For LGBT Executives, Coming Out Could Help them Succeed

Gay rights have come a long way in the past decade, to the point where the leaders of some of the world's best-known brands are open about their sexuality.

gettyimages-533697873-compressorApple’s Tim Cook is the most recognizable among a group of high-profile LGBT CEOs that includes Lloyds of London’s Inga Beale, Burberry’s Christopher Baily, United Therapeutics’ Martine Rothblatt and Qantas Airways’ Alan Joyce.

To be sure, coming out still carries risks. Like racism, homophobia is still rife in many parts of even the most advanced economies.

And some rules still exist in countries such as the U.S. that allow employers to dismiss staff on the basis of their sexuality.

But there’s risks to staying inside the closet, too, according to J.D. Schramm, a lecturer in organizational behavior at the Stanford Business School.

“You can lead from any box. But you can lead stronger if you lead out loud, which means leading from the top right quadrant.”

He splits a leader’s approach into four quadrants, with ‘provocative’ and ‘genuine’ in the top left and right spots, respectively, and ‘compartmentalized’ and ‘discrete’ in the bottom left and right spots.

In this context, LGBT leaders can choose to be artificial or authentic about their stories. One individual, for instance, may compartmentalize by coming out to friends but being private at work. Another might behave provocatively but lack authenticity, much like the great entertainer Liberace.

“You can lead from any box,” Schramm told the college’s business blog. “But you can lead stronger if you lead out loud, which means leading from the top right quadrant.”

Schramm said that doesn’t mean all managers necessarily have to come out to succeed. Revealing one’s sexual identity can be a long process that’s ultimately a deeply personal decision.

“I think it’s best, but it’s not my decision to make for others,” Schramm said.

And some places still aren’t particularly safe for LGBT people to work.

“Some parts of the country or industries might not be as welcoming as others, and you should weigh this in your decision,” Schramm suggests.

He also recommends that executives consider sharing their stories with a group of close colleagues first, or revealing their sexual identity in a more indirect way, such as bringing a significant other to a work function or mentioning former partners in casual conversation.

“The odds are still stacked against the community. But as gay leaders take control of their own stories, the climate has steadily improved,” Schramm said.

A list of 100 leading LGBT executive can be found here.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events