Two questions troubled me recently: Why are there no openly gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender executives leading any of the FTSE 100 companies? And secondly, when I attend many of the otherwise excellent existing LGBT business networks do I never see people at senior executive level?
These questions suggested to me something needs to change. That is why I set up OUTstanding In Business, a new network for LGBT executives in the UK.
We are not just another socializing network group; what I am really excited about is that OUTstanding In Business is also a movement for change. It has taken over 30 years to get any sizeable representation of women on boards, and still only 17% of FTSE 100 directors are women. How much harder is it for an openly gay man or lesbian to break into the boardroom?
The positive news is companies recognize diversified senior teams are stronger senior teams. Why should the best individuals not reach their full potential just because of their sex?
Why should the best people not reach their full potential just because of their sexuality?
After all, not only do LGBT executives have the same potential leadership ability as straight executives but far-sighted, progressive companies recognize diversified boards and senior teams reflect the diversity of their workforce and they reflect the diversity of their customers.
It was great to see initial support from Britain’s House of Lords for the gay marriage bill for England and Wales. After all, marriage should be about equality and love. And if we can openly accept equality in marriage then why not accept openly LGBT’s heading our largest corporations?
But where are the LGBT role models in business? Where can they meet and support each other? Who inspires young LGBT employees in business? Who is championing the promotion of LGBT people onto boards?
Many companies ban discrimination on the basis of sexuality and many others have established LGBT networks and other support groups. We want to build on that.
So how is it different from other LGBT networks?
Firstly, it is aimed at senior executives – company presidents, chief executives, directors, and partners, and executives within two steps of the CEO or divisional CEO. That is different. No other LGBT network exists at this level. I get so inspired meeting other LGBT senior executives; this network shares that enthusiasm; it is here for senior executives to inspire each other.
Even at CEO level, being gay can be a lonely life. The network is a club where LGBT senior executives have the opportunity, for the first time, to engage peer to peer across all sectors at this level.
Formal and informal networks have existed for years in The City in London, often in the form of stuffy, gentlemen’s clubs full of cigars and the old school tie. We are far more stylish. We are not a replica of an old school club; we are a new school network, brimming with the energy, ideas and excitement only the LGBT community brings to business.
The second way we are different is our membership will be from across industries. We will challenge the perceptions LGBT executives work in the arts and media by showing that they work across all sectors and at the highest levels. We don’t just write plays, we are doing great things for Britain’s economy too!
Finally, we are different because we are more than a social networking group; we have an agenda to create change. We want to shift perceptions about the role of LGBT people in business, we want to highlight our success, and we want to inspire the next generation of leaders by creating an environment where they are not held back by their sexuality and giving them the confidence and opportunity to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ into senior executive positions.
We hope our big-hitting corporate supporters will, over time, encourage their suppliers to emulate the example of their blue chip clients. Furthermore, as the network goes global, we will encourage big firms to exert influence on regimes where LGBT people suffer discrimination, especially in the 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal and the seven countries where it is punishable by death.
But what will OUTstanding In Business actually do?
Members of will have access to inspirational business leaders such as Lord John Browne, the openly-gay former CEO of BP who revealed his sexuality after resigning in 2007.
There will be board conversations and panel discussions on key business issues. To enable members to meet and share their experiences we will host regular intimate business networking breakfasts, lunches, and dinners featuring inspiring guest speakers on various themes.
We will organize seminars or workshop panels on key business topics which members can both participate in and hear from industry experts or people who have been there and got the t-shirt.
We will enable senior executives to connect with like-minded colleagues, not just in other companies and other industry sectors but with LGBT colleagues in their own organization.
Above all, we will tailor our events to the needs of our members, in other words we will have an agenda that is driven by our members.
OUTstanding In Business is more than a social network we are a movement for change to make the boardroom a more colorful place.
Suki Sandhu is the founder of OUTstanding In Business.