topSkip to main content

It’s scary bringing your whole self to work (I know!)

Woman with tattooed arms

"Professor Banaji!” I ran up to the podium after her lecture on Unconscious Bias in 2010. 

"I always feel that I do not fit into other's mental picture of a leader, as a woman, an Asian and a foreigner. Thank you for showing me that I’m not crazy. So here is a thought: Does it mean I need to work six times harder — two times for each deviation I have — to overcome the bias and get that promotion?" I was eager to know. 

"Yes, it's true," she said in a matter-of-fact manner. I was crushed. I wanted her to commiserate with me how unfair the world is, but she was not giving me any of that. 

I went back to my room and cried. America had failed me. The reality that my skin color, accent and ability to bear children colors others' perception was too harsh.  

Now what? And then, a thought came to me. What if I stopped acting to fit in and started bringing my whole self to work?  

It felt risky. I was told that I need to leave my true self at the front door, right before I said “Hi!” to the receptionist.

But then I did not feel like working six times harder. I had nothing to lose by giving this crazy idea a shot.  

What I found out surprised me. I couldn't have known that bringing myself made me happier at work. I would have never guessed that it is becoming a critical leadership skill.  

I learned two things:

First, fitting in doesn't make me stand out — my quirky part is what makes me valuable. 

The first 10 years working in the U.S. felt hard. I wanted to fit in. I took accent reduction classes, became fluent in Netflix and tried to get myself into Super Bowl. Still trying.

I joked that I am the diversity jackpot, but it was not a joke. I hated that when the first question people ask me is, "Where are you from?" I wanted to belong.

A  2015 McKinsey report found that ethnically and gender diverse companies are 15 percent to 35 percent more likely to have a financial return that is above their industry mean. Smart companies promote diversity. It's good for business.  

But day-to-day reality felt different to me. I did not want to be typecast to "Asian" or "women" projects or roles, so I downplayed my difference. 

And then I had an epiphany. All of us are different in some way. Mark Zuckerberg grew up as a white man in New York, but he is a bit nerdy. So, he double-downed on his nerdiness and created Facebook rather than trying to be a football star.  

For me, I stopped trying to be a well-rounded supply chain professional and double-downed on my true passion: The role of technology and how it is changing the way we do our business. And I never looked back.  

Second, knowing how to express deeply personal values is a new leadership skill.

I have a confession. I am a coffee snob. I go to World Barista Championship events to support my inked-up barista friends. I did not want my coworkers to know.  

Why? No idea. I guess it did not fit into the "leader" image that I wanted to have. 

One day, a co-worker whom I was close to ran into the lunch room and yelled, "Grace, hey, this reminds me so much of you." He showed a laptop size picture of a very serious looking, fully mustached barista pulling a shot.

I was mortified. Oh no. I was scanning my co-worker's faces looking for signs of disapproval.

And you know what? Nothing happened.

I forgot that most people are too busy to obsess over my idiosyncrasies or urban hipster status. In fact, a few of them told me later it was super cool. 

This was a silly episode, but it made me realize something. It is okay to share even more, even political and religious views. The old playbook that politics and religion are taboo topics in business is being pushed out by tweets and likes.

Consumers, powered by social media, now demand their beloved brand behave like a regular person with their own values. Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, has advocated for LGBTQ rights, while Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A's CEO, has not been shy to share that he is against same-sex marriage.

Today, we are all CEOs of ourselves, and there is much to learn about how and when to share our personal value with the public.

Some of the best working relationships I have are with those who took the risk and share their very different political and religious views. We do not agree with each other, but we felt much closer after sharing a piece of our true self.  

Members: Post your comments in our NEW Member Community.

Grace H. Woo is director supply chain strategy at McCormick & Company.

Views expressed in blogs, posts 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 corporate partners.