'There were no LGBT business role models when I was growing up' - Josh Graff, LinkedIn

Q&A: The social network's UK boss on coming out as a gay man at work and the Brexit brain drain.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 07 Dec 2016

Josh Graff became the UK country manager of LinkedIn in 2015, having joined four years earlier to grow the tech firm’s European advertising business. A university drop-out, Graff founded JAM Partners in his early 20s, the first agency in the world to sell advertisements and product placements in video games. Later, he worked for Microsoft (which is shortly about to close its $26bn acquisition of LinkedIn) and Electronic Arts.

Graff’s also a prominent gay business person, placing 39th on the FT/OUTstanding Global  LGBT Business Leader list 2016. When MT spoke with him he – like many a boss these days – had Brexit on the mind.

How worried should we be about leaving the Single Market?

Our data has become a great barometer for international talent trends, and we’ve done a host of research recently in the light of Brexit. Over the last three years 40% of professional migration into the UK has come from the EU 27, 17% from the US and 14% from Asia. The EU group was twice as likely to have a masters of doctorate compared to our average membership in the UK.

We found professional services, financial services, insurance, tech and R&D generally were reliant on professional migration from the EU during that period. If Brexit restricts UK access to EU talent, there’s a real possibility of a brain drain.  

Is there a way to Brexit-proof our businesses?

There are two questions we’d recommend companies in the UK ask themselves. Firstly, where is my talent coming from and where is it going to? In many instances CEOs and HR leaders are surprised when they see the actual data.

The second question is how well known is my talent brand both domestically and internationally. We’re working with a technology customer at the moment, looking to attract a large number of sales professionals from Europe to the business. When we looked at their data, their employer brand was only touching less than 1% of sales professionals in the markets they were looking to recruit in.

Their prospects wouldn’t necessarily know the benefits of working for that company. Being able to build that employer brand is critically important, especially because over 50% of employees would discount working for a company if they didn’t have visibility and clarity around their purpose and values.

You’ve moved from corporate to entrepreneurial environments and back again. Would you recommend it?

It’s a very personal decision. I’m personally a great believer in taking intelligent risks. When I started my business, I saw the opportunity and thought I should take the plunge. It was incredibly tough and challenging but it provided me with a very broad range of experiences, which terrified me at the time but in hindsight I’m very appreciative of.

In general I love a CV with a broad range of experience. The average employee today will have four employers before the age of 30, which is beneficial for businesses because they avoid having a homogenous work force. Having great diversity of thought from people from a broad variety of backgrounds is tremendous for growth, ideas and innovation.  

Does all that moving around create problems with retention?

I don’t think so. The philosophy I subscribe to is about transparency with your employees. That means when someone comes into the business, you have a very authentic and transparent discussion about what they’re looking to accomplish – how you can help them, not just what they can do for the company.

You have a discussion about how long the role may last, and at the end of that period you have another open conversation about what they want to do next. It may be at LinkedIn or elsewhere, and if it’s elsewhere, how do we help you develop your skills and make the introductions you need to elevate yourself.

It empowers employees, creates visibility about where they are in their tenure at the organisation and leads to a better working relationship.

How do you create that sense of transparency and openness?

In order to have that kind of relationship you need to build trust – trust is consistency over time with a foundation of authenticity. If you don’t feel you can bring your authentic self to work, I’d argue it’s incredibly challenging to be an effective leader.

I came out to my parents when I was 22, and like 62% of  LGBT Generation Y graduates, that Monday morning I went back to the office and went straight back into the closet. Research shows 30% of your time is spent covering – avoiding certain social situations and conversations, watching what you say. That makes it very difficult to build authentic, trusting relationships with colleagues, clients and employees.

It was amazing when I eventually decided to take the plunge and come out in a professional environment. It changed my ability to build relationships, allowed me to commit my whole self to a project, hopefully heightened my emotional intelligence and made me a more compassionate leader, and frankly it made it a hell of a lot more fun as well. Therefore I’m a great believer that everyone should be encouraged and celebrated for bringing their whole self to work.

There have been strides in tackling homophobia at work. How much further is there to go?

It is still illegal to be gay in 60 countries around the world, with the death penalty in six. We’ve made tremendous progress over the last decade, but as a society we have a long way to go.

I distinctly remember there were no LGBT business role models that I knew of when I was growing up. When I started seeing people in the public domain – and credit to people like Tim Cook, Christopher Bailey and Inga Beale - it made it easier and less awkward.

Do you feel a particular need to be a role model, that maybe a straight business leader wouldn’t?

I didn’t but I do now. There’s a brilliant book by Lord Browne, the Glass Closet. I remember reading it on a plane three or four years ago and being incredibly impressed and inspired by the journey he’d been on and the sense of responsibility he had to help others from his personal experience. It made a material impact on how vocal I was. 


'There's only one openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500... there's got to be more' - read MT's interview with Lord Browne of Madingley, former CEO of BP


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