Can you be authentic and "get ahead"?

Victoria Lewis




That's what I was asked to answer yesterday as the Chair of a panel event at Swiss Re. Actually, their title was more of a presumption: "How to be authentic and get ahead". It was a great event - part of their Open Doors agenda - a new network launched to help navigate the diversity and inclusion challenges we all face in our workplaces. 

So I was delighted to take part and was joined by three of their leaders who were articulate and honest about their efforts to "get ahead" and all, critically, demonstrated vulnerability - the highs and lows of career progression.

Just what is authenticity anyway? Here's a definition I like: "the degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit or character, despite external pressures."  Can you be true to your self and still navigate the system? Leaders are likely to say, yes sure, I did!  But I find myself wondering what that system looks like, what the norms are, what the rules say, and has everyone been taught them, let alone understand them? 

That word spirit is powerful I think - there's something about freedom there. The ability to speak up about one's own values, feelings, aspirations and blockers to performing well. Google's Project Aristotle revealed issues close to byrne.dean's heart. For team effectiveness, there needs to be psychological safety. Team members must be comfortable in taking risks and in speaking their minds. They need to know that their colleagues will support their actions and not undermine or ridicule them. Everyone needs to feel as though they won’t be made examples of if something doesn’t go so well. 

People reveal their personality and character in different ways - their lifestyle, humour, dress, family structure, working style and so on. Over the last few weeks I've heard the following in my sessions:

  • a female Associate in a professional services firm was told "a cardigan is not a jacket!"
  •  a reserved male VP in a financial services business was told "you need to sell yourself more or you'll be left behind"
  •  a female director was asked "Can you cry just a little less?"
  •  a BAME media consultant said "you just know you're a bit different".

So to be authentic we must first understand our true selves and what drives us - but we won't reveal our personalities when comments like the above are made. The speakers behind those comments were really saying - you need to change, or at least adapt, your true self. 

The definition above talks about "external pressures" - so what are they? Well in a political social environment that is a workplace, those external pressures will be my colleagues whose world views and value sets may be at odds with mine, peers who approach issues in totally "strange" ways or my boss who tells me "this is the [insert company name] way we do it here". What they really mean is - do it this way! I'm not feeling the authentic spirit vibe there!

But a member of the audience asked me yesterday " But don't you need to sign up to the culture of an organisation if you want to get ahead, and that means you compromise". That's true isn't it, but the language contained in our companys' Purpose and Values should cover our own value sets - the language is usually pretty broad. People don't leave a company - they leave the people. Cultures are about the behaviours I see on a Thursday morning when my boss closes me down for my different idea, when my colleague doesn't invite me to their birthday drinks for the whole team, because I'm "hard work" , or when a leader tells me you just don't have the right personality for this job.

 To get ahead in any workplace, you must be authentic because it's just too much like hard work otherwise but the systems need to be in place to encourage me to share my different ideas, leaders need to actively listen to me and peers need to back me up. We all have to work hard at ensuring the culture reflects the written values in practice. 

Here a few ideas I shared yesterday:

  • be aware of what it means for YOU to be authentic (don't hide from it).
  • get feedback on yourself - ask for it and then handle it well.
  • maximise any internal / external assistance - sponsors, mentors and networks. We all need to keep exposing ourselves to people who see the world differently to ourselves.
  • Challenge bias - we all have it, it's human but it needs to be talked about. But use impact  led  language. Don't assume negative intent so think about your language, timing and location. Reduce the defencive reactions that will happen if you don't challenge in an effective way - you'll make it worse!
  • Make others justify their rule system - again think about your language, don't ask "Why" questions (they tend to lead to defenciveness) and be clear the purpose behind your question.
  • And as you progress - remember people need role models. Everyone is a leader and you have the ability to influence positively.

To be authentic and get ahead, we need to work together.