• Cecilia Stanton Adams

5 Essential Skills for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Leaders

Updated: Jul 21

DEI as a career path is still in its infancy stages; however, the growth of DEI roles in organizations across the country is a sign that this budding industry isn't going away any time soon. In fact, the global need for trained DEI practitioners is expected to grow. According to a recent LinkedIn study, there continues to be steady growth in DEI roles in every industry across Europe and the Middle East.


As a result, today's DEI practitioners are setting the tone for DEI careers to come. Today's DEI champions are preparing for jobs that do not yet exist. Over 20 years ago, I took on my first DEI position as Assistant Dean of Multicultural Affairs at Lehigh University. At that time, I couldn't even fathom what a "Chief DEI Officer" or "DEI consultant" would do. Those roles hadn't been created, yet both have been a part of my career journey. It was a huge reminder that to be a game-changing DEI leader, you must be comfortable following your instinct to work towards a vision when no one else sees it.

After reflecting on this learning, I’ve identified five talents, abilities, and skills essential to becoming a Gamechanging DEI leader—whether you have the title or not.

1. DEI Gamechangers are resourceful

Whether launching a new diversity leadership program or developing accountability measures for supplier diversity, Gamechanging DEI leaders know how to galvanize buy-in for initiatives with little to no budget, limited headcount, and pockets of organizational indifference.

These Gamechanging leaders are resourceful and innovative, and their network is deep. These leaders are known for always finding a way out of none. A DEI Gamechanger will not give up because they answer to a true north far greater than any organization or institution. To these courageous Gamechangers, equity isn't just a career; it's a calling. Above all else, DEI Gamechangers are driven by the relentless pursuit of equity, access, and inclusion for All.

2. DEI Gamechangers are coaches

A trusted DEI leader is respected for their ability to educate, counsel, and guide leaders. A trusted DEI consultant refrains from adding to the gossip and instead provides honest insights, direct feedback, and actionable interventions. DEI leaders can do this well when there is buy-in and support. Game-changing Leaders can do it in a crisis. Here are just a few examples of crises situations:

  • An executive at your company sends a racist email

  • Your brand is inadvertently promoted by a radical political group

  • A discrimination lawsuit at your company makes front page news

I've experienced quite a few crises in my career, but to this day, the one I will never forget occurred during my first year as Dean of Multicultural Affairs at a small liberal arts college. I was on-call and lived on campus when one of our students was abducted from the campus parking lot and then murdered. A week later, the perpetrator was apprehended. Within those 7 days, I learned more about the challenges of local and national media coverage than I would in the following 7 years.

Unfortunately, chances are good that you and/or your organization will experience a DEI crisis at some point. Savvy DEI leaders are priceless when it comes to this skill set. A trusted DEI consultant excels in their ability to coach CEOs, senior management, and other stakeholders when responding to a public crisis. A trusted DEI leader will have the relationships and social capital needed to strategically engage key stakeholders.

3. DEI Gamechangers are business strategists

A company's business strategy and its DEI strategy must be connected. One must inform the other, and vice-versa. A critical skill set to bring to the table includes understanding the business landscape within your industry. A business strategist will not shy away from asking questions about the future and the company's preparedness for it. Some examples of challenging DEI questions to explore:

How will your industry be impacted by changing civil rights legislation?

How might you develop a diverse, high-performing cybersecurity team to outsmart those who pose threats?

Can artificial intelligence (AI) decrease bias in industry processes?

A business strategist can understand and project future shifts within the workforce or communities you serve.

4. DEI Gamechangers are data-informed decision makers

When it comes to data in DEI, finding the right measures is half the battle. The other half is convincing leadership to increase transparency and accountability to results. From supplier-spend and promotion rates to issues around recruitment and retention, gamechanging DEI leaders are not afraid to lean into and be guided by the data. This means building collaborative relationships with functional leaders in audit, compliance, procurement, or IT. Data-informed, decision-makers learn the language and processes within these functions to successfully retrieve and effectively analyze DEI data.

5. DEI Gamechangers are resilient

In 2020, no one could have imagined much less preparing for such profound change as we did after the Covid-19 Pandemic. While the Pandemic had a huge impact on the workforce, the death of George Floyd would come shortly thereafter, once again changing the priorities, goals, and resources of DEI Leaders.

Being resilient means:

  • Being able to come back from a "no"

  • Trying again after a "not now"

  • Persisting when no one else believes your idea will work

  • Putting your self-care first

When you are resilient, you won't break as a result of the storms; instead, you'll bend with the knowledge and confidence that you will stand tall again.

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