Authenticity in Leadership: Staying True To Self and Your Company Values

Even if you’re diligently monitoring balance sheets and reaching revenue targets, if your authenticity doesn’t shine through, you’re missing out on one of the core elements a successful business leader possesses.

For this year’s Ascent Conference, we brought together Katie Burkhart, founder of Matterpulse, and Tom Keiser, CEO at Hootsuite, for a fireside chat on who an authentic leader really is, and how SaaS business leaders can keep a true sense of self to guide their teams during these changing times.

Who is the ‘Authentic Leader’?

We often perceive C-Suite leaders as ‘faceless entities’ who run the organization. However, Katie says that it’s high time top-level leaders see the business as people-centric, and really establish the value that employees need to receive, rather than the value leaders only think they’re capable of giving.

You want to be seen as a real leader, not a fake-it-’til-you-make-it type. The Harvard Business Review describes authentic leaders as the following:

  • Committed to self-improvement. Embodying company values must start from leaders themselves, and the quality of their leadership springs from their commitment to self-improvement.
  • Self-aware. Apart from their technical skills, authentic leaders also have a good sense of self-awareness and are constantly able to assess themselves. This allows them to hone their strengths and work on their weaknesses, and enables them to listen to feedback more effectively.
  • Disciplined. Tied to self-awareness, exercising self-discipline enables leaders to stick to short-term and long-term plans, while constantly providing feedback and communicating with their teams.
  • Mission-driven. Authentic leaders are fueled by their mission and their desire to fulfill a significant purpose — something that’s also crucial in business growth.
  • Trustworthy. It’s up to leaders on how they could spark the same passion among their teams to achieve the company’s mission and goals. This requires a certain level of trust — employees having faith in their leaders regardless when things are going well, or when the going gets tough.

Bridging the Messaging-Action Gap

Far too often, SaaS organizations might experience a disconnect between their leaders’ words and actions. In fact, research by Gallup shows that around 70% of the differences in team engagement are influenced by whether or not they have good managers or leaders.

From a high-level perspective, it’s clear that the value employees are expecting to receive is dependent on how their leaders manage expectations, and whether or not they fail to meet expectations. “There’s a gap between the value perceived and the actual value experienced,” Katie observes. “And it’s only through listening that you’ll start to understand the problems and their solutions.” This is true particularly in the ever-changing SaaS industry, where engagement is crucial in maximizing both CLV and ELV. 

Bottom line: leaders must deliver real value, while embodying company values. Tom also advises: “talk to employees, customers, and stakeholders and listen to their feedback to understand them better.”

Can One Stay Authentic As Values Change? 

But what happens to culture when some values have to be outgrown? Can such a thing even happen?

Hootsuite is an example of this. From being founder-led, Tom got on board as the company’s CEO as it soared to hypergrowth

But while the organization followed founder-set values conceived at its startup phase, Hootsuite’s leadership team eventually decided to revisit some of these values, allowing for a dynamic shift in principles as they made more complex decisions. Tom says, “we rethought our values and the company’s guiding principles, then built a decision-making framework around who we do business with.”

He also offered an interesting take on how he was able to stay authentic even as he took over Hootsuite’s reins. “The founder is still involved in the business but gives me space to work on my own,” notes Tom. “He gives me space to run the company, change the mindset, while still staying true to some principles the company was founded on.” 

Keeping Authenticity Amidst Remote Leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about several demands and additional pressure on leaders to drive their teams through hybrid work.

These changes may have increased the challenges of demonstrating leadership to staff. But if there’s one thing that will cement all facets of people management at this crucial period, it’s authenticity.

Authenticity plays a key role in virtual leadership by:

  • Encouraging meaningful collaboration
  • Leveling the playing field when seeking ideas and feedback
  • Fostering trust and respect even more than in an actual office setup
  • Eliminating uncertainty and sparking enthusiasm

As hybrid work becomes the norm, leaders are expected to rely on authenticity in strengthening their management models. They must also be more agile in managing projects, and be capable of developing new competencies, both for themselves and their teams.

Final Thoughts

While being an authentic leader means being self-aware and expressing yourself as you truly are, it’s worth noting that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for it, and it also depends on your company culture and team dynamics. It’s great if being authentic comes naturally to you, but as a business leader, it’s one key aspect of your leadership style and model that must continuously be worked on.

Hear more from Katie and Tom by watching their full session recording.
Need some ideas on how to demonstrate authentic commitment to your company’s values? ClassPass shares some insightful tips on how to demonstrate authenticity through your benefits and wellness programs.

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

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