An effective CEO is an authentic CEO. Earning trust and credit with managers and employees can strengthen the bonds within a business. And honest, open communication goes a long way toward that goal.
Here are a few tips and benefits for business leaders to develop authenticity.
Why It’s Important
It may seem obvious that authenticity — as opposed to an artificial approach — is a crucial aspect of leading a company. But for an interesting comparison, there’s this story for Entrepreneur.com, in which Joel Trammell examines authenticity in terms of the presidential race. He notes that the person who gets elected will need “a majority of people to trust them or at least believe they are moderately competent.”
“The immediacy of the position is one thing that makes credibility so critical for corporate heads,” he continues. “The CEO is held directly responsible for the performance of the company. Employees understand that this person is vital to their livelihood. This is not to diminish the role of the most powerful person in the world, but the president is far removed from the people, has checks and balances ideally, and often has little direct control over the behemoth that is the federal government.”
CEOs that understand their own positive and negative attributes will likely have a leg up in business. Kevin Kruse dives into this topic in a story for Forbes, even tying the need for authenticity to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”
“Authentic leaders are self-actualized individuals who are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions,” Kruse writes. “They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; they don’t hide their mistakes or weaknesses out of fear of looking weak. They also realize that being self-actualized is an endless journey, never complete.”
Here’s an office technique that can help boost the authenticity credentials of a business leader. In a story for Inc.com, Elle Kaplan, CEO of Lexion Capital Management, suggests making the company’s core values plain — as in writing them down and putting them on posters around the office. (Sort of like Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion Today” sign that all the players touch before heading out onto the football field.)
“Having visual reminders reinforces the fact that these are not just words,” Kaplan writes. “They are guidelines, motivating and giving purpose to everything you do. In the early days of our company, I printed and framed the thank you letters from clients, words of praise from press features, and other good vibes about what we do. They served as tangible evidence of why it all matters. Especially in a field like finance, it’s vital to put faces and stories to numbers, because we don’t just work with money — we work with people’s lives and dreams. As a business owner, you have to connect your core values and the day-to-day in a way that helps them come alive for your team.”
This is something we hear a lot in the corporate world. Taking the open-book approach can have benefits for CEOs, but consistency may become an issue. This is especially true when difficult decisions are looming, as Trammell explains.
“It’s easy to share positive information,” he writes. “However, when things turn south, CEOs often are reticent to share the negatives. They cannot face the responsibility of leading people through tough times, or the realization that they may have no control. They try to pretend that it isn’t happening, hoping that things will improve. … When cutbacks and layoffs come after the CEO has claimed that everything is okay, all credibility with employees is lost. Regaining credibility becomes almost impossible in this situation, and a change of leadership may be the only answer.”
Business leaders who do more for their employees than what’s expected will earn credit and appreciation within the company. Lisa Magloff examines authenticity in a story for Demand Media, and she references author Bill George’s book Authentic Leadership in describing how to reach out to employees.
“An authentic leader is more interested in empowering employees than in money or personal power, and is guided by compassion and heart in everything they do,” she explains. “While many authentic leaders may have natural abilities, George emphasizes that anyone can become an authentic leader through hard work and developing their leadership qualities. Authentic leaders are dedicated to continued personal growth and committed to building lasting relationships and strong organizations.”
Encourage Other Voices
The all-knowing CEO who never seems to ask for other opinions is likely doomed to fail. Communication, as always, is crucial, and seeking out the thoughts of others can help to bolster a leader’s authenticity. Scott Weiss examines this in a story for Techcrunch.com.
“Encourage employees to challenge your decisions and approach,” he writes. “Let everyone know that you are not perfect, you don’t always have the best answer, and sometimes they have better answers. In some cases, you will get good ideas too. You are obviously the decision maker, but embracing different views will improve openness.”
Don’t Mask Emotions
A common stereotype in business is that of the icy CEO, the leader whose all-work-and-no-play approach leaves little room for emotion. But as Kruse writes for Forbes, “authentic leaders lead with their heart, not just their minds.”
“They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. This does not mean authentic leaders are ‘soft.’ In fact, communicating in a direct manner is critical to successful outcomes, but it’s done with empathy; directness without empathy is cruel.”
Allow for Informal Discussions
Employees want more interaction than just taking orders and carrying them out. The manner in which a CEO communicates can go a long way toward being regarded as authentic. As Weiss writes, “Loosen up!”
“This is really about speaking to others as though you really trust them with your thoughts vs. reverting to canned responses or the ‘company line,’” he says. “Leaders that can explore the poles of an issue in their own words and off the cuff with employees will gain real trust. This is especially true during all-hands company meetings.”
Draw From Inspiration
Personal experiences and relationships shape who we are, and they can also help to guide our professional path. In Magloff’s story for Demand Media, she uses a famous businessman’s story to illustrate her point about building authenticity.
“Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz was inspired by his father’s struggles with poor health to make Starbucks the first American company to provide health care options to part-time employees,” she writes. “Schultz consciously used his life experiences to build a company that was a reflection of his personal values.”