At last year’s Kellogg Marketing Leadership Summit, three renowned marketing leaders gathered for a panel titled “Changing the Narrative—Embracing Your Full Identity as a Leader.” Moderated by Egon Zehnder consultant Charlie Beasley, the panelists explored how embracing their LGBTQ+ identities shaped their careers in the marketing field—helping them become more determined, creative, and professionally fearless at a time when the business world was still only slowly progressing on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.
Thomas Ranese, former vice president of global marketing at Uber, reflected on coming out in the early 1990s, and the worry that it could impede his career. Fortunately, his job at the time—in the nonprofit sector in San Francisco—was “a very welcoming place in that regard.” But he lacked professional role models who also identified as gay, which, in turn, impacted his own thoughts on leadership. “It took me a long time to kind of come to terms with potentially being a role model myself, or at least being more of a leader in terms of identifying as a gay person,” said Ranese. “I’m still learning a lot as a leader and how to celebrate what makes me different.”
Julie Haddon—CMO of the National Women's Soccer League and veteran marketing executive for firms such as the National Football League, DreamWorks, and eBay—also charted her professional journey during a less accepting time. She recalled coworkers asking her to bring her husband to company events and outings. “They just assumed that I had a husband,” said Haddon. “It became an ongoing question: ‘When are we going to meet him?’ And I didn’t know how to get myself out of that.”
Lou Aversano, chief brand and marketing officer of Cigna, opened with a different story. “I took the slow path to coming out,” he said. “I came out literally six years ago…When I came out, I was at a very high level in an industry and organization that had no issues with this. So it was all personal fear.” Still, Aversano noted, before coming out, he witnessed workplace instances that showed him that some of that fear was real. “You do realize some of the issues that still exist,” he said. “You hear things that they don't realize that you're hearing from a different perspective…So while we’re making progress, there’s so much more progress to go.”
Aversano’s story unveiled a key aspect across all three panelists’ journey: Their experiences as an LGBTQ+ person and associated fears of “belonging” gave each a strong sense of determination that advanced their careers.
“I think when you’re not revealing yourself, you are determined to prove that you can do something,” Aversano said. “And I think that's a huge part of who I am and what’s propelled my career.”
Thomas Ranese shared a similar perspective. “You spend your whole life, your childhood, feeling different, like you don't fit or belong,” he said. “So there’s this element of always having to prove yourself and figure out where you fit.”
But it doesn’t end with proving oneself; Ranese went on to say that at some point, he realized he must be himself in order to be an effective and authentic leader. “Once I realized I could be myself, I think that's when I finally started to realize I can actually affect a lot of change as a leader and be more of a role model and potentially pave a way for other people.”
Julie Haddon expanded on the value of such authenticity when it comes to marketing and understanding your audience: “We had at the NFL over 180 million fans. You know that a big chunk of those fans are LGBTQ+, and so I think it's important that we bring that authenticity…We're thinking about the others and we're feeling about how those others are going to experience the content or the campaign.”
Just as vital to the panelists’ journeys was the career field they chose. The field of marketing emphasizes thinking differently—both in terms of one’s own creativity but also understanding how others may think or perceive things differently. “We build brands that have unique voices,” said Lou Aversano. “Part of our special sauce is celebrating differences and finding ways to make people see the specialness of those things.”
Thomas Ranese agreed: “That’s what I love about marketing—emotions are actually something that we trade in. It's thinking about how to create emotions to drive behavior and business impacts.”
All of these lessons reinforced a valuable realization for each panelist: Embracing one’s identity and the unique advantages it may provide can lead to professional success. Julie Haddon summed up this sentiment when recounting the words of a former mentor: “He said, ‘Don’t fuck with your swing.’” In other words, lean into your talents in creativity, empathy, or any other area rather than trying to be something you’re not. “I carried that lesson then with me,” said Haddon. “We are celebrated more for being different than being the same.”