Over the years, the shelves in my home office have filled themselves with books on leadership – 87 to be exact. Topics range from execution and decision making to why nice girls don’t get the corner office, and I’ve read (or at least started to read) each and every single one.
I’ve spent the past twenty years reading about leadership and the last 15 practicing it, and yet the biggest a-ha moment -- the moment I genuinely believed I found my true leadership swagger -- came sometime in the past three years working at PayPal.
Making a Change for Authenticity
Anyone who has ever worked at a large corporation knows employee communications are typically dry, boring, and peppered with words that are long on syllables and short on meaning. Pop culture frequently speaks to this reality–Dilbert, The Office, Office Space, etc.—because so many of us would rather count the number of dust specks on our desk than read another “Letter from the CEO.” For years I too fell in line with these industry norms and admittedly wrote hundreds, if not thousands of “circular file” worthy communications.
But that changed when I came to PayPal. Over time the company’s culture, people, and the purpose of the work I do here served as a forcing function, propelling me towards becoming a more authentic leader. Ultimately, I had to dig deep and be more transparent and human than I’d ever been in my life.
I knew that if I was going to authentically lead and accurately represent the brand and our culture, I couldn’t accept the same old “buzz-word of the month” type of communication I’d produced for so long. So I didn’t. Instead, I started working towards a 180-degree transformation - embracing and demanding authenticity from not just myself, but also everyone on my team. Now we use communications guidelines like, “Keep it human – if you wouldn’t say it like this to your friends, don’t write or say it.” I spend less time worrying about proper punctuation, and more time trying to show our employees what we’re all about: Putting our customers first. Craftsmanship. Passion. Being a disruptive force for good.
We do this through straightforward, honest and genuine words that are sometimes funny, sometimes abrupt and a bit startling, but (hopefully) never fake. We might not always get it right – we still have moments where we overuse crunchy corporate words like “strategy” and “leverage” – but we’re heading in the right direction.
3 Tips for Finding Your Leadership Swagger
The point is that being authentic leader - whether you’re a person or a company - means facing your reality head on: the good and the bad. So here are my top three tips on how I face reality every day and am using this to become a more authentic leader:
1. Stop reading leadership books. Ok, you don’t have to stop completely, but at least stop trying to emulate every new hot leadership approach that’s out there – including the ones about authentic leadership. I try to give myself the freedom to do what I think is right for me. I learned a long time ago that if doesn’t feel natural, it probably looks even less natural to those on the receiving end. Leadership at its core is about being real and genuine, not about becoming a mold of others. Your true self can and will inspire others around you to be their best.
2. Learn about yourself. This seems obvious, but seriously, get clear on what you’re good at and make it your job (I like to use Gallup’s Strengthfinders and other tests like MBTI). I’m passionate about the work I do partially because I can be successful at doing it. It taps into the core of who I am. Knowing what you’re not so good at is equally important. I’ve had an unofficial “personal board of directors” for years. They’re people that I trust, and I seek their feedback on a regular basis. Often times they see my strengths and weaknesses more clearly than I can. I never mask my shortcoming, I embrace them and I don’t let them hold me back from being who I am. I encourage others around me to do the same, so that I can learn what makes them tick, too.
3. Give grace. Give grace to yourself and everyone around you. It’s hard to admit sometimes (because I’m a recovering perfectionist), but I’m not the perfect leader, colleague, dog mom, spouse or friend. But neither are the people I work with. What’s important on my team is that we face it together, and we help each other move past whatever is holding us back from being great. No judgments, no political maneuvering. Just straightforward, transparent and honest communication with each other.