Episode 47: Authenticity vs. conformity

September 8, 2014

"There’s this tension that we all deal with between authenticity and conformity. How much are you willing to change your identity in order to climb the next rung of the ladder?” - Sylvia Hewlett

"I remember saying this to my boss a while ago, I said, 'My personality is what it is. I started two data-driven divisions in the face of people who didn’t get what we did. That’s the kind of personality it takes to do that is somebody like me.'" - Lauren Tucker

'Authenticity' is a buzzword that crops up a lot these days in posts and articles about the workplace. We're all meant to be in an era where we can be ourselves at work. But how realisitic a goal is that for women, really?

In this show I talk to author and speaker Sylvia Ann Hewlett (right), whose most recent book is Executive Presence. Sylvia says women have to find the right balance of being themselves and having the perfect combination of gravitas, communication skills and appearance to be considered for leadership positions. She talks about how to pull that off.  

Lauren Tucker (left) leads her own division at an ad agency, but she says meshing her forthright personality with the workplace is not straightforward, even at her level. And why should she even have to try?

25 minutes.

Further reading: Sylvia Ann Hewlett founded the Center for Talent Innovation. She is the author most recently of Executive Presence

Lauren Tucker is SVP at The Martin Agency. Her blog post for the 3 Percent Conference site is Beyond the Cracked Ceiling - into the Hall of Mirrors.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show: how authentic can you be at work?

“Many women tell me that they didn’t want to sacrifice their strengths but they did need to sugar coat it with humor, with charm, with warmth, otherwise they become unlikeable.”

And we hear from someone who’s frustrated at having to curb her personality in front of colleagues…

“Those same people will then say you know Lauren, you’re so smart, but you know that’s kind of intimidating so maybe we should get one of your people to talk about this because it’ll make people feel more comfortable.”

Coming up – perception versus reality at the office.

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Now depending on how long you’ve been in the workplace you may have noticed there are written rules…and there are unwritten rules. And one of the unwritten rules is that to become any kind of leader you have to look and act the part. Some people have a name for that set of qualities: executive presence.

“Executive Presence is whether you really signal, you telegraph to the world that you have what it takes…that you’re leadership material.”

Sylvia Hewlett is the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank in New York. Her latest book is called Executive Presence – which she calls the missing ingredient between merit and success. She says you can be utterly brilliant – but unless you have gravitas, good communication skills and the right look, you’ll only go so far.

AM-T: "The book comes in part from a personal perspective. Why write it? What prompted you to write a book about this in the first place?"

“There were two reasons why I ended up so passionate about this topic of executive presence. First off, you know, the story I tell of my upbringing. I grew up in the coal mining valleys of South Wales. I ended up at Cambridge at age 18 very good at passing exams and being a good student, but really had no presence whatsoever. And most especially I spoke English with this thick working class Welsh accent. And I felt very painfully that whenever I opened my mouth I let myself down. And I remember my tutor at Cambridge that first week that I was there telling me I sounded ‘uncouth’. It’s still a word that sticks.

So I spent literally two years listening to the BBC World Service, trying so hard not just to fix my grammar, but to get those modulated tones, to speak English in a way that didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. And now looking back on it I have mixed feelings. Surely I had to fix my grammar – you know, it’s good to  speak the language you work in well. But did I have to lose that regional accent? It’s not clear. And throughout this book there’s this tension that we all deal with between authenticity and conformity. How much are you willing to change your identity in order to climb the next rung of the ladder?”

The truth is, she says, women have to think about this a lot more than men do. White men are still automatically seen as leadership material – they don’t need to try as hard. But women and minorities often have to strive to get their bosses to see them the way they want to be seen. She says every industry, no matter how informal it might look from the outside, has its own rules about what’s needed to progress.

“We find that every organization has a playbook. Academia does.”

AM-T: "I was going to ask you about academia and actually ask you if the advice in your book is as relevant if you don’t work for a traditional organization? Is this as relevant?"

“It’s tremendously relevant. Think of the components of executive presence.  First off, gravitas…”

AM-T: “How do you define that?”

“That’s the magic. We know now that folks are looking for someone who projects competence, credibility, decisiveness, but also has a measure of emotional intelligence so they can read the audience and figure out how to reach them. That is tremendously valuable whether you’re running not for profit or a professor on some campus -- those skills are central. And we find projecting decisiveness and showing teeth is tricky for women, because if you come off as too strong minded, too overbearing, too pushy – I’m using words that are deliberately pejorative, right, because those are the words that are rolled out to describe women who are seen as too strong. So many women tell me that they didn’t want to sacrifice their strengths but they did need to sugar coat it with humor, with charm, with warmth, otherwise they become unlikeable.”

Ah, likeability. That quality on which women are so often judged. And on which many of us judge ourselves. It can be tough for anyone to manage other people’s perceptions of who you are. But Sylvia says all her research shows it’s harder if you’re not white.

“Think of Michelle Obama – I use her as an example.  That speech she made in the first campaign where she told America she was so proud finally to be an American because her husband, this black man, had just won the nomination. She ended up on the front cover of the New Yorker depicted as a terrorist, doing the fist bumps with all kinds of Islamic headgear. No wonder this woman retreated to safe roles when she was first lady. Digging gardens, getting involved in areas of nutrition and children. Great causes. But she is fiercely powerful She was a very important professional woman, right? She has had to dial back. So I think many people of color feel they end up in work environments, whether it’s academia, non profits or corporate America where they’re in a way needing to smother some of their real strengths in order to fit in. And what I say in the book is you need to know your non-negotiables. You cannot have it poison your soul…you need to understand there are certain elements in your character, your personality, that you are not about to take off the table…and therefore you know some jobs do need to be left.”

AM-T: "Yeah, because you end the book by saying we should do this, we should be able to be authentic at work, and yet the book is full of examples of people who have felt they had to compromise themselves."

"Well you see it’s interesting, because I say look, you have to figure out your non-negotiables, the stuff you should make real and proudly wear on your sleeve. Some essential elements of you. But some of these demands…for instance I feel of the three buckets, communication, gravitas, appearance, communication is a huge way of lifting your skills. Got nothing to do with bias. And it’s a fabulous way of building your confidence and all those things you need for gravitas. So I’ll give you an example. The number one pick of what bosses are looking for in the communication section is an ability to be clear, concise and compelling at meetings.”

If you listened to the last show you’ll remember that even senior women can often fail to come across well in meetings – at least meetings full of men. But Sylvia says communication skills like speaking in public or how you hold yourself – they’re  easy to improve on – they take practice and getting feedback from others, but they’re learnable. Talking of feedback, her research shows that women don’t always get the feedback they need because male bosses aren’t willing to be candid.

“Feedback is huge and it doesn’t cross lines of gender or race very readily. So here’s the deal: The senior man -- and obviously many senior folks are still male and still white -- does feel embarrassed, a little fearful he’ll get sued, right? Lots of things go through their minds and it’s much easier to just avoid it. So whether it’s a presentation you goofed up on, a client that you mishandled in a kind of interpersonal way, or just the way you dress, that plunging neckline or too-tight skirt. Doesn’t happen. That doesn’t mean there isn’t retaliation – you’re clearly knocked of the list for the next opportunity if it goes wrong on those fronts.”

So what do you do, she says? You ask for it. Ask for feedback. It may be the only way you actually get the advice you need to advance.

“For instance, you are going to be at a meeting with your boss next Wednesday. You are making a short presentation. Go up to that boss and say, ‘I’m so ready, I’m so excited about this, I’ve got it down. But there are two areas where I think I might be able to improve this presentation next time round. Can you listen to those two points? Can you tell me how to get it to the next stage?’ They’re delighted. And that is very useful.”

AM-T: Because they’ve been given permission…

“Exactly, and they will actually pay attention. You get a lot of good marks there. a) you get some feedback that is totally useful, but they see you as someone who really is ready for the next level of work because you’re being so proactive, which is a fabulous thing for a team member to be doing.”

If that’s not actively managing your career, nothing is. If you try it, let me know how it works.

Not long after I spoke to Sylvia Hewlett I talked to Lauren Tucker. Lauren is managing director of Martin Decision Sciences – it’s a division of an advertising agency based in Richmond, Virginia. When we spoke she said she’d heard the phrase ‘executive presence’ bandied about, but it wasn’t something she’d spent much time thinking about. Yet she’s come up against a lot of the dilemmas Sylvia outlines in her book. She’s done well in an industry where she looks different from most of her colleagues…

“As a kid, I think – I don’t know if my parents were overly protective, but to the extent that I didn’t really think about being an African-American in a very largely white, male-dominated business. So I remember going to the graduate school at UT Austin, and I was a bright young student getting recruited by Leo Burnett, and thinking I would take over the world. I would be CEO of my own ad agency within five years of graduation. And then once I started working in the business, the reality hit that there were all kinds of things that were not going to work out the way that I had imagined.”

For one thing, she’d had no idea until she started working how stubbornly racist attitudes stuck. A few years into her career in the late ‘80s she was working at ad agency Leo Burnett. She and a colleague were testing out a radio ad with a client. They played the ad to him down the phone from their office…

“It was actually a radio spot that was developed for black radio at the time. And the client, who was white, said, ‘Is that a nigger on that spot?’ And I was just…I was freaking out. And luckily my account management colleague Kevin Newell, he was very calm and he just said, ‘Well, um, the voiceover talent is black. If you recall this is for black radio and it makes sense.’ And he was very calm. And from that experience I learnt from him don’t let a moment derail you. You know, focus on the end game.”

And generally that is what she’s done over the years. She’s senior now and if anything she says, life at work has got more complicated as her status has grown. The whole reason I wanted to interview her in the first place was because of a blog post she wrote this spring called ‘Beyond the Cracked Ceiling – Into the Hall of Mirrors.’ She holds a PhD, she’s successfully pushed through a lot of new ideas at her workplace, she has plenty of responsibility, but still…

“It has been a challenge. At the same time that people love, ‘Oh, we’ve got Dr. Tucker here and she’s so smart,’ and so forth. But the same people will say, ‘Lauren you’re so smart but that’s kind of intimidating, so maybe we should get one of your people, your other people that report to you, to talk about this because it’ll make people feel more comfortable.’ Well, wait a minute, what? I don’t even know what to say about that! And then what happens is you say, ‘Well, OK, my end game is to get whatever needs to get done sold through. So I’ll go along with that because you know if it makes easier...So now you’re buying into the whole thing. And that’s when it makes you wonder what am I doing?”

Referring back to the title of her post, she says that’s what she means by the hall of mirrors…

“You just don’t know what path to follow. Should I be more deferential? Well, but isn’t the fact that I’m outspoken and focused and determined why it is I’ve been successful so far? And now you’re telling me that I need to back off? And that’s the kind of thing. And now...you know now we’re poking our heads above the glass ceiling, but now what are we confronted by? And I just think it’s a strange little world that we live in when you get to a certain level. When you get to a senior level...you know now I’ve got people telling me well wait a minute, you should lean in, speak up, oh, but don’t be too intimidating, don’t be too assertive, don’t be too aggressive. And you just don’t know which way to go or which way to look for your path to success.”

She says sometimes she really has to drill down and isolate what it is that success means for her…

“Then you’ve got to really stay true to that and sometimes staying true to that makes for some very difficult choices. And that may mean leaving a place that may be very comfortable for you…because you have bought into their idea of who you are and as long as you do that, you’re OK. But that may not satisfy your ambition, that may not satisfy your idea of success.”

AM-T: “I mean just going back to that…oh, you’re so smart, you’re great, but you’re a bit intimidating, what did you say? What did happen in that circumstance?”

“Well that was what inspired the post because I walked back to my office and I was livid. And I couldn’t figure out why I was so mad until I realized wait a minute I’m mad at myself because I bought into this. But then I thought well wait a minute, maybe I bought into this because I still need to get that person on my side or I still need to...um…and I think what really concerned me was at the end of the day the person I was supposedly intimidating to was a person who certainly outranked me and had every…if you want to talk about the power within the organization, that person had the power to impact my career than vice versa. So here I was being kind of cast as the one who was intimidating and people applying to me this false power that I have. I didn’t have any power to affect this guy’s career path but he certainly had the power to affect mine. And quite frankly indirectly he did, because I went back to my office and I said, well, okay I’ll get one of my lieutenants to go and have this conversation. That was just absolutely maddening.”

What was also really annoying, Lauren says? It was a woman who asked Lauren to replace herself with one of her own ‘less intimidating’ staff. She says that female boss could have re-framed the whole idea that women have to tamp themselves down at work, but instead she played right into it.

It’s hardly the first time she’s come across some resistance to her forthright ways. Even her mother has weighed in with advice.

“You know she’s like, ‘Maybe you should try to not do this and not do that.’ And I have done that and it doesn’t do any good. I think because people are going to have those frames to define who you are. And you can sit here and try to accommodate and try to shift those frames, but I just feel like hey, I am who I am. And I remember saying this to my boss a while ago. I said, my personality is what it is. I started two data-driven divisions in the face of people who didn’t get what we did. That’s the kind of personality it takes to do that is someone like me. Now you can’t sit there and say that’s not working for you. And then he looked at me and said, you know what, you’re right.”

But she knows that guy. Out in the rest of the professional world, at conferences and events, she’s presenting herself from scratch all the time…

“I think the idea of an African-American woman who is talking authoritatively about marketing mixed modeling and the use of technology is absolutely frightening to people, and as I’m starting to think about my own future and perhaps even thinking about starting my own business, it’s a scary thing to sit there and look at some of these recent reports coming out of Silicon Valley. Gosh, these are guys that one would hope would know better.”

Lauren’s talking about incidents like the recent lawsuit brought by the female co-founder of Tinder, the dating app. She accused one of the male founders of sexual harassment and leaving her name of off any publicity of company achievements because she was female. It’s just one of a crop of tech company sexism scandals from recent months. Lauren says it’s so discouraging for her to read this stuff because technology is her world…and she may be entering it as a female founder some time soon…

“I do wonder about, how do you navigate this world that is just refusing to see you for what you could be.”

Yet clearly she’s done well in an environment where she’s often the odd one out. I wondered how she’d carried herself all these years…how she’d dealt with some uncomfortable situations like the one she mentioned earlier.

“At the heart of it I always have believed you cannot change the way the world responds to you. You can’t control the way the world responds to you, but you can control the way you respond to the world. So that’s the first thing. That’s at the heart of it.

“Now I also typically also assume positive intent, or at least I would go as far as to not assume negative intent. Even from people who say some of these outrageous things. First of all, if I assume that they have negative intent it really does more to take away my power than anything else, right? So I typically assume people don’t have negative intent. And I usually assume people have positive intent. I think it changes the structure of conversation when you assume that. If you assume negative intent the conversation starts wrong and it ends wrong, so that’s another principle that I believe in.”

Something else she tries to do at work nowadays that she didn’t 20 years ago is go easy on herself and others.

“It’s interesting, when I’m mentoring young women today, some tend to be fairly tightly wound, and I get it, because I think they’re all trying to be some image of perfection. I remember when I was younger I used to say, ‘I’m gonna die the world’s most perfect person.’ The only truth in that statement is that eventually, yes, I will die. I think that we have to sometimes take a look at our expectations of ourselves and be very careful not to hold ourselves to something that is just impossible. I think women do that. We do that a lot. And we have to kind of give ourselves a break here. Because otherwise we tend to act in response to those kids of cues rather than the realities that we have around us.”

Lauren says it also helps to be a ruthless optimist.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I’ll be posting links and photos related to this show under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

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And thanks to April Laissle for her help with this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.