In my 20s I worked really hard at trying to morph myself into the mould of the person I thought I needed to be to be successful. I was driven and determined and would do anything to be seen, heard and recognised as someone with the potential to get on. I wanted to be hand-picked for promotion and to be talked about as future potential, hoping that one day I would be a senior director in a FTSE100 organisation. I wanted to defy the tradition of age to get there and so I was constantly trying to figure out what it was I needed to do to get there quickly without trying to jump through too many hoops, wherever ‘there’ may be.
In a hierarchically male environment, I kept being told to look around the organisation at women who had ‘made it’ and to focus on role modelling the qualities that set them apart.
The problem was that, in the most part, I was nothing like them.
These women were cool and seemingly unflappable but I would watch how other people (men and women) would change when in their presence, often for fear of the iron fist appearing through the velvet glove. Even so, I figured that I would get ‘there’ if I tried harder to be more like them.
Then, one day, a HR Director for whom I will always have the utmost respect, raised two key points which literally changed my life:
1. She told me that she wasn’t sure whether, when delivering my role, I did the right thing or the thing that I thought people more senior than me would want me to do. Whilst I initially felt defensive about the feedback, I realised she was absolutely right. I was so eager to ‘fit’ that I was almost too scared to go with my own instincts or ideas, preferring instead to try and please.
2. And then came the killer question. She asked me if the person I was trying to become fitted with my personal values. The answer was simple; it didn’t.
This was a real epiphany moment for me. It was as though I’d been pushing hard for years to make a bad relationship work, never wanting to give up as there was always that glimmer of hope that the best things come to those who wait or, in my case, to those who persevere. But ultimately the culture within which I was trying to fit was misaligned with what made me ‘me’.
Then I did one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. I resigned. Not because I didn’t enjoy the challenge of my work, that I didn’t see the opportunities in the organisation or that I didn’t work with great people. Quite simply, it was because not being me was exhausting and I wanted to find out if being the same me at work as at home was possible somewhere else.
Being me at work has taken some time. I was lucky that my next boss really helped me to feel more comfortable allowing the real me to show herself more often and to ditch the layers of ‘polish’ I’d tried to build up over the years, but it took time to really change when I’d spent years trying to become someone else.
So what have I learnt?
Whilst I regret the impact some of my more negative ‘learnt’ behaviour may have had on others over the years, I’m thankful for everything I’ve gone on to learn from making the mistakes that I’ve made. I don’t want to be known as a ball breaker or as someone who’d trample over anyone who got in the way of what they want, I just want to be known as me and all of the good things that naturally come with that. And so what if I have long hair, wear dresses and high heels and choose to build personal relationships with the people who work with and for me? It defines who I am and allows me to be completely authentic. Being authentic gets the best out of me and creates an environment of trust with those around me.
So what are my key messages to anyone reading this?
Trying to be someone you’re not is exhausting. I don’t believe in walking away when things get tough but if to get on where you are means you have to compromise your own values, and in particular your integrity, then I would encourage you to have the courage to make a different choice.
There’s no longer such a thing as a job for life and more often than not people don’t stick around in the same company for ever. Organisations are ever changing and so we either need to change with them or go and be the difference somewhere else.
The challenge is to find an organisation with a culture that appreciates the authentic you. Then there will be no barriers to what you can achieve.
Today I am authentic.
Today I am true to myself.
Today I am happy.
And the most important thing?
Being me means I’m the best I can be.
Being me is good enough.