Reflections on Authenticity from a Former DEI Leader

Athena Alliance
4 min readMar 9, 2022

“Authentic” may be the great business buzzword of 2022. It’s taken over my LinkedIn feed; it pops up in conversation with other leaders and fellow DEI professionals; it’s even taken over the pages of popular publications like Fast Company.

Yes, on the surface, the call for all of us to “show up” as our true selves rings worthy. In the wake of a global pandemic, a national reckoning with diversity, and remote work (shedding light on the realities we all face at home), being authentic may seem more relevant now than ever.

Yet, what do companies and leaders really mean when they speak about authenticity — and are companies themselves being authentic in their embracing of the concept?

As a former Head of Corporate Responsibility, a current corporate board director, and someone who is enthusiastic about embracing and celebrating diversity, I know firsthand the challenges that corporations, DEI professionals, and all leaders are up against. We’re all trying to do the right thing.

Yet, as a Black woman, I know more than anyone that authenticity comes with a very real boundary. Each of us comes to work with our past, our passions, our preferences, our needs. We also come to work with bias — we all have our inherent biases in the way we see the world and each other. In the professional world, the way we show up affects every element of our careers: that critical first impression, the brand of the company we’re working with, our path to promotion, our credibility, and opportunities for visibility and growth. Like it or not, each of us makes choices — strategic choices — in how we show up and present ourselves to the world.

Strategic choices around authenticity

One of my personal passions is fashion and style. I like to make a visual statement. For a long time, I loved wearing big, chunky jewelry. It set me apart, you couldn’t miss it — yet, for many, this part of me may have felt a bit too loud. Too out there, too bold. I’ve even agonized over whether to blow my hair out or let it be, often making the call depending on who I am meeting with.

Don’t like how I show up? I could easily say, you’re not the right fit for me. You’re not the right company for me. You’re not the right person for me. Yet that attitude can only take me so far… at some point, there’s a very real risk of losing professional credibility. The reality is you get one chance to “show up” and how you show up is the gateway to creating relationships and trust.

These “authenticity boundaries” don’t only apply to dress and our work “uniforms” — they are also embedded in our interwork relationships. How we speak to each other at work; the personal stories we share; the chit-chat before and after meetings. Getting too comfortable — perhaps being too authentic — presents the risk of changing relationships and being perceived as less professional.

Where do we go from here?

For professionals who want to show up as their whole selves, you must have a strong track record of delivering value. Make sure you’ve formed the right relationships, delivered on your professional promise, and that you’re well-positioned to adjust how you present to the world. I would also encourage you to first dip your toes in the water. Avoid shedding your work uniform or norms too quickly before understanding the environment.

For companies, I urge you to reconsider what you mean when you talk about authenticity. Is it a buzzword or is it a commitment, and how are you executing on your own promises? Most companies don’t hire people for authenticity — they hire for great fits and for the expectation of great expertise, leadership, or skills. I believe companies can create cultures with warm and welcoming environments, where relationships are encouraged as well as experimentation and mistakes — without sacrificing professionalism.

And lastly, for DEI Officers in particular, the ability to try innovative approaches (and fail as they go forward and learn) may be the most important takeaway. Stop doing the same thing and expecting massive results. Affinity recognitions, employee resource groups, tying DEI to bonuses… it’s all been done before. Taking risks and making mistakes can lead to radical innovation — and often, transformation.

Which is exactly what DEI and our yearning for authenticity call for.

--

--

Athena Alliance

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com