Being an Ally as a Corporate Leader Started in High School and Requires Daily Action
Updated: Feb 27
For good reason, most corporations today have formal efforts including Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These can be incredibly beneficial for the participants and the organization. But what really matters is being intentional in creating experiences that celebrate inclusion and engage people on a daily basis — not annually, not quarterly, not monthly, but daily.
Being a willing and effective ally in the corporate world is built on the foundation of my high school experiences. I had the fairly unique experience, as a straight, white woman, of attending an arts and science magnet high school in Little Rock in the mid 1990s. The students were 70% Black, so I experienced the intersectionality of openly gay classmates, many of whom were Black. One of my closest friends, a Black man, later came out as gay. My high school experiences taught me to be inclusive by being accepting, understanding and empathetic.
Experiences shape beliefs, and beliefs shape actions. My high school experiences shaped my belief that everybody should be valued for who they are and what unique ideas they bring to the table. That belief led to my actions to include everybody on the team in whatever we’re doing.
Throughout my career (first with a major consulting firm and then with two major aerospace and defense companies) I have continued to see the value of inclusion. The experiences we create for all employees make a difference to them and lead to better outcomes in the business. ERGs that I’ve been involved with, dating back to the late ‘90s, have made a difference in creating networks, building confidence and developing employees from minority groups of all kinds. ERGs create experiences for people to feel comfortable. Imagine if we did that every day. The tone set in these ERG meetings needs to be repeated in the real workplace, on a daily basis.
In one of my leadership roles, I was running an aircraft engine repair business in San Antonio. We needed to make a change in how we operated if we were going to remain competitive. Part of that change was how supervisors engaged our mechanics on a daily basis. The previous norm was supervisors always being in meetings or sitting at their desks writing or reading email. Employees never saw their supervisors, only received direction, and they were rarely helped by their supervisors.
When these supervisors changed from one-way communication a few times a day to more frequent two-way conversation, the mechanics became much more engaged. New ideas and issues were shared freely and rapidly. The results were fewer quality issues, fewer hours of work per engine, and better on-time customer delivery! The change in engagement on a daily basis had tangible results.
Shifting their experiences – getting them to open up, helping them feel safe to do so — brought more ideas to the surface, which led to better business results. The power of inclusion! As another example, if a Black colleague seems to be holding back in a meeting, managers need to be sure to draw them into the discussion, to remind them their voice is welcome and needed.
I shared these examples as the keynote speaker at a previous employer’s PRIDE leadership conference. Many members of the audience approached me afterward and shared their agreement that the daily experiences of inclusion — of bringing all voices to the table — can achieve better business outcomes whether that’s on a factory floor, in meeting rooms or in other settings.
Through my experiences in San Antonio, I once again was reminded of the intersectionality that I first experienced in high school. In my engine shop, I noticed that LGBTQ+ individuals in the Hispanic culture experienced struggles that were different than those who weren’t in both groups. I have observed that intersectionality can create more of a leadership challenge, as it requires more effort to help those individuals to feel confident that they’re included.
As a leader, I remind myself to not make assumptions about anybody’s experiences and values based on the community or communities they belong to. I found, in my high school experience and now my work experience, it is important to listen first and ask questions to draw out what is unique to that individual.
For example, as a white woman, I should not assume a Black woman has the same perspectives, just because we are both women. A recent study done by a consulting group shows Black women feel less engaged and included than white women in executive settings. The engagement efforts for Black women, therefore, need to be different, and we need to understand their unique situation.
What does all this experience mean for being an Ally as a white straight woman? It means positively utilizing the power that my position brings. It means attending, speaking at and publically encouraging participation in ERGs. It means taking Employee Resource Groups to be Business Resource Groups where these communities are actively involved in solving business problems, not just creating a sense of community. It also means using my position to ensure that every individual gets a fair opportunity and the experiences that others get when it comes to recruiting, interviewing, talent development and promotions.
And it means, as an executive, that I need to help all of my leaders be thoughtful about creating experiences that celebrate inclusion and engage people daily — not just at special events. Inclusive engagement needs to be incorporated into our daily work and our leadership styles.
I need to make sure that my front-line supervisors and managers are engaging everybody fully, making them feel comfortable that their ideas are as welcome as anybody else’s. They need to be intentional about it. Every day. I remind myself of that and challenge myself (and the thousands of people who work for me) to continually create better experiences that can lead to new beliefs, as those new beliefs will drive newer, better actions.
I challenge each of us to reflect on our daily routines and how we can adjust them to make those we interact with feel included.
Again, when everyone feels included, more comfortable and more confident to use their voice – the business does better. This is important not just during Black History Month or LBTQ+ History Month, but every day of every year. Respecting every employee is simply the right thing to do — and it’s the right thing for the business.
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Amy Gowder is Chief Operating Officer for Aerojet Rocketdyne. In this role, she is responsible for leading the Engineering, Operations, Manufacturing, Supply Chain, Quality & Mission Assurance, Safety, Health & Environment and Information Technology organizations, as well as oversight of the company’s 11 operating sites in nine states. She will ensure that Aerojet Rocketdyne remains focused on delivering key results and value for our customers and our shareholders, all while driving continuous improvement.
Ms. Gowder brings more than 20 years of leadership experience in the aerospace and technology sector. Most recently, she served as vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin’s Training and Logistics Solutions line of business within the Rotary and Mission Systems business area. She was responsible for the execution and strategic growth of Lockheed Martin’s mission readiness and sustainment programs with more than 5,400 employees around the globe.
During her tenure at Lockheed Martin Corporation from 2005-2020, Ms. Gowder held several executive positions such as president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Commercial Engine Solutions. Prior to Lockheed Martin, she worked for Accenture and specialized in Supply Chain Management for the high technology industry.
Ms. Gowder is a proven leader who was named a “Top 40-Under-40 Aviation Executive” by Aviation Week in 2012 and was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015. She has served on multiple advisory boards, committees and task forces in the states of Texas and Florida, advising on aerospace and defense as well as economic development topics.
She is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Fellows Program with a Master of Business Administration, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Bioengineering from Arizona State University.