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Culture of Diversity Equity & Inclusion

I’m a Great Leader Because I’m LGBTQ+…Not in Spite of It

Helping LGBTQ+ leaders tap into their full potential

  • 9 June 2021

“Your upbringing and the decision to come out or be open at work means you have to make a conscious decision about when you are going to be truly authentic to yourself and others, and that moment—that decision—enables you to approach leadership in a completely different way,” says Justin D’Agostino, Global CEO of Herbert Smith Freehills, an international law firm. 

As global leadership advisors, we see first-hand that the coming out experience is a transformative leadership moment. Whether you come out early in life or later, it is a time of deep self-exploration and reflection that requires great courage. It necessitates taking a risk that only those who have gone through it can understand. It is this experience of coming out and embracing the life experiences gained through being LGBTQ+ that we believe can empower LGBTQ+ leaders to tap into their full potential. 

Identifying and unlocking the potential in leaders is our passion – it is at the heart of what we do and where we can make a real difference with the individuals and organizations we work with. At Egon Zehnder, we define potential as the ability to successfully take on larger leadership roles in both scale and scope and the speed at which one can do so. We assess this via our Potential Model, which measures how leaders can grow beyond their current competencies by evaluating them on four key drivers of potential: Curiosity, Insight, Engagement, and Determination. Following our assessment, we work with leaders to build their self-awareness and tap into their personal sources of potential to help them own and drive their development. 

In working with LGBTQ+ leaders globally, we are exploring how the experience of being LGBTQ+ can be a driver across these sources of potential with a twofold objective: 

  • To help organizations understand at a deeply human level the value that diverse, LGBTQ+ leaders can bring (bearing in mind the under-representation of LGBTQ+ leaders in board and senior executive positions). 
  • To help LGBTQ+ leaders understand the great leadership strengths they can derive from life experiences that may have involved significant personal and professional challenges, and then bring those to life.

Looking at the four drivers of potential, we believe the experience of being LGBTQ+ can play a pivotal role:

  • Curiosity is the drive to embrace new experiences, knowledge, and feedback, combined with an openness to learning and growth. It is the insatiable need to understand the world at large and one's self. LGBTQ+ people are often forced to confront, at an earlier stage in their life than many others, who they are, what they like, how they present themselves, who they want to be, and why they feel the way they do. As a result, they are more likely to experience a degree of self-questioning that can unlock an understanding of their personalities, their depth, and their truth much more than others who face a less pressing need to question their identity and place. “[The LGBTQ+ experience] helps you grow and helps you understand your identity earlier than others—it makes you stronger earlier and helps you better understand the identities of others,” says Caroline Princen, CEO of Nuts Group. 
  • Insight can be described as the ability to gather and interpret a wide range of information in new and thought-provoking ways. In their attempt to “fit” into the world, many LGBTQ+ individuals hone a strong sense of observation about the world they are part of, human behaviors and expectations, cultural and social norms and need to develop refined cultural sensitivities. Their life experience also enables them to create more inclusive cultures. An openness to more fluid, less-gendered ways of approaching and analyzing issues can be easier to tap into. Frank Rövekamp, former Chief Commercial Officer and member of the group Exco at Vodafone and currently a nonexecutive chairman of several boards, notes that LGBTQ+ leaders often have the ability to shift their thinking styles and understand others better because adaptability and awareness has been a hallmark of their experiences.
  • An individual with high levels of determination is someone with the fortitude to fight for difficult goals in the face of challenges and rebound from adversity. LGBTQ+ people live in a world that constantly reminds them that they are not always welcome, that they do not belong, and that rights, relationships and social constructs cannot be taken for granted. A personal struggle for acceptance, the ability to pull yourself up again through participation in the broader struggle for rights can be indicative of a level of resilience and challenge that is the hallmark of determination. Even sometimes unaware they are doing it, LGBTQ+ individuals are often unafraid of challenges and are used to taking intelligent risks simply by the nature of who they are. Nassib Abou-Khalil, Chief Legal Officer of Nokia, believes that being LGBTQ+ enabled him to fully draw out his traits of courage and determination. “I was not going to limit my career and choices by running away from situations where being LGBTQ+ was criminalized, and I wasn’t going to hide being gay,” he shares. 
  • Engagement is the ability to mix emotion and logic to communicate in a way that is persuasive and allows others to be heard. LGBTQ+ people, like any other marginalized group, have developed a layer of sensitivity, empathy, and compassion that can unlock an ability to adapt and connect to diverse ranges of people across the spectrum. When they embrace their identity, there can be a greater ability to straddle both masculine and feminine energy and intellect to influence and unite those around them. “The more we can help our colleagues to accept and share their uniqueness at work, the more they will contribute,” said Dolph Westerbos, CEO of Staples Solutions, in a speech. “Businesses where employees bring all of themselves to work, have the highest engagement. In my view those companies create the most sustainable performance.”

However, despite the potential that we believe LGBTQ+ leaders bring, we frequently witness a diversity paradox: many of the senior LGBTQ+ leaders we engage with tell us that they don’t want to be hired or seen as “the LGBTQ+ leader” so they often don’t share deeply about their experience—if at all. (Though many they say they wish they’d had more senior LGBTQ+ role models in their professional lives, noting that their careers only really took off when they “came out” professionally and personally.) Compounding matters, leading global companies increasingly are saying they want to be more diverse, with recent moves to increase LGBTQ+ diversity on boards and at the executive level. Yet, these organizations still largely feel ill-equipped to find, let alone have the conversations to attract and retain LGBTQ+ diversity, particularly where LGBTQ+ identity is often not immediately visible and where there is a fear of offending and uncertainty about what to say on this topic.

This is where we have an important role and responsibility. Our work as a leadership advisory firm is to be a bridge between companies and candidates, helping organizations understand how to create inclusive cultures and psychological safety for employees to be their full selves, and encouraging candidates to see their LGBTQ+ experience as an enabler to success and to be more open about it. We believe the linkage of our Potential Model to the LGBTQ+ experience enables leaders to embrace their LGBTQ+ identity as an intrinsic and important part of their career and leadership journey and, ultimately, helps leaders unleash their full potential. In doing so, we hope they will openly share and inspire others to truly believe, as we do, that they are great leaders because they are LGBTQ+ not in spite of it. 

Charlie Beasley and Artemio Garza are co-founders of ez+, Egon Zehnder’s global LGBTQ+ and allies community.

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