The new C-suite leaders supporting talent strategy

November 23, 2021, 8:31 PM UTC

The rapid rise in the relevance of talent strategy is apparent on many levels.

In the boardroom, HR backgrounds are increasingly prevalent among new appointments. Board leaders have prioritized workforce strategy, a change from the more finance and operations matters they previously prioritized.

The Great Resignation represents a threat to any people-manager in that their team could become short handed. Those who are succeeding at employee engagement and retention are more valuable than ever.

In the C-suite, functional and business unit leaders need to rapidly evolve recruiting, retention, and diversity strategies. While HR has historically been responsible for hiring, engagement, and culture, and most corporations disseminate that strategy through HR business partners (HRBPs), it’s clear the portfolio has expanded to a point that requires further division of labor.

The new cavalry of C-suite leaders is enabling executive teams to excel against today’s new talent mandate. Four roles in particular have stood out: chief diversity officer, head of remote work, chief purpose officer, and head of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Chief Diversity Officer

The fastest growing executive position is the chief diversity officer, whose presence as a percentage of c-suite hires increased 111% over the last year, according to LinkedIn, which also found that “Head of Diversity,” “Diversity Director,” and “Diversity Manager” roles have increased over 60% each as well.

In light of the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic and increasing social pressure to address racial inequality, the role and responsibilities of the chief diversity officer are complex. But 40% of S&P 500 companies mentioned diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in earnings calls in Q2 of 2020, up from single figures in previous quarters. This is an important aspect of corporate strategy that isn’t going away. 

“It requires an emotional muscle unlike any role I’ve ever worked in,” said Joy Fitzgerald, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Eli Lilly & Co. “You’re dealing with polarizing topics, and these topics and issues are very nuanced. There are not a lot of best practices you can point to that are easy or quick. You have to be comfortable knowing that the norm is managing discomfort.”

In order to succeed, diversity leaders need to be empowered by company leadership who can give them authority to alter hiring and promotion practices, to enforce new managerial standards and accountability for DEI goals, and to deliver training and consulting across the organization. It’s a multi-faceted role with high stress, potential for burnout, and has also seen high turnover, but the majority of major companies agree that it’s a needed role today.

Head of Remote Work Experience

This role of “remote work czar” (among other names) emerged from rapid acceptance of telecommuting for office work.

The risk of remote employees having a worse experience as the corporate world makes this rapid leap forward is significant, especially as employers deal with higher-than-average turnover. 

Onboarding, performance management, meetings, and collaboration are all different in this new work environment, and managers need help to adjust. While HR can drive this initiative, it would be wise to consider some more help in this area. A lot is being asked of managers right now—they could use the added support of a department specifically serving as a center of excellence for managing remote and distributed teams.

Running the company’s remote work strategy requires an understanding of workplace technology, change management, hybrid team dynamics, and CDC health guidelines, among other things.

A remote experience leader supports retention, productivity, and the employee value proposition. It also will make sure someone is responsible for the rollout and success of the various stages of the return-to-work plan. Office re-openings and associated policies are seeing mixed responses to this day, including employee revolts and mass departures, so it might be smart to make sure this is not a side-desk initiative for a few overtaxed leaders.

Chief Purpose Officer

Aligning employees and their individual purpose with the mission of the company is more important than ever. Job seekers are increasingly looking for either a company whose core operation serves a social mission, or at the very least one that has ethical business practices and fringe benefits like an employee volunteer program.

While many companies like Unilever have built out dedicated programs focused on helping employees find purpose through work, others like Hasbro and major consulting firms are enlisting new leaders in pursuit of this alignment. Deloitte identified a need for a chief purpose officer and tapped Kwasi Mitchell, a principal who was serving as DEI leader for the company’s U.S. consulting division. 

“It’s an amazing talent play,” Mitchell told Fortune. “What I have responsibility for is embedding purpose into all aspects of our business so that our business strategy is not distinct from a purpose strategy…we also realize that staying silent on social and political issues is not an option.”

His main goal is to unite a number of diffuse efforts across the company that include DEI, social responsibility, and community service, and make sure one office is driving it. 

“The risk of getting those wrong [is] you end up with activism, you end up with the inability to recruit and retain the people that you would like to. And you have this fundamental disconnect that leads to a little bit of malaise within the organization.”

PwC, EY, and KPMG all have chief purpose officers as well. Cisco EVP Francine Katsoudas recently added “purpose” and “policy” to her job title, which was previously EVP of people. 

Head of Corporate Social Responsibility

In a recent Fortune panel, president Jacqueline Fuller discussed the importance of getting employees involved in CSR efforts. Not only does participation improve impact, but it also helps with recruiting and retention as well as inclusion and belonging, she said.

Twilio chief impact officer Erin Reilly told Fortune she has a strong relationship with her HR counterparts for this reason.

“When we partner with HR, we understand the overall goals of helping engage employees, or helping them feel proud to work there or want to stay at the company, and then we have been able to provide programs and efforts that align with that.”

The CSR lead might even be relevant as a company is making their decisions around remote work, too, Reilly shared.

“It was better for their footprint, to have people remote working, and I think that’s a really exciting dimension to think about. Because there’s the environmental sustainability side, and the remote workplace element, coming together.”

Aman Kidwai


Who was held accountable for Zillow’s big mistake?

The real estate listing site recently had to let go about a quarter of its employees after a new business venture focused on buying and flipping homes failed miserably. The exit plan from this line of business called for a $304 million write-down and projected Q4 losses around $250 million, according to Seeking Alpha. Zillow has all but admitted that this failure was due to bad strategy and management, a fact that stands especially stark as other companies have succeeded in this arena. 

The bigger question here is why more executives weren’t part of the 25% culling of employees. The people making the decisions that led to the massive loss should both acknowledge their failure, especially if they hope to gain any traction in the job market. 

Why would anyone job hunting right now, who has options, choose to work at Zillow given this recent episode?


Most board and c-suite leaders are ill-equipped for today’s challenges

Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman may have been trying to be provocative in saying this, but it perhaps helps explain why we are starting to see upticks in CEO and board turnover. If those leaders were prepared and built for success in a different era, but failed on the mandate to make progress on ethics, equity and environmental causes, how can they be expected to meaningfully address those issues right now? 

If you believe a lot has changed in the world of work, then the business leaders must change too. While having new executive roles is a first step, leaders who are unwilling to evolve may want to consider stepping down or pursuing other lines of work, Polman says, specifically calling out board leaders and CEOs.


Don’t let Facebook distract from the real problem

While Facebook’s latest whistleblower brought a lot of negative attention to the social media giant, it went ahead with a planned rebranding to Meta, and the larger problem still remains. 

These tech titans set lofty goals, moved quickly towards them, and didn’t care if they broke things so long as they made themselves and their investors very, very rich. Facebook won the game, but didn’t set the rules. As long as Silicon Valley is ruled by investors and free of regulatory barriers, these problems will persist.

“Facebook isn’t the only problem,” Stanford professors Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein wrote on CNN. “The problems of algorithmic amplification and prioritizing engagement over safety are ubiquitous on social media.” Those three are also co-authors of the book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong And How We Can Reboot

The book postulates that the marriage of engineers’ obsession for optimization with the aggressive financial goals of venture capital investors led the tech industry to ignore the negative social outcomes of its products. Moreover, the nature of VC funding and startup accelerators made it so that founders were more likely to get funding for solving the problems of wealthy, white men rather than larger swaths of the population.

“Our existing platforms were initially funded by a fairly small, largely uniform group of people who were primarily focused on how their investments could scale,” Frank McCourt, real-estate billionaire and former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, told Fortune. “I’m not saying that tech investors had malicious intent, but they do share responsibility for some of the problems with our current tech infrastructure.”

McCourt now leads a group called Project Liberty. It conducts multidisciplinary research and also has a technology platform that it’s making available to creators and entrepreneurs in hopes of creating a new, decentralized web.

“Our current tech infrastructure is fueling polarization; incentivizing the spread of misinformation; eroding public discourse; and exploiting and weaponizing our personal data. These are civic problems in need of a tech solution,” McCourt told Fortune. “If we just focus on a single company, we won’t be able to solve our biggest and most urgent problems.”

He hired Braxton Woodham, former chief technology officer at Fandango, to lead the technology side of the project. Together they’re working on driving adoption of their web platform and gaining consensus for a new way forward.

“We want to ensure that the next generation of the internet is guided by a governance framework and embedded with values and principles–a step that was skipped in the late 1990s and early 2000s when our existing platforms first came online,” McCourt said.


The Modern Board review

In addition to this newsletter, Fortune has been covering covering trends and news as it relates to modern board leadership. Read my latest stories for our Modern Board vertical:

Nearly half of board leaders want to fire a colleague

3 factors that are organically driving board diversity

The value of HR expertise on the board of directors

Black representation on Fortune 500 boards spiked in 2020

Twitter’s infosec chief on joining her first corporate board

How boards are operating differently in the wake of COVID-19

When it comes to DEI, pay equity and promotion are just as important as hiring

One Good Idea

Remove the college degree requirement for jobs

This is not a new idea, but degree requirements are still keeping employers from finding quality employees. I’m not even really sure what the argument is for requiring a bachelor’s degree for, say, marketing or sales, or requiring a graduate degree for mid-level jobs, especially in the cases where many of the people in said jobs don’t have the required or "recommended" degree.

According to the Census, around 37% of adults over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher educational attainment, meaning that any degree requirement immediately removes almost two-thirds of the population from your applicant pool. Many companies will also specify a certain type of degree or subject-area focus, this limits the group even further. 

People without degrees are also more likely to be people of color and more likely to be struggling during the pandemic.

Apple, Google, and many others have started to remove degree requirements, but it could use wider adoption. Beyond that, job descriptions contain a lot of language that can limit applicants, or even encourage bad fits. Removing bias from job descriptions is still an opportunity for improvement for many companies, especially as they look to refine their recruiting strategies.

Doing the work

OneTen is an organization working to help Black Americans overcome the structural barrier mentioned above. The mission of this nonprofit is to get one million Black people who don’t have college degrees hired, trained, or promoted into high-wage work in ten years. Its founders include the former CEOs of IBM and American Express, and current corporate partners include ADP, Bain & Company, Bank of America, Cargill, Cisco, Merck, Nike, Verizon, Walmart, and more.

At the recent Fortune CEO Initiative conference in Washington DC, OneTen CEO Maurice Jones shared details of his organization’s progress, sharing that they are 20,000 into their goal after being formed less than a year ago. Jones joined in February after previously holding senior administrative roles in federal and state government. He was deputy secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and also served as secretary of commerce and trade for the state of Virginia.

Numbers that matter


This is the percentage of female board members in a PwC survey that were supportive of including D&I goals in executive compensation plans, compared to 44% for male directors. This gender gap is not just disappointing, it’s presenting the possibility that male board members are a barrier to a sound diversity strategy.

Male board members are more likely to believe that diverse candidates are less qualified, and that candidate quality is a barrier to diversity. Male directors are also less likely to believe that board searches are overly reliant on personal networks, less concerned about the climate crisis, and half as likely to support mandatory ESG disclosure. 

Disappointing stuff, fellas.

This is the web version of The Modern Board, a newsletter focusing on mastering the new rules of corporate leadership. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.

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