Live Authentically / by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

take-off-your-mask“And that is how black women do their hair,” I said with a flourish as I sat down in my seat to broad smiles from my corporate instructor. “Thank you soooo much for sharing!  That was soooo cool!” one of my classmates whispered and squeezed my hand.

And that’s when I knew I was doing it again.  I was overcompensating.  We’d been holed up in a training room for a week learning about how to provide the best technical service to our customers.  The current assignment was to create a presentation that would teach the group something new. As I thought about what I could really teach to enlighten the group, I reflected on the group itself:  In a group of 20 IT professionals from across the country, I was one of two women and the only person of color.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time this was the case so I decided to do what I always did- find a non-threatening way to call it out, disarm others and, with any luck, blend inconspicuously back in.  Perhaps my 15 page Powerpoint was a little much, but at the time I would have done anything not to be seen as the (gulp) angry black woman.  I wanted to be accessible, friendly, open and not overly-sensitive.  So much so that I would go completely to the other extreme and not react emotionally to ANYTHING, no matter how offensive, rude, or ignorant.

This need to overcompensate is not unique to people of color or women.  Workplaces are filled with people struggling to overcome generalizations.  The choruses may sound familiar-

“I may be young, but I am knowledgeable about this topic.” “I’m not denying that I have had a privileged upbringing, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t worked very hard to get to where I am.” "As a manager, whenever I set deadlines, I feel the team sees me as a tyrannical task master.”

Just about everyone wrestles with overcoming perception, and it is exhausting.  To combat these stereotypes, most people begin projecting a persona that is different from who they truly are.  Sometimes it’s about projecting an image of the person people want you to be.  Sometimes it’s about not projecting a persona with which others identify you.  Either way, when faced with the choice to “be yourself” or to “get to where you want to be,” many people end up choosing to be someone else.  People then deal with this choice in several ways.  Some morph into the projection of themselves and actually become something different than what they once were. Some are torn about not being themselves and resign themselves to an existence of “being fake.”  Others find ways to reconcile the two in a way that is authentic while still meeting the needs of their environment.

In my case, I have felt less and less of the “burden of proof” for my race and gender over time.  This doesn’t mean that, earlier in my career, I was being inauthentic by believing that being perceived as an angry black woman was bad for my career.  It is a stereotype that exists to this day, and I am mindful of and affected by it.  The real question is “Does my current environment require me to drastically modify my behavior in light of this or that stereotype in order to thrive?”

I have been fortunate, for most of my professional career, to be able to answer this question “no.” Through some greater providence and a few great mentors I have been on teams and in roles where my passions aligned so well with mission and strategy that the other things didn’t matter as much.  I was valued for, not in spite of, my true self and not a projected persona.  This translated into a harmony of who I was and what I was doing, from my work style to the types of people I worked with and the projects we took on.

In many ways, that is why the first and most critical value of my company is to LIVE AUTHENTICALLY.

values-snowballToo many people I know have instead had the experience of the protagonists in Office Space.  They toil daily at work they’re not connected to with people who are pretending to care.  And instead of harnessing their talent and creativity, the organization falls victim to its own employees’ frustration and ill will, whether deserved or not.

I believe values-driven entrepreneurs must recruit people who are authentically connected to the vision of the enterprise. Hiring people who can incite the momentum of the Values SnowballTM  creates and nurtures an environment of authenticity.  And I believe where authenticity flourishes, so do the individuals and the business.  This is not just applicable to my company whose vision is Live.Learn.Grow.TM.  It goes back to the concept of connecting intrinsically motivated people to enterprises in order to outperform the market.  Without this, we might as well be asking for TPS-reports and sacrificing printers to pent-up rage.

The first and most important step for you to create that environment is to determine what type of culture you want as specifically as possible.  For instance,

    1. Culture starts and ends with you, the founder/owner/CEO.  When you think about building a culture, what are the attributes you value most in your employees and environment?
    2. What would a stranger notice about your company or environment when she walks into your building?  Intense? Fast-paced? Laid-back? Etc.
    3. If we watched a video from a recent meeting, what three things would your team be most excited about?
    4. If we asked a handful of employees to describe what it’s like to work at your company what words might they use?
    5. Successful people here tend to value and honor _____(fill in the blank)

Once you have an idea of what your answers are, you will have a sensory blueprint of your culture.  It is up to you whether you immediately commit them to well-honed and crafted values, vision, or mission statements.  What’s most important is that you know what they are and that you and your team can consistently recognize when they are displayed in others.  One of the greatest diseases you can inflict on a thriving culture is hiring people who don’t live by your cultural values.

Remember, this culture is uniquely yours so be careful not to project what others might think you should be; your enterprise must also live authentically.  It should reflect, in no uncertain terms, the values you and your company hold true.

Check out the values from Unreasonable Group for a great example.  Unreasonable Group’s values provide such a strong idea of what their culture is that they serve as a magnet – they attract people whose version of living authentically encompasses those traits, but they just as easily repel those who just aren’t that into 20% impossible.  And not only is that okay, it’s a powerful hiring tool that builds organizational and team identity.  As a values driven entrepreneur, you want people who wake up every morning energized and excited about the work you’re doing.  Not some of it or parts of it… ALL of it.  That is not to say that you won’t disagree on the what at times, but as I mentioned in the Values SnowballTM post the how is most important, and your culture becomes the compass that allows you to navigate the two.

Most importantly, people deserve to be a part of environments wherein they can thrive and be their best selves.  The more values-driven enterprises we can build together, the more people will have the opportunity to be in such environments.  And the more people experience it for themselves, the more they will want to go out and create that same opportunity for others.