Q: I'm up for a promotion that I really want to get. I'm gay and like to express myself in the clothes I wear and the way I relate to my staff. I don't want to compromise on these things but I'm worried that if I don't behave more conventionally I may miss my chance at a senior role.
A: Many years ago, I was trying to recruit a mid-level person to work with a client, and I interviewed a bright, personable and enthusiastic young woman who in many ways was well suited to the job - but I didn't hire her. She was wearing 10 wristwatches up her arm and I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that making a fashion statement and declaring her originality were more important to her than tuning in to what mattered most to the client. Faced with 10 candidates, some of them promising, I made a judgment that I could defend rationally, almost entirely based on the way this person was dressed. So, in my view, you are right to give serious consideration to the way you present yourself to decision-makers at this crucial moment in your career.
A version of your question arises quite often in my coaching experience: the female accountant who wants to be promoted but likes to wear a comfy cardigan round the office; the IT director who expects to be taken seriously by his peers but sports a 1970s hairstyle and a velvet jacket, for example. In both cases, minor adjustments to their appearance made major differences to their fortunes. The accountant bought a fabulous suit, wore it to interviews, and now wears it to board meetings, keeping her cardi for dress-down days. The IT director got a haircut and is now resplendent in a tailor-made but outwardly conventional suit with a scarlet lining.
Your decision is a personal one. Only you know whether the expression of your personality through your attire is vital for your sense of identity or something that you'll pursue only when it doesn't conflict with your career advancement.
The second part of your question is more taxing to answer: your management style and your reluctance to abandon behaviour that seems right to you in favour of some other, perhaps more rigid style. I've worked with several gay clients moving into leadership positions and one of their common issues is the lack of role models. Often, they eschew the authoritarian, coercive styles they've encountered in their working lives from straight men. They would like to be strong and respected in their role, but behave more humanly, working with emotions, not just logic.
I suggest you look around at leaders of all types, gay and straight, male and female, to identify behaviours you admire that seem to be effective. You don't have to universally approve of the people you select: just cherry-pick aspects of the way they behave that reflect the type of leader you hope to become. Some approaches will already be in your repertoire, while others could be, with a little practice.
Also, consider the context in which you work, to identify the needs of the job to which you aspire and the expectations of the organisation. If there's a gap between where you are and where you want to be, what would need to change to increase the likelihood of your advancement?
It would be useful to have input from senior people to validate or dispel your assumptions. Tell them that you're considering your own leadership development and would be grateful for their comments on what they perceive to be your strengths and any obstacles you'll need to tackle in order to progress. Their remarks will be subjective, but they will illuminate the degree to which others value you and also any disparity between how you're perceived to operate now and what you would need in a more senior role.
You might be surprised by the responses, particularly the positive ones. A gay client of mine, concerned that he would not be seen as forceful enough in his European role, undertook this kind of exercise with senior managers and discovered that he was seen as having gravitas, and that his measured manner came across as authoritative rather than weak. This built his inner confidence up to match his calm exterior.
I understand that you don't want to compromise on the values and beliefs you hold dear, and nor should you. But you may decide to adjust your clothing temporarily and modify your behaviour at the margins to help your acceptance by the senior peer group that you'd like to become part of.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org