Partner Sites

Logo BusinessBecause - The business school voice
mobile search icon

4 Business Lessons From LGBTQ+ Leaders

Despite strides in diversity, LGBTQ+ professionals still face hurdles climbing the career ladder. Here are four business insights from successful LGBTQ+ leaders

Tue Jun 18 2024

Workplace diversity and inclusion efforts have gained traction in recent years, but there is significant progress to be made to achieve true parity for LGBTQ+ professionals. From the early stages of the career ladder to C-suite, support systems are necessary to address the current gaps in LGBTQ+ advancement.

Research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that LGBTQ+ applicants in OECD countries—including the UK and the US—are about 50% less likely to be invited to a job interview than their heterosexual counterparts. 

LGBTQ+ professionals earn, on average, 4% less than their heterosexual peers, and they are 11% less likely to hold a high managerial position. It’s no surprise that as many as 57% of LGBTQ+ employees report that their companies fall short in making them feel included and valued. 

Young professionals in the LGBTQ+ community seeking leadership role models might look up to successful LGBTQ+ business leaders, such as Fortune 500 CEOs Tim Cook, Jeff Gennette, and Beth Ford. All of whom actively share insights on navigating high-level business operations.

Here are four lessons we can learn from these LGBTQ+ business leaders:

1. Prioritize inclusive leadership

When companies take a clear stance on LGBTQ+ rights and implement inclusive policies, it fosters a more welcoming environment for all employees, leading to a more engaged and innovative workforce.

“If your diverse populations are on the sidelines, you’re not as effective. Until everyone feels valued, you’re not going to maximize the potential of your brand,” said Jeff Gennette, former CEO of department store Macy’s, in an interview with Time.

As a gay man in business, Jeff places importance on fostering a work culture where employees feel their contributions are valued—and for good reason.

A 2019 study by BetterUp found that when a company prioritizes inclusion, this results in a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this amounts to over $52 million in annual savings.

“Early in my career, I made the decision to live out loud and be my authentic self. But that probably was going to tamp down my ability to advance. As I got higher, it was very important for me to seek opinions of others in the room,” said Jeff.

2. Go after what you want

To be a changemaker, you can’t wait for someone else to pave the way for you. 

For pioneering leader Beth Ford—the first openly gay female CEO of Fortune 500 company Land O’Lakes—there is one leadership principle that has stayed with her throughout her career.

“If you want something, you ask for it,” Beth explained in an interview with Fortune.

Self-advocacy is particularly challenging for LGBTQ+ professionals who have had to navigate workplaces where they haven’t felt safe to be their true selves. 

Growing up as the middle child with seven siblings, Beth learned quickly that she couldn’t wait to make herself heard. As a business leader, asserting your needs and ambitions is part of showcasing your capacity to take on challenges and lead a growing team towards success.

“I think it’s about showing up, doing your best work, being your best self and being visible—that encourages authenticity, no matter whether you’re gay or not,” said Beth in an interview with Fast Company.

3. Sustainable success requires resilience

Running a Fortune 500 company means accepting uncertainty and embracing resilience.

For Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, succeeding Steve Jobs as CEO of the world’s second-largest company was no easy feat. 

On his experiences navigating adversity as a gay man in business, Tim cites these as sources of confidence that have equipped him to face obstacles head-on.

“It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but [coming out] has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple,” Tim said during a speech at George Washington University.

Resilience is a pillar of effective team management, according to organizational health expert Jen Arnold. 

Leaders who can bounce back from times of crisis instill trust and confidence in employees, empowering them to take ownership and engage in problem solving.

4. Build a team with self-awareness

All leaders have their limitations, but a strong team is your foundation to sustainable success.

Business is competitive and company success is a team effort, so knowing your limitations enables you to strategically identify the skill sets you need to elevate your business.

“It’s about being comfortable with yourself and making sure you realize leadership has actually very little to do with you. It actually has to do with everybody else. It’s simple: Enable somebody else’s success. Be a good person,” Beth Ford said in an interview with Duke Fuqua School of Business. 

“When you do that, you’ll be surprised at the success you can have as a team,” she added.

Cultivating a collaborative and complementary team with different areas of expertise enables employees to operate in a space where everyone thrives.

There’s a long way to go before LGBTQ+ inclusivity becomes a core value in the business sphere but having outspoken business leaders to guide the way can bring workplaces one step further.