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Can women be authentic at work?

Monday, December 30, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Simma Lieberman

Can you, as a woman, be your "authentic self” at work and still advance to higher levels of leadership?

It depends on how you define your "authentic self.”

According to Fritzi Woods, the late president and CEO of Women’s Foodservice Forum, "Being my authentic self at work means that my job and the culture of the organization is aligned with my values and purpose. It’s a culture that values my values.”

Niki Leondakis, CEO of the growing hotel chain Commune Hotel & Resorts and former COO and president of Kimpton Hotels, defines "authenticity” as "being true to my values and who I am without fear of repercussions and external pressures to be someone else or act in ways contrary to what I believe.”

When she is being her authentic self, she said, her actions with her employees reflect her values of inclusion.

When I spoke to Fritzi last year, she told me that before becoming CEO of WFF, she had worked in organizations that didn’t value women or people of color, or anyone, really. "I was arrogant and ignorant enough to think I could change that way of thinking, but that mindset was embedded in the environment,” she recalled. "At the time, I felt I had to tolerate it because I needed the title and needed to learn, but that I knew what I was doing and how to not let it rule my being."

In her role as CEO of Women’s Foodservice Forum, she said, she was in a role in perfect alignment with her values. "I have access to thousands of people and I’m able to help women and people of color gain the access they need to be successful. We are truly changing people’s lives, opening up minds and that is my purpose.”

Reflecting on her path to leadership and leading from her authentic self, Leonadkis told me, "It wasn’t always like this. My parents were immigrants from Greece. English was not their first language so they spoke Greek at home and in public. Growing up, there were many times I was embarrassed to be with my parents and even tried to deny my heritage. I wanted to fit in. It was stressful.

"Early in my career, I also felt like I had to be someone else. I thought I had to act tough and even dress like a man to be taken seriously. I didn’t get that compassion and accountability are key traits of a good leader.”

Women can be their authentic selves and reach the top. But to do that, you need to know:

  • Who you are, your personal history and how it has impacted your career,
  • What you value and what you believe, and
  • What you require to feel good about yourself.

In addition, you have to know what is contrary to your values and develop the confidence to say "No” or be willing to move on.

When you trust yourself, other people trust you. If you are the constant chameleon, trying to please everyone, not only will you be unhappy, but you’ll be seen as indecisive and a derivative with no ideas of your own. When the next leadership position is open, your name will never come up.

Adapting your style to be heard and get results is not the same as being the constant chameleon. A good leader knows how to communicate with a diversity of people in diverse ways.

Woods said she recognized her default communication and decision-making style was one considered traditionally female. She told me, "I tend to be more collaborative and, like a lot of other women, when I have to make a decision, I process out loud. When women do that, often other people in the room think she’s asking for help, or doesn’t know what she’s doing.That’s when I either tell people I’m processing out loud and don’t need help or advice, or I process by writing.”

While both Fritzi Woods and Niki Leondakis were considered successful in organizations where they were not working as their authentic selves, neither was happy where they were. They were much more successful, and had greater impact on other people’s success, when they went to organizations where they could be their authentic selves.

So women can be their authentic selves at work and still advance -- but that success depends on the organization you choose to join.

Ask the right questions and know the culture before you take the job. Be very clear about the value you bring to the organization. You will flourish when other people see you as an indispensable and innovative problem solver instead of a dispensable commodity.

Simma Lieberman, internationally known as "The Inclusionist,” is a diversity and inclusion and culture change consultant, speaker and coach.

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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