Ever noticed how there are some words that seem to become flavor of the month, e.g. disruption, empowerment, mindfulness, wellbeing etc? Not that there is anything innately wrong with these, but the more these get (over)used, the more their real power tends to dilute. Another word that has become widespread in a business context these days is “Authenticity” and whilst it is true that the same comment can be levelled at this word also, its true significance should not be overlooked.
A couple of years ago, I reviewed my client base and split them into two simple categories: 1) clients that are succeeding and 2) clients that are not succeeding, and in true Jim Collins’ fashion tried to understand what were the consistent themes and factors amongst those that appeared to be doing well as opposed to those that weren’t. Whilst my ‘research’ was obviously nowhere near as extensive as dear Jim’s, I found that I could easily determine three clear distinctions which I keep in mind to this day as “ADE” to help me monitor the success or otherwise of current clients. ADE is an acronym that simply stands for:
I may discuss the other two in later articles as these are also very important, but “Authenticity” was one that really stood out for me. For me, Authenticity is all about remaining true to yourself whatever the situation or circumstances and behaving in a way that consistently aligns with what really matters. It therefore has much to do with a person’s character or a company’s culture and both are inextricably linked with your core values.
In a business context, it is therefore important that whilst you don’t have to have or hire the same type of people, you do need to engage those that align with your core values so that customers experience a consistent level of service irrespective of who they are dealing with in your business. Virgin is a great example of this as it doesn’t matter where you fly in the world, you still get the impression that he cabin staff genuinely care that you enjoy the flight experience (I am sure you can think of many other companies where the customer experience varies wildly according to the individual with whom you are talking and hence so does the general perception of that business). In the same vein, I am also reminded of the example that Michael E. Gerber cites in his excellent book “The E-Myth Revisited’ in which he goes to a barber and receives an inconsistent experience each time. Because of this lack of consistency, after three visits he stops going – the barber had failed to provide a truly “authentic” experience for each of his visits.
In practical terms, the “successful” businesses I mentioned above were the ones who took the time and effort to define, develop and communicate their company values and actually applied them in their day-to-day operation. They held their staff and themselves accountable to the values they had defined and over time people got to view this as “the way things are done around here”. By comparison, the poorer performing businesses tended to adopt the approach of ‘yes, I know this values stuff is important, but I need to get on with the urgent day-to-day actions’. As a consequence, in these companies, the defined company values were not demonstrably lived and breathed by the leadership team and the relevance to their staff was at best distant, at worst hypocritical. However, you don’t need to take just my word for it; a study entitled "Engaging the Workforce" undertaken by the Corporate Executive Board in 2004 showed how companies that failed to “communicate and support company Values and Visions” (i.e. be authentic) adversely affected staff commitment to the business.
From an individual perspective authenticity doesn’t necessarily mean that you are always the same, but it does imply that people will experience you in a similar way and would generally say the same sort of things if asked to describe you. At first sight it might appear that a person’s level of authenticity would be fixed since the core values typically don’t change, but this turns out not to be the case since it is not always easy to declare what your core values are especially if these are different to the norm. As a result it is actually possible to become (more) authentic but it takes courage and vulnerability to achieve and whilst not easy, it is liberating. I have cited the quote “Vulnerability breeds credibility” (not sure who actually coined this one) to many of my executive clients and seen them grow as a result, but it does at the same time recall painful memories for me as to how my own inability to be vulnerable in previous corporate management roles lead me to lose credibility on some occasions. I would truly have benefitted from having the courage to have been more “vulnerable” back then.
More recently, Brené Brown who describes herself as a “Vulnerability Researcher” and who “studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame” has released a number of very powerful TED talks that show the interrelationship between these elements. She is a very human and engaging presenter who uses her ability as a storyteller to show how important these things are to living an “authentic” life. I encourage you to check out Brené Brown’s Netflix special “The Call to Courage” in which she encourages viewers to opt for courage over comfort in order to achieve things that really matter and hence lead a more authentic life.
Finally, I would encourage you to consider whether you are being as authentic as you could be in your business dealings. Company values provide a great compass for this, not just for you but also for those in your business so that you can provide a consistent level of service to your customers and build better relationships as a result.