Commentary

3 leadership tips from one of the world’s few trans CEOs

Wynne Nowland, CEO of Bradley & Parker, poses in her office
Wynne Nowland, CEO of Bradley & Parker, poses in her officePhoto: Provided

Nearly 5 years ago, when I began transitioning at age 56, I was already established in my role as CEO of Bradley & Parker. Although I was already out to my family and many friends, I knew that coming out to my employees and team members was the final step in becoming who I truly was. Like many other trans professionals in the business world, I also knew that my colleagues would undoubtedly have questions regarding how this might impact the leadership of my role. After all, the way others perceive us can significantly vary from person to person.

The short answer is, my leadership style hardly changed following my transition. If anything, the majority of my peers — especially my female colleagues — said that I seemed more approachable than before. I suppose that coming out to my entire company via email played a hand in this, as I was now able to be completely authentic to them; not only mentally and emotionally, but also in my physical appearance.

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Authenticity is something any leader must be able to carry over in conversations with their teams, partners, and clients, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our gender status or identity needs to define our leadership style. I want to help other leaders — regardless of who or where they are — learn three valuable lessons about leadership that have helped me throughout my career.

Tip #1: Don’t be afraid of who you are. Own it.

No one wants to follow leaders who are uncertain or unsure of themselves. That doesn’t mean you need to showcase yourself as a domineering alpha leader at all times. Rather, it simply means that people need to be able to feel confident about their leaders. Waffling on who you are can’t help but undermine your leadership style.

In my experience as a professional leader and business CEO, when you are leading an authentic life yourself, it is much easier to be authentic as a leader and in your leadership style. With all due humility, I think I was a good leader before my transition, but when you’re unable to be completely authentic and honest with yourself, there will always be some aspect holding you back from being authentic and honest with others—both in and outside of the workplace. Few things in life are as liberating as truth. When you can be true to yourself about who you are, you’ll quickly find yourself feeling more confident and empowered.

Tip #2: Be understanding and patient with your team, business partners, and clients.

If you’re in a situation similar to the one I was in prior to my transition, you’ll realize how other people will already have a preconceived notion of who you are and how you operate. Sometimes, that perception builds and evolves over the course of many years, or even decades. Although I was keenly aware of my own struggles with my gender identity, most others had no idea.

It’s unrealistic to expect everyone around you to completely understand situations such as this right off the bat. Slips with pronouns and other blunders are bound to happen. As a leader, it is your responsibility to be understanding of others in these events, and give them some time to learn and adapt. In my experiences, most people come around and end up ultimately being extremely supportive and respectful.

Tip #3: Don’t center your leadership around your gender.

Leading by example is almost always a great first step in any situation. Letting people see that just because you are part of an underrepresented group doesn’t mean you can (or will) be any less effective as a leader, and helps them connect with you in more meaningful ways. At the same time, understand that your gender status, identity, or pronoun preference is only one component of who you are and how you lead. Regardless of your status, identity, orientation, or anything else for that matter, you have to make sure you also continue to work on and improve the proper skill set that any leader needs for them and their teams to succeed.

I stand by the notion that my gender identity poses no challenge in how I connect with those I lead, nor how they connect with me. I’ve never encountered any problem with this at any point in my career, and my gender status has never had anything to do with my leadership style at any point in time. The key to staying connected with those you lead — regardless of organizational hierarchy or level — is to consistently remain mindful in practicing empathy. Leaders need to have a true understanding of the challenges some people have, particularly those who are in different positions and find themselves in different circumstances. Despite the overuse of the phrase, if you keep it real with yourself and others, then you’re bound to do well as a leader in any event.

Final thoughts

Overall, I’m happy to report that there hasn’t been much change in my relationships with employees or clients since my transition. Neither has there been much change in my leadership style.

Truly, this is exactly as it should be. I have been accepted and welcomed by our team, our vendors, and our clients. In fact, some of the people in those areas I was initially nervous about turned out to be some of my biggest supporters.

However, that doesn’t mean that everything will always be perfect; this is also an unrealistic expectation for any leader to have. But by remaining transparent and understanding of where others are coming from, the mutual ground can almost always be found for your relationships with others to continue building in impactful ways.

 

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