Why being a Leader doesn’t mean not being yourself.
Chatting to a friend over the weekend, she mentioned her work had been encouraging her to go for more leadership type roles in the last year; but she hadn’t done it so far as she was worried she could never ‘fit in’ or be seen as a leader while she was being herself.
This made me reflect on my career, and when I had those same concerns; and how I over came them.
Back at the start of 2015 I had been working as a Grade 7 for a few years and I was now considering applying for my Grade 6. It’d had taken me a lot of effort and rejection to get my promotion to Grade 7 (I went through seven interviews before I finally got promoted) and I and was worried it would be the same all over again. When I’d first been going for my Grade 7, my manager at the time had tried to tell me I wasn’t leadership material and I’d really struggled to put myself into the professional box I thought leaders in the Civil Service had to fit within; and I was concerned I’d never be able to reach Grade 6 or higher because I just didn’t fit well enough.
My (then) current manager had put my forward for the Crossing Thresholds programme and as I sat with the group of amazing women who were like myself seeking promotion to Grade 6, all I could see was how much more professional they were; how comfortable they seemed to be in their own skin; how obviously they were what Civil Servants should be, and how much I obviously didn’t fit that mould. This wasn’t helped by the fact my previous line manager (who told me I’d never be a leader) was on the same programme as me.
Over the course of the programme we got to work together and get to know each other; and in one of the sessions we had to do some peer feedback 1:1 with each other. One of the other women on the course I’d been utterly enamoured by; she just came across as so cool and calm and together. She exemplified for me what a Civil Servant should be; and what I thought I needed to be in order to pass as a leader. During our 1:1 session as I told her all this, she astounded me by explaining that of everyone on the programme, she was most impressed with me; as I was the most ‘myself’; that I came across as real and approachable and authentic; and how she wished she’d had managers like me as she came up through her career. She was constantly exhausted from trying to pretend to be this perfect person she wasn’t; she was in fact debating leaving the civil service as she no longer felt able to pretend anymore and that I gave her hope that maybe things could change. Dear reader I was floored.
This message was repeated in different flavours throughout the day; even by my previous manager. She apologised and told me how impressed she was to see how I’d progressed, how I’d obviously flourished while remaining myself, and that she encouraged me to keep being myself and wished me luck for my future.
I reflected on that I’d heard from these amazing women, and what I’d observed; and decided that I didn’t want to spend my career pretending to be anyone other than myself, as it was exhausting. As such I attended my first Grade 6 interview sure it would be a car crash as I was determined to be myself; I spoke honestly about my neurodiversity; my strengths and weaknesses. my drives and passions; and made no effort to fit into the box I thought a Grade 6 Civil Servant needed to fit within. To my astonishment I was offered the role the very next day; and in just over a year I was then offered a role at Deputy Director level.
I’ve made a very concerted effort over the last few years to be authentic and myself; including speaking openly and transparently about things like my sexuality, my neurodiversity and my background growing up in a council estate. Because these are all the things that have helped me be me; and as such they are the things that have helped me succeed.
Now that’s not to say I could succeed anywhere and everywhere; some-places I fit, some I don’t. But part of owning who you are, and being true to it; is recognising that to be the best and most honest version of yourself, you need to recognise which environments work for you; and which ones don’t. It’s not a failing to not fit everyone. No one, if they’re being honest, does. The right organisation for you is the one that not only supports you to be yourself, but actively wants it. Because as leaders we know that people who feel able to bring their whole-self to work, are the people who generally work at their best.
Within the Kainos Neurodiveristy community group this week we were discussing personal user manuals and how they can help everyone within a team or organisation feel able to be their best and empower diverse teams to work together in the best possible way for everyone in them. This has reminded me I need to revisit my own user manual from a few years ago and share that with my new teams.
As a wise old monkey once explained to a confused young lion; you have to be true to yourself; so ask yourself, “who are you?”