Many of my fellow students have decided on the Weekend MBA programme because of a major personal transformation: getting better at their current job, to enhance job opportunities and prospects, or to pursue entrepreneurial aspirations. The Personal Leadership Journey module has been integral in helping work on this transformation.

As part of this module for the Interview a Leader project, I have interviewed senior business leaders across major European hotspots such as Zurich, Berlin, Hamburg and London who have developed their exceptional careers being openly gay. I aimed to understand how being gay may or may not affect your career and further professional life. In this article, I present my key findings.

Ivan Kovynyov

Interview a Leader project learnings: Why senior business leaders still opt for non-disclosure of their LGBT identity

Recently, I came across a list of the most homophobic industries published by PinkCross (a Swiss-based gay rights organisation). I found it surprising to discover general management and public affairs within the top five, followed by the army, church, sports and security services. As an MBA student, a potential future business leader, or an entrepreneur, I have ultimately discovered a new, entirely unknown perspective of my future career path. Fired by fear and curiosity, I decided to dig into it and started this research project.

Throughout 2018, I conducted 15 interviews with senior business leaders, angel investors, entrepreneurs and public officials across Europe, who successfully developed their careers being openly LGBT. It was enlightening to go beyond industries where being “different” has been traditionally considered as an advantage and interview queer leaders in the financial services industry, management consulting, life sciences, retail and food industry.

I met all my interview partners in person across multiple locations such as London, Zurich, Berlin, Dusseldorf and Hamburg. I was able to investigate their personal survival strategies and capture valuable advice for the future.

Here are my key five takeaways.

1. Role models are rare, social pressure is high

Because you came out in business, you know that you have the ability to be true to yourself; but, on the other hand, there is still a lot of pressure to conform to others’ expectations. You might lose business partners, mentors and friends at work. You enter an entirely new path and face a new set of restrictions on how you have to act. And then you start asking yourself for how long are you still able to stand up for yourself by consistently and firmly telling everyone at work to cut out the teasing and judgement.

People often felt encouraged by individuals such as Tim Cook (current CEO of Apple) to come out; but, unfortunately, many role models seem to tell only one part of the story and rarely share their experiences from dealing with fears of criticism and marginalisation.

After coming out of the closet, people do not feel like they have to discard important parts of who they are; but they face new challenges and have literally no one to reach out and to talk to. Queer leaders may face challenges in dealing with conservative and religious milieus and with members of societies where homosexuality is not tolerated and so on. 

2. Queer leadership exists, but not everyone is a fan

All people are created equal, but is there any difference between gay and straight leaders in terms of their effectiveness, leadership styles and influence tactics?

Based on my discussions, I was able to identify a couple of things queer leaders do habitually. Being able to act outside of gender stereotypes has ultimately made many LGBT leaders more empathetic. Therefore, this is not surprising, that the vast majority of my interview partners have described their leadership style as affirmative, non-conflicting and transformational.

They influence by sharing a common vision, emphasising individual contribution towards the common goal, and explaining the necessity of action rather than directing or micro-managing their subordinates. Someone revealed to me that being gay has made him more sensing and gave him the ability to rise above adversity and bigotry.

Unfortunately, such leadership styles are not appreciated in every organisational culture. Being a sensing person can potentially limit your career options in a heavily male dominated and extroverted profession. In certain milieus, being empathetic and affirmative can be associated with a weak character.

LGBTQ Club Executive CommitteeIvan with members of the LGBTQ Business Club at Imperial.
From left to right: Umberto Kone, Izak Nel, Ivan Kovynyov and Daniel Chew

3. Coming out of the closet is just a start

The vast majority of my interview partners came out immediately before or during the interviewing process for the positions they currently hold. People came out by talking about their partners or sharing some private details revealing sexual or gender identity. Interestingly, many business leaders came out directly in front of their boards, although almost every career coach would suggest not to do so.

Coming out of the closet can ultimately bring a number of benefits. Many leaders reported they felt emotional and physical relief, increased self-esteem, commitment and motivation. Because you come out, you understand that you have ability to be true to yourself even if there is a lot of social pressure. A senior business executive said to me, “the best thing about being out is being able to walk the talk. Authenticity and transparency are key, both in a symbolic way and as a means of communication”.

However, being out has its downside. While the vast majority of my interview partners listed predominantly vague advantages of being out in business, they were very specific in terms of the disadvantages. One person has no longer been considered for a board position after revealing his sexual orientation. Another business executive has been outed by his former supervisor by revealing their sexual identity in a reference call. One public official has been blackmailed and forced to come out. After all, you might lose business partners and get persecuted if you behave in ways that you respect, but that your business environment does not approve of.

4. Lifelong impacts of being out in business are unclear

Although coming out of the closet might have a number of short-term benefits, such as increased commitment, productivity and motivation, little is known about long-term consequences of being out in business and its impact on career development. Research considering long-term implications of being out in business is relatively new. Many scholars entering this unchartered territory admit that there is a lot to explore; however, it lacks long-term data on career developments of openly LGBT leaders and related field studies.

Some of my interview partners admitted to have experienced a “lavender ceiling”, unofficial barriers through which LGBT leaders can see elite positions but cannot reach them. People reported that they have encountered more resistance towards promotion or moving upwards in a company than a straight person would do.

Many interviewed leaders came out predominantly because of personal motives such as being true to yourself, being authentic at work and promoting societal change rather than career-related considerations. It seems to be a certain kind of trade-off between personal well-being and uncertainty about being exposed to potential LGBT discrimination and harassment.

Many leaders admitted that they still have to deal with the ramifications of decades of political, economic and social marginalisation. No one came out in anticipation of career-related gains. Finally, some people knowingly joined organisations where the dominant organisational culture has been one of silence regarding sexual and gender identity, with a certain expectation of invisibility. 

5. There is a business case for diversity, but not every organisation is willing to tap into it

A lot has been said about benefits of diversity and inclusiveness in a workplace. The benefits range from higher employee productivity, greater innovation power, higher organisational resilience, higher quality of decision-making to more successful products and superior financial performance. Those benefits have been sufficiently backed by recent research.

At the same time, many interviewed leaders complained about the lack of diversity in their boardrooms. It goes without saying that gender and sexual diversity within boardrooms is key to advancing LGBT-friendly policies across the organisation. However, board-members still use some pitiful excuses to keep this topic off the agenda. Unsurprisingly, there is no index for LGBT inclusion on company boards.

Interestingly, only a few of the business leaders interviewed actively engage in the networks promoting gender diversity across their organisations. One queer senior public official rejected my interview invitation leaving the comment, “All has been already said on homosexuality in business”. Maybe people are fearful about being criticised and, therefore, not eager to jump into any kind of confrontation with the main social group.