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C-Suite Exec: How To Become Your Company’s Moral Compass

Contrary to what execs might expect, adopting a work persona limits their ability to serve as the moral compasses their companies often so desperately need.

an overhead view of a road splitting in the woods

Today’s C-suite executives handle far more than just business operations. They serve a vital role in shaping strategy and culture — which means they also have a responsibility as the company’s conscience.

Even so, many CXOs struggle to balance personal values with company performance. As a result, many adopt a “work persona” — a caricature of the type of leader they believe others prefer: the hard-nosed skeptic, the technical expert, the know-it-all.

But contrary to what these execs might expect, adopting a work persona actually limits their ability to tap into their most impactful talents — and to serve as the moral compasses their companies often so desperately need.

Adopting a Persona — The Story of Michael

Michael’s business prowess was undeniable. As a CFO responsible for tens of billions of dollars, he had the potential to be a rising star — but instead, he was on the verge of flaming out.

Problem was, while Michael was great at managing up in the organization, he wasn’t so skilled managing down or sideways. His boss loved his dynamic get-things-done style and his razor-sharp business acumen. But his juniors were suffering under his command, intimidated by his loud and combative manner, his impatience with opposing points of view, and his disrespect of anyone who fell short of his standards.

It wasn’t just Michael’s subordinates who felt this way. His peers felt it too. As one of his colleagues put it, “Working with Michael is like a never-ending trip to the principal’s office.”

Michael’s behavior had gotten so troublesome that his team members had begun to jump ship. If he didn’t clean up his act, his boss told me, his high-powered career trajectory could well come to a screeching halt.

Right from my first meeting with Michael, I experienced his hard-charging style firsthand. His booming voice and brassy declarations announced he was the one in control. But at the same time, I could tell that beneath all this bluster was a man held captive by distorted beliefs about workplace leadership.

To help Michael more fully tap into his capabilities, I started by helping him dig into his core values — the things that mattered most to him. Oddly enough, deep relationships topped his list, even though his behavior at work gave no hint of this.

When I pointed out that Michael wasn’t living one of his core values at work, he paused. After a moment of deep thought, he grudgingly admitted his domineering style was alienating others, and making him feel “unfulfilled and at times super unhappy.” As the light bulbs began to flicker on, Michael added, “I value deep relationships, yet I’m having shallow and transactional relationships with others at work. That’s not what I want.”

Effective Leadership Isn’t Possible Without Authentic Leadership

As Michael learned, the first step to becoming an impactful leader is to navigate by your own moral compass — and that means showing up at work as your authentic self, not as a persona.

Taking on a persona creates at least two problems. First, you’re playacting. Even if your colleagues can’t put a finger on it, they smell your phoniness. Perceived insincerity arouses suspicion, putting a strain on every one of your work relationships.

Second, restricting yourself to a persona means leaving the best of your abilities and gifts at the door. You’re holding yourself back from unleashing your full potential — which means you’ll never be able to serve your organization to the best of your ability.

In fact, learning to dial into your unique talents and values is the surest way to increase your effectiveness. It all starts with the same simple realization Michael had: Your genuine self is more effective than your fake self.

I’ve seen the unfortunate effects of personal inauthenticity time and again during my 20-plus years in executive leadership roles. I’ve witnessed it in dozens of professionals as a CFO at global powerhouses Microsoft and Novartis, as well as in my work with senior leaders through my leadership development and executive coaching firm.

The leaders who fall prey to it plateau in their careers or even spiral into disaster.

But those who master authenticity increase their effectiveness exponentially and quickly accelerate their success.

Here’s how to tap into your own values, and unlock your own authenticity at work.

The Three Key Steps to Unlocking Your Authenticity at Work

Authenticity consists of three key elements:

  • Defining your values

  • Laying out your operating principles

  • Aligning your behavior with those values and principles

Like an iceberg, your values are the deepest part of you. They lie beneath the surface and might not always be visible. But they inform your operating principles and, ultimately, your behavior — which is what the people around you experience.

Your core values are those ideals that are enduringly important to you – for example, integrity, efficiency, family time, teamwork, fair play, winning, and so on.

Although your values may well overlap with those of others, your value set is unique to you. The clearer you see your own values, the better you can apply them to choose your behavior in any situation.

What are your core values? Have you given them serious thought?

If you answered “no,” don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. Having asked dozens of people those questions as an executive coach, I’ve discovered most executives have not spent much time — if any — defining their values.

To spark your thinking, consider this random list of some common values: achievement, family, accountability, challenge, service, fun, loyalty, empathy, advancement, health, faith, innovation.

Think about what is most enduringly important to you and what your highest priorities in life are.

The next step is to translate those values into concrete operating principles for the workplace.

Turning Your Values Into Operating Principles

To put your values into action, you’ll need to know what living your core values at work looks like, before you find yourself in crucible moments where you’ve got to decide how to act.

One approach that’ll help is to define your personal operating principles — just as you’d define those principles for your company. For example:

For the value of transparency, your operating principle might be, “I am clear and direct with others, speaking honestly and with consideration.”

For integrity, your operating principle could be, “I conduct my work in an honest and ethical manner. I obey the letter and spirit of the law.”

Your operating principle for humility might be, “I seek out differing viewpoints and expertise. I strive to learn from others.”

Thinking of your personal core values, write down the operating principles that explain how others will know you’re living them.

Aligning Your Behavior With Your Values and Principles

It can take a lot of courage to apply your values and operating principles to your behavior in the workplace. In fact, choosing authenticity at work can be a risky move. It exposes your essence to people who might not respect it. Worse, some people will act against you if you show your true colors.

That’s where courage comes in. I define courage as doing what you believe is right, even at your own peril — like a firefighter entering a burning house to save a life.

How do you decide when’s the right time to demonstrate your values at work? Here are three questions to guide you.

  • Will being authentic serve me and others in this situation?

  • Is the risk of being authentic in this situation worth it (to me)?

  • Will I feel duplicitous if I hide my authentic self in this situation?

This is where your work defining your values and operating principles will prove crucially valuable. By knowing in advance which principles you value most, and what those principles look like in action, you’ll be empowered to act courageously in situations where you’re required to make tough moral calls.

Michael’s Epilogue — Disaster Averted

A few months into our coaching engagement, I checked with Michael’s boss to see if she’d noticed any changes in him. She excitedly reported that Michael’s behavior had dramatically improved – along with his effectiveness.

By embracing his core values, defining his operating principles, and behaving in accordance with those values and principles at work, Michael was discovering whole new levels of collaboration with his team.

He told me how much happier he was at work — and at home. He also noted with relief that he no longer felt compelled to act like the “tough guy” all the time. Just a few months later, Michael was tapped to take on even greater responsibilities at his company, accelerating his high-growth career path.

When you tap into your own authenticity in the workplace, you achieve far more than just strengthening communication and improving collaboration. You gain access to the full set of insights, abilities and talents that lie within you — many of which you may have been leaving at the office door.

Change begins when you define the values that mean the most to you.

Those values take on concrete meaning when you translate them into operating principles.

And those principles transform your workplace relationships when you manifest them in your behavior.

Embrace your own core values, and you’ve taken the first step toward unlocking your full potential as your company’s moral compass.


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