A Leader's Guide to Finding and Keeping Chief Diversity Officers in Europe

DEIDiversity & CultureBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
min Report
Ulrike Wieduwilt
January 21, 2020
10 min
DEIDiversity & CultureBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
Guide to Finding and Keeping CDOs in Europe
Many organizations have been pouring fresh energy into diversity and inclusion, but the majority of large companies in Europe still do not have a dedicated executive to oversee these efforts.


Our analysis of the S&P Europe 350 reveals that only about one-third of large companies in Europe have an executive dedicated to diversity and inclusion strategy. We look at what defines these chief diversity officers both in terms of experiences and competencies, and what the rest of the organization can do to help them succeed.


Diversity and inclusion have become headline issues, putting pressure on organizations and leaders to respond in a meaningful way.

A commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I) is becoming a crucial part of being a corporate citizen. For some, it starts with legal requirements, such as the UK’s mandated gender pay gap disclosure or quotas for women on boards in France, Germany and Norway, among others. Increasingly, though, the quest for true equality in the workforce is driven by business reasons. With economic growth slowing, companies face an intensifying need for innovation and growth—both of which are most likely to occur in diverse and inclusive environments, according to numerous recent studies.



European companies are starting to pay attention but have a long way to go.

Many organizations have been pouring fresh energy into diversity and inclusion, but the majority of large companies in Europe still do not have a dedicated executive to oversee these efforts. New Russell Reynolds Associates research finds only 34 percent of companies included in the S&P Europe 350 index currently have a chief diversity officer (CDO) or equivalent. One encouraging sign: Seventy-seven percent of those chief diversity officers have been appointed or promoted to their roles in the past three years, suggesting that companies are creating new roles or reinvigorating existing ones.



In this paper, we take a data-driven approach to analyze the CDO role and what makes it successful.

We examine the career paths and competencies of today’s chief diversity officers, based on the 118 CDOs at S&P Europe 350 companies. We look at the unique challenges these executives face and the competencies they need to effectively address them. Finally, we look at the actions leaders and organizations can take to make chief diversity officers—and their broader diversity and inclusion strategies—more successful.



Anatomy of a chief diversity officer

We recently analyzed S&P Europe 350 companies to understand how prevalent the chief diversity officer role is and the career paths that commonly lead to it. Our data shows that 118 of these 350 companies have a chief diversity officer. Of these 118 executives, approximately one-third (34 percent) have a joint title, often related to human resources or corporate social responsibility.

Chief diversity officers in Europe come from a variety of career paths before taking their roles. In our experience, no single profile is right for all companies but, rather, the best fit will depend on an organization’s goals and current stage in its diversity and inclusion journey.





Chief Diversity Officers Experiences 

Within these four broad categories, European chief diversity officers often bring experience within diversity and inclusion, HR, and even business functions like marketing and sales. Given the organizational and cultural changes inherent in diversity and inclusion efforts, it is noteworthy that more than one in five chief diversity officers has past experience in transformation or change management.






 A lens on insider vs. outsider 

When appointing a new chief diversity officer, companies consider both internal and external candidates. About 30 percent of European chief diversity officers came from outside the organization. To better understand the strengths of each option, we compared the career paths of those who were promoted internally to those who were hired externally.



Unique challenges of chief diversity officers

Our 2019 D&I Pulse survey data shows that no matter how experienced and well qualified diversity leaders may be, they almost inevitably hit internal headwinds at some point. Their key challenge is to show senior leaders why diversity and inclusion are business concerns, rather than siloed talent or branding issues. Without a crisp understanding of how a diverse workforce and inclusive environment—or the lack of it—may affect business outcomes such as innovation, growth and profits, many leaders will treat it as a nice-to-have rather than a necessity.


That said, chief diversity officers can effectively navigate these challenges if they are ambidextrous leaders who are able to simultaneously play multiple roles.



Case Study: Taking a business -centric approach to Diversity and Inclusion 

Setting up a new chief diversity officer role involves navigating many unknowns, particularly when the position is a global one. When Syngenta, a leading agriculture company with its headquarters based in Basel, Switzerland, created its first global CDO role in 2018, it appointed Caroline Creven Fourrier. Creven Fourrier stepped into the role with a deep understanding of the business, more than 13 years of international experience with Syngenta across various geographies in Europe and Asia, and functions like procurement, logistics, production and HR. She also brought many key competencies needed to catalyze organizational transformation and work with C-Suite leaders.

To increase the likelihood of success, Creven Fourrier and her colleagues took three important steps in shaping the new role.

1.Uncover needs and set clear objectives

Syngenta sees D&I as a business topic. “To offer customers your best solutions, you need to make sure that your employee base reflects the diversity of those customers and their thinking,” Creven Fourrier said. She started shaping her mandate by uncovering the cultural and structural challenges within the organization. “The very first thing that was done was to understand from leaders where the gaps were and what D&I could bring to the table,” she said. “The D&I ambition and expected outcomes need to be in service of our employees, the business, and communities we work with.”

Goals for the reinvigorated D&I program include Syngenta outperforming the market and increasing diversity in the industry. To ensure Syngenta achieves them, the D&I council, led by the head of HR, further developed a comprehensive plan structured around internal cultural change, talent, and external partnerships.

2. Design a global D&I structure that leverages regional customization and championing 

Creven Fourrier’s first-hand knowledge of multiple geographies helped inform this local-first approach. “What you see across the different regions is that you cannot copy and paste initiatives and priorities,” she said. As a result, Syngenta has created a relatively small D&I team at the global level to set the direction for the strategy but relies heavily on internal networks of employee resource groups and local champions – including senior leaders, as well as HR professionals.

In addition, Syngenta’s global D&I budget is designed to encourage countries to self-fund their D&I initiatives to a large extent. “D&I is about changing minds,” Creven Fourrier said. “If leaders don’t actually pay for their commitments, the transformative effect will be much lower.”

3. Equip leaders to stay accountable to D&I goals by investing in training and development

Even the best-intentioned employees and leaders may not know which behaviors foster more diversity and inclusion. To equip them, Syngenta has developed trainings and toolboxes to help explain why D&I is important and how each person can take part in furthering it. Mentoring (and reverse mentoring) is one component, as is asking employees to reflect on the diversity within their teams, and how well equipped the team may be to face the industry’s future challenges. Syngenta also responded to employee needs by raising the collective understanding on gender, sexuality, mental health, flexible working or disabilities and also built external partnerships with such organizations as the UN and the Valuable 500. “We are all employees – so we are all accountable,” said Creven Fourrier. “It’s very important that each one of us takes it to heart.”



After appointing a Chief Diversity Officer, Organizational Leaders continue to play a big part in the executive's success or failure.

The chief diversity officer can be successful only when executive leadership team members are aligned with the diversity mandate and exhibit the inclusive leadership behaviors that show true commitment. It is also important for organizations to hold leaders accountable for fostering diversity and inclusion initiatives in their respective spheres of influence.

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We gathered insight in two ways to take a data-driven look at the chief diversity officer role in Europe:

Diversity and Inclusion Pulse survey: In our third annual Diversity and Inclusion Pulse survey, we asked nearly 850 executives around the world about their organizations’ D&I strategies and practices, as well as their own experiences and perceptions related to D&I in the workplace.

S&P Europe 350 analysis: We analyzed the companies that comprised the S&P Europe 350 index as of June 2019 to determine which ones had chief diversity officers or executives in equivalent roles. Using proprietary data as well as LinkedIn, we charted the career paths of those CDOs. Thirty-three percent are with industrial and natural resources firms, 25 percent are with financial services companies, 21 percent are with consumer companies, 14 percent are with technology firms and 7 percent are with healthcare companies. Eighty-six percent of current CDOs are female and 14 percent are male.

Additional Authors:

Harsonal Sachar leads Knowledge for Russell Reynolds Associates’ Diversity & Inclusion Practice and is responsible for thought leadership and insight development along with internal strategy and operations. She is based in Toronto.

Alix Stuart is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in Boston.


The authors would like to thank Caroline Creven Fourrier, Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Syngenta, for her invaluable insights on the chief diversity officer role.

The authors would also like to thank the following colleagues for their helpful contributions to the creation of this study: Jasmine Jenny and Chetna Valecha.