3 Steps to Building Diverse, LGBTQ-Inclusive Leadership Teams

Employees who remained closeted are a problem for businesses, because diversity in leadership teams matters now more than ever.
3 Steps to Building Diverse, LGBTQ-Inclusive Leadership Teams
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Coming out as gay to friends and family is hard, yet coming out to co-workers can be just as fraught. Although the most valuable company in the world, Apple, today is helmed by a gay man, Tim Cook, he did not come out until years into his tenure. And that's understandable: There are still 28 states in which it is legal to terminate an employee because he or she is gay.

Related: How to Sell to Millennials? Be Radically Inclusive.

Moreover, many people still choose to keep their sexual orientation hidden from colleagues because of the perception that this disclosure could undermine professional bonds or affect career progression.

This is a problem for businesses, because now more than ever, diversity in leadership teams matters -- diversity of races, genders and also sexual orientations. When employees are able to speak openly and honestly about themselves and about at least a portion of their personal lives, businesses are made stronger. They better understand their customers and/or the social context in which they operate.

Thanks to the decades-long effort of activists, I believe that coming out at work has never been more supported. Yet many question the importance of a specific focus on diversity, asserting that technical merit should be the only criteria for leadership. Here are three actions that I believe strong leaders and companies must take to encourage and improve diversity and inclusion for LGBTQ men and women in the workplace (and why these actions improve a business) .

Diverse leadership teams improve businesses.

As an executive faced with critical strategic decisions, I know that the right path can often be elusive, and insight doesn’t always come from solitary contemplation.

For example, my company publishes a global social app for gay men, and we regularly get requests from other companies to buy our data, including data about health and HIV status. Our company recognized the seriousness of such requests, and after much deliberation, not only elected to avoid selling our data, but also cut all ties with third-party ad networks.

Related: 3 Ways to Foster an LGBT-Friendly Workplace

The voices of LGBTQ colleagues, our customers and activists together guided me to this conclusion. Other social networking companies have not made the same decision, and it’s easy to imagine how a management team-monoculture without the input or consideration of queer voices could choose a different path without perceiving the social, legal and reputational consequences.

Believe in and commit to diversity.

Creating a diverse leadership team begins when a business recognizes the unique power and privilege of the founder and CEO. The CEO has to believe that diversity matters, and elevate diverse leaders to positions of authority. It is not enough to outsource initiatives to HR chiefs or diversity officers if the core deciders of the business all look and think the same.

Corporate policy is also a necessary but insufficient piece. This past year of #metoo has demonstrated how much toxic masculinity has penetrated major TV and media companies for decades, yet all of them certainly had policies in place prohibiting such behavior. California just passed a law requiring boards to include a minimum percentage of women. Perhaps it’s time we consider what that might mean if such inclusion were extended to the LGBTQ community.

Diverse teams require leadership by example.

Once members of the LGBTQ community  are part of a team, leaders must reflect on the power of their words and assumptions, including the pronouns they use to address members of their team.

CEOs and founders have a different behavioral standard and level of scrutiny than other employees. When contemplating a new hire, addressing what “he” would need versus what “he or she” would need sends a potent signal to the rest of your organization. Leaders who probe personal details of their colleagues should be prepared for, or make space for, unexpected answers (and unexpected genders). As the size of an organization grows, it becomes more difficult to transfer or inculcate shared social values, and as a result the boundaries of what is acceptable will be tested. CEOs must therefore lead by example, and if that example is at odds with policy, then that policy needs changing because it's just hollow words.

Don’t wait for diversity -- seek it.

Companies cannot simply wait for diverse, LGBTQ candidates to emerge; they must seek them out where they congregate. This doesn’t just have to mean sponsoring elaborate National Pride Day parade floats. LGBTQ centers and colleges around the country have focused career fairs, and new professional organizations in major cities have emerged that bring together mid-career LGBTQ professionals.

Related: The 3 Keys to Hosting, Diversity-Wise, a More Inclusive Event

As your company grows, consider sponsoring or even hosting these organizations in your own office or headquarters. Ultimately, building a culture of diversity is a long-term investment, but for those leaders and companies who recognize its importance, it’s an effort that brings value to a company, to each respective minority community and to our broader world.

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