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How do you portray yourself in a business setting? Do you have a strategy for what to include and what to omit? Me? I’m a business leader and a manager. I have an MBA. I have a point of view. I make an effort to use proper grammar. I appreciate efficient processes. And I’m not afraid of using tough love as a management technique. These are some ways I describe myself at work that paint a partial picture of who I am.
But also … I’m a woman. I’m a wife. I’m gay. I’m a mother of twin girls. I’m a photographer. I’m an amateur writer. I’m a nervous flyer. I’m a dog person. And I’m an introvert.
When I come to work and try to lead my staff, I bring my entire self with me. Whether I’m talking to a major revenue-producing client, the chairman of the board or a member of my staff, I don’t omit. I don’t shy away from details that make up a part of who I am. I do this deliberately, despite my natural inclination for introversion, and I don’t apologize for it. Here’s why.
Being my authentic self at work, I believe, is the only way to create a truly productive environment — one where, as a leader, I invite honesty, and as a contributor, I accept feedback. I tell strangers and potential clients about my wife and kids in a quasi-coming-out speech at least once a week. And it’s not only because I love my life, but also because I use that honesty as an oil of sorts to reduce the friction and increase the humanity in all my relationships — even those founded in business, even those that are brand new and even those with persons I fear may not have the same belief system I have.
Sounds easy enough. But everyone has an underbelly, a part of who they are or a part of their history they might regard as sensitive. For you, maybe you never finished school. Maybe you wear clothes that cover up that terrible tattoo you got in college. Maybe you’re socially anxious. For me, I’d say my biggest social vulnerability is being gay.
On some level these days, being gay is a nonissue. It’s 2019. Mine is not even the only same-sex parented family on my small suburban street. And I’m certainly not the only gay person at my company. But at the same time, stereotyping, homophobia and discrimination still occur, even in a community like mine. As confident as I may sometimes appear to the outside world, there’s an underlying vulnerability when you wonder how the person on the other end of the phone or across the desk really feels about you or about your rights as a parent.
I used to concern myself with these questions in the moment. The conversation would turn toward something moderately personal, like sports or family vacations, and offer an opportunity for small talk. I used to pause and deliberately omit pronouns, or consciously try to assess the political leanings of the room before deciding if this was a safe place for my once-rare, quasi-coming-out speech. “Oh, you’re from Columbus? My wife and I are flying to Columbus this weekend.” Today, this rolls off my tongue, with disregard for how it may or may not affect the conversation. But that’s my evolution.
In the earlier days of my career, I chose only those parts of myself that I felt would serve me in a particular situation or in a particular circumstance. I could rationalize this because I wasn’t there to make waves. I was doing my job. I was keeping my head down and only trying to get noticed for my work ethic. But then I got older. My career as a business leader and operator formed almost as I wasn’t looking. And I started to understand the currency I carried around with me in my authentic self.
When I tell someone something personal about myself at a moment when perhaps they feel vulnerable, it instantly reduces the tension in the conversation. And as soon as you regard all persons as vulnerable, even those who are hierarchically superior to you at work, you can immediately draw parallels to how you might make a direct report feel at home with a piece of sensitive information about you.
How do you become more authentic? First and most importantly, get comfortable in your vulnerability. We all have flaws, and at its most basic level, being authentic makes those flaws more visible. It can be uncomfortable, but like anything, practice is critical. Second, be mindful of who you are. Spend some time on it. How do you describe yourself? What is your underbelly? And third, try to laugh. Laugh at yourself. Laugh with others. Life is too short to take too seriously.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We are constantly invited to be what we are.”
If I could go back in time and sit down with my younger self, the self that didn’t quite trust the world, I’d tell myself there is no part of you that deserves to be omitted. Think of authenticity as a way to create a level playing field. Inspire everyone onto the same common ground, where it’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to be a work in progress. Not only will it help the humanity of all your relationships, but you will be the flame that attracts the moths.
Speaking as the older version of myself, I can say that an authentic person, someone who invites honesty and accepts feedback, is the only type of leader I am willing to follow, and the only type of leader I try to be.
March 4, 2019 at 08:32AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs