Diversity and inclusion in 2017: 5 questions with Kaiser Permanente CDIO Dr. Ronald Copeland

Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente has had a formal focus on diversity and inclusion for nearly two decades, but it was Ronald Copeland, MD, who turned diversity from a regulatory issue to a value-based mission.

Dr. Copeland began his career as a surgeon with the United States Air Force Medical Corps. before he joined Kaiser in 1988. He climbed the leadership ranks until he was named president and executive medical director of the Ohio Permanente Medical Group. Dr. Copeland was selected to be Kaiser's Chief Diversity& Inclusion Officer and senior vice president of national diversity strategy and policy in 2012. 

Dr. Copeland graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He has completed leadership programs at Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.

Dr. Copeland took the time to speak with Becker's about his responsibilities as CDIO and his advice for leaders who want to formalize their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Question: How do you define the role of chief diversity officer?

Dr. Ronald Copeland: Because diversity and inclusion are so intrinsic to Kaiser Permanente's healthcare mission, it was natural to have someone with formal responsibility in this space.

The role is a national officer with accountability to make sure all the key tenets and goals of our diversity and inclusion strategy are being fully implemented across our organization and that we have metrics in place to determine if we're achieving those goals and aspirations. The position involves a fair amount of relationship building. A lot of work is done through influence and helping people understand how this work enhances their ability to carry out our mission effectively.

Q: How do your responsibilities as CDIO differ than those of SVP of national diversity strategy and policy?

RC: Those titles are complementary. The SVP role is an executive description of my core responsibilities, which are to inform and share our national diversity and inclusion strategy and policy recommendations with our CEO and board of directors. The CDIO title acknowledges that the CEO has a colleague in the C-suite he or she can rely on as an advisor on these issues.

Q: Was it difficult coming into a relatively new position for which you were creating the standards?

RC: The fundamental difference in the role today compared previous years is that my predecessor had a human resources background, and the primary focus of his work was what they were doing in terms of affirmative action, hiring — mostly regulatory requirements of diversity and inclusion. A lot of focus was in that area. Now, our strategy has five pillars of focus: care, workplace and workforce, market, supplier diversity and community engagement, and policy and regulatory requirements.

My background as a physician allows me to manage and influence employees across all five of those pillars. I engage people in areas where we want to have impact and influence. So I think that's the difference between the role then and the role now. Diversity and inclusion are valued not just to be compliant with regulations but as business strategies to enhance your accomplishments and achieve your goals. Also, I am the first physician to serve in this capacity, which gives us a new way of integrating our business more effectively.

Q: What are some workforce diversity challenges that are unique to the healthcare industry?

RC: A couple of the challenges are hiring practices in science and technology-oriented fields because of broader issues in the community on educational opportunities and admission to professional schools. There have been some problems in the pipeline in terms of candidacy and who's available for some jobs. There's also been bias and discrimination, intentional and otherwise.

The medical field is predominantly white and male, and only in more recent times have women and people of color been able to break through. If we look at data today, we see huge gaps in who's represented in those professions versus their composition in overall demographics in the population. So one challenge has been finding talent, giving people opportunities to be properly developed, and then having them in a position to succeed in an effective way. Another challenge is, when you hire people, giving them that development opportunity to succeed in whichever professional line they choose to pursue.

At Kaiser Permanente, we make sure our executive candidates are diverse in gender and ethnicity. The second step is to give people awareness and knowledge of the impact of unconscious bias. Without intending to, we still discriminate against people because of how we unconsciously see them and recognize them as worthy of opportunity. So we apply that education and awareness when hiring at all levels, from C-suite to the frontline. If we want our workforce to reflect the demographics and diversity of the population we care for, then we have to make sure we aren't creating additional barriers by our selection process and our biases.

Q: What advice do you have for organizations looking to establish a Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer role?

RC: First and foremost, the organization should ask themselves why are they creating the role. What does diversity and inclusion mean to them from a cultural standpoint? What does it mean in terms of business success and strategies? And if it doesn't resonate with those factors, I think hiring a person in this role would be a waste of time. It has to be business and mission-relevant and align with the values of the organization. If they conclude that's the case, they should hire someone with great interpersonal skills, who can be influential and engage people. He or she must be confident and understand business and social mission, and is positioned to succeed by virtue of his or her position in the organization. If the role is buried down three or four layers in HR and doesn't have access to the CEO, there's a low chance of success. So the role has to be valued and the candidate should be well positioned in the organization.

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