When Hans Huber, Walter Rott and I started working on the initial business plan for ECT, some 22 years ago, we made a conscious decision to base our company on certain core values, a very important one of which is diversity.
For many years, our telecoms industry has been extremely volatile and indeed I cannot think of a single company that specialized in solutions for telecoms value-added services who has made it through the last twenty years. Diversity is one of the main reasons we not only survived, but even managed to prosper.
We make sure our business relationships are distributed pretty evenly over many international customers and thus avoid dependence on the economy of any one country or geographical region as well as dependence on one or two key customers. We also maintain a diversified product portfolio instead of specializing in just one particular market, such as UC or cloud call center services.
We Seek Diversity
Within our company, we don’t just employ independent of race, sexual orientation, color, religion, age, national origin, or disability, we seek diversity. Our human resource policy requires personnel searches be conducted in continuously different countries worldwide. We don’t tolerate people who are different; we value them because they are different. Today our team here in Munich is made up of experts from over 40 different countries. Most of these colleagues moved to Germany to join ECT. About 20% are women (which I am trying hard to increase), and we have virtually every continent and religion represented. Our work greatly profits from the different cultural, educational and work experiences each of us brings to the table.
But coming back to the title of this blog post, I recently came to the conclusion that despite all of this I still need to change important aspects of my own behaviour as regards diversity.
Here’s what happened.
I was returning from a short vacation in Spain and got stranded in the business lounge at the airport. Looking for a way to kill time, I picked up the June 24th issue of Bloomsberg Businessweek and read an interview with the former CEO of BP, John Browne. It is about the high price paid for not being out in corporate life. Browne, who has recently published an autobiographical book on the subject (The Glass Closet), recounts how he had to live a double life within BP, unable to let other BP colleagues, partners and clients know that he is gay. Along with this interview, Bloomberg brings individual statements of 11 gay executives at different, mostly American companies. They all agree on one key point, namely, on how important it is to have gay CEOs as role models for younger people entering the business world.
Within my own company, I have always treated my being gay like my being Jewish: any colleague who asked me, got a straight, meaning forthright, answer. As I have been out to my family and friends since my youth, this was never particularly difficult. Thus, it seemed to me that I was doing my part.
But how important is it to be out within the entire ecosystem, I mean with customers, suppliers, partners, investors, etc.?
Browne discusses how many people – maybe even out LGBT professionals – pretend to be straight when conducting business in the outside world because “they still think that attitudes of clients and those outside major cities are still quite old-fashioned and they object to gay people. So that would change the way they deal with their official relationships.”
This one observation hit me like a bombshell because this is what I have been doing for twenty years, keeping my personal life private, just so I wouldn’t risk business opportunities.
For instance, I often dine with other C-level executives from the major companies which are partners or customers of ECT. Inevitably, people start talking about their families and when asked, I reply that I am married over ten years, of course without mentioning that I am married to a man. Someone wants to know if I have children, I just answer no. Sometimes, although rarely, someone makes a sexist or anti-gay remark and I just ignore it.
Diversity and Equality
Incredibly, I have been doing the same thing about being Jewish. Once for instance, I was accompanying a delegation from a major non-European corporation to our headquarters in Munich. We had just signed a multi-million euro contract and I was sitting in an airplane next to the executive who had made the decision for ECT. Wanting to know which of our USPs did the trick, I asked him why he had chosen ECT instead of the other company shortlisted, which happened to be from Israel. He answered, “We don’t buy from Jews.” And I said nothing. Shortly thereafter, I was at a Fortune 500 company in a completely different part of the world, competing with the same Israeli vendor in another tender. Having read a press release on the aforementioned contract, the key decision maker here asked me in front of a group of twenty business people why we had been chosen over the Israelis. I answered truthfully: they told me they don’t buy from Jews. I expected everyone to be shocked. Instead this executive answered: “I am from Texas, so I can relate to that.” I said nothing although I had an Israeli ECT colleague sitting with me in this meeting.
So you see, this article from Browne read by accident in an airport lounge, got me thinking. I decided right then and there that inside and outside of ECT, I would never again hesitate to stand up for the diversity which I represent as a gay, Jewish CEO and entrepreneur. As Browne puts it, it is just not enough to state that your company is for diversity and equality. “They’re important things to say, but actually the most important thing is seeing… that makes people feel safe… People need to see that people are really included.”
Browne mentions how once at a recruitment fair for lawyers and bankers he met two young women who were asking at each stand about LGBT policies. When he approached them, they explained, “we’re straight, but actually we’re interested to see how people are dealing with LGBT inclusion, because if they did that really well, then chances are they do gender even better.” I really want to up the number of women in our software development and maybe my new attitude will help here as well.
Building, maintaining and standing up for diversity are all good for business.