How I Learned the Powerful Impact of Authenticity (the Hard Way)
Did you ever THINK you show up as an authentic leader, but as it turned out, you were really screwing up?
Yeah, me too. This is how I learned the importance of being an authentic leader the hard way.
I was in my early thirties and had just been promoted to my very first job in human resources and it was concurrent with a merger at Verizon.
All the players were new. I had a new boss. There was a whole new set of executive stakeholders to support. Half my team was new. And, because life is sometimes messy, I was going through a divorce and was working to navigate a new life, in a new role, in a new home, as a single mom.
Now we all know this kind of stuff is illegal, but my mind raced with all the negative assumptions “they” might make:
“How’s she going to manage this big jump in scope and scale with all the stress going on at home?”
“Is she really going to be able to pull off the travel from Baltimore to Manhattan with a little boy at home?
“She’s awfully young, let’s just wait and see how all this plays out. There will be another time to promote her.”
So, I kept very, very quiet.
(If you prefer to hear me tell this story about how I learned about being an authentic leader the hard way, you can do that here).
My very first assignment in this new role …
was to create a diversity strategy for the new, merged organization. So we created a diversity council. The idea was to bring diverse people together from both sides of the two merging companies. We invited employees from all roles: sales, customer service, marketing, IT. And, employees of different races, ages, genders, sexual orientations.
The idea was to really listen to their experience and stories and use them to inform our strategy.
We would figure out what changes we needed to make to our policies. And, what resources we needed to provide.
And it was going so well …
Diversity council members were really opening up and sharing their vulnerable stories.
For example, Juan said, “You know, I was at a management off-site the other day. And, a senior leader (who by the way has met me at least three times) handed me his keys because he thought I was the valet.”
And Sherika confided, “As a black woman, sometimes I speak up and share my ideas, and everyone keeps talking. Then, the white guy sitting right next to me says practically the same thing, and suddenly all eyes are on him talking about what a great idea it is.”
And Susan shared, “I’m a single mom and I work in a 24×7 contact center in the Bronx. Our schedules change every three weeks. I can’t possibly keep reliable daycare in a situation like that. I’m on stage four for attendance, and I’m about to lose my job. And, I really need this job.”
And we listened carefully. The diversity council came up with different policy recommendations, and resources to consider.
It was three weeks before we were ready to present our strategy to senior leadership and …
Sherika walked into my office and picked up a picture of me and my son from my desk. She handed it to me and said, “Karin, YOU ARE A FRAUD.”
I came by your office the other day to drop off some papers. Your assistant let me in. Karin, there are pictures like this all over your desk of you, and a little boy. AND NO MAN. You are single mom!
All this time you had us share our personal experiences to inform our strategy. And not once. Karin, not once, does it occur to you that your experiences are relevant here too. The truth is executives like you are afraid to be who you are at work. And if you’re afraid. We’re afraid.
And Sherika was absolutely right. I was afraid to be who I was at work. And, I was not the only one.
So I got the entire diversity council on an emergency conference call the next day. It was time to come clean and be a more authentic leader. I said, “You guys, I have something to tell you. I’m a single mom.”
And they said…
We know. Sherika already told us.
So we went back and enhanced the strategy to include executive visits where they showed up a bit vulnerable and shared their authentic stories so that employees could look at those leaders and think, “Hey, she looks a lot like me. And, if she can do this, maybe I can too.”
One year later …
The entire diversity council was invited to New York City for a fancy celebration because we had won the Verizon Excellence Award for the impact that strategy had on our employee engagement results.
I looked across the table and there was Sherika, smiling.
She knew I was no longer a fraud because I wasn’t afraid.
What I Learned About Being an Authentic Leader From Sherika
I’m so grateful for Sherika and her courage to speak up and call me back to the important mission we were doing.
Although, if you had asked me if I believed in authentic leadership at the time, I surely would have said “yes!” After all, our entire strategy was built around the diversity council sharing their authentic stories.
But under stress and pressure, I was afraid to be authentic. I thought no one would want to follow the real me.
I had lost confidence in my strengths. And, I lacked the humility needed to put our mission above my personal needs. The strategy suffered.
That’s when I learned the importance of being an authentic leader. And, never asking my team to do something that I was unwilling to do.
Not only did Sherika’s courage change the success of our strategy, it also changed the way I led and taught leadership from there on out.
I also learned that authenticity and vulnerability build trust.
Teams need a leader they can relate to, not someone trying to show up “perfect,” while suffering on the inside.
I’m no longer a fraud because I’m not afraid.
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