There’s been a lot of attention in the media recently about the lack of publicly gay business leaders. The implication from certain articles — e.g., “Where Are the Gay Chief Executives?” and “Among Gay C.E.O.s, the Pressure to Conform” — is that companies and their boards remain one of the last bastions of opposition to gay equality, and that gay CEOs fear reprisal from shareholders, therefore remaining extremely discreet or closeted. But I have had a different personal experience and I feel compelled to share it.
For as long as I have been in business and running companies, I’ve been an out gay man. I was recently appointed as the CEO of luxury jewelry brand John Hardy, I’m a director of Constellation Brands (a publicly traded company), and have served as the CEO of publicly traded American Eagle Outfitters and before that, as the Global Brand President of Levi’s.
An executive’s purpose is to create economic opportunity by delivering results, but I also happen to believe that there is a concurrent goal: to make whatever business we are helming a force for positive social change. Economic opportunity and values-based leadership aren’t mutually exclusive.
Performing my best means bringing my authentic self to work, every day. Unlike others, I’ve always had a supportive family and terrific friends and champions. I also have the benefit of my geography (a coastal city), my gender (male) and my ethnicity (white). While I’ve worked very hard, I recognize how fortunate I am.
I often meet other gay people in business…as well as women and people of color who also remain underrepresented in senior roles…who are extraordinarily gifted, yet have not had the same opportunities. Sexual orientation can remain hidden, unlike gender or ethnicity, regardless of the public profile with which one lives. To understand why other executives directly or tacitly hide their sexual orientation, it’s helpful to consider the paths that lead them there. Remaining closeted is not, in most cases, due to a lack of courage, authenticity or integrity. This is their conundrum: They’ve been hired primarily to drive performance and deliver returns; but they are also supposed to serve as champions and role models for a wide swath of people, and do not want their sexual orientation to overwhelm or distract from their impact and tenure. The reason it might? History.
Unfortunately, the public dialog around gay civil rights is still fairly incendiary; mere visibility at a gay event can elicit a strong reaction. One of the articles I mentioned earlier rightly points out that leaders in government, including the military and professional athletics, have moved ahead of leaders in business in terms of being out. Executives need to consider this carefully and grab the opportunity to lead.
The issues we face can be effectively eliminated through the greater visibility of high-performing publicly gay executives, the open support of boards and shareholders, and a balanced dialog on the subject from the media.
Again, business can be a source of economic opportunity as well as a force for positive social change. But we can only achieve both outcomes when we create a welcoming platform with true equal opportunities for all people. It’s not only right, but also smart for business. The facts show that a diverse workforce representative of our customer base leads to better decisions and performance over time. Those of us fortunate enough to be in the position of CEO, where we help construct the culture of our organizations and of the business world at large, have our own opportunity to lead—and an obligation.
Robert Hanson is Chief Executive Officer of luxury jewelry brand John Hardy. Prior to that, Robert was Chief Executive Officer of American Eagle Outfitters, and has been recognized both for his leadership accomplishments and unique position as an out, gay man leading a public company.
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