At a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty and as millions around the world stand together demanding justice, there have been many calls for business leaders to take action against systemic discrimination of all kinds, starting in their own workplaces.
But why should business executives take on the responsibility of fixing societal ills?
Amy Fuller, chief marketing and communications officer at Accenture, and Todd Sears, founder and CEO of Out Leadership, offer similar answers: When employees are comfortable and can thrive while being their true selves, their success will boost the company.
“Accenture has done a lot of work about what we call ‘the culture of equality,’” says Fuller. “The business case for having a culture of equality, which is a diverse and inclusive workplace where people feel at home, is directly related to the ability of people to rise in the workplace and is also directly related to their ability to believe they can innovate.”
For his part, Sears stresses that business leaders are in a unique position to provide their companies and employees a sense of purpose that extends to the greater world.
“I firmly believe that the only way we will achieve full equality in the world is through the power of business,” he says. “It’s incredibly important that anyone that has a position of privilege or power leverage that power, in my personal opinion, to change the world in some way in which they have access.”
Fuller and Sears spoke as part of Salesforce’s “Make Change” video series.
Both Fuller and Sears faced a different world of norms and expectations when they began their careers. “I actually had a homophobic boss in my first job,” says Sears, “which ultimately caused me to do what anyone in a homophobic environment did: I went back in the closet and I looked for a new job.”
Fuller says, “I came into the workplace in an era when conformity was considered a good thing,” she says. “You believed that you were supposed to fit in. But now, what we’re finding is that the best environment is the one where you need to feel like you can bring your whole self to work.”
Fuller describes Accenture as the best place she’s ever worked when it comes to cultivating diversity on staff. She says the company goes even further to make sure people feel comfortable, seen and heard as part of the team.
“The environment where you feel like you — and everyone else — can rise is just the environment where you feel like you’re able to innovate,” says Fuller. “Feeling safe is a huge cultural marker of being able to question things, and being able to not conform and to bring alternative points of view into the workplace.”
Sears says that as a member of what he calls “an invisible minority” he has seen firsthand how beneficial it can be for business leaders to create a safe space.
A North Carolina native, he moved to New York in the late 1990s to start a career on Wall Street despite the fact that its reputation was anything but LGBT-friendly. But he was determined not to be in the closet.
“I decided I was not going to hide who I was — actually, when I was 18,” says Sears.
Part of his decision came thanks to a pivotal viewing of the acclaimed, LGBT-themed play “Angels in America.” The show features a closeted character — a Mormon lawyer named Joe — whose secrecy takes a terrible toll on all the people in his life. Sears resolved to avoid that same fate, despite the risks he faced at the time. And those risks were real: This was a period when anti-sodomy laws were on the books. In some states, people not only could be fired for being gay, they could be imprisoned for having a gay relationship.
After leaving behind that homophobic boss, Sears recognized at his next gig that he could step up as a leader, and as a member of the LGBT community, to speak directly to an underserved audience. He wound up making history by creating one of the first teams on Wall Street to advocate for LGBT equality.
“I’ve had an amazing opportunity over my entire career, over the last 20 years, to work with hundreds of CEOs,” he says. “One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite CEOs is, ‘Integrity is what you do when you think no one else is looking.’ I think that defines what so many of these leaders are doing in the LGBT space in particular, because they don’t have to stand up for LGBT people, and that they are.”
Sears believes that when leaders set an inclusive tone within corporate culture, it goes a long way toward making people of color, women, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities feel comfortable. He says that if he hadn’t eventually found real mentors and allies in the workplace, he may never have had the opportunity to create Out Leadership, a nearly decade-old LGBT business network with formidable global reach.
“I’ve been told so many times over the years that I’m the first gay person that so many of these senior leaders have ever gotten to know,” says Sears. “I take the position seriously because it is an opportunity to create inroads.”
“It’s very easy to fear what you don’t know,” he adds.
To see more of Salesforce’s “Make Change” series, go to salesforce.com/make-change-equality/.