by Elizabeth Petersen
At a conference earlier this year, I had the honor of moderating a lively, open, and engaging roundtable on women’s leadership. I opened the session by asking the participants whether they felt they were expected, as women, to act or behave a certain way to succeed in business.
A very accomplished and well-liked CEO kicked off the conversation.
“I’ve repeatedly been told that I’m too cold,” she said. “I’ve been told that I need to be warmer and more nurturing. So I tried changing the way I interacted with people for a while.”
“And how did that work out for you?” I asked.
She laughed. “It didn’t. People didn’t perceive me as being genuine, and I felt at odds with myself. I think it made things worse.”
I could have predicted her answer to my question. She and I sit on opposite ends of the same problem spectrum. A well-intentioned mentor once told me that I may be perceived as too warm and friendly. A less well-intentioned colleague accused me of being too optimistic and “sunshiney.”
Like the other executive at my roundtable, I set out to change my behavior. I became less effusive. I tamped down my enthusiasm and limited my standard “Good morning! Good to see you today!” greetings.
And like the other executive, the New Me didn’t quite work out. I suddenly had a harder time naturally connecting with people. Conversations around innovation and idea sharing didn’t happen so easily and naturally. And I found myself worrying about what to say and how to say it.
I’m now at that exciting time in my life where I understand—and am OK with—who I am. By nature, I’m warm, effusive, and enthusiastic—a human glitter-covered ball of nitroglycerin. Most important, for me, being open and friendly isn’t at odds with being confident and assertive. I can be compassionate and kind and still make logical and informed business decisions. And despite the message my friendliness may send, when it comes to protecting my business and our employees and customers at large, I’m comfortable making decisions that aren’t universally popular.
Being genuine, of course, doesn’t mean giving into every personal whim and doesn’t mean that we don’t have opportunities to improve how we react and interact. Authenticity, in my experience, works best when it’s coupled with a healthy dose of self-awareness.
And while it doesn’t mean that you’ll be immune to critiques of your personality (you’ll always be too something for some people), being confidently genuine inspires trust and commitment.
At the end of that roundtable, one of the participants said, “Elizabeth, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but you don’t come across like a traditional executive.”
She’s right. And years ago, a comment like that would have sent me down a path of introspection and self-doubt. But now? I’m (genuinely and authentically) OK with it.
Elizabeth Petersen is the executive vice president of revenue and strategy at Simplify Compliance. Before her current role, Elizabeth oversaw Simplify Compliance’s healthcare division, HCPro. She also has held roles in HCPro’s sales, product management, and content development departments. Before joining HCPro, she held editorial positions at JBLearning and CCI Communications. Elizabeth lives in the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son and is passionately interested in corporate culture, innovation, women’s leadership, and caffeine.