Stuart Knight’s workplace coming-out journey reminded him of the value of authenticity and visibility in the workplace.
Coming out at work took me on a very interesting journey. I was already “out” in my personal life, but went firmly back “into the closet” when I joined the UK pharmaceutical industry in 1992. I didn’t know what kind of environment I was walking into; I didn’t know if it was safe and accepted, or if being gay would hinder my career, so I kept it a secret for five years. It was a difficult time. I hated not being able to be open and honest with my colleagues.
I laid low, even as I made my way up the leadership ladder. At work, I focused solely on my job. I wanted to be defined by my results and the impact my work had, not by being gay. I used that as a protection policy; I figured that if I showed competence, it would help with acceptance.
By 1998, I was on the leadership team of Roche UK, but myself and another leadership colleague were still not “out.” But thankfully, our general manager realised the situation and identified that something needed to change. He made it clear that Roche was an equal opportunity employer and would not tolerate any form of discrimination. He worked to create a safe environment for all employees, and that is where my journey and interest in supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace began.
I felt such immense relief and comfort knowing I had the backing of senior management. I could, at last, bring my authentic self to work. Change comes from the top, that is where it starts; leaders are the key players in creating a safe environment for all employees, regardless of who you are, where you are from, or who you love.
You cannot have diversity and inclusion without discussions, and for that you first need visibility. When I was appointed general manager of a country in Eastern Europe, I learned subsequently that it was greeted with shock. Shock not at my level of competence, but at my being gay. The country was deeply conservative; the gay community had no visibility in their society so homosexuality was simply not talked about. Interestingly, within three months of me being there, once they realised that me being gay was not a big deal or anything shocking, the reaction changed to delight. When I left that country after three years, I had many people come up to me to tell me that one of the biggest impact I had was educating them on knowing and working with someone who was gay. A number of people actually admitted being embarrassed about their initial reaction.
Before our transformation, our leadership model was quite hierarchical and traditional; it revolved around “command-and-control,” setting a plan and religiously sticking to it. We are now moving towards a more sophisticated form of leadership called VACC – visionary, architect, catalyst and coach. If you want to coach, catalyse and have vision, you can’t do that without being authentic.
For me there is no doubt: there has to be a consistency between what you are feeling and how you act on a day-to-day basis, a complete congruence between who you are and how you behave as a leader. Twenty years on in my leadership journey at Roche, I now allow myself to be much more vulnerable; I talk quite openly about my fantastic partner of 30 years and the life we share together. And what I have found interesting is that the more I do that, the more connections I build with people. No one wants a distant, lofty and unrelatable leader who stays on a pedestal. We want humility, openness and honesty.
The more I move away from the “command-and-control” approach and adopt this creative style, the more powerful I feel as a leader. It’s about being true to yourself, stepping away from the person they expect you to be, and becoming the best version of yourself you can be.