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From living a lie to living a life

As part of our Pride Month celebrations, we had the pleasure of speaking to John Elliott, Sainsbury’s CTO for Retail and sponsor of the Sainsbury’s LGBTQ+ Colleague Network, about the importance of empowering LGBTQ+ people in the workplace and how the challenges and experiences LGBTQ+ folks face can be reframed as a source of strength. Amy Lynch, our Head of Diversity & Inclusion - UK, interviews him.

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Amy: Thanks John, for participating in this Pride Month special. We can’t wait to hear about your experiences and your LGBTQ+ super powers!

John: I’m delighted to be here, thank you for inviting me. I want to start by acknowledging Marsha P Johnson and all the instigators of the Stonewall riots. Their actions sparked the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement and gave me the rights that I have today as a white cis gender gay man. This Pride Month, which has been like no other, I want to empower LGBTQ+ people, to help them be the best version of themselves and help our allies understand what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ in the workplace.

Amy: What does Pride mean to you?

John: Pride can mean many things, but to me, it’s about saying how each of us are remarkable people with something to offer the world. Studies show that LGBTQ+ people and the unique experiences that we have actually develop skills. Those skills can help us in our careers and make us more valuable in the workplace. For LGBTQ+ folks – I encourage you to think of these as superhero powers, because if we can reframe our identity as a source of strength, we can change the psychology of self-belief and start to back ourselves and the potential that we have.

Amy: What superhero skills have you discovered you have?

John: Bravery is one and it’s certainly not something I have ever really believed of myself. But if we can stop that negative self-talk and refer to science – a study in 20141 of LGBTQ+ people found that, because we come out very regularly, we require bravery on a near daily basis. That study also showed that those unique experiences of coming out and facing into heterosexual and cis gender norms gives us a skill – it builds courage by going through situations that non-LGBTQ+ people might not go through. 

The second is social intelligence because the same study also referenced that being a sexual or gender minority gives us social and emotional intelligence and enhances those skills.

Amy: Thank you! Such encouraging insights – could you please share some of your career milestones and highlights?

John: Absolutely. I’ve been working for 18 years now and I've had four employers, always in retail technology, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with Thoughtworks in two of those companies. Without doubt, I would say the best moments in my career have been when I've been allowed to be me and when I brought my whole self to work. 

John at Pride

But for the first nine years of my career, I couldn't bring my whole self to work. I knew who I was on the inside, but like many LGBTQ+ people I kept it hidden, because coming out is a very, very personal journey and I genuinely believe you should always manage that at your own pace. There is no single right answer. For any LGBTQ+ people reading this - wherever you might be on that journey, I want you to remember that it's really courageous and it's really brave and, ultimately, these are skills which will serve you well in life.

Amy: What was it like for you when you started your first job?

John: I started my career in 2002. I’d been reasonably out for the past five years at university, but, like 62% of lesbians, gay and bisexual people here in the UK as graduates2, when I started work, I went back into the closet. I was scared that my career would be impacted and my potential would be limited because, at that time, for people like me, workplaces were not inclusive.

In that first job that I got used to riding the ups and downs of the roller coaster. I'm sure many of you can relate to this, but the hours were long, the expectations were high. Perhaps my resilience helped me through. I remember thinking that I wasn't going to let who I love determine who I became in my career. So I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable because I was living that lie.

Fast forward to 2011 and I'd gathered some of those superhero powers by this stage. I found my courage and I decided that I wasn't going to lie anymore. I decided I would be out to all of my colleagues and, most of the time, from that point forward, I’ve felt comfortable bringing my whole self to work.

Amy: Any thoughts on how we can be our true selves at work?

John: Being authentic is certainly a superpower – we increasingly ask our leaders to be authentic and we also know that self-belief is a highly relevant leadership skill. I would say the next time you doubt yourself, to anyone LGBTQ+ and any others, I really encourage you to back yourself because you do have those superhero powers that can supercharge your career.

Amy: Could you tell us about your journey at Sainsbury’s so far?

John: I interviewed at Sainsbury's back in 2017 and that’s when I really learned the difference that an inclusive workplace can make to self-worth and potential. By being me, I could bring my sometimes unorthodox creativity to work (which is another skill which LGBTQ+ people are highly likely to exhibit).

I feel incredibly lucky that we have our amazing colleague networks at Sainsbury's which help us connect and support each other. Our inclusion team was a great welcomer and helped me realise my potential as well as be a better ally to others. I've also learned that empathy helps me navigate complex situations and be a more inclusive leader.

Amy: That’s really encouraging. We have so enjoyed partnering with Sainsbury’s on D&I initiatives. Any final words of advice?

John: I want us, around Pride especially, to remember to be proud of who we are, because being LGBTQ+ brings many strengths that teams need and often lack. If you're an ally, help your LGBTQ+ friends and colleagues believe in themselves, because once we unleash our inner superhero, we're never quite the same.

The next time you're doubting yourself. Remind yourself that like the best superheroes our powers are hidden, but for every obstacle we meet, we build a skill.

We are courageous. We are creative. We are resilient. We have key leadership skills: authenticity and self-belief. We're not only valid, but we are remarkable people and Pride is about showing the world what we're made of. Because living a lie is really, really hard. If we can live a life in full colour, it's not only exciting but it helps us to be our best.

Amy: John, thank you so much for the inspiring words and for being our guest today. 

This post summarises the study John references. 

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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