Incorporating diversity into business
Out Leadership has a social mission – but that’s not the primary focus, says Sears. “ For me, it’s business first, and business as a vehicle to achieve social justice and civil rights. I think if you focus on it that way, it makes it a sustainable argument. When people say, ‘Oh, it’s the right thing to do’, I say that’s great, but when markets are down—corporations are for-profit entities, and they’ll only do the ‘right thing to do’ when they’re flush with cash. But they’ll [always] do the right thing…if it’s core to their business. So if you make LGBT inclusion, or inclusion of women or people of color, core to something that’s business-relevant, then they’ll always do it.”
Out Leadership offers conferences and summits for LGBT executives and allies with several goals in mind. First is general networking and business opportunities for high-ranking business leaders. Says Sears, “I thought, If the senior M&A banker from Goldman can meet the senior M&A banker from Bank of America, they could do business together.” Next is talent recruitment and retention of LGBT professionals, and third is harnessing the collective power of member firms to drive change. “At the first [Out on the Street] summit, four of the six CEOs of the firms signed on to support marriage equality for New York, which was really exciting. It was a tangible result…and we did from a business perspective” of being competitive in attracting top talent.
Says Sears, “We’ve had 62 CEOs speak at our summits around the world, which has never happened on gay issues. We’ve had over 2200 senior leaders attend the summits—about 75% have been at the managing director level or higher. In my opinion, it’s driven all kinds of exciting results, from firms signing onto the amicus brief for the overturn of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] in the U.S., through to firms being visible and vocal about supporting LGBT people in places like Singapore. The next frontier that I’m really focusing on…is how these firms can leverage their collective power in LGBT-unfriendly places where they still do business.”
Ideally, says Sears, the firms would say, “If you would like our business, here are the conditions…just like we expect safety regulations or OSHA codes, [protections for LGBT workers] are the cost of doing business.” To that end, he’s assembled an all-star board of advisors, including figures such as former Republican National Committee Chair (and current KKR head of global public affairs) Ken Mehlman.
Attaining real diversity (especially in a world where there isn’t even one openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company), will ultimately hinge on how strong the business case is, says Sears. “I think HR has to be a huge partner and has a big role to play, but diversity has to be owned by the business. If it’s not owned by the business, then it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t work. If the CEOs and heads of business actually care to put diversity and inclusion broadly on their agenda – not just once a quarter when they look at their numbers, but every single day – and understand how it helps their business and how it helps their clients, then they win… I’d much rather see people talk about ‘leadership’ than ‘diversity and inclusion,’ because if you’re a good leader, diversity is just part of the package. ”