World Economic Forum Breaks the LGBT Barrier: Now What?

First, the good news

This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum (WEF) addressed LGBT inclusion issues on the formal agenda for Davos formal agenda for Davos. Significant private and public conversations took place, with a wide, and on-going, range of media coverage. Make no mistake, those four letters appearing on the official programme is very significant. Additionally, Professor Klaus Schwab, WEF's founder and executive chairman further signalled WEF's commitment by specific mention in his welcome to attendees. Remember, the audience which attends Davos includes representatives ranging from LGBT-hostile countries and to delegates from countries where same-sex conduct is punishable by death.

An excellent webcast that focused on LGBT inclusion and was hosted by Accenture demonstrated the need for much more depth when talking about these issues. A lunch discussion among corporate attendees was co-hosted by EY and Microsoft to consider what more the companies might do globally on LGBT inclusion issues in the workforce by joining forces. This was a very productive discussion, and we agreed to move forward together.

There is much more to do

Recent studies show that if your workforce is closeted, over 70% are likely to leave the company within three years. So this quickly translates into a business imperative. If senior executives are out and authentic, research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) shows that closeted employees are 85% more likely to come out and be fully engaged. Higher engagement means higher productivity and ultimately higher performance of your employees and your company.

We know that people want to succeed while being who they are - and if they don't feel comfortable and don't see role models, this won't be possible. For a long time, businesses have realized the importance of diversity, but only recently have they realized that they need to develop specific best practices and policies around LGBT professionals.

Five actions global organizations can take now

The recent webcast hosted by Accenture in Davos was a wide-ranging discussion among Antonio Simoes, CEO of HSBC UK; Sander van't Noordende, Group CEO of Products for Accenture; and myself, with Richard Quest of CNN moderating. Five actions were identified that organizations can take to further their LGBT inclusion strategies on a global level:

1. Senior executives being "out there" make a huge difference. Apple's Tim Cook is a great example of a leader who is not only out in his personal life but "out there" in terms of being an example for his company's 92,600 employees worldwide, and his millions of customers. Out executives are testimonials to the crucial support provided by an inclusive tone at the top. And Antonio made a key observation in my mind - that senior out executives not only need to be out but also visible and authentic to lead the way and create a safer environment for others.

2. Strengthen the "ally effect." The same CTI research cited above shows that allies - people who support LGBT colleagues or work as advocates - play a decisive role in creating an inclusive community. In fact, 24% of the LGBT workers surveyed attribute their decision to come out professionally to their network of allies. We talked about the need for more dialogue around what makes a good ally. While some are passive allies, the most helpful are those that are proactive. But what constitutes "proactive" is something we need more discussion around. It isn't always easy or comfortable even for the most willing of allies, so we need to find ways to enable those allies.

3. Talk. Antonio spoke about the importance he places on openess and how global corporations can help themselves and each other through encouraging both internal and external conversations. I spoke about the need for both LGBT people and our allies to engage in this dialogue.

4. Design customized solutions. One size does not fit all - strategies work best when tailored to fit individual conditions, such as geographic locations, business unit type or department function. Our panel noted that implementing ideas from more progressive regions in a tailored way around the world has been very effective. In addition, working with LGBT groups at other companies and connecting global perspectives to local situations can be very impactful - I know this from my own experience around the world.

5. Emphasize inclusiveness. Companies can continue to facilitate an overall inclusive workplace for everyone, not just LGBT employees. Rather than a workforce of "them," consider changing an inclusiveness-centered culture of "us." Sander pointed out that this attention to talent goes beyond niches - it means that you will not only have the best people working for you, but you will also get the best out of all your people.

The diversity dividend

The focus at Davos on the unique challenges of LGBT inclusion is most welcome. This is the least understood among the wide range of diversity and inclusion issues - and it is the least discussed publicly. I salute the World Economic Forum for finally mentioning the acronym and putting an openly gay executive (me) on its panel.

What we need now is for the public sector to use its voice to help educate leaders as to the diversity dividend. And we need the private sector to act in its own self-interest by bringing into their workforces people of all shapes and sizes - robustly different in all aspects - and committing to lead inclusively, appreciating their differences and valuing their different perspectives.

This will lead to growth for companies. Talent will be much more engaged, productive and innovative. Inclusively led, richly diverse workforces drive higher bottom lines, resulting in products and services being designed and imagined to meet previously unimagined needs.

Having raised the LGBT issue, the Forum and global companies must not pull back. There is still much to do. I was immensely proud to be a part of this memorable event and will be even prouder to be part of a continued effort.