Let me tell you about one of the best leaders I've ever worked with. I call him the "Blue Collar CEO" because he embodied the best of both of those worlds.
As a Fortune 100 senior executive, he was every bit as articulate, intelligent and charismatic as his peers. But unlike most of those peers, he had no problem putting the corporate jargon to bed and getting down to brass tacks.
If something was good, he'd tell you it was good. If he didn't care for something, he'd tell you that, too. And if you made a mistake, he'd take you to task for it, but then he'd ask you how he could help you fix it.
What made him so successful? I'd argue it was his authenticity. He lived, worked and communicated in a way that was true to his convictions and aligned with the company's values.
The art of being authentic
I don't know about you, but this executive is exactly the type of person I'd want leading my company and speaking on behalf of my brand. He realized that communicating authentically is one of the most important soft skills a business leader, PR professional or anyone in between can learn. Transparency builds goodwill and trust between leaders, employees, and customers.
Many corporate communicators inherently understand the importance of authenticity. But while authenticity is tough to measure, the signs say that most leaders aren't living it out. Only 19 percent of global employees surveyed by KRC Research and Weber Shandwick last year said that the brand image their employer presents to the world matches their own experiences working there.
Just as employees value authenticity, customers do as well. SAI Global found last year that 83 percent of global consumers consider transparency to be essential for building trust.
So with so much riding on authenticity, how can you make sure your company acts and communicates as authentically as possible?
1. Stay true to yourself.
Believe it or not, earlier in the blue-collar CEO's career, he was told to change his communication style. He was moving up at work, gaining additional responsibilities as well as additional scrutiny. His critics were relentless. They wanted him to change everything from the way he talked to how he dressed. It was "the big show," they said, and he had to shape up.
Of course, his company promoted him because of his stellar results: consistent double-digit growth, engaged employees and high customer satisfaction scores. But the company asked him to throw away what had helped him achieve those results – his down-to-earth style and leadership philosophy – to fit a mold of what a senior executive "should be."
Think about that for a moment. When was the last time you enjoyed sitting through an executive's sanitized presentation? How tough is it to tell when someone is speaking from a "rah-rah" script devoid of transparency, authenticity and real emotion? The blue-collar CEO didn't care for corporate speak any more than you probably do.
So how did things turn out for him? Ultimately, he stuck to his values. He continued to post top sales and employee engagement figures – not despite his personal style but because of it. Oh, and by the way, he's now the CEO of a thriving, growing company.
2. Don’t obsess about the "right way" to do or say something.
I'll tell you about another CEO, a very different one. He was a rigorously trained public speaker. And I must say, he impressed me the first time I heard him. His tone, cadence, intonation, and movement were all finely tuned and effective.
But then I saw him a second time. I realized he was going through the same motions as the first time I saw him. By the end of his presentation, I could recite his entire playbook. I knew how many steps he'd take before pausing to deliver the next sentence. I knew exactly when he'd put his left hand into his pocket and gesture with his right, a motion that only looked casual the first time you saw it. During that second presentation, I was more interested in predicting his next rehearsed move than in what he was actually saying.
There's no shortage of courses and books out there to teach you how to deliver a presentation just as refined as that CEO's. Just like building a machine to specifications, presenters can follow the guidelines and get results – the first time around, anyway. My washing machine is great at laundering clothes, but it can't teach my son how to throw a baseball or hit a 90-mph fastball into the gap.
When someone turns himself into a machine, he or she loses the ability to operate in situations that they weren't trained for. While a trained speaker might be a great example for Toastmasters International, their message will be lost if they're only thinking about the delivery. Authentic communicators follow the values they hold inside their heart and tell stories based on those principles, not a checklist or playbook on how to deliver their message.
3. Make sure the audio matches the video.
We've all seen companies, most of them with noble intentions, promote their corporate values. The words go up on posters, spill from employees' mouths when managers are around and are carefully inserted into leaders' speeches. Everyone claps, nods and goes back to work. Then, when they're not being actively discussed, those values cease to exist.
Did that last sentence make your blood boil? Sure, anyone can say the right words. But in my experience, leaders who live out those words are rare. I've been in meetings where 75 percent of the values or expected behaviors espoused by a company are completely ignored.
That's a shame because, according to a Robert Half Management Resources survey, integrity is the most valued leadership trait in the corporate world. Not competitiveness or intelligence – integrity. If a leader lacks integrity, everything he or she says or does is like a video without the right audio. It's impossible not to notice the disconnect.
To tell whether your audio and video match, try the "red face test." If you can honestly tell someone whom you care about that your company's actions match the values it proclaims – without going red from embarrassment – you've passed the test.
Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to do. It's not easy to announce an uncomfortable change, admit a mistake or break bad news. Many executives fluff up their language, talk around the issue or skip the subject completely.
But if you stick to your values, the rest usually takes care of itself. So get to the point. Declare your values, ditch the excuses, be authentic and do what you say you'll do. Your team, your customers and your corporate brand will thank you.