One of the world’s most powerful businesswomen has spoken about the moment she came out as lesbian after 52 years in the closet.
As a former senior official in the Clinton administration and now global vice-char at Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest professional services companies, Beth Brooke is a woman with global clout.
But it took a request to take part in a video aimed at suicidal lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids to give her the courage she needed to come out herself.
Speaking at Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Conference in London today, she told some of Britain’s top employers that she realized being ‘authentic’ was key to being an effective diversity leader.
Brooke said: ‘My journey has been more about being a woman than being a gay one. I wasn’t out for 52 years of my life and for 31 years of my career at Ernst & Young or with the Clinton administration.
‘As a woman I initially didn’t feel excluded for a long while. I was an athlete, I was a competitor and I could fit into the man’s world in which I had to operate. It was probably easier for me than most to not be who I really was. But the higher I went, the harder it got and the more excluded I started to feel.’
She was challenged to do more on women’s rights when a friend pointed out to her over dinner a decade ago that mentoring women wasn’t enough.
She said: ‘I had an incredible platform, I was dealing with regulators all over the world and all I was doing was mentoring women. I used to work for the First Lady, now Secretary Clinton, and I watched her operate around the world and I was always astonished about how she used that platform to make an incredible difference so I went on a mission to think about how to use the platform we already had.’
Her work included pushing women’s issues through the World Economic Forum, UN and White House.
‘All of this resulted in me ending up on FORBES list of the most powerful women for four years and I simply mention that because just being on the FORBES list gives you a platform to do more,’ Brooke told the Stonewall conference delgates.
But she still hadn’t come out.
‘All the while I was deeply closeted,’ she said. ‘Fearful of being defined as being anything other than a great professional and a great leader. Then, about a year ago, our LGBT network leader in the United States came to me and asked me to be the closer for Ernst & Young for a video we were doing for the Trevor Project for the It Gets Better Campaign [a series of videos targeted at suicidal LGBT teens]. And our LGBT professionals at Ernst & Young were going to tell their stories about how life got better for them and they wanted me to close the video.’
The LGBT team wrote a script for her but didn’t include anything about her own sexual orientation as she wasn’t openly gay. She realized this while sitting on a plane reading the video script in preparation for filming the next day.
Brooke said: ‘I sat there on that plane and thought that’s not authentic. How can I talk to these kids and not be authentic? So I sat on the plane and re-wrote the script and it felt so much better.’
The next day the video was filmed but her anxiety didn’t finish. Realizing she was about to out herself to the staff of Ernst & Young and the wider public, Brooke had to attend a Trevor Project speech where the firm was being honored for its LGBT workplace progress.
She said: ‘So I’m giving the acceptance speech at the Trevor dinner knowing the video is going to be released the next day and near the end I mention the video to be released the next morning and talk about my role in the video and I utter the phrase “as a leader who is gay”.
‘And before I could get the next words out of my mouth someone in the audience whoops and hollers and someone else whoops and hollers and everyone starts clapping and there is a five minute standing ovation. And I stood there totally blown away. And I started crying. It was total shock.
‘And when the crowd seated itself I began again and all I could muster was a whisper, literally a whisper. And I said: “As a leader who is gay.” I realized 52 years of silence had been broken, I had been trying to make a difference for 31 years every day of my life and I had made more of a difference in that moment than in the accumulation of 31 years. And my voice surged and that was the end of my beginning.’
She said it had sparked ‘more learning’.
‘The positive reaction and support has just been overwhelming – none of it negative as I feared. And I have seen that difference matters to everyone.
‘Through thousands of letters and emails that I got from people, gay, straight, parents of gay teens, everyone was sharing their own stories with me and what was compelling was that everybody was different and what that video gave them was the permission to feel good about themselves and to feel valued.
‘And it was my moment to realize that diversity and inclusiveness is about everyone. Everyone wants to succeed by being who they are, not by having to conform to be like something they are not.’
Brooke told the delegates that Ernst & Young was not stopping progress, having been named as Stonewall’s employer of the year for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in 2012.
She said: ‘For us at Ernst & Young we just think we are at the end of the beginning. At a point where the game can be changed and progress accelerated.
‘What comes next for us is what we call inclusive leadership. We want 152,000 inclusive leaders across 140 countries. Whether it is political leaders, country leaders, community leaders, we are just committed to having inclusive leaders as our number one priority.
‘I came into my role as a global diversity and inclusion leader for Ernst & Young after the worst of the global financial crisis. I was obsessed with trying to articulate the business case for diversity and inclusiveness.
‘The dangers of group think had never been more evident, the need for economic growth and development had never been more acute. It just seemed to be a golden opportunities for leaders around the world to wake up and realize the economic engines we have in our LGBT professionals, in our women, in our persons with disability were sitting there waiting to be tapped.
‘It was crystal clear that it was not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do in everybody’s own self-interest.
‘But instead of seeing that great opportunity seized we witness the same folks who had group-thought our way into trouble trying to group-think our way out of it. Nobody seemed to be freshly brought into the debate for the value of their diverse perspective. That caused us to step back and re-look at the journey we had been on for the last few decades.
‘We all know that diverse teams out-perform homogenous teams every time but only if they are well-managed. They either perform really well or really badly. They never perform in the middle. The difference is the leader.
‘If you have a great inclusive leader who values diversity then you get the magic of the better outcomes. But a diverse team not well-led actually produces sub-optimal results and can leave people with a taste in their mouth is actually not the right thing to do.
‘We realized that our competitive strategy around diversity had to focus on developing inclusive leaders. We are focused on unpacking the behavior around great inclusive leaders.
‘Do you value difference or does it frighten you? Are you comfortable in the chaos of different viewpoints? Do you embrace the friction of dissent or do you try to squelch it? Do you try to meet people where they are or do you insist on viewing the world through your lens of experiences? Do you make difference safe or do you dismiss ideas that our not in line with your own? Do you listen before you talk? Do you validate through a diverse group any decision which is made by people who look like you, think like you and act like you? Does difference really matter to you as a leader? Our view is it better.’
Brooke said diversity was as strategically important to Ernst & Young as growing it’s revenue or expanding around the world because it was ‘strategically linked’.
She explained: ‘The clients we serve won’t look like the clients we will serve five years from now. They will come increasingly from different perspectives and markets and be led by the underrepresented populations of today.
‘So we have to transform our workforce at a faster pace than that or we will be behind the curve and won’t have the right people with the right relationships in the right places. Our chairman is fond of staying that the boards of today are pale, male and stale and we need to focus on the boards of tomorrow.’
She said they talked to their clients about sexual orientation issues in a ‘safe space’ which helped build stronger business relationships.
But she said that the true business benefits would only come if people were ‘authentic’ and open.
‘It has never been more important for inclusive leaders to be totally authentic,’ Brooke argued.
‘The public today, and many in our workforces today, are just not sure they can trust our leaders, whether they are corporate leaders or community leaders or public leaders and if leaders are authentic we open ourselves up in a way makes us vulnerable and trustworthy. And that’s where the power comes.
‘That’s what I learnt in my authentic act of coming out. It helped people see me. It didn’t necessarily improve their trust in me but it improved their ability to believe in what I was trying to lead and their ability to follow.
‘I’ll bet many leaders today are kidding themselves and just don’t realize the power it opens up if you are totally authentic.’
Watch the Ernst & Young It Gets Better video, including Beth Brooke, here: