Author’s Note: This weekly column by Triangle veteran entrepreneur and invesotr Donald Thompson delivers real-time, easily digestible leadership actions you can take to build a better workplace, become a highly productive, future-ready leader and improve your leadership impact right now, today. Stay tuned to WRAL Techwire each Wednesday for the next edition, as lessons build atop each other. 


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – As the world grows more diverse, one of things I’m encouraged by is that more people and organizations are participating in diverse cultural holidays like Black History Month, Women’s History Month and Pride Month in June. We are more frequently and openly celebrating individuals who have had their identity challenged in negative ways because they belong to a certain community. But one of the things that has also occurred as we celebrate these diverse holidays is that we are sometimes minimizing people’s experiences and limiting their learning by creating an unwelcoming environment where not all viewpoints are respected. 

Too often, we are celebrating these months without doing the necessary amount of personal and behind-the-scenes work to actually increase inclusion. For instance in Pride Month, many organizations change their corporate logos and fly rainbow flags but don’t ever sit down to invest in education and talk about how, specifically, people should change their daily behavior toward – and for – various groups that have been historically marginalized. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

There’s an opportunity here for us to do more: to take the celebration and move it forward to create long-term change, better business outcomes, and higher inclusion. 


As a partner and coach to other executives, one of the things I’ve learned is this. While we are trying to bring people forward and expand their thinking, we also have to meet them where they are – not where we want them to be, where we think they should be or where we were ourselves a few months ago but exactly where they are right now.

In order for awareness to turn into education that turns into true engagement and behavior change, you can’t just share ‘right’ information from your own perspective. You have to talk to people on their own terms and share information they are ready for when they’re open to receiving it. 

Sometimes when we’re talking about LGBTQ+ terminology, issues and rights, for executives who are in the very early stages of learning about gender and sexuality, it can be a lot to digest. Learning all the acronyms, learning about sexual orientation, gender identity v. gender expression, sex v. gender, civil rights history, inclusive language for other people’s identities, why pronouns matter and how to respond to an employee’s pronoun change at work… that is a lot to process from the ground level. I’ve seen people have powerful and visceral reactions to the idea that people can use they/them pronouns. 

The whole conversation around pronouns is so new and nuanced that there is a real fear of getting it wrong, which makes people avoid it altogether.

For some folks, their big first step toward being more inclusive leaders and colleagues is thinking about how to change their deeply-ingrained word choice habits. (My colleagues’ new book, The Inclusive Language Handbook, is a great resource for that.) For others, that big first step might be to create and support an employee resource group for the LGBTQ+ community in their own organization. And for others who want to go all in, they not only want personal education for themselves, but they’re also looking at educating their teams through short videos, great TedTalks or podcasts they’ve enjoyed and online courses like The ABCs of LGBTQ+, which The Diversity Movement just released.

Every one of those first steps deserves to be celebrated as part of the journey. But instead, so often, people are vilified or criticized for not doing more, faster. 


It’s unfortunate, but it’s common. Sometimes, when we want to advocate for a particular cause or underserved group, we are so passionate in our advocacy that we unintentionally create an environment where we are vilifying the learner. And when we vilify the learner – when we create an environment where an individual or group of people feels like they’re walking on eggshells to learn something new – we’re not creating the sort of truly inclusive environment we need to push forward in a strong and a powerful way. 

When we vilify the learner, we make people feel like they can only ever be part of the problem, never part of the solution. We inadvertently back them up against a wall. And no one can learn well when they’re stuck in defense mode in a corner. 

Over the course of the last three years, I’ve been in a number of executive meetings where we’ve been talking about LGBTQ+ inclusion or other DEI topics and realized, “Uh oh. This is too much too fast.” We had to reel it in for people to really feel like they were allowed to learn and grow in the moment. So instead, I would talk more about creating the foundational steps of inclusion and openness in a business environment so that everyone in an organization can succeed, independent of their race, gender, sexual orientation, and more. 

Inclusion as a welcoming atmosphere is a foundational element that most executives can get their head around, even when they aren’t ready to talk about things like they/them pronouns yet.  

In other meetings, I’ve seen people who identify as very religious, very conservative about change or very traditional in their cultural beliefs feel like they’re being excluded from the conversation. Sometimes, people feel like the teacher in the room – the LGBTQ+ ally, the self-declared anti-racist, the passionate DEI practitioner, or whomever – is forcing their own beliefs onto others, versus creating awareness for changed behavior in the workplace. But it’s that sense of openness and awareness that will start to create the change we want over time. 


The personal story I will share with you is that, in my own walk, in my own learning and education, in having a daughter who is gay and working through the process of her coming out to friends and family, and us reaffirming that our love is for her – no matter what, 100% period, without question, no caveats – it was critical that she know we were supportive of her not only during Pride Month, but 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

And our love for and allyship to her means we don’t just support who she is but also what she wants to achieve in her life and the protections that need to be established and preserved so she feels safe in the workplace, going to the grocery store, walking down the street and doing all the other things many people often take for granted. We cannot allow her success in life to be limited based on whom she loves.

My experience heightened my empathy for people in the LGBTQ+ community, my level of engagement in the work we do at The Diversity Movement and my engagement in the work I do as a father and as a friend as well. 

But even with that highly-emotive perspective that I have, I have to separate my own beliefs and feelings from the topic I am teaching and remember that everyone’s experiences are different. Every individual’s perspective on any issue is based on their unique life experiences. 

When we’re educating anyone about something that is new to them, we need to start with the ABCs. We have to build that foundation of learning from a nonjudgmental perspective to expand our collective thinking so that we can treat one another better. That means we need to teach the way each individual student learns, not just push forward what we personally believe.

Last week, I was reading a book by Simon Sineck, and this statement stood out to me: “If you don’t understand people, then you don’t understand business.” If we extend that thinking, the clear leadership imperative and goal for future-thinking executives is to understand broader groups of people so that we can build, sustain and grow our organizations and ourselves as leaders.

Although I’m encouraged by the rainbow flags that take over during Pride Month, I think the bigger leadership lesson here is that celebrating diverse identities isn’t enough on its own. As leaders, we have to think about behavior change and understanding different groups of people all throughout the year. Now and in the future, that’s how we win.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement which offers an employee-experience product suite that personalizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology, and expert-curated content. The two-hour online course he mentions, The ABCs of LGBTQ+, is available now. Use the code TDMPRIDE to get 25% off when you register during the month of June. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, Donald also serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with or follow him on Linkedin to learn more.

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