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I have always believed that every career is made up of fundamental milestone moments. I never thought that one of the most pivotal moments of my career would happen in an exit interview.
It was 1997, and there was a stark divide between my personal and professional lives. Our culture was not accepting of gay people, and I chose to hide my true self at work. I lived in the corporate closet.
I mastered the black art of pronoun puppetry, substituting “him,” “he” and “we” for “her” and “she.” I had a picture of my best friend Bob on my desk.
I was doing the “right” things, acting the “right” way and making all the “right” moves. My strategy worked. I kept climbing the corporate ladder at the large telecom company where I worked. I liked my job, loved my work, and I especially liked the people that I worked with. But I couldn’t imagine telling them who I really was, so I left my identity as a gay woman at the door.
I hid. For nearly two decades…
Many of us spend more time with our colleagues than our own family or friends — and sadly mine didn’t really know me very well at all. It wasn’t until I decided to leave the company that I felt brave enough to share this fundamental piece of me.
On my last day, at the age of 39, I decided to tell my story to our CEO.
My 15-minute goodbye meeting turned into two hours. I told him that I hadn’t had the courage to come out before now, because I had worried that if I did, it would be detrimental to my career. I told him that while he was a leader and advocate for diversity, his lieutenants were not. They were blocking domestic partner benefits and finding excuse after excuse to prevent acknowledging sexual orientation in the company diversity policy.
He didn’t say much at the time, but I could see him taking it all in.
It wasn’t long after I left that something unexpected happened…he began to make changes—real, significant changes. He implemented a domestic partner policy and made diversity a key initiative at the company. When I asked him to testify before the Senate on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, he didn’t hesitate.
That one conversation, sharing my authentic self, stimulated significant and meaningful change.
Letting go of what I was holding back, what I was most afraid of, unleashed an unbelievable power to make a difference — for myself and for others.
And once I wasn’t trying so hard to mask myself so that I would fit in, I was more energized, more creative, more productive and more successful. I never knew how much energy it took to hide. This is why National Coming Out Day is so important. It reminds us that we can only do our best work when we are fully present, and we can only be fully present when we show up as our authentic selves.
So, here’s my take away: don’t ever hide the best parts of you. Stand up, speak out, and take that leap. Trust me, the world will be a richer and more dynamic place with you bringing one-hundred percent of yourself to it.
Lisa Sherman is President and CEO of the Ad Council, the national organization that mobilizes the energy and talents of the communications industry to help tackle the most critical social issues of today, through public engagement initiatives. Prior to the Ad Council, Lisa was at Viacom where she launched Logo TV, the first cable network for LGBTQ audiences. She has also held a number of senior operating roles at Verizon, ad agency Hill Holliday, and the Women’s Sports Network, the marketing company she co-founded. Lisa serves on advisory boards for several industry and public service organizations, including the World Economic Forum’s Information and Entertainment Stewardship Board.