LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues have risen to the fore in recent years with the legalization of same sex marriage in a number of European nations and the Americas, along with an increasing number of high profile leaders speaking openly about being ‘out’, such as Apple’s Tim Cook.
A watershed moment came in 2016 when LGBT issues, once a taboo topic in business circles, made it onto the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time.
There is a feeling among business schools that with their global presence and influence, they can play a positive role through their education of LGBT leaders and straight allies. Indeed, a few top schools have launched executive education programs focused on LGBT leadership in recent years, though course options remain limited.
“It is important to sensitize all students to the benefits of equality and leadership as driven by inclusion, community and collaboration,” says Kerstin Alfes, professor of organization and human resource management at ESCP Business School. “Looking over the past decade’s achievements in LGBT+ equality, it becomes clear that businesses have been a major driver of these developments.”
Yet many LGBT executives still face challenges in revealing their true identify at work. There are currently just four publicly out LGBT CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
ESCP’s LGBT+ Executive Leadership Program has been running since 2018 at the business school’s Berlin campus. The curriculum combines management subjects like negotiation and decision making with others aimed at fostering inclusion, such as authentic leadership and design thinking.
Alfes says that traditional leadership ideas that focus on an individual’s ability to demonstrate a narrow set of traits or behaviors is being replaced with a broader understanding of what it takes to be a successful leader.
“Indeed, research shows that a leadership style marked by inclusion, connectivity, community and collaboration leads to higher employee satisfaction,” she says.
“Executive education can help build the skills and strategies that leaders need to build a bottom-up approach to LGBT+ workplace inclusion and protection,” she adds.
Fostering an environment of trust
One of the key challenges for course administrators is to create a learning environment where participants trust each other and feel comfortable to openly discuss their experiences, their uncertainties and concerns about career moves and leadership choices.
ESCP creates an opportunity for LGBT leaders to reflect on how their identity has shaped their career, and how they can use it to lead in an authentic and effective way.
“Also, we provide a platform for participants to get to know other LGBT+ leaders so that they can build a strong network upon which they can rely far beyond the completion of this course,” says Alfes. Speeches from representatives of the community, get-togethers and company visits are important elements of the curriculum.
The forerunner to ESCP’s course is the Stanford LGBT Executive Leadership Program, launched in July 2016. The ideal candidate is the LGBT executive with a minimum of 10 years of professional experience who is preparing to take on more significant leadership roles.
“We created this course to help LGBT executives further their personal development as leaders and strengthen their personal networks, and in the process, leverage best practices to transform their organizations,” says Sarah Soule, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford GSB.
“The program combines personal leadership assessments and insights with hands-on design thinking innovation to teach executives to lead with strength and impact. These are invaluable insights that will advance the potential for many promising individuals.”
Workplace progress in the US for LGBT individuals has steadily improved in the past two decades in terms of employment policies, yet this progress has not translated into a commensurate rise in LGBT-identified corporate executives. Few of these executives openly hold top leadership positions in global companies today.
Stanford hopes to have a positive impact with its course. The executive program features interactive classroom sessions, hands-on experiential workshops, small group discussions, roundtable forums, and prominent guest speakers.
The curriculum covers such topics as effective use of power, acting with power, authentic leadership, and influence and decision-making.
At the end of the program, Soule says participants can expect three key takeaways — including “a stronger and deeper understanding of their individual opportunities for continued leadership development, a new network of LGBT leaders they can call on to serve as a sounding board, and actionable ideas they can take back to their organizations on leadership”.