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Authenticity in a Small World

I originally wrote this article for my newsletter and got some great feedback! So I decided to post it on my blog.

Recently I called my bank in Cincinnati to close out my account, after moving to the Boston area nearly two years ago. To my surprise, the manager I spoke with  remembered my name from having worked with me on her resume twelve years ago! She knew where I lived (at that time I worked with clients in person) and recalled a small detail about my house. It was nice to catch up, and I was pleased to hear that her career is going well.

This interaction got me thinking about the very small world we live in – and how long impressions last. And with online networking sites that connect through six (or more) degrees of separation, it’s obvious that the image we present to others has long tentacles.

During your job search, you are putting your best foot forward. You are emphasizing your career successes and downplaying anything less then successful. You are projecting a positive image and are always on your best behavior. Good for you! That’s just as it should be. But don’t think you can change the image you’ve created throughout your professional life.

The conclusion I’ve reached is that it’s necessary to live an authentic life – to be crystal clear about “who you are” and to portray that person consistently and authentically in every area of your life. Then, as you manage your career, look for opportunities to be that “real you” on the job. You won’t have to worry about hiding anything or being something that you’re not – and finding that right fit  means you’ll be as productive and successful as you possibly can be. Of course, to reach this nirvana you have to first understand the “real you” and translate your personal style, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses into wins for your employer. Consider these examples:

  • You’re a hard-charging leader who is known to leave slower-paced employees in  the dust. You know this style has caused some hard feelings in the past. How do  you deal with the question, “What is your leadership style?” so that it won’t hurt you in an interview? You need to be truthful and authentic – after all, if they  are looking for a collaborative consensus-builder, that’s not you and you’d be unhappy and unsuccessful in that job. Yet you don’t want to leave the impression that you decimate morale or have zero people skills. A response like this can serve both  purposes – showing benefit to employers while preserving your authenticity.

    “I am a high-energy leader who inspires most people to perform their very best – as shown by the results we attained at ABC and XYZ. I’m very proud of developing strong leaders – two of my direct reports in the last five years have been recruited for CEO roles outside the company, and many more have been promoted internally.  My senior VP at XYZ described me as an ‘igniter’ for bringing out the best in people who really believed in our mission. The flip side, of course, is that those who  don’t buy into it are not quite so complimentary. My record of retaining key staff has been exceptional, but those who have been let go or quit on their own might  have felt ‘burnt’ by that same spark that energized others. I do create an electric atmosphere, and I believe in dedicating myself 100% to achieving the mission. I’m looking for a position where being the ‘igniter’ will help us reach extraordinary goals.”

Now, if a reference check or other investigation into your background turns up some of those disgruntled employees, your new employer will understand both sides of  the story. At the same time, you’ve been frank about the potential downside of your leadership style and have clearly defined the environment in which you can excel. Consider a different style and how this, too, can be appropriately communicated  while remaining authentic.

  • In every job you’ve held, you’ve been the peacemaker. You dislike conflict and always strive to find common ground. You lost your most recent job in part because you weren’t aggressive enough to suit the culture. Now, when you’re asked “why did you leave your last position?,” what will you say? Again, staying authentic and  communicating your style as a strength is the way to go.

    “The culture at my last company was not a good fit for me. My style is to bridge differences to find common ground. I believe that’s the most effective way to move forward when two sides disagree. That style was instrumental in the successful resolution of several serious negotiations at ABC Company, but at XYZ I found the situation to be quite different. In fact, when I tried to intervene to resolve a problem  that had brought our new product group to a standstill, my manager pulled me out of the group and told me he thought the creative differences would result in a  better product. This trend continued for the 18 months I was there, so I wasn’t  really surprised when I was asked to leave. As a result, I want to be sure my next position allows me to use my natural skills as a mediator and problem-solver to  help move the business forward.”

Trying to be someone or something you’re not is sure to backfire either during the job search or later, when you struggle to succeed in an environment that is counter to your natural tendencies. Plus, if you are authentic you can be sure that all  of your reference checks, referrals, and testimonials will ring true. And that’s a big plus during your career transition and throughout your life.

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