Allan Gilmour: Former Vice-Chairman of Ford Speaks on Diversity

Allan Gilmour, former vice chairman and CFO of Ford Motor Company, is often referred to in the press as one of relatively few openly gay executives in the top ranks of corporate America. That was precisely the typecasting he had hoped to avoid prior to coming out in 1996.

“I would have been too prominent a gay executive. I did not want too much attention to that part of my life, before everything else in my life,” Gilmour said, addressing a packed classroom of HBS students last Wednesday afternoon at the invitation of the HBS Leadership and Values Committee and the LGBT Student Association.

Sparkling with wit and self-deprecating humor, Gilmour spoke on issues ranging from his life as a Ford executive to the issues companies faced in developing diversity policies.

Allan Gilmour was a life-long career Ford executive. He joined the company in 1960 as a financial analyst after receiving his BA from Harvard and MBA from the University of Michigan. He spent the next three decades at Ford, rising through the ranks, eventually becoming vice chairman. He retired from Ford in 1995, only to be coaxed out of retirement to rejoin the firm in 2002 as CFO and vice chairman at the invitation of Chairman and CEO Bill Ford. Gilmour finally retired in 2005, but he remains a director on the boards of Whirlpool and DTE Energy Company.

During his tenure as a senior executive at Ford, he was focused on building and maintaining the long-term vitality of Ford. He saw one of his primary responsibilities as building “the type of organization that will make Ford successful” by focusing on hiring the right people. Stressing that people mean much more than profits, Gilmour personally oversaw recruiting to ensure the selection of the right people as leaders within Ford.

He acknowledged that Ford has come a long way since the 1960s (when he first started with the firm) when females were absent from key managerial roles and minorities were rare. When he was invited back to Ford in 2002 for instance, Bill Ford assured him that no board member raised the issue of him being openly gay.

Gilmour said diversity is not just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do. He said the business case for hiring gays and lesbians, for instance, is very compelling. The best talent cannot be found in a single group and firms must look further to find the right people for jobs. While Gilmour did not advocate representative employees with strict quotas, he believes representation is still important and some of the best people are from minority groups.

Furthermore, Gilmour said it was important to hire people who understand a segment of your customers. Gays form an important percentage of Ford’s customers, with substantial purchasing power and a significant degree of brand loyalty. Capturing these customers enhances overall profitability.

Gilmour’s emphasis on the business case for diversity was interesting. He frequently advises corporate boards and employee groups on diversity issues and he pragmatically noted that most firms are profit-driven and unfocused on social objectives. He noted the importance of framing issues in a way that forces businesses to realize that it is in their best interest to have a more diverse workforce to access talent. Some of the tools to promote diversity include employment councils, the expansion of benefits to cover domestic partners and zero-tolerance of discrimination.

Gilmour acknowledged that the process is tough. Gays and lesbians are likely to first find themselves accepted, then tolerated, before being fully valued by co-workers.
Using his experiences at Whirlpool as an example, Gilmour emphasized how management can play a key role in setting the tone. Policies are in place not to change the beliefs of people but only their behavior.

“We can select our personal beliefs but successful organizations will select pluralism,” Gilmour said. Yet he firmly believes that as people accept and work with each other, beliefs are likely to be influenced as well.

In closing, Gilmour advised those thinking about how to approach the decision to be open about their sexual orientation in the workplace. He said there is no right time to do it, since no one else knows you as well as you know yourself. It also depends, he said, on the type of organization, and how they are likely to handle such communication. He cautioned against wearing the gay label all the time. Personally, he did not see the need to discuss being gay at all times, it was simply a part of his life.

While Gilmour may not see himself as a representative or advocate for the gay and lesbian community, to many, he remains a courageous example of someone who came out publicly and raised the profile of the community.