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Cultivating Authenticity

Successfully leading any group – whether a committee or an entire company – toward greater sustainability is certainly a challenge.  Not only must those charged with such work plan the technical, logistical, and business changes required, they must also communicate to others why these adjustments are necessary, and engage with each stakeholder to gain acceptance of the new paradigm.  There is the added challenge of managing inevitable differences in matters like science literacy, cultural mores, and business perspectives on how to address the issues at the core of the sustainability initiative.

This blog in our Core Value series focuses on the importance of Cultivating Authenticity as a core element of a successful change initiative.  In our work and growth as an organization at Sustrana, and in my prior work as a teacher, my perspective on cultivating authenticity is as a staff member and a leader.  Before my new career as a developer at Sustrana, I taught environmental science to middle and high school students for nearly twenty years, serving also as department chair in two widely divergent schools.  As I read the literature about cultivating authenticity as a person and as a communicator/leader, I had a deep recognition of the important insights of these authors through the lens of my own varied career.

What does it mean to be authentic?

According to Laura Vanderkam in What Does Authenticity Really Mean?, a person gains authenticity from acknowledging the power that past experiences have on the present self.  People who take time to both own and reflect on their strengths and challenges, and thus try to understand what makes them tick, are likely to be much more sensitive to the depth of other humans.

Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, writing in Psychology Today, adds that self-awareness helps people find commonality and build connections with others, and supports the skill of active, deep listening that Mel Schmidt wrote about in Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Professional, Sales Person and Parent.  Another attribute of self-aware, connected people is that they seem more “grounded.”  This helps others appreciate that while some traits may be strong, perhaps eccentric, the overall personality of an authentic person is dependable and steady.

Authentic people understand themselves in relation to others.  People around them grow to trust the basic nature of the authentic person because the person is knowable.  A colleague might say, “Oh, I understand why she reacted that way to the information.  I may not agree with her reaction, but I do understand, because she is so genuine.”

In business, being authentic means reading a situation, adjusting to the requirements at hand, and bringing your best self to bear in the circumstances. The best, most productive results emerge from authentic conversations in safe spaces. To cultivate authenticity and safe spaces one must define expectations in a way that encourages the talent and productive energy of the workforce to emerge. That means that norms must be flexible, balanced, and respectful. As noted in a recent blog by Lili Pita, business norms must encourage and accommodate diversity and inclusion to give people enough freedom to be authentic. It’s a challenging balancing act. When done well, people will be honest and sincere, acknowledge differences, and work toward solutions that are in the best interest of the organization.

As a teacher  – an interpreter if you will – of the environment, my students cared first and foremost that I both believed in and lived by the credo I offered them. “Where did you learn what you are teaching us?  Have you changed your mind about this issue?” were common questions (coming from an age group that naturally seeks connection).  Bonds that led them to trust me and gain greater interest in a subject were built through my recounting of experiences as a child, teenager, and young adult in school, in nature, and in shaping a life connected to my environment.  Though it took years to feel comfortable doing so, sharing my own challenges with learning math with students who also struggled in their own way with quantitative information was cathartic and empowering. Likewise, as a teacher, I had to learn that it was okay to show that I was easily overjoyed by plants and rocks and insects.  Although people sometimes called me eccentric as a result, students felt safe to share more of their personal passions and valued for doing so, all of which furthered the connections between teacher and student so necessary for learning to occur.

In my current role as part of the Sustrana team, I have also experienced the personal rewards of being valued.  As we increased the number of employees and our daily contact with clients, the issue of a dress code arose.  A series of discussions ensued about the perceived need for a guideline, as well as personal interpretations of “business casual” and how that might impact personal expression and comfort.  Some were accepting of the proposed changes, others had concerns.  We all listened to each other; we had a safe space for talking about differing perspectives.  After several comment drafts, we came to a balanced decision with room for future discussion.

We incorporate regular breaks from the normal practice of eating while working to share a pot-luck meal or celebrate a birthday together. When someone suggested that we create space in our day for a ten-minute group meditation break, we gave it a try. What started small has grown into a well-attended time that allows space in our day to just be together, away from tasks and our computers. These are opportunities to relax and share. Making time to sit facing each other, listening and laughing together, is transformative in how we work and grow our company.

What does it mean to communicate authentically?

We can strive to be authentic as individuals, but how does one lead people through the natural discomforts of change in an authentic manner that gets everyone on board?  Jamie and Maren Showkeir, the authors of Authentic Communications: Moving From Manipulation to Truth and Commitment, provide many case studies to support their contention that leaders must undertake the personal work described above and communicate openly and honestly with others in order to lead successful change.  In addition, leaders must ensure business literacy across the spectrum of employees to enable employees to fully engage in change and be accountable for the role they play in the new paradigm. Finally, the authors believe that leaders too often rely on hierarchical parent-child style communications rather than “authentic conversations among committed, accountable adults.” In an attempt to push through change in the most expeditious timeframe, they miss the value and inspirational power of human connections.   Although the book is written for leaders of larger companies, I see the value for other leaders, too.  I recently bought a copy for a friend who is struggling through his first year as an elementary school principal.  Authentic communication is effective wherever people are found.

In my role as department chair, I was tasked with moving from a traditional curriculum with a focus on teacher-centered content delivery to one with student-generated projects as the core driver of content. I learned from one exceptionally authentic middle school director that this did not really have much to do with determining what content should be jettisoned to make time for projects.  The successful implementation of this massive change had everything to do with empowering the individual teachers to coordinate within and amongst departments to design a year of transition that they could agree to and manage.  The accountability was entrusted to the teachers. My role as a leader was to help coordinate the overall logistics and communications with parents.  And it worked!  The teachers found joy and reinvigoration from the process.  It became social and fun rather than just another change directed from above.

At Sustrana, I have been especially impressed with the commitment our co-founders Nancy and Jen make, amid a very busy time, to keeping everyone updated on the direction of the company and providing opportunities to improve our understanding of how businesses operate.  They invite speakers to lunch time gatherings to provide an incredible amount of information about our evolving benefits. They do training sessions on things like diversity and business operations and finance. In addition to our weekly meetings to catch everyone up to speed on the fast pace of work related to product development, customer service, business development, and marketing, the “lunch and learn” times are invaluable.

Sustrana’s commitment to our business and financial literacy has led me to feel increased confidence in the health of this venture and our founders’ effectiveness as leaders of change.  At Sustrana, the concept of authenticity has translated into us being, to a person, singularly committed to growing our company and supporting each other in our work.

This is the fourth in a series of blogs about Core Values:

  1. Core Values: How Differences Helped Define a Sustainability Culture
  2. Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Sustainability Professional, Sales Person, and Parent
  3. An Open Mind: the Superpowers of Diversity and Inclusion
  4. Cultivating Authenticity
  5. The Power of Positives: Creating a Community for Impact
  6. Inspire & Empower: Why It’s Better When More People Have a Seat at the Table
  7. Why Values Matter: The Common Ground of Creating Enduring Companies