I have a talentcrush on Ben Brooks: “Creating a workplace that is truly diverse and inclusive is a competitive advantage”
Ben Brooks is an LGBTQ+ founder & CEO of PILOT, a tech startup offering an entirely new way to maximize employee potential. Previously, Ben held various management positions and was named a “rising star” by HR Executive Magazine and later was featured on its cover for his innovative work in human capital. In the LGBTQ+ community, Ben served on the board of directors for OutServe-SLDN, the organization that spearheaded the successful effort to end the Department of Defense’s discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy’, and he co-founded an LGBTQ+ employee resource group at his previous employer.
What does it take to be an LGBTQ+ founder?
Like many aspects of being LGBTQ+, it is complex! There are practical things like being a certified LGBTQ+-Enterprise (we have standards for this in the US and now many large corporations measure LGBTQ+ as part of broader supplier diversity goals). More importantly, being an LGBTQ+ founder gives me a position of responsibility, and a tiny bit of influence and power, that I feel should be used to help others. Since I know first-hand what being different feels like and the implications it can have on one’s career and day-to-day life, I seek to hire, manage, product design, market and operate in a way that’s more inclusive and thoughtful. I’m always learning and don’t always get it right, and it feels great to be in a position to help make the “game” better for more people.
When did you realize that you are gay?
I always felt a bit “different” in grade school and noticed I was attracted to boys and girls in my teens. It wasn’t until high school that I connected the dots to really understand I was gay. In part, this was due to having no visible role models. There were virtually no gay people in the media (at least in a portrayal that I could relate to) and I knew of nobody who was out in my hometown.
“For straight allies, it is important to realize that for LGBTQ+ people, understanding who they are is often more of a process than a moment.”
And many people are more guarded with even answering a question like this as it is very personal as coming to terms with being gay can evoke a great deal of pain, shame, and trauma.
How was your coming out?
Continuous. That’s what’s surprised me most. I had visions of being “out” by telling people over a fairly short period of time and then washing my hands of the coming out process. But….nope! It seems I am never done coming out. For instance, over the holidays I was in Asia (Taiwan and Vietnam) on holiday. While getting a suit made in Hoi An, Vietnam the ladies measuring me playfully complimented my appearance and probed at why I didn’t have a girlfriend or wife. Moments like this happen often for me as I navigate different environments and each time I have to make a choice, and potentially take a risk, in disclosing who I am. While exhausting I do see responsibility and opportunity to help educate others, as research shows support for LGBTQ+ rights spikes when straight people personally know someone LGBTQ+. Thankfully my family has been very affirming and supportive, including helping to fund LGBTQ+ non-profits I’ve been a part of, and my mom has even volunteered at pride in Denver!
Do you believe that this closed or opened any doors in your career?
Both. I’ve had negative experiences at work, some of which were severe enough I had to report them to my management, and even though I did nothing wrong I know it hindered my success. I’ve had some colleagues from around the world (hailing from less LGBTQ+ friendly places) confront me at events and tell me they disapproved of my “lifestyle” and mentioning it at our company.
But overall I’ve used being born LGBTQ+ to my advantage. Mostly through my network. Like many minority groups, we want to help our own and have a natural affinity towards one another given our common experience. I’ve leveraged this network throughout my career in win-win, long-term relationships that have helped advance my career and build my business.
What do you think matters when companies engage in diversity and inclusion efforts?
Yes. D&I efforts, when thoughtfully designed and meaningfully executed, really do speak to a firm’s values. It is one thing to hang posters or put a statement on a recruiting website. It is entirely different to prove your values by demonstrating visible commitment.
“Research shows that when people can bring their “whole self to work” the employer and employee win.”
Companies need every advantage to attract, activate, engage and retain the best talent possible, which includes people from all sorts of different backgrounds and demographics. The key thing is being authentic and taking meaningful action. Just buying a table at a charity dinner or hosting a lunch and learn is not enough. Diverse employees are watching to see if management truly “walks the talk.”
Do you think diversity efforts matters for employer branding?
Yes. Too often companies compete on things that are very easy to duplicate. Say you offer cold brew coffee, an office filled with cool plant walls, and you bring in a taco truck every Friday. Guess what? Your competitor can copy and one-up those aspects in a matter of weeks. Being a place that is truly diverse and inclusive is a competitive advantage that’s hard to duplicate and takes a long time.
How can companies showcase diversity efforts with their employer brand?
Companies can get rather “shy” and “sterile” when they communicate externally (and even internally). You have to win people over with their hearts as much as their heads. Get personal. Tell stories. Use photos and videos. Be inspired. Let people in. Show your humanity.
“Companies that market their employer brand more like an authentic Instagram influencer than a marketing agency will create a better connection.”
Which are the first three steps companies should take to ‘diversify’ their employer brand?
- Make it visually inclusive — take a quick scan of what’s already out there (photos/videos/iconography/illustrations/people featured). In a 30 second scan of your site and collateral is it diverse? Likely not
- Make your own assets — ever notice how stock imagery for work/office sucks? I did too and hired diverse models and a photographer to make my own. Feature your own people and facilities.
- Tell stories — get employees on video or audio to talk about their experiences, and edit/curate thoughtfully. How do they feel when they bring their partner to the company holiday party? What was their maternity leave like when they adopted? How does the company engage and entertain diverse customers? Have them tell real, tangible stories.
What is your company Pilot Inc. about and what do you do for your clients?
PILOT is an employee coaching software that empowers each employee to take ownership of their career, experience at work and own engagement. Working just ten minutes a week on their smartphones, PILOT members learn new things and more importantly get in action and change their behaviors to find greater success and satisfaction at work. Our award-winning platform is affordable, quick to set up, and requires very little effort to manage. We work with firms like MetLife, Cadillac, Pinterest, Pandora Radio, Aon, City Year, Housing Works, and many more.
The idea behind PILOT is to democratize executive coaching, which although super effective is very expensive and as a result of only a few % of all employees ever get coaching. We see the employee playing a key role in shaping their development and experience at work, and our efforts have really resonated with minorities as we don’t predicate a top-down version of what success looks like. Rather we let each person understand what they want and need, and then empower them to go get it!
Got even more interested in the D&I topics? Read my interview with Transgender Awareness activist Joanne Lockwood.