Despite corporations having a long way to go toward fostering cultures where most LGBTQIA+ people feel safe to be themselves at work, it is possible for LGBTQIA+ employees to ascend to executive positions
To learn more about what strengths were required for today’s LGBTQIA+ executives to navigate their way to leadership positions, we sat down with twelve leaders who identify as gay or lesbian, and as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Perseverance, resilience, empathy, and mentor support are just some of the key elements these leaders had in common. They shared how their experiences navigating career growth and personal discovery strengthened their leadership, how they achieve results while leading with purpose, and what others did to support their development along the way.
Our conversations revealed that regardless of the path they took to becoming a leader, these individuals demonstrate characteristics of superior leadership, developed and sharpened through the experience overcoming personal and professional challenges, and heightened by efforts at self-discovery. Most now see it as their purpose to expand opportunities to others in ways that were not available to them. This combination of a purpose-driven mindset and a differentiated set of capabilities has enabled them to rise to the top and become change agents for others in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Balancing the immediate risks of being out at work against the long-term benefits of being true to themselves enhanced LGBTQIA+ leaders’ capabilities to make critical strategic decisions and connect with others
Before they sat at the management table, the leaders from the LGBTQIA+ community that we spoke to had acquired a world of experience with navigating and succeeding in their own personal transformations, including making the pivotal decision to come out to relatives, friends, and in the workplace. Acknowledging their specific circumstances, they talk about these transformations as not only difficult – sometimes resulting in leaving old lives, friends, and relatives behind – but also risky because of the potential repercussions on their careers.
These leaders cited the ability to take on a successful self-transformation as an early lesson in developing a strong set of strategic decision-making capabilities, weighing short term disruption over long term gain. Adriana Peon, former head of industry retail, ecommerce, and financial services and newly appointed director of partner solutions for global audiences at Facebook in Mexico City, explained how her personal experiences bolster her professional talents: “I am able to scale organizations and transform them because of my understanding of my own life transformation, and my understanding of people. I came out and I transformed myself; what I learned about transformation in that experience helps me guide others through successful business transformations.”
While they are honest about the difficulties, risks, and pitfalls of coming out, every leader told us that experiencing the highs and lows of their journeys made them ultimately come out stronger and more confident on the other side. “When you are early in your career, and in the closet, you’re just managing so much,” said Vanessa Benavides, chief compliance and privacy officer at Kaiser Permanente and board director at The Trevor Project. “You’re striving to be the best you can be and hopefully be judged on your merits. It’s a lot to manage. But people who have to deal with their identity early in life are way better suited to be resilient later in their careers. Your struggles can become your superpower.” She went on to explain that while her coming out at work was anything but an easy decision to make, she decided that she would not allow the personal sacrifice of living a double existence to hold her back from excelling in her career.
Despite the risks, she says that when people at work found out that she was a lesbian, “I thought, ‘here we go, I’m going to get fired,’ but that didn’t happen. There were plenty of people who didn’t like it and I’m sure judged me, but there were some who didn’t at all. It opened my eyes to the fact that the worst possible scenario doesn’t always happen. There were partners who embraced me and gave me opportunities, and they saw the benefits of diversity, even at that time.” The partners that stood by and elevated Benavides are just one example of how senior executives can serve as allies for LGBTQIA+ professionals and elevate the benefits that their diverse viewpoints bring to the organization.
A hallmark of great leadership is the ability to persuade others, engender trust, and ultimately build buy-in. Listening to the stories of many LGBTQIA+ leaders, their experiences demonstrate an exceptional ability to connect with others because of their emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy. Louis A. Vega, president for North America of Dow, summed up how the importance of approaching situations with eyes wide open is a leadership requirement: “I don’t think it’s specific to the LGBTQ+ community, but understanding the culture in which you are operating is essential, as is understanding the language of the company, so when you give input, you are heard. Being able to fully and effectively articulate yourself within the context of the world around you will help you succeed,” he said. “I had to learn how the culture operates, learn the company’s language, and figure out what my voice is within the company.” LGBTQIA+ leaders often describe how their abilities to connect with and influence others comes from the formative experiences of finding their own identity and their authentic self.
The executives explain how empathy in their leadership toolkit enables them to truly listen to and consider the viewpoints of others – even if they flat out disagree – while working collaboratively to find a solution. Each leader described their understanding of empathy slightly differently, but all with the same result: growth in their careers and for their organizations.
David Ringer, a communications executive in the social impact sector, explained “I have a strong ability to understand where people are coming from, to empathize, to see their points of view. That’s been critical to my career success because I go in genuinely open minded and empathetic. I really want to hear people and learn and get better from what they have to say rather than being there just to validate my own assumptions.” When asked where he believed his empathy came from, Ringer said “I think that as gay people you are forced early to develop a lot of those EQ abilities in order to survive. You have to understand you are at risk in a given situation, whether physically or socially. ‘Is this person safe? Is this person like me?’”
Octavio Valdes, senior vice president at The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. and general manager of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics International, linked his skills with empathy to his experience with coming out and the opportunities which arose from him genuinely connecting with his colleagues. He explained “Making meaningful connections with my colleagues was much easier after I came out while I worked in Mexico City. Being able to speak up and share, the same way everyone else was sharing, makes you more authentic, open, personable and empathetic. Being able to connect with people has helped me be successful as a leader.”
“Regardless of your personal circumstances, there will always be challenges that could affect your self-confidence. You need to have the courage to take on opportunities and not be paralyzed by the possible downsides. We tend to out-weight the potential downsides and ignore the benefits that come from having the courage to do something new and different.”
“Be genuinely curious. Being a good leader is all about being curious about yourself and others. You have to understand yourself to show up authentically. But being curious about yourself also allows you to be more empathetic, which ultimately strengthens relationships and helps you solve business problems.”
For these LGBTQIA+ leaders, high achievement was a pathway to better, more inclusive opportunities, but resilience also played a big role in their rise to the top
All the leaders we spoke with have climbed the ladder by tapping into their strong penchants for hard-work and resilience to persevere despite the setbacks. For these executives, the drive to achieve came from motivations beyond a desire for financial success. Whether consciously sought out or not, many explained that excelling in every job they did meant a greater chance of living a fully authentic life by gaining access to opportunities in cities, jobs, and companies with equally strong reputations for performance and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people.
One leader described how their ability to “demonstrate accomplishment” served as a catalyst for more inclusive opportunities in their future. They explained that “I was not out to either one of my first few bosses. Gay employees were not even allowed at one of those companies. But they saw my gifts and my accomplishments, and I was able to leverage those capabilities and excelling into an opportunity where I could be my full self. You keep building your accomplishments and that helps bring those better and more inclusive opportunities.” However, in the many years that it took this leader to find those inclusive opportunities, “I had to have the resilience to hold multiple truths.”
Many of the leaders talked about how resilience factored into their experiences and how the hard truth was that it was a skill without which they may not have made it to their successful positions today. Dennis Layton, a tech founder and former strategy consulting executive, defined resilience in a way that we heard echoed from a number of other leaders: “If you get knocked down, and you don’t get up, you’ve just guaranteed that you’re not going to win. If you get knocked down, and you don’t make any change, you’re also not going to win.” In a similar tone, Jason Lobo, head of communications for J.P. Morgan Private Bank in EMEA, discussed the importance of having the resilience to keep moving forward towards one’s goals as he says “Resilience is really important. Particularly when you are looking for promotion, or elevation, or lateral moves that take you to another country. Things don’t always happen when you want them to happen, and a lot of people cut and run. You have to use resilience to keep moving forward. The game doesn’t just stop – it goes on.”
While having the ability to be resilient, or reinvent oneself in the face of adversity, is an undeniable asset to any individual, it is even more important when you are a member of a minority group. Being a minority in an organization always comes with the potential to pose cultural challenges, regardless of how inclusive the company is or how aware colleagues are of current issues impacting diverse backgrounds. In the best of situations, other individuals may, intentionally or unintentionally, say or do something that can hurt those that are different than them.
As Dominic Longo, founder and managing director of Flourishing Gays, a LGBTQIA+ leadership development organization, explained to us, resilience is not about hardening one’s exterior or pretending that nothing happened, but rather finding a way to grow from a difficult situation. He said that he approaches challenges by “including the hurt and attending to the wound, inquiring into it as a reflection, sharing, processing. It’s a different, messier process, but it’s not just picking up and getting going as if nothing happened.” As was the case for many of the LGBTQIA+ leaders, resilience led to more self- understanding, which ultimately led to growth, but without acknowledging the pain, growth is much more difficult to achieve.
Leaders in positions of power, eager and able to effect long lasting changes in the workplace and beyond can, in turn, leverage these experiences to raise awareness around oppressions faced by minorities and the systems allowing them to persist, and challenge them.
Achieving personal success dovetails with LGBTQIA+ leaders’ drive to have an impact on social good as they pay their success forward through mentorship, while underscoring the importance of executive sponsorship from allies
The leaders we spoke to have undoubtably achieved professional success, reaching the senior executive and C-suite ranks. However, a striking commonality across all of them is that they see their true purpose as only just beginning. Often their narratives centered on reaching an executive position in order to then use their position to create a better environment for other people, particularly for other LGBTQIA+ people.
“I try to stay aware that it’s not just about me,” Vanessa Benavides said. “I’m about changing things for everybody. As I’ve attained more and more influence in my career, I’ve realized there is a much bigger purpose than me and my success. I try to align my personal goals with the success of something greater than me. I don’t believe in a zero-sum game. There are plenty of opportunities for everyone, and I try to increase the pie.”
The leaders discussed with us how they lead by example by being authentic to themselves, and how that is a form of mentorship for others. In their accounts of their journeys, a common theme is the role that peers and mentors play, helping them deal with emotional challenges, show kindness, and share wisdom. But for many, the most important role modeling comes from how they present themselves as their true selves, and their ability to successfully navigate contextual nuances.
David Ringer explains the impact his authenticity as a gay executive has had on others in his organization: “I am unapologetically myself in a work context, which I hope gives other people confidence. I have been told that has really changed the way others have been able to be themselves at work too. Every queer person has a different way of being in the world, it’s just about being yourself. People tell me they see me being me and that creates a lot of space for them.”
The concept of authenticity for many of these leaders goes beyond self-expression. They explain that without being fully authentic, they also could not be fully successful in their roles because of the time and energy expended by always balancing and managing multiple truths. Randall Tucker, chief inclusion officer at Mastercard, explained his experience with coming to understand the full value of his authenticity: “At first, I did not understand the value of authenticity in the workplace. But being authentic helped me drive further and further. I always wanted to be successful but could not do that until I became authentic.”
Adam Stanley, chief information officer and chief digital officer at Cushman & Wakefield, clarifies that even while being authentic, there are important nuances to behavior that are commonly still expected in a corporate environment. “Authenticity is critically important for success as a leader. Never hide who you are but do recognize that who you are is a spectrum and the beauty of life is that you have different relationships with different people. There are certain parts of your life experiences you will not necessary share within the corporate environment and that is ok.” Stanley adds that, as a leader, he feels an “obligation to be out, make it obvious enough, and speak up.”
Much like Stanley, in addition to just being themselves, some of the leaders detail how they find opportunities in events throughout their organizations to contribute to an environment where their family structure becomes normalized. Jason Lobo explained his work, saying “I speak on many panels and this is where my mentorship comes into play. I talk openly about being gay without it being a bullet point on the page. I talk about my significant other and we normalize it - because it’s normal. I suppose when other gay people see us, and others, being elevated and in high level roles that hold influence at the management level that encourages them.”
The executives identified that in addition to their own drive and achievements, the companies they ultimately chose to work for fostered inclusive workplaces. They mentioned how that environment was essential for supporting their authenticity and belonging in the organization, so that they could focus their attention on their work and not on their differences. Charlene Liu, co-founder of Diversity
& Inclusion Consulting (DINC), a consultancy based in Shanghai that supports the development of corporate diversity and inclusion efforts, stresses that inclusion is not just about individuals coming out – it is about the way organizations set and implement their policies and practices to develop a greater sense of belonging among all employees. She said “people coming out at work doesn’t make a company inclusive. Inclusivity means there are policies that protect employees from harassment and discrimination. If a company is more inclusive, it’s good for business.”
One of the ways corporations can help the development of an LGBTQIA+ leader is through mentorship and sponsorship. Approaching an executive to as ask them to be a mentor can be a challenge for any individual. Jevan Soo Lenox, chief people officer at Stitch Fix, offered this guidance to those looking to build that skill. He said “Learning how to find great mentors is a really important skill. Part of it is a numbers game, as it’s hard to build a few magical relationships without meeting a lot of people to see who you have sparks with. You can do it in a way that is authentic to you. I am an introvert, but I realized that didn’t need to hold me back from finding the right mentors for me. Personally, I take the pressure off by just approaching each initial conversation with no expectations other than having a fun chat, and then seeing what happens!” Organizations, however, can also help take the pressure off of diverse individuals trying to form connections with more senior employees by offering formalized mentorship programs that encourage and incentivize leaders to participate.
In addition to the importance of mentorship between LGBTQIA+ people, our conversations highlighted that sponsorship from more senior executives, whether LGBTQIA+ or not, was often the most important professional support they received to propel their careers.
A number of these leaders had professional sponsors who took notice of their significant potential and high- performance at an early stage in their careers and used their own executive political capital to open doors. Putting this into context, Benavides explains: “I have three sponsors who have enormously helped me accelerate my success at a young age. They’re all straight White people – two are men and all are older than me. They saw something in me, put my name out there, told people to hire me, given me incredible recommendations. I do the work, and I am worthy of it, but they use their influence to create opportunities and cosign on me.” This common theme in these leaders’ paths to success underscores how important it is that all leaders work to open doors for LGBTQIA+ talent.
“I did not realize the weight I carried with me until I came out. It freed so much energy to think more strategically about business and be successful.”
“Really noticing your own values, passion, what you care about the most – not what your mentors value or admire - to figure out how to be your own person. This will bring you to the top of how you define the top to be. My mission is to be me – not to go to the top. Be true to yourself.”
The leaders we interviewed ascended to executive leadership positions at a time when being anything other than heterosexual in the workplace was largely taboo, and LGBTQIA+ role models were hidden – or worse, excluded. Despite their awareness that being out as a professional could be career limiting, this collective of high-performing leaders have become proud champions for LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace, and are seen as role models for both the results they generate for their organizations and for their authenticity.
They do believe that progress has been made in many ways, but there is much more to do to drive that progress forward and create environments where future LGBTQIA+ employees have more opportunities to be their authentic selves and great leaders.
- Jemi Crookes is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Center for Leadership Insight. She is based in Washington, DC
- Ruben Hillar is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Leadership and Succession practice Knowledge Management team. He is based in Washington, DC
- Guillaume Morisset is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Education sector Knowledge Management team. He is based in Boston
- TR Straub is a member of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Corporate Officers sector. He is based in Washington, DC
With special thanks to our contributors for sharing their stories and insights:
- Vanessa Benavides
- Dennis Layton
- Jevan Soo Lenox
- Charlene Liu
- Jason Lobo
- Dominic Longo
- Adriana Peon
- David Ringer
- Adam Stanley
- Randall Tucker
- Octavio Valdes
- Louis A. Vega