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The Power of Being Out

The more we come out, the more change we can affect.

  • October 2022

I wish I had come out of the closet at work years earlier than I did. I didn’t realize how much energy I was wasting pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Coming out helped me step into a more relatable and authentic version of myself, which I am certain has made me a better consultant. Over the past 15 years at Egon Zehnder, I have been fortunate enough to see how the act of coming out has benefited not only me, but also our clients, and executives I have coached through major job transitions. When I was asked to share my reflections for National Coming Out Day, aside from describing how coming out has benefited me directly, I knew I would also share a few choice anecdotes about how coming out has impacted clients, candidates, and the Firm.

A Candidate’s Story

The CEO of a global CPG company was all but certain Ashley was the ideal candidate for a new role in the organization leading digital innovation. Ashley had already met with the most senior members of the CEO’s team, including several key business unit presidents and corporate function leads, and had been through our assessment as well as confidential referencing. I had also been following Ashley’s career, having met for the first time at a dinner Egon Zehnder hosted for digital executives three years prior. The feedback was unanimous: Ashley would be a strong addition to the team. However, the CEO was not entirely clear on one question: Why was Ashley really leaving her current employer?  

Ostensibly, Ashley’s motivation to make a move was to avoid a job transfer to Europe. However, Ashley was a top performer at her current employer, on track for a step-change promotion to a role that was larger in both scale and scope than the role with the CPG company. Why trade career progression for a lateral move now? The CEO asked me to take additional confidential references, but I already knew the real reason: a relationship. Ashley was a foreign national on an L1 Visa; same sex marriage was not yet recognized in this state; and she was in love with a woman who could not relocate out of the United States.

Fearing Ashley’s discretion would risk her chances at an offer, I advised her to have dinner with the CEO and reveal her personal motives. Her transparency broke the logjam. Almost 10 years later, Ashely still works with our client, has thrived in the culture, been promoted several times, and, incidentally, has built a beautiful family. She married her partner, and they now have two children.

A Client’s Story

“We get the impossible searches” is an oft-used expression in my line of work. Clients trust us to solve their toughest talent problems. One case in point: a global $10B+ consumer products company headquartered in Asia was seeking a Chief Science Officer to build a department in the United States from scratch. This mandate was challenging for several reasons.

The specific set of skills and experiences required for this job narrowed the pool of qualified candidates to only a handful of executives. The top item on the finalist candidate’s list of non-negotiables was not cash, not equity, not a long-term incentive plan, but rather a request for inclusive benefits—specifically support for parental leave, IVF, and surrogacy journeys. The client’s headquarter country does not recognize same-sex marriage, and the client’s current corporate policies, including all health insurance benefits, exclude LGBTQ+ persons.

Beyond the material benefits, the candidate was signaling to our client the expectation that their family would be accepted and cared for as part of the corporate culture, despite the lack of legal protections in the company’s HQ country. I have rarely seen a corporation move as quickly as our client has to create the conditions that would enable this candidate to be equitably covered. What’s more, this experience is only the first in a broader conversation about expanding coverage to other LGBTQ+ employees. I am convinced this will give our client a strong competitive advantage in the market for talent.

A Colleague’s Story

This isn’t my story. I’m borrowing shamelessly from a colleague...let’s call him Justin. This story taught me, and many at our Firm, that connecting authentically with our clients tends to deepen our relationships.

Some years ago, on a Friday afternoon, Justin sat down with a trucking company’s CEO. On the walls hung framed portraits of the all the company’s previous CEOs as well as Chairs. Justin might have felt intimidated, if not for the fact he had already helped this CEO build his executive team and had been invited back to discuss further expanding the relationship with Egon Zehnder.

As the meeting wrapped up, Justin felt a pang of dread—would he be asked: What are you and the wife up to this weekend? Until then, Justin had kept this client relationship strictly professional, never veering into the sphere of private life. Could he risk being open, and would his honesty sour the relationship? Could it result in lost revenues for the Firm?  

As all these possibilities flooded his mind, Justin resolved to take the risk to be open. After a long pause, the CEO thanked him for his candor and courage. To Justin’s surprise, having expected the exchange to be a cursory end to the meeting, the CEO asked Justin to share more of his experience as a gay man in the workforce—and they chatted together into the evening. Earlier that year, the CEO’s teenager had come out to the family.

My Reflection

I celebrate the outcomes of these stories, in part because they showcase the personal growth and courage of out queer individuals, in part because they highlight the progress our firm and clients are making, but also because I recognize the ripples spreading from each story. As a global executive search and leadership advisory firm, we have a unique opportunity to shape the senior ranks of the corporate world, and in doing so to impact companies and communities far beyond the scope of any one search or assignment.

As a Firm, we came out of the closet pretty late—only in the past few years have we started to celebrate Pride Month publicly. I am proud of the progress since then, and optimistic about the future. Through investments in our queer-focused ERG ez+, a robust DE&I practice, and our growing partnership with Out Leadership, the Firm is taking steps to empower the out members of our company, and to correct the underrepresentation of out senior leaders in C-Suites and boardrooms. Even more, I hope we are also creating an environment that signals to others it will be safe to come out of the closet and to share their authentic selves in the workplace. The more we come out, the more change we can affect. That is the power of being out.

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