Think at London Business School
A series exploring the latest thinking and key issues for leaders and those aspiring to lead
By London Business School
Rebecca Dandridge’s teenage ambition was to design Madonna’s wardrobe, so costume and theatre design was a natural career choice. By the time she started lecturing at the UK’s Royal Holloway University, she was fully “out” as LGBTQ+ to her friends, family and at work. Then a change of career and sector made Rebecca, now Public Affairs New Therapy Lead at Gilead Sciences, re-evaluate how she presented herself in the workplace.
“In the theatre it’s commonplace to be LGBQT+. I didn’t think about it. But moving into pharmaceuticals, everyone wearing shirts and ties, everything feels a lot more formal, I kind of went back into the closet. I’d been very out before. But that initial fear when you first come out to people, that came back into me. I was out to my team, but otherwise I kept myself to myself.”
The inflection point in bridging the gap between her authentic inner self and her business identity came when Rebecca had IVF with her first daughter eight years ago. “Before even telling anyone I was pregnant, I thought, how can I expect my daughter to grow up in a society that is forgiving and accepting if I’m not being totally authentic in who I am?
“I made the decision on a Sunday and on the Monday, within two minutes of meeting anyone that day, I managed to drop into conversation that I had a wife, Leanne – rather than a non-gender specific partner whom I live with. It became all about “she”. And I continue that to this day – anyone new whom I meet will very soon know after introductions that I’m a gay woman. For me, that is very liberating.”
Rebecca was speaking at EUROUT 2020, Europe’s flagship conference for LGBQT+ professionals, an annual event run every November by London Business Schools’ student-led Out in Business Club (OiB). This time, it was of course held virtually.
“Authenticity is when our external behaviour aligns with our true sense of self; that activates the brain’s seeking system,” says Maury Ueta MBA2021, Co-President of OiB. “That’s what Dan Cable teaches in the elective Employee Engagement and Positive Psychology. It promotes creativity, allows self-expression and most importantly urges a deeper sense of purpose in yourself on a personal and business level. It allows you to build trust, promotes innovation and makes a person more willing to embrace change.
“Now more than ever, organisations need employees to demonstrate those behaviours to succeed in a very uncertain and fast-changing world.”
Diversity, inclusion and belonging are hot topics in business today, particularly in developed economies – much more so than even a year ago. Leadership positions have been created and teams formed in many organisations to transform hiring policy, attitudes and culture to one that fosters an environment where all employees can bring their best selves to work regardless of their race, background, sexuality and even neurodiversity.
This has been driven by a step change in public opinion and the associated reputational risks of organisations not being seen to promote these values. There is also a growing body of evidence showing the benefits on the bottom line. London Business School’s own faculty have contributed to research in this area, highlighting the value diverse networks in the workplace can bring.
But there can still be many impediments – external and internal – to taking off that mask covering up your true self at work and preventing you from being personally and professionally fulfilled. Identifying the obstacles to being your authentic self at work and figuring out how to overcome them will be key to your professional success and more to the point, your personal happiness, according to Rebecca and other speakers at the 2020 EUROUT event.
“You don’t have to figure it all out on your own,” says Clay Hagland, EVP and Head of Marketing EMEA at investment firm Pimco. “The best thing you can do is have these conversations with your leaders, with your allies, with your HR Business Partners and just try to figure out a way to make it work. If you constantly feel you have to self-sacrifice in a role to perform to some sort of preconceived company standard – and it may not even be the company standard – then you are never going to be happy and you are never going to be successful.”
Before he joined Pimco, Clay spent seven years with BlackRock as the head of iShares marketing for EMEA and APAC and the head of BlackRock retail marketing for EMEA. Despite being openly gay and global head of inclusion and diversity for iShares, he still approached his boss “with trepidation” to ask permission to go to the US for three months to have his first child through surrogacy. “That’s the process. I sort of mumbled that I’d take a month of annual leave and work remotely the rest of the time. But she said, Clay, stop. You’re having a child. We will need to figure out a better paternity leave policy.
“Off the back of that, BlackRock actually changed their paternity leave policy to accommodate gay men and those having a child in another country, where both parents needed to be there at the same.” Clay says that for him, honest conversations have always been well received and he urges: “Don’t be afraid to have the conversations, and quite frankly if the conversations don’t drive to an outcome that you know is right, maybe it’s not the right fit of an organisation.”
For years Arjun Channi, Associate Director at Sanofi, was told that he “didn’t look gay” and endured comments like “I didn’t think you were gay”. Arjun wears a turban and is prone to being on the receiving end of subconscious racial bias. Over time, this started to have a mental health impact on Arjun, which he didn’t realise until a mentor flagged it.
“They said, you have to stop these comments from causing mental self-harm,” Arjun recalls. “I had become a roadblock for myself. That was an ‘aha’ moment and a moment of catharsis personally. Facing your own fears can be a moment for self-growth.”
Chloe Davis, Head of PR and Partnerships for myGwork, a recruiting and networking organisation for LGBQT+ professionals, says that seeing no people like her – a black, bisexual woman – in senior positions in the companies she worked at was the biggest roadblock for her in being able to be authentic at work.
“Throughout my career, there have been many situations in which I may have found myself as the only black women in a senior position where I am the benchmark, setting the example for others who look like me. That can be a burden. I was in a school where there were six people of colour in a year group of 66, and you can fall into the trap of feeling like there’s something wrong with being different.
“That all has an impact on your mental health. I class myself as a mental health survivor. I think it’s really important to eulogise who we are, to speak about our existence and our differences in any capacity where we feel comfortable and can, and how, if I’m not there, what can I possibly do to create space for somebody else by opening the door and holding it open until a lot of people that look like me can rush through? I try and do that in my job. As Head of Employee Engagement in my organisation, I look at how we can talk about difference; how we can celebrate it; how we can start having those conversations in the workplace across many different sectors and industries.”
Charul Pant, a current MBA candidate and Co-President of OiB, is an ally of the LGBQT+ community but has experienced feelings of being a “misfit” at work because her natural leadership style didn’t conform to the companies she has worked in.
“The technology sector is male-dominated and people that succeed tend to be extrovert and assertive. It can feel like you are evaluated against those parameters. I have a different style. I am calm and collaborative. There have often been times when I’ve felt like I needed to wear a mask to be taken seriously and valued as effective. But when, in one of my roles, I had a line manager that was more like me, that transformed my confidence. I felt more motivated and productive. It made me feel like there wasn’t something wrong with my style that needed to be ‘fixed’.
“As Dr Vivienne Ming, Founder of Socos Labs, said, “When you are authentic, you don't just make life easier for yourself, you make it easier for everyone else who identifies like you too.’ It’s true. Be the change you’d like to see, rather than imitating the behaviours you think that others think are important.”