Leanne Gardner, RSA

Leanne Gardner.jpg

What is your role?
Global Development Manager

Leanne's Story
How did I get to be where I am today? Well other than a very long commute to the office I am not sure where to start.

It has been a roller coaster of a career so far. I did the traditional route of A levels, University and ‘Graduate Scheme’ at first.  I worked hard to get top grades, All I wanted was to work for a large global corporation to give me endless career progression without needing to change company. Unfortunately after 3 years in the insurance industry I was faced with some unfortunate set of circumstances which led me to leave the industry and vow to never return.  Luckily I had a nice bonus, having done well in my sales role, and I bought a one way ticket to Thailand to explore what I wanted to do with my life and career.  After living there for almost 2 years, becoming a teacher, trekking Everest base-camp and working as a professional scuba diver, I decided to return to the UK.  Fish, surprisingly enough, do not move and it was incredibly mentally unstimulating to see the same fish every day.  I did a master’s degree and worked helping run the family business. My grandfather retired 20 years before and he wanted someone in the family to take it over and at that time the current MD was also heading to retirement.  It was a fantastic experience and I learned a lot there in what felt like ‘playing business studies’ but with a real life business.  Whilst the company was quite big for a family business in manufacturing (£5mill revenue, 45 staff, 3 overseas operations) it did actually feel quite small in terms of cultural mind-set and I missed the ‘corporate world’.  At the time I was training for an Ironman, so waited until I finished that before I started looking. Within 2 weeks of finishing the Ironman I was contacted by someone I once knew in the insurance industry about a job. It was very timely and I always believe in grasping opportunities and being open minded, so I decided to explore it. After several rounds of what felt like mutual vetting, I decided to come back to the industry I once vowed I never would. Just over 2 years in it has been great. RSA is a fantastic company.  I have been promoted, am part of several D&I networks, and have managed to deliver leading sales results which has been a great confidence boost for me as my previous results cannot be seen as a one off.

What factors allow you to bring your full self to work? 
a. How does your environment make you feel involved and included?
For me it isn’t rocket science it is just about being nice. There are two ways to get the end destination and achieve results – we can be nice, inclusive and give positive reinforcement or we can whip the donkey until it drops and then get another donkey.  I prefer the former and having an environment like that makes me feel involved and included.  Nice doesn’t mean we can’t achieve and deliver company results it means not having a blame culture, appreciating differences, realising that different skill sets adds value, can we get more out of people if we train and support them etc.

b. Do you think there is improvement needed?  What are your ideas?
In the D&I space there is A LOT of improvement needed. I think 3 key things could help:

  1. Better education on what the business benefits are. We have lots of stats on how more diverse and inclusive organisations achieve better results but we do not explain to middle managers the fundamental reasons why: It is due to having/attracting a wider pool of talent, differences creates better rounded views/business ideas.  It prevents group polarisation where we end up all agreeing to the wrong business decision because we are just confirming each other’s points of view.  It allows talented colleagues to be their authentic self at work, feel included and deliver that extra 30%.
  2. To have a “Dummies Guide to LGBT+ Community” or even other groups. I am aware that language is always changing and it can be quite hard to navigate around what to say but there are some NO GO areas which should be clear e.g. Do not say ‘I don’t believe gay people should have children/get married’, ‘what do you call a trans person’. We have come a long way to stamping out racist language in the work place but we still haven’t created clear lines on not saying offensive things to the LGBT+ community.
  3. Give equal pay for parental leave. The government have enforced equal leave and statutory pay for men and women but a lot of companies will only pay their female employees parental leave.  I cannot see how this is even legal or even how companies can say they believe in equal pay when they do this.  We will never be able to address the gender pay gap and create real equality if we do not give people the choice on who is going to take the parental leave (only paying one gender is not a true choice).  This is also very difficult challenge to navigate through in the LGBT+ community, where one of you has to make the choice to stay at home, where also the bonding time may be even more crucial when the child may not be genetically yours etc.

What was your first motivation to be out at work and how has being out most positively influenced your experience?
My first motivation was really when I became more seriously involved with my partner.  To be honest, I was just so besotted I couldn’t stop talking about her, so I almost had to come out as using gender neutral terminology became too hard to keep up.  It has been hugely positive to my well-being and my ability to bring my authentic self to work.  I can now have normal conversations regarding what I did on the weekend and share the normal ups and downs of life.  She has become quite the ‘celebrity’ at work, where I probably over share.  However I wouldn’t quite say I was ‘out at work’.  I meet lots of different people every week: clients and colleagues.  You need to keep  coming ‘out’.  If I know I am going to be working with someone for a long period of time I ‘come out’ as quickly as possible (like ripping off a plaster) but, if it is not going to be a long term business relationship, I often don’t bother and stick to gender neutral language.  Regardless of the person’s intentions, by disclosing your sexuality by saying ‘my girlfriend’, you open yourself up to dialogue on your sexuality which can lead to offensive language/conversations, often unintentional.  Therefore, if I have had a hard day or I am just tired I still just avoid it.

Can you tell us how the business has been improved by LGBT+ people bringing the best of themselves to work?
All people that feel included and inspired will bring their best to work. They will be more loyal, they will work harder, they will make friends, have a much happier disposition in the work environment etc.  The LGBT+ community is no different to that.  If you do not create an inclusive culture your successful/talented/loyal colleagues will be disengaged, not want to work hard, leave and you may even have an expensive HR case on your hands.

This is the case for all groups of people so I really don’t understand why we haven’t managed to create an inclusive culture in the work place.

Do you have any advice for someone who isn't out at work yet?
Come out!  It is easier said than done and I am not saying it is going to be plain sailing once you are out.  However, it is your company’s responsibility for you to be able to bring your authentic self to work.  If you do face any victimisation because of it, then contact HR and/or leave.  If you really feel like you can’t come out in your environment then look to leave and come out before you actually make the move – you may be surprised that your life at work improves and you are able to connect better with colleagues and therefore end up staying – if not you will have a new job to go to.  We spend a considerable amount of time at work you should be able to fully be yourself.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Probably do the above and try to be more confident in who I was.  I cried a lot when I came out the second time.  I have been in and out the closet more times than I would like to admit – Narnia just felt like a better place at times.  I wish I had I stopped the tears and could have been confident in who I was and not let my sexuality, or my confusion of it, define me as a person.

Can you describe the moment you realised you were a role model?
When my younger cousin told me she wanted to be just like me when she grew up.  At the time, whilst I was flattered, I had hoped she would have picked a better role model as I didn’t want her to end up being gay.  This was about 15 years ago and whilst I am sad to think I once felt that way I am pleased to realise how much I have changed and can actually be a real role model to others.

What do you do on a day to day basis to be a positive role model?
I just try and have integrity in everything I do and encourage that in other people.  People can do the wrong things sometimes and make mistakes, but it is the thought process and intent that is behind it that matters.  So I ask myself if I was stood in front of our CEO, the man at the pearly white gates (if you believe in him/her), my mother, grandmother, partner, role models, and can say with my head held high everything I have done knowing I have done them for the right reasons then I am doing well in life.

I am also trying to have very open, honest discussions about my life and relationship.  With the existence of social media we become almost blind to real life imperfections and are constantly comparing our lives and relationships to these perfect images.  Therefore, by saying my girlfriend drives me crazy and sometimes and spends far too much money in Waitrose (which she does), it will help to challenge the belief that everything has to be perfect all the time and it is ok when it is not – it is just normal life.  

What advice would you give to someone who wishes to be a good role model?
Probably the same as the above, have integrity and be honest.

What are you doing outside of your organisation to be a good role model?
Well the biggest thing I did was to do an Ironman.  I sacrificed a year of my life (whilst working and trying to do everything else) to train to do an Ironman for my cousin diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called lissencephaly.  I had never run more than 5k, didn’t own a bike and couldn’t even swim properly (just doggie paddle).  From a year to the date I trained to swim 2.5miles, cycle 112miles, followed by a marathon run within a 16 hour cut off.  I not only wanted to raise money for my cousin and children like him, but I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to inspire people that ‘anything is possible’.

Shortly after this an old university friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer and decided to cycle around Europe to raise money for The Royal Marsden.  I was privileged enough to follow her success story and she really did make difference raising a phenomenal about of money for charity and inspiring thousands of people.

Now I have told myself to just try and be a bit more like her each day.

Who is your most memorable role model and why?
To be honest it is pretty hard to outshine Emmy above. She was everything a person should be, kind, the right attitude in life, spent the last period of her life making a huge difference for everyone, not to mention intelligent, sporty and beautiful.

For the LGBT+ community I would mention Shelley Rae and Nic Evans. They are both hugely successful female rugby players and I had the privilege to not only play rugby with them but also live with them in my early twenties. They were probably the first lesbian couple in a long-term stable relationship I knew and when I was coming out of the closest for my 2nd and 3rd time they were really there for me. They became my ‘lesbian mummies’ and provided me with really strong relationship role models/values.  It is not only hard to come out but then to try to navigate round what a good relationship looks like is challenging - for me that is Nic and Shelley. 

How did you feel coming to your first Link event?
Nervous all over again. I was worried about being seen, about what other people from my last stint in the insurance industry would think, what kind of people would be there.

How has the Link network helped you?
Just meeting more people in the LGBT+ community has been hugely valuable.  You feel less on your own in what is a very heterosexual and male dominated industry.

What do you think Link can do in the future to best serve the new generations?
I really enjoy the sessions where we have topics to discuss, recent news, what is happening in the industry etc.  I would like to see more of them rather than the drinks on Tuesdays.  The new generations aren’t drinking as much (apparently) and this would help to be more inclusive to those that don’t drink and/or want to go home to be with their family/partners/pets etc.