With the launch of its LGBT Executive Leadership Program, announced a few days ago, the Stanford Graduate School of Business will give professionals identifying as LGBT the chance to connect with each other and improve their leadership skills. The program takes place from July 31 to August 5, at a cost of $12,000. The application deadline is June 24. There are 50 slots.
According to Sarah Soule, professor at Stanford GSB and co-director of the program, participants can expect three takeaways: a more thorough grasp of their opportunities for leadership development; a new network of LGBT leaders; and ideas they can take back to their employers, relating both to leadership and to cultivating LGBT networks within their organizations.
Soule and co-director Thomas S. Wurster, a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB, say the time is ripe for such a program because there remains "a huge under-representation of LGBT leaders," says Soule. Apple's CEO Tim Cook remains the only prominent example. And he didn't come out until 2014, after he was promoted to the position. The reality of most workplaces--no matter how progressive their policies are on paper--is that publicly identifying yourself as LGBT isn't easy. It isn't easy if you're doing it to claim an employee benefit. It isn't easy if you're trying to be honest about what you did over the weekend.
Many LGBT employees have become accustomed to lying about themselves in the workplace. They feel alone, unsupported, and at risk for losing opportunities for promotion, if they're honest about who they are. Soule and Wurster hope that the Stanford program will help LGBT leaders get more comfortable in their own skin while they're at work. Further, they want leaders emerging from this first class (and all the following classes of future years) to walk away with a network of friends who can support each other through the risks--and ultimately, the rewards--of being honest about your identity in the workplace.
Just how profound is the problem? According to a 2014 poll by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 53 percent of LGBT people are still in the closet at work. What's more, 35 percent of LGBT employees feel compelled to fib about their personal lives while at work. The reasons for the lying are varied, including "because it's nobody's business" (64 percent); "possibly making people feel uncomfortable" (38 percent); "possibility of being stereotyped" (36 percent); "possibility of losing connections with coworkers" (31 percent); "management will think talking about my sexual orientation is unprofessional" (23 percent) and "may not be considered for management opportunities" (23 percent).
Stanford's program is aimed at countering these feelings of discomfort, especially at the top. The LGBT Executive Leadership Program is geared for mid- to senior-level execs with at least 10 years of professional experience and five years of management experience. Those levels of experience are "typical for a Stanford executive ed program," says Soule. "We want people with some experience in leadership roles and in directing others." The idea is that these leaders will be able to return to their companies and influence the culture around LGBT employees toward one of vulnerability and authenticity, and away from what Wurster calls the "compartmentalization of personality."
Of course, even if Stanford sends 50 stellar leaders back into the workforce in early August, the transition won't be easy. Jennifer Brown, an out LGBT consultant and thought leader on inclusion in the workplace, sees the reality everyday in her clientele. Her eponymous company provides diversity and inclusion training to large employers. She works directly with senior leaders at those companies. "I cannot tell you how many executives I meet who still cover their lives and have made up an entire false narrative about their family life," she says. "That's what's excited me about the level of executive that [Stanford's] program is going after."
The false narratives illustrate the subtlety of what many LGBT employees have to confront, even in an era when employers are striving through policies to create inclusive workforces. In the 2016 Corporate Equality Index from HRC, a record 407 businesses achieved a top rating of 100 percent. In the first year of the CEI, in 2002, only 13 businesses achieved a top score of 100 percent. As recently as the 2012 CEI, 189 businesses earned the vaunted 100-percent score.
But helpful as they are, policies and perfect scores don't always filter down to the everyday interactions employees face in their day-to-day lives or travels. "I have a husband and I wear a wedding ring. I am asked almost every week, as I travel around the world, about my wife," says Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, an LGBT inclusion consultancy that works with employers in the financial industry. The upside of the awkward questions, he adds, is that LGBT leaders gain valuable experience in negotiating awkward or ambiguous circumstances. Experiences like these fill them with empathy and make them better at understanding different perspectives.
Empathy is one thing in a leader, but what about authenticity? That's another area in which LGBT leaders face a dilemma. As the surveys show, a sizable percentage of LGBT employees still conceal who they are at work. That doesn't make it easy to be your truest self--or to become an authentic leader that others can feel open and comfortable working for.
For Karim Fadel, founder of Unison Realty Partners, a six-employee, $20-million commercial property developer in Boston, this struggle was all too real. Beginning his career in the U.S. at age 32 after graduating from the MIT Sloan School of Management, he quickly grasped that being a gay man wouldn't help him in the old boys' club business of commercial real estate. That was in 2006.
In 2010, Fadel gradually began coming out to business associates. No longer did he lie about his favorite vacation spots or skillfully elude questions about marital status and offspring. Over time, Fadel found that by being his truest self, he could excel as an entrepreneur, in large part because he was no longer wasting time, emotion, and energy worrying about impressions. But the transition wasn't easy--and he did it alone. "I wish I had had the opportunity to participate in something like [Stanford's program]," he told me recently. "It would've shortened the length of time it took me to realize that self-identifying as gay was not going to be a hurdle."
What's more, employers will only reap the benefits of diversity policies and programs when employees feel safe revealing their identities. Dorie Clark, an openly lesbian marketing strategist, professional speaker, and author who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, has pointed out that this is true for all sorts of diversity--not just one's ethnic or sexual identity. "Homogeneity can cause blindspots (as with a team of right-handed YouTube engineers who realized 10 percent of videos were being uploaded upside-down because they hadn't considered how left-handed users would maneuver their phones," she and co-author Christie Smith note in the Harvard Business Review.
One of the added draws of a program like Stanford's, adds Clark, is the ability to form connections with like-minded professionals. "In a typical executive ed program--or anywhere else in the corporate world, for that matter--you can assume that maybe 5 to 10 percent of participants will be gay, and not all of them will be openly gay," she says. "It's nice to be in an environment occasionally where you don't have to be a minority and be conscious that everyone is different from you."