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005: Are you scared of being the real you as a leader?

How authentic do you feel every day when you start work? Do you feel energised by your purpose, and how you turn up as a woman in tech and as a leader? Or do you feel on the verge of burnout and exhausted by being the person you think everyone wants  you to be.

Spending all of our time being someone we aren’t is exhausting. And many of us are doing it, and have been doing it all of our lives. It wastes energy, creativity and problems solving on something that, quite honestly, is making you a less effective leader.

But everyone else is doing it. We turn up as the person we think others want us to be.

How do you break out of this mould? How do you become your authentic self when our entire lives have been about being the person that others want us to be. And how on earth does this reduce overwhelm, avoid burnout and bonus, help you become a better leader?

Curious? Let’s dig in! Let’s go to the show!

Show Notes

Useful links!

If you are ready to uplevel your career, and get a boost (and a salary bump) by shortcutting your way to success, find out more about Toni’s Coaching at: https://tonicollis.com/workwithtoni.

Alternatively, go straight ahead and book a free Discovery Call, to find out more and discuss the type of support you would most benefit from: https://bit.ly/DiscoverToni.

Join us in the Leading Women in Tech Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/leadingwomenintech/

Join us in the Leading Women in Tech LinkedIn group: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/12391391/

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Want to read instead of listen? Here’s the transcript:

Hello hello, it is Toni here from Toni Collis.com. How is your week going so far? Is your day going well, your week going well? Is your July going well? I’d love hearing from you, my lovely podcast listeners, whether you are thriving or stalled right now. So as always, feel free to drop me an email to support{at}tonicollis{dot}com and let me know what you are currently struggling with.

Because if I know anything, it’s that you may be the most extraordinary leader and technically creative person, taking great strides in your career and business, but that doesn’t stop you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from time to time. And I love to help you get unstuck. So drop me that email my love! And let’s help you get back on track (or stay on track) to being a lit-up leader.

Sometimes criticism can pile on up, and we well, take things possibly more personally than we should. It does hurt after all when your work is criticised. And sadly, as we move up, typically we get less positive feedback and more negative. So if you are wanting some support as you uplevel your Tech Leadership career then I’d love to help. I have some spots on my coaching program opening up in August. If you’d like to find out more, head over to ToniCollis.com/workwithtoni, and you can read about working with me, or just scroll straight to the bottom of that page and click the book a discovery call link and we can have a chat about what you are struggling with right now, where you want to go next and whether coaching with me is the right support for you! I’ll pop the link in the show notes – available in your podcast player or head over to tonicollis.com/episode5

But onto today’s podcast, let’s talk tech leadership and authenticity.

One of the great things about leadership is variety. Variety is always a wondrous thing. Indeed one of the reasons why I’m passionate about bringing more women and other under-represented groups to the leadership table is that our lived experience brings variety and nurtures it in those around us.

There is no one-size-fits all model for leadership. But finding your true leadership style is a wonderful and fulfilling experience. And you are never done. As you grow, learn and experience, you will change your leadership as you absorb more knowledge and experience. It becomes more and more fulfilling every single day.

Just because something worked last time, doesn’t mean it will work this time – that is one of the exciting challenges of leadership.

But sometimes we get tripped up. We are so fixated on behaving the way we think we should, leading the way others expect us to, managing that one ‘right way’ that you’ve been assured is THE right way, that you don’t notice something. You miss something.

You are probably also exhausted being someone you are not. Because if you aren’t being true to who you are, you are wasting precious energy and decision making power, forcing yourself to be someone you are not truly comfortable being.

One of the things I talk to all my clients in senior leadership about is how to nurture and foster a culture that encourages team members to turn up as their ‘whole selves’ – when this is done successfully – which by the way is definitely a hard thing to achieve – your teams performance accelerates and stays at a new higher level. Because guess what – being authentic means they aren’t wasted valuable energy and decision making figuring out out who they should be today, or what people might be thinking of them, or how they are expected to act in a particular situation. Instead their valuable energy and decision making resource (because decision making truly is a finite resource) gets channeled into what they do. They are happier, they are fulfilling their passions and turning up to their work (whether in an office or at home) as their whole selves. The best, most kind version of their whole selves yes (because there is no place for toxic behaviour – that isn’t authentic behaviour, that is abuse!). But their whole selves.

Now lets turn this back to you as a leader. You might be encouraging this in your team – turn up as who you are and don’t waste energy being something you think those are around you WANT you to be. But are you doing this for yourself?

You might have learnt how to turn up as your whole self, such as embracing your femininity. For many women in tech there has been a battle at some point in our careers to be whole and who we want. And much of that battle is in ourselves. When I was early on in my career, I started to embrace wearing more pink, more dresses and more skirts. I had been a tom-boy for much of my childhood, which suited me well. But as an adult I suddenly realised I quite liked what was called ‘girly’! And I’d never really got into it before. Then one day, about six months into my first job, I wore a dress to work. Sounds such a trivial thing to even mention this now. That particular day I had my regular group team meeting – and as is normal in the tech environment, I was the only woman in the room. Now this didn’t bother me at all. Until that day. I walked into the meeting room later than everyone else, and low and behold they all stood up.

Now I should note, this was not normal behaviour. Six months of weekly meetings, they never stood up when I walked in the room before. They were super lovely and kind, but embarrassed(!) and just said stuff like ‘oh you are dressed that way so we though we should’.

I never felt so different as a women in tech, as I did on that day.

And guess what – I didn’t wear a skirt or dress to work for 3 years.

And that was just one symptom. Honestly, I wasn’t myself. I’d finally come out of the shell I’d put around myself growing up, and choosing subjects where I was frequently the only girl in the room at school. Then boom, getting rid of my shell and I was suddenly standing out (and not because I was good at what I did – definitely the wrong kind of standing out and getting attention).

So I turned back in on myself. And quite frankly, in hindsight, it was exhausting. I didn’t know I was doing it either. It wasn’t until I launched Women in HPC – a charity supporting women in the supercomputing world, which I am honoured to have co-founded and led for the first 6 years of its life – that I realised I wasn’t being me. The funny thing being that it was leaning into leadership, but also just a smidgen of in-authenticity that led me to realise I wasn’t being authentic to myself!

I decided that, whether I liked it or not, I was a role model to women in High Performance Computing. I didn’t feel qualified or equipped, but I was a role model. So my need to please, fit in, and to be ‘inauthentic’ led me to asking myself – why don’t more women in this field wear dresses and skirts. It was a strange question to be asking, because it felt very judgement of others around me… but I noticed a difference when women attend ‘women in tech events’ compared to other conferences. And that was when I realised that I had unconsciously chosen to fit in by not being true to myself. It was a small thing. But it was a symptom of a larger problem: I wasn’t being authentic, and quite simply, it was exhausting.

I’m happy to say that I now embrace getting dressed up when I’m standing on stage. I work from home, so dressing up in the office isn’t a thing anymore.

Here’s the thing, as I’ve relaxed and allowed myself to get more in tune with my instincts, what is important to me, I’ve realised several things:

Firstly – I’m much more able to realise when I do or don’t want something and articulate it. Becoming more authentic and true to myself was one key step along the road to accelerating my career. Because suddenly, I had more information at my disposal. I was able to articulate to myself, the trade-offs between decisions. I was able to be honest with myself what I would be taking on or leaving when I stepped up to something new. And I could be honest with myself about what I really wanted from my career. I thought to be a successful woman in tech I had to love programming. But honestly, that doesn’t light me up. The outcome is what lights me up. Realising that allowed me to see that I didn’t need to be focused on making myself the best Fortran programmer – something that really didn’t make me that excited!

And then secondly – I’m a better leader. As someone who has been a role model for many women, simply because of the amount of time I spend on stage – initially I was extraordinary uncomfortable being put in this position. But it is what it is. But I was so scared of what being a role model meant, I was so self-conscious about the responsibility of being a role model it was stifling. And quite frankly, I was a less good role model. But as I learnt to step into my authentic self, my confidence rose. Being a role model is a privilege and something not to be taken lightly. But it is also outside of our control. Some people will just decide to look up to you. If you are being inauthentic then you are doing them a disservice because they aren’t seeing the real you. By allowing myself to be me, I became a better role model. And to this day I am humbled whenever someone sees something in me worth following.

But how can you develop authenticity? Well, in the same ways that you can also be a better leader. Which is why being authentic absolutely makes you a better leader as well.

The first step is to become more self-aware. This is something that I think is a constant journey in life. For most people, true self-awareness, the ability to critically examine but not either gloss over uncomfortable truths or get absorbed into thinking we are terrible human beings, is truly difficult. Many people never develop good self-awareness. But great leaders, all develop self-awareness. Just starting with understanding your values, your likes, your dislikes and accepting them as they are is a good place to start. In our complex modern world this can also eye-opening to your unconscious biases. So when I say ‘accepting them’ – I mean accept them are there. Then if you don’t like what you find you can change it. But if you pretend it isn’t there, you can’t change it. But more to the point, just knowing more about yourself, what lights you up and what fills you with dread will help you become more authentic.

This is something I struggled with at first… but honestly, getting great mentors really helped. But you do really need good mentors. I’ve been having a few discussions with women recently who have mentors that are more just giving unsolicited (and often unhelpful) advice, and then demanding to know why their advice hasn’t been followed. That is not a mentor. That is someone who loves their own advice far too much. So make sure if you are getting a mentor to help you with this that they encourage self-exploration and discovery. But when I really started to accelerate this side of leadership and self-discovery is when I got a coach. So I highly recommend getting a coach – and hey don’t forget that I have spots open in my coaching program right now (unintentional Segway!) – head to tonicollis.com/workwithtoni for full details or to book a free call with me and to find out more about how coaching might help you.

But onto the next step: have a good look at what you discovered – those beliefs, what you care about and your values. Ask yourself the question: are your behaviours and activities aligned with what you believe in and value? If not, then you are giving up a part of who you are, which takes energy.

Once you know where you aren’t acting authentically it is time to change and lead by example. I’m not suggesting you wake up one day and through everything you know and do away. Gradual changes with constant reassessment, self-awareness reflection and re-evaluation will serve you better, especially if you are new to this. And remember to surround yourself by a support network as you do this. It is typically a cyclical process of self-discovery: as you become more authentic you will learn more about yourself. More often than not you will find things that are uncomfortable, that you aren’t proud of which you may wish to change. Many also find the first few times that we step into authenticity that we feel others judging us (hey they probably aren’t judging you any more than they were before). So surround yourself by supportive friends, family, colleagues and coaches – yes this is something that coaching can really help you with, and actually one of the reasons why coaching is so powerful because it accelerates this authenticity breakthrough, which as I mentioned already, many people don’t every get to.

Remember that becoming and remaining authentic can be hard work, but with great rewards.

And authenticity isn’t about never conforming. One of the things that I still struggle with is that I’m an accent sponge! I have zero control over it, but if I speak to someone for more than a couple of minutes I start mirroring them unconsciously – much to the hilarity of many, and the annoyance of some! I have no control over it. I don’t even know I’m doing it! So over the years I’ve learnt more about it and it something many people do unconsciously to put others at ease. Some just do it more than others. For a while this had me concerned because it was inauthentic. But actually trying to turn it off is less authentic to me! So authenticity is a tricky beast to get right… because we shouldn’t people please. But when does putting others at ease if that is an important value to you, fall into people pleasing. Sometimes you don’t know until you’ve crossed a line! And I will admit – I am a recovering people pleaser! But for now, I’m happy that I apparently adjust my accent slightly when speaking to people.

But once you have started to become more authentic to yourself it is time to start leading authentically. When you start showing up authentically you will be stepping up as a role model that enables others to come to work as their whole selves. You can start nurturing this attitude in your team and in your broader organisation simply by doing this work yourself. Because believe me, whether you realise it or not, you are a role model for someone out there. And the more authentic you are – the more magnetic you are because authenticity makes people trust. We can all see someone who is inconsistent a mile away and they make us feel uncomfortable. One of the reasons that great leaders stand out is that we feel their authenticity and buy-in to what they are saying more swiftly.

When people – you and your team – are authentic, you will better participation, more honest discussion and more productive, exciting, energising and innovative groups.

More often than not burn-out is partly or fully down to struggling with inauthenticity. In-authenticity leads to innate distrust, making management more work, leadership then becomes almost impossible because there is a lack of trust, so you have to work harder to get stuff done in your team. And double whammy… your inauthenticity and not being true to yourself means you don’t want to put in any work, let alone the extra work generated by being an inauthentic leader.

Once you’ve tackled understanding your beliefs and values, how that interacts with your current behaviours and started down the road of becoming someone you feel more aligned with being, then you will start to live more in your comfort zone. And here is where the true magic lies.

Because we all know that to do great things we need to push out of our comfort zone. I talk a lot about being fearless to push through impostor syndrome, doubt and lack of confidence. But here’s the thing… if you are wasting lots of energy being outside your comfort zone because you want to FIT IN, then you have less of that to give for when it really matters. For when you want to go big and achieve greatness… When you want to step up and be even more extraordinary than you already are!

So even though when you start this work you will feel uncomfortable, because part of inauthenticity is an attempt to ‘fit in’, you will find you get more and more in your comfort zone as you unblock those barriers. You will stay consistently true to your values, even when it seems more comfortable or convenient to adjust your style to outside whims and interests. And you will actually find your have more energy.

Something else to try is surrounding yourself with the right people. Now I don’t mean surround yourself by people who are just like you and don’t challenge you. That is where boring, and lack of discovery and innovation lies! But do surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, colleagues, mentors, coaches and advocates who will challenge but also support you.

But as a final parting shot, I do just want to tackle the elephant in the room: toxic behaviour. One of the kick-backs I’ve had from people in the past when I teach about enabling your staff to turn up as their full authentic selves at work, is that this enables toxic behaviour. There is a perception that some people are just toxic, or that authentic behaviour in some people is always going to be nasty.

Authenticity is not an excuse to complain, be nasty, talk behind people’s back, spread secrets or gossip. And being authentic is not about being emotional about everything at work. There is often a delicate line as a leader of showing that you are human but not bringing your emotional baggage to work. Yes you should be able to offload, but to a few trusted friends. Remember these are professional relationships first and foremost.

And the same applies to everyone else. These are professional relationships. Yes bring your whole self to work but that doesn’t mean you have the right to abuse everyone. Nastiness, toxicity and abuse are emotional responses that never belong in the workplace (there is a debate to be had as to whether it belongs in any situation… but that’s not we are here for). In fact all too often toxicity arises BECAUSE people are uncomfortable and don’t know how to be authentic. So don’t allow toxic behaviour simply because someone claims it is who they are. Have a discussion with them, get to the bottom of why they are behaving that way. Also start ask your team what they feel, not just what they think. And start truly caring about those that work for you. You might be surprised at the results and how this can calm down or entirely stop down any unprofessional behaviour.

But let’s finish up with a Leadership Mindset moment. In case you are new around here a leadership mindset moment is an actionable tip to help adjust how you act or think to make it easier to up-level so you can take more positive action on the topic of today’s podcast.

Today’s leadership mindset moment is all about recognising that authentic leadership is a journey, not a destination. And your journey in your career, in your current organisation or a different one in the future, will be much easier when you are able to align your values and beliefs in such a way that you put your people and your organisation first. Authentic leaders know what drives those around them and helps coach those around them to do more of what they are excited about. As a leader you have a position of authority, and therefore power. But as you become more self-aware you will notice different types of power at play in your team. Power based on your knowledge, experience and skills is legitimate power. But there are two types of power: the ability to drive based on rewards, and the ability to drive based on threat and punishment.The classic carrot and stick approach. You’ll notice more and more of these, including where you are using them without even realising it, simply because it is the norm. Both are ineffectual – for lots of different reasons (including that even CEOs rarely have the ability to hand out financial compensation or dismissals without some oversight!).

So watch out for where you are using the carrot or the stick, and learn to use leadership skills that don’t need those. Yes it is lovely to get a pay rise, but that isn’t what is driving the majority of a skilled workforce to turn up and work hard – it is buy-in for the organization, it’s purpose. As a leader you drive that purpose and belief in the organization in those around. As a leader by sharing your vision and building yourself an authentic platform.

So look out for when you are using the carrot and stick, and identify different ways to lead authentically and you’ll find a more sustainable, rewarding, relationship with your team emerges.

That is all for today’s episode! If you want more check out the show notes available in your podcast player or head over to tonicollis.com/episode5.

And if you loved this please do share today’s podcast episode with anyone who you think would enjoy a listen. And don’t forget that if you are ready to uplevel your leadership, get true to yourself and start leading authentically then check out my coaching program at tonicollis.com/workwithtoni.

Until next time, remember to stay on your tech leadership game, and follow your dreams, because the world really does need that uniqueness that you bring as a leading woman in tech.

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