A lot is being said and written about being authentic these days because so many people aren’t. Think about a police chief who fudges his department’s response to a crisis. Or, government and corporate leaders that promise one thing and then do another.
What is Authenticity?
Authenticity means being real or genuine, and telling the truth. You can’t tell someone you’re being authentic. You have to demonstrate it by your behavior. You have to be who you say you are.
Employees value a CEO who is honest and not afraid to open himself up and show some emotion. We coached a senior partner of a law firm for several years. One day he was asked to speak to the partnership about what the firm meant to him.
When talking about the firm in rehearsal, he was overcome with emotion and had difficulty getting the words out. He kept practicing because we knew that once he was able to manage his emotions, he could hold his own on stage.
On the day of the meeting, Jim got through his remarks with a catch or two in his voice and just a few tears in his eyes. His ability to show emotion may have surprised some of the partners, but they were very touched by his authenticity and his love of the firm.
A few years later his peers elected him the managing partner. Jim had built a level of trust by his openness and authenticity. He was a leader they wanted to follow.
You can’t be a good speaker by wrapping yourself in bubble wrap. You can’t be a good leader by withholding your feelings.
Mingling With Employees
Bill Hewlett and David Packard, the founders of Hewlett Packard, practiced management by walking around, a concept popularized in the blockbuster book In Search of Excellence. This means making spontaneous visits to employees to learn first hand what’s really going in the company and getting valuable feedback from employees. These visits are a great morale booster.
But you can’t just drop into the company cafeteria once a year and pretend that you’re interested in your employees. That’s just going through the motions. It’s not authentic.
Good leaders meet with their employees regularly. One CEO we work with invites a different group of employees to dine with him in the cafeteria every other week. He learns more than he would by sitting in his office and it demonstrates his genuine commitment.
The founder and now retired CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal, was labeled a “retailing genius” in a CNBC special about the retailer (below). A shirtsleeves leader, he spent most of his time on the road visiting his warehouse stores. He wanted to know from store managers what was working and what wasn’t. Sinegal could then apply what he learned to the entire network.
Everyone from the newsstand vendor to regular employees knew the late Allan “Ace” Greenberg, chairman of Bear Stearns in the 1990s, who retired long before the firm went under in the financial meltdown.
He was quite the character and much to everyone’s surprise enjoyed his training sessions in preparation for the firm’s IPO. One day, Ace invited me to sit next to him, on what was referred to as his throne, overlooking the trading floor. He said, “Come on over and sit down, Joyce,” and then proceeded to call new employees.
Welcome to Bear Stearns. We’re thrilled to have you as part of the team and I know you’ll do a great job. Here’s my phone number. Use it! If you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up but let me know about it immediately – and don’t make the same mistake twice.”
That was being authentic! Ace never wore a jacket at work, his shirt sleeves were always rolled up, and he knew everyone in the firm by name.
Authenticity is engrained in our DNA. If you’re not being authentic your inner voice will tell you. If you’re a speaker, your audience will sense it in your demeanor.
If you’re a PR person talking to the media, you will be found out if you’re not being authentic with the news about your company. The reporter will go to another source in your company, or to a competitor, or search the web.
It pays dividends to be authentic. Authenticity is more valuable than currency, because you can never go broke no matter how much you spend.