Here are some common obstacles CMOs need to avoid with DEI efforts:

  1. Ignoring people’s emotions around DEI. In our group, our emotions ranged from anxious, curious, ignorant, frustrated, and eager. Recognize that we may make some mistakes along the DEI path, and that resistance is normal. DEI encompasses many different groups, voices, and personalities. That’s part of the learning process.
  2. Designing a DEI strategy without a hypothesis or customer data. It’s tempting to build your strategy or programs around a strong leader’s opinion. UVA Professor Kim Whitler recently cautioned us of leading DEI solely through opinion and intuition: “How does this shift reflect some evolved understanding of the totality of consumers — and not one subset of consumers? What evidence is there that this shift will fortify the overall brand-consumer relationship? Or is this an untested hypothesis?”

Before you launch your initiative, answer these 5 strategic questions. They might prevent you from catching the eye (or the ire) of an activist investor, or from ignoring what your customers value.

  1. Not knowing where to begin. In our CMO gathering, we discussed what first steps we should take to build our DEI strategy and message. A seasoned strategy executive recently asked “should we focus first on changing our values systems first, or focus on learning new behaviors?

After a robust debate, we agreed that changing behavior is the more prudent option. Revisiting or changing your company’s purpose requires a much heavier lift, and further delays your ability to create a more equitable workplace.

  1. Forgetting the power of competitive spirit. Want to rapidly gain stakeholder commitment? Talk about your competitors’ DEI progress in your messaging – especially if they are outpacing you.

The pandemic era taught us that talent votes with their feet. You cannot afford to completely ignore your competitors’ positions and their purpose. Great employees could already be entertaining offers from them.

The space race illustrates how healthy competition can fuel significant change. The USA’s 20-year space race with the Soviet Union exemplifies the power of peaceful competition. It worked—NASA was able to outspend and subsequently out-produce more spacecraft and satellites than Russia.

  1. Forgetting to link the value of the initiative to results. Many CMOs and C-Suite leaders design their DEI efforts around “feel good” metrics. Case in point: I find it a stretch to connect my M&M® candy craving to feelings of belonging. Yet M&M® ‘s Chief Growth Officer, Cathryn Sleight, attempted to make that leap in this press release. “Offering resources, mentorship and opportunities” (from the lofty press release) carries little to no weight in the boardroom, and rightly so.

Public companies are especially vulnerable to broad aspirational language. Last September, billionaire Nelson Peltz accused Unilever of “burnishing their sustainability credentials at the expense of financial performance.” The Financial Times described the kerfuffle in some detail.

Chief Diversity Officer turnover and disillusionment is real; avoid contributing to it. This Wall Street Journal article offers some clues as to the causes. If you have a CDO peer, help them link their worthy efforts to business KPIs that stakeholders care about.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this nascent movement. It’s tempting to throw up our hands and return to our marketing swim lane. DEI-minded leaders think differently. They look for small victories and celebrate them. Here are a few:

  • In lieu of puffy press releases, review how you are treating outside freelancers and agencies. Evaluate pay scales for your remote and diverse freelancers. A few years ago, author and publisher Bhargava discovered a significant hourly rate difference between people of color and white freelancers. He approached the POC team members, acknowledged the difference, and leveled the pay playing field.
  • Consider hiring sensitivity readers when developing any written content. It’s a great way to catch unconscious bias. Bhargava reports that this small shift in his recent publishing project was so successful that it’s now standard publishing procedure.
  • Search for talent in faraway places and unorthodox higher education outlets. Gone are days of assuming stronger talent only exists at Tier 1 universities.

Today, marketing leaders have an opportunity to write a new playbook for how we market, how we communicate, and how we celebrate diversity. Don’t let tradition and unconscious habits derail human potential and performance.

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