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An LGBTQ leader on why playing devil’s advocate is BS

By Leah Fessler
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Less than two years after the Supreme Court case Obergefell vs. Hodges led to same-sex marriage being established across all 50 US states, one of the most anti-LGBTQ administrations in modern history entered the White House.

Following centuries of queer discrimination and abuse, America’s present reality makes the aspirations of the Human Rights Campaign more important than ever. HRC is the largest LGBTQ civil-rights organization in the US, and its goal is simple: “HRC envisions a world where LGBTQ people are ensured of their basic equal rights, and can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community.”

Joni Madison is at the forefront of this mission. Madison became HRC’s chief operating officer and chief of staff in 2016. She joined HRC after serving as COO of the advertising agency McKinney for over a decade, where she was one of just 35 female COOs out of the 1,146 companies represented by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

“Listen more than you speak. Elevate and support each other, not just as colleagues, but as human beings.”

In 2016, McKinney created the Joni Madison Mtern Diversity Scholarship in her name, which “help students from unrepresented minority groups learn from working at the agency as interns.” McKinney says that Madison “helped create an agency culture that champions diversity” during her time as COO. 

Her advocacy is rooted in her own experience growing up gay in North Carolina, and she has proven herself as an integral member of the LGBTQ movement for over 15 years. Madison regularly volunteered for HRC starting in 2000 after serving as an organizer for Mothers Against Jesse in Congress (MAJIC), a group that produced advertising messages highlighting US politician Jesse Helms’s anti-gay activities, as well as working with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

In an interview with Quartz, Madison explains the importance of questioning authority, why oppression cannot be tackled in small bites, and how giving a damn is the key to healthy professional relationships.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
“To ultimately reach true equality for everyone, we have to engage in tackling all facets of oppression.”

To ultimately reach true equality for everyone, we have to engage in tackling all facets of oppression. This includes racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. This is not an easy task, and I find that it makes the most open-minded of us uncomfortable on most days. But as today’s leaders, we simply must push ourselves to confront these ugly societal states. First, we have to do the work to unpack these states to clearly see the roles we play in reinforcing them today. Next, we have to lead impactful change, as well as be strong allies working together to make a societal pivot.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I would have to say that it is a combination of things. My strong work ethic has driven me to consistently show up powerfully and put in the time to do a good job, regardless of the circumstances. My confidence gave me the courage to be bold and “go for it” on most days. My ability to laugh at myself allowed me to not take myself too seriously and, when I screw up or fail, dust myself off and go at it again.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work—at your company, industry-wide, or on a policy level—what would it be?

It is definitely pay equity. As a country, we are still struggling with this issue, and legislation will only go so far to ensure equal pay. At the Human Rights Campaign, we take this issue very seriously. We have implemented employer practices that provide constant monitoring and checks and balances.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

I was taught to respect authority. I wish I had known to also question it.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

About 15 years ago, I was managing multiple large-scale projects at work. I was working around the clock just trying to manage what was on my plate. One morning, I had a disagreement with my partner (who is now my wife) over something minor, but it set me off. I got in the car and headed toward work in a rage. During the drive, it suddenly dawned on me that if I did not do something to change my attitude, I was going to have the worst day of my life.

At that time, all I knew to do was to try to calm down and get a grip. This one fateful morning led me to explore the power of intentions. You see, I had always believed in the statement, “You reap what you sow.” However, I had always looked at that belief as a material construct versus a positive mindset. Ultimately, this led me to research, explore, and develop a belief system that allows me to choose to be happy, regardless of what life throws at me.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I respect others. I am honest. I am dependable. I am loyal. I give a damn. And I would not ask anyone to do something that I would not be willing to do myself. When you do things like that, you will have strong relationships in your profession and beyond.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was in my mid-20s, a friend told another friend that “I wish she wouldn’t try so hard.” You see, I had to be a little more and do a little more than anyone. As I eventually wrapped my head around the comment, I ultimately gave myself permission to relax a bit and live more in the moment. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. But it was a comment that helped me look inward, grow, relax, and allow myself to let some of the nicer things in me come out.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

It is not just men: It is people of all genders. Listen more than you speak. Elevate and support each other, not just as colleagues, but as human beings.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that Duke’s mayonnaise is the best. Period.

I wish people would… say “no” to the “devil’s advocate point of view.” It is just a socially acceptable, passive-aggressive way to say “no” to something before it even had the chance to be explored as a possibility.

Everyone should own… their word and actions.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.

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