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5 things future LGBT leaders can do to ensure success

This weekend I attended the EurOUT 2016 conference in London. The event, organised by the Out in Business club at London Business School, is designed for graduate students, MBAs, PhDs and alumni from top business schools around the world – and has seen exponential growth over the past few years.

I approached the conference expecting to learn about aspects of my personal development that would help me ‘rise to the top’ but as I listened to the panels and distinguished speakers I was struck by how much work there is still to do to change the environment for inclusion in the workplace, and I came away with a much more personal sense of responsibility towards the part I have to play in that.

The conference was opened by Xavier Bettel (Prime Minister of Luxembourg) who championed ‘evolution not revolution’, citing anecdotes of achieving political greatness through a step-by-step approach. In his view the secret to success was ensuring you don’t sacrifice some of the parts just because you can’t achieve the whole today – why wouldn’t you effect the change you can at the expense of change you can’t yet achieve? Equally he stressed that you have stay true to your values throughout but this doesn’t mean being an LGBT activist. You can decline invitations that go against your principles without creating a ruckus.

Jan Gooding (Group Brand Director for Aviva, and Chair of Stonewall) followed and the story of her own personal coming-out was heartfelt and humorous but she delivered some serious messages that were continuously quoted by panellists and speakers throughout the conference weekend. The fact that 65% of graduates who are fully out at university go back in the closet when they join the world of work is not just disturbing but a real message that (1) we’re still not getting inclusion right, and (2) we can’t rely on millennials entering the workplace to change attitudes, because they’re conforming to the existing culture.

Having spent a solid 48 hours in the company of some amazing LGBT thought leaders, politicians, senior business leaders and delegates from around the world, I was reflecting on the key things LGBT people need to do in order to successfully become a senior leader, or be a more successful senior leader.

So, here’s my own take on the top 5 things that a future LGBT leader needs to do to ensure success not just for themselves, but to change the way business works today and improve inclusion for all:


1) Establish your values system

At the core of the conference was an emerging theme that values aren’t just important, they are at the heart of whether things go right or wrong.

Your values, your employers’ values, and the values of people around you mixing together create one of two outcomes; friendship or friction. Clearly if your values get along then the pathway to collaboration and success will be more accessible.

More than this though, values are intrinsically linked to trust.

Kevin Blair (Senior Director of Talent Acquisition at Cisco) spoke during a panel about a transgender woman beginning her transition. When at home she was completely female and so was refusing to go on webcam for conferences. For her line manager this behaviour was abnormal. In the office webcam conferencing was the norm and so the relationship and trust began to break down. Ultimately the company values were to support the individual however without disclosure by the employee there was no opportunity to address it.

In adjusting her values the employee was no longer able to maintain her relationships. The message? It’s hard not to be yourself, and when you aren’t yourself you breed distrust. Secondly, don’t prejudge the values of others because your actions might actually have the opposite effect if you’ve missed the mark.

Tamara Littleton (CEO of Emoderation) had advice which was clear – she created her own brand of culture without being constrained by what existed already. By being really true to her own values she felt this had contributed to being more successful; decision making becomes much more straightforward with a values framework to guide you.

So if you aren’t clear what your values are, then maybe you should spend some time giving them some thought.


2) Align yourself to an employer that works for you

Having values is one thing, but when they don’t align to those of your employer it’s a recipe for disaster.

Surely that means we should be voting with our feet and working for businesses that accept LGBT without question? Not necessarily.

The theme arising throughout was one of personal choice. You don’t have to be an activist, you don’t have to change the world overnight, but you do need to be cognisant of the choices you make and be happy with them. It’s fine to work for a homophobic employer, but you should really understand what you’re getting yourself in for. However, see point 1 – if you’re not being true to yourself this might impact your relationships at work when your values aren’t aligned.

And what about selecting the right employer/industry/sector/business?

  • Try to join a business that compliments your values but always look to what they could do better and help them improve. No business is perfect and if the intention is there then change will follow.

  • Live your values. If the business doesn’t respond well then that’s a clear indicator as to whether it’s a good fit…!

  • Look for people like you. If you don’t see any (particularly amongst the leadership) then you need to question how much change you might be able to impact and whether you are truly as aligned as you think.

  • Acknowledge the limitations of your own personal influence. Values are part of an eco-system, not something you can write up and roll out. To change values you have to change the people.

However if you want to look beyond a common-sense approach ask yourself (1) what level of personal sponsorship am I receiving, and (2) how involved are my senior leadership in driving inclusion?

It was clear from the presenters that companies where LGBT people truly flourish have genuine senior sponsorship that runs far deeper than putting their name to something and being a figurehead – they drive activity and they are out there doing the doing.

You also need to consider at a personal level it’s also about sponsorship, not mentorship. Martin Bratt (Partner, McKinsey & Co) made the point that women receive a disproportionate amount of mentorship but not sponsorship, and yet they’re still not getting the top jobs. You need someone who will champion you and give a helping hand up to get you through those glass ceilings.

So look around you. Does this feel like the right place to be? And if not, are you happy that your choice is getting you to where you need to be?


3) Be authentic, whatever that means for you

Authenticity cut through the every single session, breakout and panel like a knife through butter.

It was patently clear that inauthenticity can stem from the misalignment of values between employer and employee, and amongst you, your peers and your senior leaders. When you’re perceived to be inauthentic or disingenuous you lose power and influence. It can destroy your confidence and provide a barrier to relationships.

It’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this…every panel concurred, without a shadow of a doubt, that you can’t achieve authenticity without being out but that being out shouldn’t define your authenticity.

What they meant was that being authentic isn’t about banging the LGBT drum per se, but about being true to who you are. So when someone asks about your children/partner/what you did at the weekend you are real in your answer – you don’t take steps to conceal or lie unless you are at risk or it’s unfeasible.

Your authentic self stems from your values, and the fact you are LGBT is just a small component part of that. So being out doesn’t mean being loud and proud (unless that is also part of your core values), but it does mean being visible and being present.

Authenticity and being authentic were cited as the number one attribute of achieving success. People like people who are real, people like people who are confident in themselves, and people who are authentic are more real, more confident, and achieve more.

If you think of someone you really admire in the workplace I would be willing to bet you find them authentic. It’s a combination of both who they are and how they are.

But achieving authenticity is not just about the inward looking, you also need to look outward.

Tap into the experiences of others and talk to people who aren’t like yourself. You’ll build a better understanding of who you are, you’ll learn more about other people and in yourself become naturally more inclusive and build your self-confidence.

So see point 2. Now I understand my values, and I’m aligned to an employer, am I really being authentic?


4) Help others and be an agent for change

One of the things that struck me most during the conference was that we still have so much to do to improve inclusion across the board in the workplace. Not only is it everyone’s responsibility to make this better (note, everyone not just LGBT people!) as LGBT people we have a duty to those who are going back in the closet.

We need to be vocal, we need to challenge how things are done and we need to seek advocates for inclusion across all the diversity strands without exception.

So this for me was a light bulb moment. It was the bringing together of values, alignment and authenticity. Real leaders lead change. They agitate because they want to achieve progress.

If you too want to be an LGBT leader it’s part of your duty to set the tone for the organisation and help smaller companies without the critical mass form networks with other businesses and build safe spaces where ideas can be explored.

Feels a bit like we’re banging the LGBT drum again doesn’t it? Well actually no. The emphasis again was your personal contribution – being authentic and out goes a long way but challenging when you see wrong, speaking up against poor business practices, little by little, step by step, can have a huge impact.

One of the theories put forward during the panel discussion on LGBTs rising to the top of business was the existence of the ‘gay superpower’. It was suggested that because often as LGBT people we have to go through the coming out experience this actually bestows us with skills that don’t come naturally to all. We tend to be better at having and approaching difficult conversations, more skilled at articulating and pre-empting arguments, and more strategic in how we approach influencing and changing views and opinions of others – because we’re used to doing this when we come out. Every. Single. Day.

So, if you’re being authentic and you aspire to be an LGBT leader you can’t really claim to be a good one unless you’re doing something to make a difference and help others. That’s what good and decent leaders do.


5) Seize on the key attributes to success, and then deploy them

Nothing in this section is going to surprise you but the key attributes to success unsurprisingly transcend your sexuality. LGBT or not, it really doesn’t matter. Here’s what I took away:

  • Bravery – we need to brave with what we ask for and be bold in our ambitions.

  • Curiosity – we need to explore and seek to understand why things are the way they are. We achieve more if we have dialogue with others.

  • Challenging the rules – just because it’s how we’ve done things before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done better.

  • Confidence – well, duh!

  • Be good at your job – when we’re good at what we do it gives us a platform, our credentials build power and influence, and we build more confidence.

  • Learn to listen, and hear what’s said – hearing and understanding others makes us more rounded, get away from your own values and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

  • Get involved with LGBT employee networks – working in organisations with these networks gives us access to senior leaders, raises our profiles and gives us visibility. If your organisation doesn’t have one then start one.

Critically a big part of being successful is opening your mind and being more open to new experiences and ways of thinking. We also need to think about our own prejudices and be more inclusive to our own community as well as those outside of it. It’s not uncommon for LGBT people themselves to display forms of homophobia, after all we’re sort of programmed that way when we grow up in the way we do, but being better means being more aware of ourselves.


So there you have it – 48 hours distilled into a few thousand words.

The closing remarks of the conference were apt for me to close the article: talent will always rise to the top regardless of the challenges but you can make it easier for yourself and be more effective in fulfilling your potential if you focus your efforts.

Lord Black’s closing speech on the Saturday afternoon summed it up quite well – “I achieved not in spite of being gay, but because of being gay” – during his career he was essentially nothing other than authentic in the way he behaved. He didn’t push an LGBT agenda, but he didn’t hide it or cover it up when it mattered. Authenticity counts and accepting yourself for all that you are will pay dividends.

So perhaps my number one take away as an aspiring LGBT leader is that we need to challenge our own prejudices of what others think of us. All too often we assume a position of risk mitigation when it comes to disclosing our sexuality and getting ahead, but how much of that is our own perception of misaligned values on the part of the people we talk to? It seems perverse that trust in relationships is founded on sharing personal information but as LGBT people we often seek to build that trust before we disclose our sexuality.

So next time someone asks me “what did you do at the weekend?” I’m going to say “I spent time with my boyfriend”, because I think being a good LGBT leader probably starts with me.