Coming from working as a janitor in the steel mills in Indiana to being the president of two multibillion-dollar companies, Denice Torres knows about overcoming great odds to achieve enduring success.
Torres’ personal story about moving from acceptance to celebration resonates with all those working within and without the system, inspires them to affect real change, and to realize their dreams and unique voice while doing so. Her upcoming podcast and book Flip the Tortilla (and other lessons in resilience, optimism, and mojo) uses humor, candor, and an insider’s know-how to share the lessons learned along the way.
We had a chance to speak with Torres about where she came from, how she got to where she is today, and what she sees for the future.
What has been your personal experience with diversity and inclusion in the workforce?
There are two aspects to it. The first is personal – being a gay, Hispanic female – and the second has to do with being a leader of two multibillion-dollar companies.
I came from a challenging background. My first job was as a janitor in a steel mill in Gary, Indiana. As a gay woman, I didn’t have many female role models in business let alone lesbians. Fortunately, Billie Jean King published a women’s sports magazine. I would read that magazine cover to cover, and then back again. The stories of female athletes accomplishing great feats gave me great hope. That magazine was my Harvard Business Review In my twenties. I remember, writing a letter to Billie Jean and she wrote back. I still have that note.
So I went on this winding journey, first to self-acceptance and then over the years, to self-celebration. I was outed by one of my employees in my early thirties and was terrified what would happen. I hated that someone could have that kind of control over me. It was one of the many straws that finally made me realize that my biggest fear lies deep inside me, and that was whether or not I could love myself fully for who I am.
One of the biggest factors that helped me find my voice, was having my daughter. There was no way I would bring her into a world where her mother was anything but super confident. I stopped flinching and looking down when I mentioned my partner, Kim, who is now my wife of 23 years. As I grew in my own confidence, I also grew in my career, getting bigger roles in large organizations. I know these two things are not coincidental. I also found that as I became more comfortable with my own strengths and vulnerabilities, I became a better leader. The ability to relate to others with humility, vulnerability, and compassion is super charged by our own ability to reflect and have insight.
If you are in the early stages of your career and having doubts whether you can achieve your goals, please know that YES, YOU CAN. There isn’t a door that you should be afraid to open or a role that you shouldn’t claim. I’m not saying this because it’s nice to hear; I’m saying this because that’s been my experience. I did it. You can do it.
What would you tell someone who is struggling with coming out or feeling that sense of pride and celebration?
I didn’t initially get the whole gay pride thing but, as I got older, I realized that being proud of who I am – a mom, wife, gay, Hispanic, successful woman with a sixth grade sense of humor was something that deserves pride. Yes, we should be proud and show up with that kind of “game on” energy.
We need to make the conscious decision to own our happiness. There will always be challenges. There will be people who don’t get you, believe in you, see your potential. That’s why positive self-talk and affirmation is important. My inner voice is street smart, and she is a swearing, take no prisoners kind of gal, who is full of expletives. You would like her. She is a kick-ass-but-full-of-love kind of woman.
In hindsight, of course, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time when I was young worrying about what people thought of me. When I stopped looking for other people’s acceptance, I stopped giving my power away.
You rose to the ranks of President and a Chief Strategy Officer for the healthcare giant, Johnson & Johnson, and led one of the most successful turnarounds in the company’s history. What part did Diversity and Inclusion play in the company’s success?
A lot has been written about creating psychological safety and I have seen over and over again that leading with love builds individuals who are supercharged, and that leads to great outcomes.
I didn’t need research to tell me that diverse teams drive better business results. By encouraging people to be themselves, new ideas came forward. I’ve always been adamant that we shouldn’t allow people to be themselves – we should insist on it. Showing up as someone else is just wasted energy. Creating an environment where people are able to listen without judging is just good business.
If we are going to change the status quo, we need to do more than mentor orcreate forums and groups, we need to promote diverse talent. Visibility is essential to change. When we see people who are like us that fuels dreams – dreams that can be realized.
How have things changed for the LGBTQ community in organizations?
Things certainly have improved but we are not where we need to be, not by a long shot. While it is great to see CEO’s like Tim Cook who are open, there just aren’t enough of us. Are people still being antagonized? Are there still hate crimes? Absolutely. It can be scary for people. Also, starting out and being financially insecure, as I did, creates fear. I was afraid I might lose my job. It wasn’t lost on me that as my account balances grew, so did my confidence. Money brings power, influence, and options. I encourage young women to get savvy about their finances. My grandmother was in banking, and she taught us about compounding interest way before reading us good night stories.
What can organizations do to further support career success for the LGBTQ community?
One is creating psychological safety, the second is increasing the visibility of leaders, and the third is language – how we talk about employees, how we talk about differences. Using words like “acceptance” does create safety or trust. We need to talk about how inclusion drives business success. We need to have difficult conversations. The onus for these conversation needs to be on leadership and not D&I groups.
What do you think companies can do to be more inclusive?
Inclusivity drives business results. It’s been proven over and over again. Demand that we share our differences and that we embrace everyone. When we change the face of our leaders, we will change the fabric of our companies and we’ll change the fabric of our society.
As a successful member of the LGBTQ community, how are you paying it forward?
I started The Mentoring Place to help women be successful. Some of our members are LGBTQIA and I personally mentor and sponsor members of our community. I prioritize giving time, energy, and money to help support others on this journey. All I ask in return is for them to take the baton and continue to pay it forward.
Denice Torres is a former senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, entrepreneur, podcaster and author. She founded The Ignited Company which provides change management and leadership services to organizations and The Mentoring Place which is a community-based platform dedicated to helping women significantly accelerate their careers.