Opening the Ranks? A Lesson for Corporate America

07/18/2016 12:07 pm ET

It seems like yesterday when I enlisted in the military and was pushed through the gauntlet of physical tests, medical exams, and sworn statements of not being a homosexual (I don’t think they even knew what LGBT meant at the time).  In recent memory, American citizens eager to serve their country could be dishonorably discharged from the military based on who they loved. Equally hard to imagine is the time when women could not fly planes in combat missions or apply for enrollment at West Point.

Amazingly, it has been almost five years since the Department of Defense repealed “Don't Ask Don't Tell.” And even more to that amazement, in December of 2015, women were officially allowed into combat operations, and just last month the Pentagon announced that openly transgender individuals would be allowed to serve. With this type of gradual but deliberate progress, could the United States military be a model for diversity and inclusion?

Let’s be honest. The military has not historically been considered a leader on issues of inclusion. In fact, it’s faced staunch criticism for exclusivity. However, by recognizing gaps in diversity and reforming their policies, the military was able to fill these voids. Currently, it is estimated that there are 70,000+ LGBT individuals serving in the military and West Point recently named its first female Dean, Colonel Cindy Jebb. This begs the question, can corporate America do the same and truly tackle issues of gender and orientation diversity by its own initiative?

There are vital lessons to be learned from the progress America’s Armed Forces have made in a few short years. Corporate America, listen up:

Diversity and inclusion are a result of policy, not promises

While corporate America generally holds a place of complacence – the military has demonstrated that real and measurable change is a result of policy.

In October of 2014, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said that women should not ask for a raise, “knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” While Nadella was quick to rescind his statement, the quote reflected the complacent mentality, reinforcing wage gaps and exclusivity in leadership roles – particularly in Silicon Valley.

Salesforce.com has bucked this trend by actively assessing their internal wage and leadership gaps and forming concrete programs to mend them. In 2015, the company created a $3 million dollar fund to equalize employee compensation, including a High Potential Leadership Program designed to advance women in the workplace. The company has since seen a 33% increase in the number of women who were promoted last year.

That is change as a result of policy, not promises.

Inclusion initiatives must take into account differences in employee needs

Inclusion does not mean a “one size fits all” approach to welcoming and accommodating employees. The military recognized that internal adjustments were vital to including women, the LGBT community, and others in their ranks.

The 2015 study Women in the Workplace by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org found that 90% of both women and men believe that a leave of absence to handle a family matter will hurt their career. With the same study finding 41% of women doing a greater share of childcare than their male counterparts, the conflicts are obvious.    

The study urged employers to “rethink work,” taking a more holistic approach to programs that promote work-life balance and encouraging these programs in their culture. They provided the example of “on ramp, off ramp” initiatives to ease women into maternal leaves of absence and making sure high-profile individuals within the company take advantage of these programs.    

Inclusion requires continuous internal evaluation and improvement, with an ear-to-the-ground to understand the changing needs of all your employees. 

Inclusion starts from the top

In a recent blog I wrote for the Huffington Post, I discussed how my experience of coming out shaped the way I manage employees as a CEO. I make the case that “tolerance starts from the top” – something that is certainly true in a rank-and-file organization like the military.

When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced plans for transgender inclusion in the military, he did not do so with a hush-hush change in policy. In his words, “We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve,” Secretary Ash declared. “We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission."

These words ring like marching orders and exemplify how leadership can demonstrate the culture they want to achieve. Corporate America must make one thing clear – embracing inclusion is non-negotiable and a must for upward mobility within an organization.

 If I learned one thing as a solider and businessman…

Your team, or troop, achieves the most success with a balance of mindsets & experiences. Welcoming differences and fostering inclusion lifts everyone’s performance. The military is catching on; will you help your organization be next?

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