What the role entails
Haines says, from the DE&I executive searches Grace Blue has run, there are typically three critical responsibilities tied to these roles.
“The first is to place the policies around diversity that will guide and govern future behaviors and actions across every part of the business,” Haines says. The second responsibility, he says, is to implement and run “ongoing education” and training for staff while the third involves recruitment and retention. “This means looking at programs internally to ensure that diverse talent has every opportunity to grow within the organization, and with regard to recruitment, looking at the processes around how they hire and how new sources of talent are identified to ensure that diversity objectives are being consistently met,” Haines says.
Haines says in recent placements, agencies have sought DE&I leadership to “also be a big part of the strategic and creative process to ensure that the work being made is inclusive and representative.” He adds that “it’s great” to see the investment in these roles from companies and that the executives appointed to them “have a moment to really impact the agency and industry at scale.”
But is this really a one-person job?
There’s another reason why DE&I jobs are in demand: burnout. Too often, companies expect their DE&I chiefs to effect policies across all departments while simultaneously working as a hiring manager and HR expert, in many cases with no support from a dedicated team. That might be why, as the Wall Street Journal reported, there is high demand for these roles, but also a high turnover rate.
Desir declines to comment specifically on his time leading diversity, equity and inclusion for R/GA but, speaking generally about his decade of experience, he says “these roles are some of the toughest and thankless roles at companies,” and they rarely receive the investment they deserve.
He says it’s the only chief executive role that typically works solo without a dedicated team supporting it and instead leans on a group of “volunteers” from other departments to assist. “I always go to the [chief financial officer] argument,” Desir says. “The CFO doesn’t create budgets for each department and office. The leaders of those offices do. [Agencies’ argument for DE&I strategy] is always ‘Oh, we can just use volunteers; the people who raise their hands to help with this stuff.’ You would never say that to a CFO—’Just go get this person over here who showed interest in finance to help with what you need.'”
Desir says the duties of a chief DE&I officer are rarely clear, either, and the role typically doesn’t report directly to the CEO, which would be unheard of for any other chief executive position.
R/GA, meanwhile, acted swiftly to replace Desir, announcing the promotion of Jai Tedeschi as its first VP, global executive director of culture and operations. She has been tasked with working across R/GA’s operations and talent teams to “enact company change initiatives that bridge organizational silos and align to business needs, client requirements and talent priorities,” according to the agency.
Desir says to truly effect change within an agency, leadership needs to “take a step back to really understand what you want this role for” and, he warns, “if you don’t have a plan to build this team up, don’t even think about hiring this person.”
That is, if you can find one to hire.