What it takes to be yourself in corporate America…

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One piece of artwork I have in my office

This has been an incredibly difficult article to write. I am curious about your experience in finding yourself in corporate America. Please, if you would, share your experiences by leaving a comment on this post.

While I believe that corporations are evolving and that individual expression is becoming more acceptable than ever before, I believe we still have a problem. Certainly, some corporations are significantly further ahead on this than others. In many, though, the rules of the game demand that individual expression be left at the door.

What I want to share here is my personal journey and experiences I have had over my career. In doing so, I hope to offer others some guidance and if I do this right, some hope.

I have been doing quite a bit of thinking on the topic of what it takes to be yourself in corporate America lately. Over the last few years, I have been on a journey to ‘find myself.’ Or perhaps I mean I have been looking for my purpose in life, or my true happiness, or my mission.

Whatever it is, what I do know is that It can easily be lost in corporate America. This may not be true for everyone, and may be true for those outside of corporate America. What I know is that I lost part of myself somewhere along the way, and am now working hard to bring her back.

Before I go any further, let me say that what has lead to my success thus far may have been necessary. It seems to me that there is a pretty clear recipe for success in corporate American. Many people may not like this part of what I have to say – I honestly don’t like it myself.

Most of us, in joining the corporate world, begin at the bottom in an entry level position. We are one of many. In this position, we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. How we go about doing this determines whether we rise or whether we stay.

The best way to differentiate yourself is quite obvious – work harder, work smarter, and work politically. Notice that none of this says anything about being yourself. In fact, I would argue that all of this asks you specifically to subvert your uniqueness. This is, of course, true only if you are looking to move up the corporate ladder. If you are content where you are and have no ambition to climb higher, I believe corporate America will willingly take you as you are. We need people like you.

But if you are trying to get ahead, advance your career, earn more money, have a greater influence, you are going to hit some road bumps. You are going to find situation after situation where being yourself just doesn’t feel possible.

That may be your truth for a time.

You may find that you have to cover those tattoos, forego the bright blue hair color, save the crazy shoes for the weekend, talk more quietly/loudly, write your blog under an assumed name. You may have to play the game. For a time.

I am here, though, to tell you it won’t always be that way. Not completely.

I have found that when an individual has proven their skills and has earned the respect and admiration of their colleagues, that door cracks back open. Those parts of you that were stashed away can come back out to play. As your success grows, your ability to fully share your uniqueness will grow as well.

Before I share some examples from my own career, I want to address the need to be authentic to be a successful leader. I believe firmly in the need to be authentic. I believe that even when hiding away important parts of yourself, you can still be true to your ethics and beliefs. I believe that what I am suggesting here is not in opposition to being authentic. It is simply finding a way to be authentic while playing a game with rules written by someone else.

Here are some examples from my career:

I am an artistic sort. As such, I love to add color to anything I do. While managing a number of different teams, I was sending out emails that had updates for each team color coded. Team A was in blue, Team B was in pink, and so on. My manager had a rather violent reaction to this (he felt that I had produced something that belonged in a kindergarten classroom rather than a business office), and henceforth, I withheld color from all emails, and from most of what I did in the office. This was 10 years ago or so.

Whether he was right or wrong does not matter. What matters is that I had learned a rule of the game – when working for this manager (and others like him), do not use color. Got it.

Recently, I felt pulled to bring color back into all areas of my life. Taking a huge risk given the conservative industry in which I work and the conservative town in which I live, I added a few pink streaks to my hair. Then a few more. Before I knew it, I had a large swath of purple hair on the left side of my head. It felt amazing!

The exciting part – the only comments I got at work were positive ones. From there I have been adding other elements of creativity and color back into my work life – my office is decorated with different and crazy art and I have been intentionally buying brighter colors for my wardrobe.

Another example:

When I was first promoted into management, my manager pulled me aside and said this: “You need to be careful who you spend your time with during the day. You would do yourself a favor by choosing new lunch companions. Who you are seen with will reflect back on you.” I remember at the time being thoroughly confused – my friends were wonderful people, as far as I could tell.

The lesson there, though, was that people like to paint with wide brushes. Apparently, the folks I was eating with were not viewed as management types, and were, in some cases, seen as ‘difficult.’ If I continued to associate with them, I would risk being painted the same. What a horrible thing, and yet it was the truth.

Today, however, I have lunch with whomever I want – many, many different people – and I enjoy every one of them. I am not worried any longer about being painted one way or another – the privilege of my position protects me from that.

Final example:

Anyone who knows me knows my laugh. I love to laugh! I love to talk with others and share fun and delightful stories. I like to get to know others, hear about their lives, share in their joy. Early on, however, I learned that being loud and boisterous was not seen as having ‘executive presence.’ It was crass and unprofessional.

I have heard managers, regarding other associates say things like, “I need to get her to clean up that wardrobe,” or “She really needs to be wearing makeup,” or for men, “I really need him to shave/trim/get rid of that facial hair.” I even heard a comment at a recent event on workplace dress that all women who wish to get ahead should wear skirts and high heels every day. All of this in service to the rules of the game.

Nowadays for me, however, very few days go by without a loud, hearty haHA! and I feel much better for it. And I rarely wear high heels anymore. They hurt my feet!

So, what changed? From the early days to today? Time, effort, dedication, and proof that I am here, I am all-in, I am a leader, and I am serious. Despite (terrible word) the colored hair, the crazy artwork, the loud laughter, I am invested in the success of my organization and my employees.

In a word, I have earned privilege.

So what gives? Are we, the ambitious leaders of corporate America, doomed to a life of repressed self-expression? Of subverting our wishes and desires for the greater good?

The hard answer is, in many ways, Yes. The purpose of the corporation is to provide a return on investment to the owners, not to allow space for the personal expression of all employees. We win the game by playing the game.

But once you begin to climb, the freedom comes. You just have to insist on it.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Please share!

Have a great Wednesday!

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