This Founder Explains The Corporate Benefit Of LGBT Leadership
“Less than 0.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are LGBT,” says Todd Sears of Out Leadership. That needs to change. Sears, founder of Out Leadership and creator of the term “Return on Equality”’ agrees and joins us on Queer Money™ to share how he’s helping change that. Sears shares the benefits to a corporation’s bottom lines when it treats its LGBT employees equally on pay, career promotions and workplace protections.
Hear about more bottom-line growth with LGBT equality from Todd Sears:
The corporate benefit of out leadership
Sears refers to himself as a “recovering banker turned LGBT equality entrepreneur.” Like us, Sears believes LGBT equality can be expedited through business, and increasing the number of out leaders in the C and E-Suites amplifies that. Sears argues, “ A lot of the [LGBT] progress we’ve seen in the last few years has actually been because of the business community. ” This is Sears’ mission and the purpose of Out Leadership.
When Sears started Out Leadership, CEOs and businesses at a global level weren’t a part of the LGBT-equality conversation. Inspired by Davos and the World Economic Forum, Sears wondered if he could create the same level of business leadership conversation for the LGBT community. From the beginning, Out Leadership’s three pillars have been business, talent and equality. Business has been the primary pillar because as business leaders learn more about how equality and non-discrimination substantially improve their companies’ bottom lines, equality and non-discrimination become stronger corporate values.
In the early days of Out Leadership, there originally was never more than one CEO at a time who attended its conferences to talk about LGBT equality and inclusion. Today, Out Leadership has engaged over 360 CEOs, gotten LGBT on the main stage of Davos and has a presence on five continents. In fact, Out Leadership is the first global LGBT organization with 70 multinationals that support it.
Sears confirms that the corporate leaders his organization has engaged with are seeing, what he calls, a Return on Equality. Return on Equality “drives sustainable, bottom line growth.” With data supporting this growth, Sears is changing the minds of business leaders around the world regarding LGBT workplace inclusion and protections.
Sears frames everything he does with Out Leadership and its other organizations, OutNEXT, OutWOMEN and Quorum, around how LGBT inclusion improves the bottom line, including up to 20 other return on investment points, such as branding, recruiting and culture. This strategy, Sears says, has changed the minds of the leaders of some of the most conservative companies in the most conservative industries because it speaks to theirs and their shareholder’s purposes.
He cautions, “If you’re only looking at the discretionary spend [of most companies], you’re looking at it with too narrow of a lens because the pink dollar is much bigger than what we spend on, for example, travel. It’s more about how [the LGBT community] engages with products and services beyond that.”
The career benefits of an increasing number of out leaders
The visible business role models in the LGBT community are only increasing, too, and that’s a good thing. For now, there are structural factors for why we don’t currently see more LGBT CEOs, but for Sears, this will only take time. He says, “If you look at the average age and tenure of CEOs in the Fortune 500, it’s in the mid to late-50s and their tenure is significant with a turnover of less than 2%. So, if you’re looking for where the LGBT leaders are, there are a significant number of LGBT leaders one-level below the C-Suite.”
For those in our community who need to ‘see it to believe it,’ meaning that only when they see out business leaders will they believe they can achieve the same, Sears suggest looking just one level below the C-Suite, at regional CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and then the large number of out CEOs in mid-cap companies for now. These leaders are about to take the reigns of their companies, as the promotion of Land O’Lakes new out CEO, Beth Ford suggests.
OutNEXT, one of several other programs run by Out Leadership, is the first global talent development program for emerging LGBT executives in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia. OutNEXT has had about 1,100 young leaders go through its program in the last five years. One of the critical pieces of OutNEXT is giving young leaders “best in class leadership development.” Another is to condition emerging LGBT executives to understand their “gay vantage,” as Sears calls it.
Fifteen years ago, being gay was a liability to a person’s career. Even five years ago, Out Leadership research shows that only 11% of women and 17% of men thought being gay was advantageous to their career. More recently, Out Leadership’s Out to Succeed study shows that 70% of tomorrow’s future LGBT leaders see being gay is a positive influence on their careers.
Anecdotal evidence and researched show that LGBT people have a higher level of empathy than the general population, and empathetic leaders are more sought out and successful. Sears attributes this to “there being certain aspects of coming out, experiencing discrimination and navigating structural homophobia and gender norms that LGBT people must overcome” to survive. When we overcome those challenges enough, not necessarily completely, we reach the sweet spot as business leaders.
For the LGBT community with many struggling to keep up with their straight colleagues and achieving financial security because of less access to high paying jobs and career advancement, these newer trends offer hopeful signs for our personal finances and long-term financial security.
The existing institutional bias against out employees
To those who don’t believe such institutional homophobia exists today, a recent study out of the University of Surry shows that people who simply sound or appear LGBT are less likely to be hired, are paid less and aren’t promoted. Sears follows with Harvard’s Andre Tilcsik’s recent study on resumes, to support the Surrey findings.
Tilcsik sent two resumes to Fortune 100 companies that have non-discrimination policies and LGBT ERGs. The two resumes were virtually identical except that one stated the applicant was the president of a gay student alliance. The second resume stated that the candidate was the president of a non-LGBT social club. The responses to the resumes show that the applicant who might be LGBT was 40% less likely to get an interview.
LGBT workers and future leaders, though, simply can’t let these challenges suffocate us. Sears agreed with previous Queer Money™ guests, Jay Allen and Tim Gill that “ LGBT people can’t be victims, we have to own our stuff, we have to get over it or we drown in it. ” Not only does such a mentality improve our chances of career success, but it improves our chances of financial success by strengthening our voice as an LGBT community and giving us more equal opportunity to increase personal savings and investing.
The remaining uphill battle of LGBT inclusion
Why does LGBT-discrimination still exist in the corporate world today with so much data showing that inclusion increases business and shareholder growth? Sears suggests, again, that time will change this. He shares that board policies have only started to be LGBT-inclusive simply because of “benign neglect” and suggests we can expedite inclusion by raising the visibility of the Return on Equality.
As for broader diversity up and down the corporate ladder, Sears suggests patience. It’s hard to turn a ship on a dime, and the business world still faces an uphill battle with the political world. “There are currently 117 anti-LGBT bills in state legislatures,” he says.
In 2018, 609 companies got a 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, yet “there 46% of LGBT employees in the US are still in the closet,” Sears shares. The Corporate Equality Index primarily measures corporate policy. At a corporate level, we know that policy doesn’t equal culture and cultural components are hard to measure.
For the queer community, it’s incumbent upon us to pay attention and focus. “Only 4% of the LGBT community donates to the LGBT community,” Sears reiterates a common talking point on Queer Money™. He continues, “If we look at the annual budget of Lambda Legal, for example, being about $20 million and the positive impact it has on the LGBT community versus Focus on the Family with its annual budget at over $500 million, we need to pay attention. If you look at the budgets of all LGBT-advocacy groups, they wouldn’t even equal half the budget of Focus on the Family. This is what we’re up against.”
That alone is reason enough to fight for more LGBT people in the C and E-Suites and for queer people to save and invest more of their hard-earned money.