LGBT Executive Role Models are Key to Building Inclusive Companies

By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week, Out and Equal hosted a “town call” with top LGBT executives. Out and Equal, a national organization for LGBT professionals hosted the call, said executive director Selisse Berry, because LGBT executives rarely meet one another and discuss the issues that are relevant to the community.

She explained, “When LGBT executives are with other LGBT colleagues… often they are the only executive in the room.” At the same time, she continued, “When LGBT executives meet with other executives, often they are the only LGBT person in the room.”

The call was designed so that LGBT execs and straight allies could share insights and best practices in a peer setting.

Berry commented that often, moving up the ladder means moving further and further into the closet, but with more “out” peers and role models, we are beginning to see that change.

The call, “A View from the Top: LGBT Executives,” featured Donna Griffin, who recently retired as Chief Diversity Officer of Chubb, Bobby Wilkinson, California Zone Marketing Manager at State Farm Insurance, and Mike Feldman, Vice President and General Manager, Managed Enterprise Solutions, IPG Americas, HP. It was moderated by Pat Baillie, Associate Director of Training at Out and Equal.

Common Paths

Surprisingly, each of the individuals on the call had similar stories around coming out at work – none had begun their careers being open about being gay. All came out slowly to individuals they worked with and trusted, and when they felt they were successful enough at their jobs that they felt secure.

Wilkinson said it wasn’t until he began taking his partner on business trips, about ten years into his career, that he came out to his colleagues. “Then I realized I’d wasted ten years in the closet. To them it didn’t matter.”

He continued, “Would I have been more successful bringing my full self to the organization? I ponder that.”

“It’s really helped me to be a stronger leader, it’s helped me be a stronger gay man in California, and it has helped the organization with better products and services.”

Feldman said he spent 16 years living in the corporate closet, and, “As everybody knows, it’s a difficult place to live.”

He recalled the difficulties around describing what he did over the weekend and that he perceived that his coworkers had a lack of trust in him – because he was so opaque about his persona life. “People thought I was hiding something or couldn’t be trusted – or that I was just so focused on my climbing the ladder, that it was all I wanted to do.”

He continued, “But coming out gave me credibility. People thought I had courage, that I was authentic.”

In fact, he said, learning about his company’s corporate stance toward LGBT was a big part of his decision to come out. At one point, he learned that the company was a major sponsor of the Out and Equal conference and a week later, during an earnings presentation, he saw a slide that referenced the company’s Pride celebration. “I had no idea we had such great policies,” he explained. He came out to his boss shortly thereafter.

Griffin said that she never considered herself closeted at work. “I didn’t hide who I was, but I didn’t talk about it either,” she explained. “I think women have an easier time ‘passing’ than men do. But at a certain point, becoming a managing director at a major financial company – it’s crazy to think you have a ‘room mate’ for financial reasons,” she said with a laugh. “I kept people at a bit of a distance.”

But, she explained, it wasn’t until her partner became very sick, and she wound up having to take a lot of time off, that she really came out to her colleagues. “The reaction of people in the organization was phenomenal,” she said. She recalled that even the president of the organization made a point to say he respected her privacy, but would ensure the company would do whatever she needed.

“Thereafter it was very easy for me to be myself at work,” she said.

The Business Case for Coming Out at Work

Feldman said, “Being out for me has been a positive experience every part of the way.” He explained that customers had come out to him, and that customers had thanked him for being himself as well.

In fact, having out executives can be a key part of corporate strategy as well, the panelists noted. Wilkinson explained, “LGBT buying power is estimated at $825 billion. Any smart organization will realize that if it is going to grow revenue it can’t exclude any part of the population.”

“How better to reach that group than embrace LGBT employees?”

He added that it would be nice if companies would simply embrace LGBT employees because it’s the right thing to do, but for many people, the business case really drives it home.

Serving as a Role Model

Griffin explained that at a certain point in her career, she realized her status as an LGBT person wasn’t just personal. “I realized it wasn’t just about me, but I also had a responsibility to other LGBT people in the organization.”

“It was a dawning that I had a responsibility to give back more,” she explained.

Wilkinson agreed. He said, “My colleagues encouraged me to be more open, to be myself, and I realized it was a safe place for me.”

He added, “As Donna said, there is a responsibility we all owe once we get to a certain level.”

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