This post is adapted from the talk I delivered at TEDx Springfield a few years ago. Click here to watch instead on YouTube.

My whole life, I wanted to be a singer, a dancer, or a performer.

I grew up in a musical family and, from a very early age, I felt compelled to perform—to express myself, and to positively connect to, and move, others. I had hoped I could make my living in the world of opera and musical theater, and practiced diligently to get there.

But my dreams were cut short about 10 years ago.

As I started to build my career as a professional vocalist, I struggled continually with vocal problems. It turned out that my instrument was prone to injury, and the only known remedy was a delicate but risky surgery directly on my vocal folds—which I endured, twice.

I will never forget the recovery period. I had to remain completely silent for two weeks, and when I was finally allowed to make a sound, what came out was a tiny squeak. Gentle humming just five minutes a day slowly brought it back into a normal register. After several rounds of this, even with a good surgical result, my instrument was forever diminished.

But I had come to the edge of something more significant that would go on to change my life…

Because it is terrifying to lose your means to express yourself. The craving to be seen and heard, to share your story, to tell your truth is deeply human.

What began as a “Why me?” moment led me to realize that I would need my voice in a different way. The experience of losing it, and then seeking it, clarified my understanding of what I am here to do.

I was meant to use my voice… not just as a singer. But on behalf of others.

As I sought a new career, I listened carefully to my mentors and colleagues who saw my love of being in front of audiences and helping others, and who encouraged me towards what would be my new field, and my professional home to this day—that is, consulting to leaders within organizations about how diversity drives innovation.

I spent some time in corporate roles in my new field, and then decided I could have the most impact from the outside. I founded my company, where I could dedicate my energy to building the more inclusive workplaces of the future, enabled by ALL kinds of talent, which would ultimately produce better business results.

Every day, my team and I work with our clients to build strategies to retain and develop upcoming leaders. But there are plenty who still don’t get it, and it’s frustrating to hear how many in today’s workplaces don’t feel comfortable “bringing their whole selves to work” (for instance, modifying or concealing certain physical or cultural aspects, like appearance, dress, language or education, or changing the pronoun used when referring to a same-sex partner).

We know through focus groups and surveys that this is impacting their ability, and willingness, to contribute—as well as their employers’ ability to leverage their full skills and talents to drive business forward.

This is a very personal topic for me, as it was my story, too. 

During my corporate years, I held back, afraid I would be judged.

In meeting me or working with me for the first time, you might presume my race, gender, generation, but you might miss or mis-identify the less observable aspects of who I am, like my religion, educational background, or sexual orientation. I also bring diversity in terms of my cultural attitudes towards time, and communication style.

Depending on how comfortable I am in my environment, and what behaviors or attributes are valued in my workplace, I might or might not bring more of what has shaped my experience to the workplace.

The effort required to manage aspects of our identity, culture, and work styles, and in many cases filter them out of our professional personas to “fit in”, can take precious energy and focus away from our confidence, our contributions, and our careers.

When we can work as fully ourselves, we win, and the business wins.

One of my favorite quotes is from Marianne Williamson:

“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

At some point in the early days of running my company, I had to liberate myself from my deepest fear, which meant coming out professionally as a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community.

I had come out to family and friends years earlier, however declaring this publicly felt much riskier to me, as my name was now “on the door”, these were early days in the business, and I perceived, at least, that clients and contracts that can make or break a small company, especially during a recession, were at stake.

I had been warned once before that I could never come out as who I was, as a performer, that I would be judged as “inauthentic” if I tried to play traditional roles. In those days, I knew of no successful “out” role models in the performing world. I was determined not to let this happen in my business.

As I now find myself in a successful and growing company, I finally have the freedom to lead from and with my truest self.

Given I am my own boss, and still struggled with sharing my identity publicly, you have to ask how many in today’s workplace are carefully navigating around some aspect of their identity? And make no mistake, this impacts performance.

A recent study of all kinds of talent shows that everyone does something called “covering”. The study describes the pervasiveness of covering at work, with especially high percentages among African Americans, women of color, and LGBT people reporting covering over 90% of the time, in at least one axis. Half of straight, white men report covering as well.

A full third of LGBT talent today are not only covering, but aren’t out at all, at work. A persistent lack of diversity at the top of organizations isn’t helping; senior leadership today doesn’t reflect the diversity of our world, and this is a critical engagement factor for all kinds of talent—to see themselves reflected.

Now more than ever, companies need not only diversity of identity and culture, but diversity of thought, stemming from diverse industries and backgrounds—and to build inclusive organizations where all kinds of people can flourish.

The global business landscape is changing rapidly, and yet organizations still follow hierarchical organizational charts that stifle innovation and diverse voices. These voices have yet to be well-represented at all levels of the organization.

To attract this talent, companies must not only understand and respect the needs and desires of a shifting workforce, but to walk the talk externally.

In this age of transparency, the internal and external reality of what a company says and does need to match. For consumer-based businesses especially, this means respectfully capitalizing on the exponential growth in the buying power of minority groups. Over a trillion dollars, in a few cases, and growing all the time. The LGBT community’s buying power alone today stands at $790 billion.

I credit my diversity—as a woman and LGBT professional among many other things—with developing sensitivity to the diversity in others, as an ally, and with the opportunity I have now to guide and advise businesses with credibility about future workplace trends.

It has also made me a better leader.

When it comes to attracting the best and brightest talent, companies continue to compete fiercely to get high marks on lists like Diversity Inc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity. The presumption being made is how companies do by their talent, speaks volumes about how they do business.

If diversity is a priority, it shows up in the bottom line. Consider:

  • Companies with gender diverse boards outperformed male-only boards by 26%
  • Diverse work teams produce results 6x higher than homogenous teams
  • Over a 10-year period, the index of publicly traded companies in Diversity Inc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity list outperformed the major indices by an average of 25%

But we will need more voices… and it starts with you. 

Everyone knows something about diversity.

And while there is still some risk to bringing more of yourself to work, consider the rewards, as well. There are countless inspiring leaders whose stories embody the potential of being bold:

  • Latino Senior Vice President from disadvantaged background traces the ability to speak publicly and learning how to gain buy-in to leading the Hispanic Employee Resource Group. He moved through 5 promotions in record time.
  • Female VP without a disability, who is now executive sponsor of her company’s disabilities employee network who has stepped up to learn everything she can to represent this community as an ally, educating herself and her organization in the process.
  • Out gay Managing Partner who serves big accounts, and is valued especially for his ability to connect personally with clients, often gaining their trust on a deeper level. He also continually challenges himself to hold his partner’s hand at executive retreats for the firm, where they are the only gay couple.

My advice?

Make yourself uncomfortable every day. Sharpen your awareness of the diversity in you, and in others. Be an inclusive leader. And know the business case for how diversity and inclusion drive innovation. Organizations are depending on you.

But most importantly?

Cherish that voice.

It is a gift, and can be powerful beyond measure.

Use it with pride.