Gawker was promoted buzz this past month with speculation that an exec from a leading San Francisco Bay area company was gay. It’s helpful to remember that this is the publication that uses headlines such as “Anderson Cooper is a Giant Homosexual and Everyone Knows It” or “Which Pregnant Actress Has a Famous Cheating Husband.” It may be published, but it’s clearly Rupert Murdoch-style journalism.
But beyond that rumor mongering, it’s important to remember that this is the sort of behavior that is not just inappropriate, it can be downright harmful. People get hurt. In some cases, people get fired; lives can get destroyed. And unless a certain line is crossed, my take is that it’s nobody’s business but the individuals.
How do I know? I got sacked from a Senior Vice President role with McKesson Corporation (I can even see my old office on the 34th floor on the picture on the right) because in part I was matter of fact about being gay. The story was akin to the Tom Hanks role in Philadelphia – as one of the officers of the corporation noted – except nobody was sick with HIV/AIDS.
The quick reaction to news like that is something akin to “That doesn’t happen in San Francisco?” or “That doesn’t happen in today’s world, does it?” but the fact of the matter – crazy as it seems – is the answer to both is “yes.”
In my own case I should have figured quickly out that a corporate office in the 1990’s that had an official “wive’s Christmas list” may not take kindly to me listing my male partner’s name on it. I should have been savvier when one of the senior corporate officers told me (when I was asked about taking the role, and telling folks that I was gay) that it was OK to be gay “as long as I didn’t wear it on my sleeve.”
I’m not sure what the exec thought I would have on my sleeve (it was sort of a white shirt, buttoned down place at the time) and it was before Monica Lewinsky and the famous little blue dress, but the comment was merely one in a string of events that ended with me moving on to other pursuits. Life can have silver linings; if I had stayed I would never have become a parent – which is a highlight of my life – nor would I have moved on to have a coaching consulting practice working with execs and teams; doing great work and thoroughly enjoying my clients.
People choose to keep things private for a variety of reasons, and being gay (or straight) for that matter is merely one of them. There are a number of things that lie below the proverbial water line of a person’s identify, and some of them you may choose to share and some may not seem appropriate, safe or important to disclose. Sort of like religion (when was the last time you felt you needed to know if someone was agnostic, Muslim , Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or not), sexual orientation is private unless it’s relevant or – as mentioned above – certain lines are crossed.
For example, some of my clients know I’m gay, some perhaps don’t. I don’t think any of them care. If it comes up, there’s usually a context around it such as “Do you and your wife have kids?” My answer? “My male partner (technically pending the Prop 8 legal process my spouse) and I have a son.”
Why provide the information? Because part of being a good coach is being authentic – being yourself. While you don’t have to wave personal things around (I’m a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball fan too, but I only mention it is when relevant as well – like when I’m around San Francisco Giants fans), if you’re asking execs to be more effective leaders through being genuine and authentic, you kind of need to model that behavior consistently yourself.
Secondly, when as a coach, when you ask people to be open and be willing to change, it means you need to be open and vulnerable as well. As Brene Brown notes in this TED presentation, it’s part of the amazing power of being vulnerable – you create a more powerful you.
The only case I do think it’s appropriate to raise sexual orientation is if it’s relevant to public figures or other peole taking public stands or positions. Outing Larry Craig – a conservative senator from Idaho who had taken strong public stances against gays and lesbians – seems fair game when he got busted for soliciting sex with another male in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. Outing an exec who is a PayPal, LinkedIn and Slide alum – who sure looks like he’s cruising young males at the Sports Club LA gym in San Francisco and is known for publicly screaming anti-gay remarks at a lecturer at Stanford – is probably fair game as well. But people who might or might not be gay in the private life is nobody’s business but their own.
If you pitch authenticity and genuineness in your work, then you need to be willing to be open and direct with folks when and as appropriate. If that’s not your pitch or schtick, then it’s not an issue.
But beyond that, private lives, as I explain to my 8 year old son (and the apple of my eye) is just that; private.
It would be great if we were as a business society at a point where we could bring our whole selves to work. The research shows that people are more productive, employees are more engaged, everyone (well, most everyone) is mostly happier.
But we’re not there yet.
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.