How do you display a professional presence that reflects your authentic self?
This is a conversation I’ve been engaged in with multiple leaders over the past month. These are individuals trying to move their careers forward and balance their own desires and interests with the expectations of others in their environment around appearance, style, communications and behaviors.
In recent years, trends have moved from organizations being very prescriptive about the appearance and behaviors of their employees to understanding the need to be open to more variety. This shift is focused in part on the recognition that employees want greater ability to bring their “whole self” to work, and the risk of losing talented individuals who can contribute to improved results.
So, what is authentic presence?
Authenticity is an awareness of one’s own values, preferences and strengths; and the ability to genuinely communicate them in interactions with others, particularly in the process of attaining a goal. People who behave in authentic ways display greater energy, are more engaged in their work, more in touch with their feelings and needs, and connect better with others. People who are inauthentic may adopt the values and preferences of others because doing so sounds or looks good. Or, they seek to be identified with someone else who has a measure of success that they desire, and they believe mimicking them will provide similar benefits.
I recently observed a physician speak to a terminally ill patient with an update about that person’s treatment. She had obviously been trained to convey empathy, however, hadn’t yet found an authentic manner and style to accomplish it. Her smile, tone and words were close, but superficial. A different physician spoke to the same patient, sat physically closer to her, asked about her family and shared personal stories. She connected, and the impact was dramatically different and more meaningful. The latter physician had found her authentic approach to communicating with patients.
Presence includes one’s manners, demeanor and bearing. It is one’s appearance including hairstyle, clothes, and facial hair or makeup (where applicable), along with body language and positioning, gestures, and facial expressions. These elements can leave a positive impression on others based on their own similar values, or it can send a negative message to them when it conflicts with their values.
Although displaying a certain presence can be learned, it can only be effectively conveyed with authenticity. At a recent conference, one of the panelists was a gentleman who appeared to be in his mid-30’s. He was a professor at a well-known university, and consistent with the expectations of other male panelists and presenters wore a dark suit, tie and dress shirt. Unfortunately, it was ill-fitting and he was obviously not comfortable in such attire. He also had a handful of papers as reference notes for his commentary, while others had only one sheet of paper. However, when he spoke on the discussion topics, his contribution was value-added, and it was obvious why he was invited to the event. He could have benefited from coaching to align his presence with his expertise.
Conveying Authentic Presence
Every organization has an expectation of the presence their employees or team members should convey. The goal, of course, is to communicate confidence in one’s ability to perform and deliver results, and to ensure alignment with their culture.
Even organizations with no formal dress code or who describe their policy using the now popular terminology of “dress for your day,” have a very clear unspoken code of what’s acceptable. Employees must ensure that the expected presence aligns with their own sense of authenticity. One leader I spoke with described interviewing with Southwest Airlines, known in part for a culture that includes very casual attire worn by their flight attendants. He admitted that he enjoyed business professional attire and therefore decided not to pursue a position with them. It wasn’t a good cultural fit for him.
There are several important considerations when conveying your authentic presence.
- Know your values. These are the beliefs that are important to you in the context of your professional work experience, skill sets and capabilities, and the environment where you feel challenged and appreciated. It includes how you want to appear on a daily basis.
- Know your professional goals. The assumption is that if you’re working for a specific company, in a specific industry, or even as an entrepreneur, you have a goal to grow in that space. Clarity on that goal will help you make decisions on what is necessary to attain it. Your objective is generally about increasing your expertise, building your network, gaining increased responsibility and making a bigger impact.
- Respect your organization’s cultural norms. According to Edgar Schein, internationally regarded for his research on culture, this includes the artifacts (visual organizational structures and process), espoused values (strategies, goals, philosophies), and basic underlying assumptions (which are unconscious thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and feelings frequently taken for granted). If your authentic presence conflicts with your organization’s cultural norms, you may need to reevaluate your ability to be successful there.
Armed with these insights, professionals must determine how they will conduct themselves. Setting a goal but failing to respect your organization’s cultural norms will nullify your ability to achieve it. Failure to identify your values while setting goals may result in frustration. Knowing your values while failing to respect your organization’s cultural norms may signal you have little in common with them.
Being authentic isn’t solely about you. It’s about using your unique qualities to build relationships with others who have similar values around authentic presence, to accomplish your goals. People will judge you from a first visual impression just like you judge them. They will make quick assumptions about you just like you do of others. This isn’t bad or good. It’s just reality. Ignoring it is unproductive. Instead, leverage your presence in an authentic way to fit into the organization and to meet your goals.