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Leading as a Straight Ally

By Melissa J. Anderson

“A lot of times, people don’t necessarily want advice, they just want someone to talk to,” explained Nini Mishra, manager in Accenture’s change management practice and an active member of its LGBT allies program.

Mishra is an enthusiastic LGBT ally (also known as “straight ally”) at the company. She explained that the company’s formal LGBT ally program was launched recently, but she has been participating in the informal “Friends of LGBT” group for quite some time. “I had a number of friends and colleagues who are open and out, and they were people who I had a huge amount of respect for personally and professionally. Over the years, a lot of them confided in me, just going out to coffee and talking about their feelings,” she explained. “To me, that’s what the LGBT allies program is about – to support fellow colleagues and be role models for how to foster inclusiveness.”

She suggested that LGBT inclusiveness is just one layer to Accenture’s wider value set of diversity and inclusion. “I think it transcends a lot of other points. It’s just treating people as individuals, with respect, and being open to differences,” she explained.

Anthony Sharrock, IT Strategy and Transformation Consultant at Accenture, and UK co-lead of the company’s LGBT Allies program, agreed. “I initially thought, ‘what’s the point of an LGBT ally network?’” he explained. “As a gay man, I didn’t really get the concept. But I began to realize it’s actually another avenue to help make LGBT employees feel comfortable about being themselves at work, and to do this well. It needs to be okay to be gay any place in the firm, no matter your project, team, et cetera. That takes more than just having a great LGBT network.”

He added, “It’s part of pushing the agenda forward. In the same way we want to see men at women’s networking events, we want to see straight people at LGBT events.”

Advice for Team Leaders

Mishra believes that being an LGBT ally, in addition to being supportive of friends and coworkers, is also part of a broader management style around fostering authenticity at work.

“The first thing to do is create awareness that you are an ally. Sometimes people just don’t know. When I join a new team, I’m quite vocal about what groups I’m in. I let them know that I’m proud to be an LGBT ally. And when leading a team, I think being vocal about your interests motivates people to know that you do have a personality outside work.”

She continued, “As a leader of a team, I think it’s important to say ‘this is my vision of how we will or won’t work.’”

That leads to Mishra’s next piece of advice – using inclusive language. At a consultancy, she explains, many LGBT people are faced with the challenge of coming out at work every time they start a new project. “Think about your language. Saying ‘partner’ instead of ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend,’ they know I’m not presuming one thing or another and can come out if they choose without having to correct me.”

Similarly, she suggested being firm about what kind of language is not acceptable within the team. “When you hear things like ‘that’s so gay’ – many people say it without thinking about what that really means. If you point out that it’s not appropriate, they will recognize that.”

She continued that LGBT allies should be careful not to push LGBT individuals to come out if they don’t want to. “If they decide not to come forward, that’s up to them.”

Finally, Mishra added, being a LGBT ally as a manager results in a stronger team and a better product. “If people feel they can be open about their lives, the team is more trusting of one another. It helps get the job done and you get better results. I think it’s just good business, working with a style of management that understands that we’re all different.”

Making a Difference

Sharrock described his own experience with a more senior LGBT ally on his team. Having worked in the public sector previously, he was unsure what to expect as far as the culture when he first joined Accenture.

He emphasized that the company is a great place to work, that he’d never had a problem with being out at the office. But as a consultant moving from team to team, he continued, having to come out to a new set of colleagues every few months can be taxing. “So it was my second project, and this time I thought ‘I can’t wait two months to come out, and deal with that double-take situation again.’”

When the inevitable Monday discussion about what people on the team had done over the weekend began, Sharrock took a deep breath and mentioned he’d gone out to an area of town known for gay nightlife. “This colleague of mine didn’t bat an eyelid, and just said, ‘Oh, great’ and asked which places I’d gone and mentioned a few in the area he thought were fun.”

He continued, “And because he was so comfortable, it helped my other colleagues absorb it faster too. Little moments like that are I think the key part of being an LGBT ally, in this case to ease past those initial slight moment of surprise and accept it without awkwardness. These small actions are those that make the biggest difference.”

Additionally, he added seeing the “LGBT ally” badge on colleagues’ pages on the company’s intranet is also a great conversation starter. “It can be a gateway into a conversation that is sometimes hard to raise.”

Cross-Network Synergies

Mishra says LGBT allies can be more effective when promoting LGBT inclusiveness within other employee networks or sports groups. “From a program perspective, I think cross integration and connecting with other interest groups is important. Developing a long list of LGBT allies who are multifaceted themselves is a big part of building inclusiveness.”

She continued, “My ethnicity is Indian, and I’ve found a lot of people of my ethnicity – not just at work, but in my community or when I was in college – who weren’t out, or were in the process of coming out, have come forward and confided in me after learning I’m an active LGBT ally,” Mishra said. “They identify with me from a community perspective.”

“I didn’t realize I was doing anything different by being supportive. And then I try to put them in touch with someone who has been in their shoes before, someone with whom they can talk through the issues.”

By connecting with people of other networks or communities, she pointed out, the message of inclusiveness can be spread farther.

Next Steps for LGBT allies

Mishra believes that LGBT allies can do more to support LGBT individuals outside the company. “I think we have a very good program at Accenture,” she said, “but some organizations are not as forward as we are.”

Sharrock agreed. He explained that he had once had an uncomfortable moment while onsite, and an LGBT ally helped make the situation better. “My colleague was instrumental in moderating the language and jokes at a client. I was junior, and didn’t feel comfortable saying anything to the client myself. But having that message come from a non-LGBT colleague, who was also more senior, was powerful.”

Mishra said she would like to learn more from senior leaders on how to approach LGBT on a client level. “I think there’s more we can do outside the organization as far as inclusion,” she explained. “It would be great to have tools to showcase our successes as LGBT allies in conversations with clients. I’m just really proud to be part of this formal network.”

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