Dow CEO: Coming Out Made Me a More Inclusive Leader
No one should be afraid to bring their whole self to work, says Dow Chairman & CEO Jim Fitterling.
Jim Fitterling, Chairman & CEO of Dow, says he spent his career hiding a key part of his identity—he was gay.
And when Fitterling came out to all Dow employees during an internal meeting in 2014, it was a liberating feeling. “I received overwhelmingly positive support,” he says. Fitterling, who was then the Vice Chairman of Business Operations at Dow, learned for the first time what it meant to bring one’s whole self to work—and became committed to ensuring that everyone else at Dow could do the same.
To celebrate Pride Month, we spoke with Fitterling, who is also a Catalyst Board member, about his experience being one of the few openly gay CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. “If you want to make a difference in the world—you have to take action,” he says.
Q: What influenced your decision to come out?
Jim Fitterling: Before coming out, I had made a conscious decision to live most of my work-related life in the closet because I had made a calculation in my own head about the risk versus reward of coming out. It’s easy to create fears in your own mind, based on things you see and hear around you, about how you’ll be viewed or accepted after coming out. But people’s reactions were actually very positive. There was very little negativity.
I’m also a stage four cancer survivor. It gave me a completely new perspective and was part of the reason I came out. For me, after surviving cancer, coming out certainly didn’t seem as much of a life-and-death situation. And I think those two things together really have made the difference in how I’ve approached my career.
Q: How did coming out affect your approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Fitterling: After my bout with cancer and my coming out, I saw life differently. You can’t avoid progress on certain things because they’re scary or challenging. That’s why, when I became CEO of Dow in 2018, we made our ambition to become the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive, and sustainable materials science company in the world. A big part of delivering on a goal like that is believing you can do it—just like believing life will be better after coming out, or you can beat cancer. Fear isn’t going to help, and it may actually accelerate defeat.
To do this, we know we need everyone working together and focused on the challenges in front of us. We need to make sure no one fears being their whole self while they’re at work—because we need everyone’s inputs included to achieve our goals.
Every day we work to ensure that our people have a safe environment at work. I learned from Kenji Yoshino, who’s a legal scholar at New York University, that you should treat the workplace like an embassy. You may be working in a country where being gay is not accepted at all. But if you’ve got an employee who’s coming to work every day in your company, you want them to be safe regardless of what’s going on outside.
That embassy mentality doesn’t just apply to the LGBTQ+ community. It’s inspired us to step up and take action on many fronts. For example: Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, we announced a framework to help address racial discrimination internally and externally; we called it Dow ACTs. And, since then, we’ve spoken up to address the rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment as well. If you want to make a difference in the world—you have to take action. Words won’t cut it.
Q: You said that bringing your whole self to work was empowering. Why is that important for employees?
Fitterling: We aim to recruit and retain the best talent possible. And we’ve done a great job of that. We hire our people for a reason: They’re the best. And we value their inputs—all of them. I know what it’s like to spend energy and mindshare hiding who I am. It can affect your ability to contribute. Part of you, sometimes all of you, goes into a shell. You withdraw. Helping ensure people can be their whole selves empowers them. It allows people to contribute fully. And, as a result, it empowers the entire organization and helps us achieve our goals.
Q: With the pandemic, what actions can leaders take to foster inclusion and psychological safety?
Fitterling: Leaders must think about psychological safety in the same way they think about physical safety. In fact, the two are very much related. As leaders, it is our job to create a culture where people feel motivated and empowered to help course- correct when the situation calls for it. To create the right culture and environment, you must also be mindful of what challenges your people are facing—and that gets very personal. But you need to have trust and a good relationship with your team to have those discussions.
Caring is part of building that trust. Caring plus the actions you take to make a difference. It’s up to us as leaders to create an environment where our teams feel valued and understood so they can safely speak up and help us do even better.
Karina produces a wide variety of content to advance Catalyst’s research and expertise. She writes blog posts, monthly newsletters, commentary, and other content both for Catalyst’s website and external platforms. As a key member of the editorial team, she also works to ensure that all Catalyst content maintains brand identity…