Coming out in corporate America

"While business still has a long way to go in creating an open and equal workplace, it's also come a very long way."

In 1991, I was the director of corporate communications for Nissan USA. My boss was the top sales and marketing executive for the country, responsible for about $18 billion in revenue.

We spent a lot of money on advertising. So when the time came to select an ad agency to launch the Infiniti luxury car division, it attracted a great deal of interest.

After a thorough and well-publicized search, we appointed a boutique creative agency out of Boston called Hill, Holliday, Connors and Cosmopolous.

Right out of the gate, Hill Holliday created a distinctive campaign that generated buzz and controversy, as the initial ads did not include any footage of the cars. It was quickly dubbed the "rocks and trees" campaign, and there was debate about the wisdom of the creative strategy.

Unfortunately for Hill Holliday and Nissan, Infiniti was quickly overwhelmed by Toyota’s launch of Lexus, which soared to immediate success. We felt the pressure within Nissan, and in turn, we exerted pressure on Hill Holliday.

In the midst of this growing stress, I received a call one day from Jack Sansolo, the president of Hill Holliday. Jack was calling to let me know that Fortune magazine was planning to run a story entitled "Gay in Corporate America," and that he was going to be prominently featured. I thanked him for the heads up, told him that I would discuss it with the boss and get back soon with our response. This seemed simple and straightforward to me. We should of course endorse and support Jack and reassure him that coming out publicly would have no impact on our relationship with Hill Holliday.

But I wasn’t so sure how the boss would react. This was almost 30 years ago; virtually no senior executive in the corporate world had come out publicly, and the Fortune piece would be groundbreaking. Of greater concern, Infiniti sales were under target, dealers were unhappy and Hill Holliday was behind the eight ball for its controversial campaign that many believed contributed to the disappointing sales.

To my great relief, the boss agreed 100% with my recommendation, and asked me to help draft a personal letter to Jack. The letter congratulated Jack for his courageous action and let him know that we supported his decision to participate in the article.

The good news for Hill Holliday was that Nissan management stood by the agency and its president’s willingness to participate in a groundbreaking article. The bad news is that Infiniti sales continued to lag, and the relationship was terminated about 12 months later.

I was reminded of the episode when earlier this year, the Business Roundtable declared that the purpose of a corporation is not just to serve shareholders (their official position since 1997), but to "create value for all our stakeholders." This slight tweak in wording represented a monumental shift in corporate values and attitudes.

And it made me wonder: What would I have done back in 1991 if management had rejected my recommendation and advised that Jack Sansolo not participate in the story? Would I have objected? Would I have quit my job in protest? I’d like to believe so, but I fear I would have hid behind the "shareholder" focus, rather than embrace the "stakeholder."

I might well have gone along with the status quo despite its horrific wake. And it helps me understand that while business still has a long way to go in creating an open and equal workplace, it’s also come a very long way.

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