To be or not to be: can authenticity at work limit your career options?

Posted July 29, 2010 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to share some ideas on “building your personal” brand at the 6th Annual Women in Leadership conference for Schulich’s School of Business.  One of the questions from the audience made me stop and think about whether a personal brand is something that you can craft with clarity or whether it evolves with time and experience.

In previous posts, we’ve blogged about “extreme” branding (eg: Tiger Woods) where your external message isn’t aligned to your reality.  In that post, I ranted that leaders should align their internal values with their external brands and be “authentic”.  But recently I’ve been wondering how playing the corporate game fits in to all this “authenticity” talk?

There’s a lot of chit chat that happens today from leadership guru’s about “authenticity” and following your passion at work in order to be your “true” self.  But is this a realistic… especially when you’re starting out your career?

As one of the audience members pondered at the session, “don’t we have to also play a certain role at work if we want to get ahead?”

Recent high profile case in point: if Tiger Woods had positioned himself as a sex hound, he probably would have still earned a few endorsements (from places like Ashley Madison no doubt), but there’s no question that his marketability would have been stunted.

From my own experience and observation, it seems that, if you can find an organization that aligns to your core values, then it’s much easier to be fully yourself at work.  But sometimes, especially as you’re building your career, maybe you have to put your “real self” on the back burner and adopt some “branding” positions that align more to your future possibilities.  Is this compromising your authenticity or just smart career management?

Entrepreneurs seem to be able to “be who they are” more easily, since most businesses are, in essence, an extension of that person and their brand. (Think Richard Branson, Ted Turner or Donald Trump).

But, for the average leader, there’s a likely reality that we may need to flex our style a little more to get access to the opportunities we need in order to earn the right to “be yourself” at work.

In debating this with a colleague today, their response was “early in your career you haven’t earned the right to be yourself.  You have to compromise and adapt so that you can eventually do things they way you want.”

I wasn’t sure I completely agreed. I began to reflect on my career in my twenties, and it’s safe to say that I had no idea who or what I wanted to be.  I was still trying to figure it out!  It wasn’t until I hit my early thirties that the pieces started to come together.  I know many people in their 50’s who are only just starting to pay attention to what they’re all about and are just now starting to bring this “authenticity” into their careers.

So, maybe, in order to be “authentic” and have your personal brand aligned with your inner values, you need to simply give yourself time.  And, maybe, as my colleague suggests, early in your career is too soon to put a stake in the sand around who you are and what you “want to be when you grow up.”  Maybe, what you should focus on instead is paying attention to what works and what doesn’t; what makes you feel “in the zone” and what diminishes you.

Happy leading!


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  1. Mel says:

    Hmmm. I think it all depends on where you are, how marketable/confident you are, and how worried you are about your financial situation. In my case, it’s easier to be ‘authentic’ (without being unprofessional, of course) because I’ve earned the credibility (eg I deliver on spec, on time, on budget), and I also have the support of my spouse. If I was on my own to pay the mortgage, I too might put my true self on the back burner. But I can assure you, I wouldn’t be happy about it, so my stay in that role would be brief, and maybe a little bitter…

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Great points. I think age and stage are really big factors. Personally, I’ve always been so focussed on how interesting or challenging the work is that I don’t think I paid too much attention to cultivating a “brand” per se. I’ll add that to my to-do list. 🙂