I have been described in many ways throughout my career: cold, remote, too direct, difficult, demanding of those I manage (is that a bad thing?). I was even admonished once in a written annual review “that I only wanted to work with smart people”. And, of course, there have been many positive accolades as well. No one questioned my fiduciary mindset, my investment knowledge, my commitment to clients and my team – albeit how tough I was on them. Confusing? – stay tuned.
So today when I hear so much about authenticity, its importance and how its valued in the workplace, I groan, to myself, of course, and mostly think of this new mantra as pure and utter shite, an Irish expression I might add. To work in a safe environment, where one can acknowledge and celebrate difference, difference in professional opinion and decisions, political viewpoints, religious affiliation and backgrounds, and sexual orientation goes without saying, and I think corporate America has made monumental strides in this direction. There remains a long way to go.
I spent many years and much work establishing strong boundaries between my personal and professional lives. So, when I was labeled cold or demanding or too direct, I was actually being authentic. But that type of authenticity, particularly from a woman, did not fit the corporate culture, and more specifically the corporate definition of “female” executive.
Culture is critical to a successful organization; thus, having a team that can simultaneously respect and accept difference to execute strategy is important. But it is imperative to both recognize and accept the culture, define how you can fit – or not – into it and play ball as they say.
At times, I worked hard to moderate my directness, my image of remoteness and aloofness, that followed – plagued me – from the beginning of my career. I found there were a few “safe” topics for me, children was the primary one, it humanized me to many.
And I’m not ungrateful for having to do this, I learned through it, it forced me to slow down a bit, and become more aware. This was particularly true at GE, which so values inclusiveness and a cohesive brand of behavior.
I changed how I wrote/responded to an email, or a message; I made sure that I “walked the halls”, if you will, and spent time with team members. I inquired about their lives and families, and shared some of my own updates, and as I did this, it got easier and began to feel more natural. And I began to see the benefits to it, especially for me.
For a very long time, I was uncomfortable with my working-class roots, I had done SO much work to leave all of that behind, to distance myself, to be educated, worldly, urbane. But at the end of the day, it’s what shaped me. And all the running away from it never got me comfortable with myself, so I have inched into embracing it, being able to talk about the poverty, limited education, emigration. I do this very sparingly, with a few people I know well, where and when I feel safe.
An eye opener for me was my older daughter, Fiona’s, college tour of Harvard. She was an exceptional student and clearly a potential candidate. We visited Stanford earlier in the summer leading to her senior year and she was smitten, really had no interest in seeing other schools. But as she was my first, and I had put so much work into providing college prep services, etc, that I was running this according to “plan”.
Suffice it to say, Fiona was still a bratty teenager and purposefully not impressed with Harvard. When I took her out for coffee after the tour, and began to talk to her about how this school was a possibility, and referenced her grandmother’s journey, she quickly said to me – “you’re not going to start with the shoeless thing again”. I must say I was stunned, actually speechless.
Suddenly I realized that I was experiencing the power of class mobility and emigration – that a young talented granddaughter of a woman who at best finished an 8th grade education, and who was indeed shoeless, and often hungry, during her own childhood, had moved past many of the things which both awed and intimidated me.