I didn’t start out in corporate life.

By the time I got my first gig as a corporate trainer for a large train-the-trainer firm, I had worked as a theatre director/performer/acting coach/mediation trainer/ university professor/diversity specialist/community storyteller/AIDS activist/Middle East peace dialoguer.

And I had spent a year on a remote Caribbean island, becoming a windsurfer and doing little else.

Uhuh. I had a wonderfully checkered past.

“What are THEY like?” my artist friends all asked me when I joined the corporate ranks. THEY – The_Outsider-Textthat’s how we referred to people who worked in corporations, like they were aliens.

I have thrived in corporate life, from the moment I found it. I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride. But here’s the part I had to figure out for myself:

The minute I entered the corporate playground, I was convinced that my past was a liability.

So I silenced myself. I didn’t talk about it.

It pains me to jot this down, because I had been teaching folks for years not to do the very thing I was doing.

Yes, I turned myself into the corporate outsider.

The Silenced Outsider

I offer my story because every business I work with is full of silenced outsiders.

Some are silenced because their work culture doesn’t tolerate outside perspectives. Many more are silenced because they fear that a full expression of their life experience will inhibit upward mobility. Do you work with lots of international colleagues? Yes -chances are they have silenced their foreign selves.

Silence is their inside job, just as it was mine. And because we are silent, you don’t know what we are withholding. Or what else we might be able to contribute.

This is not about inclusion. Inclusion is, in most cases, little more than ticking off the boxes. This is a plea for un-silencing. It is a cry for the benefits of an un-silenced business culture:

The outsider perspective will question hidden assumptions.

The outsider perspective will challenge sacred corporate cows (process improvement mania, performance management minutiae, meeting madness)

The outsider perspective will strengthen empathy (the skill that most of the leaders I support have in spades but forget in the heat of the battle)

The outsider perspective will always foster better decisions. More fully considered decisions. More human decisions

How do we create an environment that genuinely invites the outsider offering? How do we un-silence the outsider in all of us?

The Corporate Commitment

Claim it: Put up a sign. No, I’m not joking. Put up a sign that says “Outsiders Welcome.” Make it explicit. The sign alone will raise questions about what it means to be an outsider. It will challenge folks to express their outsider view.

Show it: The moment you’re a C-level leader, you’re the consummate insider. Prove them wrong. Be a role model. Reveal your own inner-outsider.

Some folks were enraged by Barack Obama’s recent comments on race, following the George Zimmerman trial. I was startled by their reaction. But I get it. Obama is the President, the ultimate establishment insider. In his personal identification with Trayvon Martin, Obama fully claimed his outsider self. That’s a risk. It makes some folks very uncomfortable. It’s an essential risk.

Hire it: Hire for a shared work ethic. Do not hire for homogeneity. When you interview potential employees, inquire about the experiences that are not on the air-brushed resume. Probe for the unexpected answer, the surprising insight.

When you find someone willing to speak up about their experiences, that’s who you hire.

The Personal Commitment

Test it: Start taking personal risks. Test what folks can hear. In a meeting. At a social event. Offer your outsider perspective. Offer it as a gift. Do it gently. Do it without making the insider perspective wrong.

Once I did my own bit of testing I quickly learned that – DUH – my outsider experience is the biggest asset I bring to my clients. It makes me more valuable than anyone else they might hire. And because I have un-silenced myself, I set all of us up to be more successful.

Yes, DUH. Wonderful, liberating DUH.

Art by: gilad