When you see a blog written by a man of Hispanic descent during Hispanic Heritage Month, you might immediately think he’ll recount how his experiences were greatly influenced by his nationality. But you don’t really know a person’s story by simply considering their heritage.
The fact is, while I grew up in Puerto Rico, I’m also a gay man and a military veteran, and all three of these attributes inform the way I lead in business today. People who assume they know my story based only on my heritage or my work experience or my sexual orientation alone will miss important aspects of who I am.
Many pieces of the puzzle
I served in the US Air Force before and during Desert Storm, completing my tour of four years, and it was one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had. The camaraderie and sense of purpose ran deep. It was like belonging to a large family, and, as the fourth of five children, I already knew what life in a large family was like.
And yet, throughout my time in the service, I could not be my full self. I was on active duty during the early 1990s, when being gay in the military was fraught. Even with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, people were discharged for belonging to the LGBTQ+ community.
This meant two key goals of mine — being my authentic self and being in the Air Force — were contradictory and incompatible. But I didn’t want to leave; I had good friends and I loved the organization, so I chose to put my identity on hold. My eventual decision to leave during the draw-down following Operation Desert Storm was one of the most difficult of my life.
Our stories inform our approach to work
My firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to love my work and yet feel compelled to hide a key aspect of my identity from colleagues has shaped how I approach team building. In short, it’s vital to get past our own assumptions about team members and create an environment where they can bring the important dimensions of themselves to the workplace.
Here are some of the ways I try to model this leadership behavior:
- Create a nonjudgmental environment. Even though I was careful not to react to my Air Force colleagues’ jokes about gays in the military, my discomfort with it was part of what drove me out of active service. A leader’s open-mindedness goes a long way toward establishing an atmosphere that allows team members to be who they are without fear of judgment.
It can take time and effort for people to evolve their attitudes. When I left the military and it was clear that I was gay, a good friend, a senior enlisted officer from the Air Force, “ghosted” me, as people say today. Many years later, we reconnected after the Department of Defense lifted the ban on gays serving in the military. He apologized for not reaching out earlier, and our friendship resumed as though it had never stopped. More importantly, he became a strong ally for the LGBTQ+ community on his base.
- Create connections. Author Stephen R. Covey said most people listen with the intent of replying rather than listening to understand. But through active listening, leaders can build stronger relationships with team members and create an environment of trust and belonging.
Start by meeting with each direct report. Ask about their work styles and be candid about yours. It’s how you interact with colleagues on a daily and weekly basis that builds connections. Be available — my team members have both my business and personal mobile numbers and know they can reach out to me.
- Engage with good boundaries. In the rush to meet deadlines and solve problems, don’t lose sight of the individuals conducting the work. When a team member does or says something out of character or is a bit short in an email, find out what’s going on with them. People do appreciate being asked. It’s an acknowledgment that they have a life outside of the office, and it encourages more candid communications. As I tell my team, I don’t want to have to read tea leaves — I always encourage open and transparent discussions.
Leaders also need to set boundaries because some decisions need to put business goals first. Be sure you understand the team member’s position, such as why the person is asking for a flextime schedule. Then help that person understand the business objectives and the client’s expectations as you work together on a solution.
- It takes a village. I was raised in Puerto Rico in a large, close family. My parents taught us to always treat people with respect, and even my neighbors were to be treated like an extension of my family. Similarly, I encourage team members to help each other take charge of their careers and get the feedback and skills they need to advance personally and professionally.
I’m a walking example of intersectionality as a gay man, a military veteran and a person of Hispanic descent. Yet I’m not made up of pieces: I’m an entire person informed by each of these elements.
That’s true for all of us; we all have complex narratives. Leaders who welcome all aspects of a colleague’s story are more likely to lead teams in which people bring their full selves and brightest ideas to their work.