Don’t be a professional pretzel! It’s better when you’re authentic at work

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Have you ever been a professional pretzel? In my mid twenties, I was.

Let me explain: I spent the early years of my professional life twisting myself into pretzel-like knots, trying to become someone who was not really “me” at all. Who was I? I was an introvert who desperately wanted to be an extrovert, an analytical thinker floundering in a business development role and a strong tactical executor – a “doer” – who longed to be a leader. That particular job did not end well, but thankfully, it led me to what I do today, which is a much better “fit” for who I really am.

Being a professional pretzel – i.e. twisting yourself into someone you’re not – is exhausting. The alternative, being unabashedly, authentically yourself at work, seems scary and like it should be exhausting, too. But I can tell you from experience, it’s not. In fact, it’s a huge relief. When I finally gave up trying to be someone else, when I stopped fighting against my strengths and started using them instead, I discovered new strengths that I never knew I had.

As a result, I was noticed, praised and appreciated by some really impressive people who I had never even set out to impress. I ultimately ended up in a much more awesome job – and was more successful at it – than I ever could have imagined.

There’s another benefit to being yourself at work: being authentic is also a powerful differentiator, a tool for building uniquely strong business relationships. As a Managing Director and Vice Chairman of Global Wealth Management with Morgan Stanley, Carla Harris should know. I first met Carla at a reception after she delivered her keynote at the Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference.

She addressed us as a small group, sharing her advice for school kids, college students and professional women. When it appeared there were no further questions, and just as Carla began to wrap up by saying “Well, ladies and gentleman…” someone called out, “Tell us the Burger King story!”

Here’s the story Carla told us that day:

In 2006, Carla traveled to Miami to deliver a pitch to the CEO of Burger King, hoping to represent the company during its IPO. “It was a major deal that everybody wanted,” related Carla, “because there had not been a quick-service restaurant IPO for at least a decade. And, more importantly, this was owned by three prestigious financial sponsors.

The stakes were high, Carla told us, and they were pitching not only for the IPO but, as she related that day, “we’re playing for all the follow-on offerings over time.”

Carla was getting a cup of coffee with the CEO when she asked if they were going to bring back the ‘Have it Your Way’ jingle. The CEO replied “You know, Carla, we’ve been doing our research and we have found that that was the most successful jingle in Burger King’s history so we’re thinking about how we can display it more prominently in our marketing.”

Carla asked if they were going to bring back both verses of the jingle, and the CEO said “Carla, there’s only one verse of the jingle.” At which point Carla said “Trust me. I’m the original hamburger queen. There are two verses of the jingle.”

At this point, it’s probably important to let you know that Carla Harris is not only a senior executive with Morgan Stanley and author of the two great business books, but she’s also an accomplished gospel singer, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

So right then and there, in the kitchen by the coffee machine, she belted out the jingle in its entirety – second verse and all.

In that moment of authentic self-expression, not only did she win the CEO’s business, but more importantly, she won his trust. After the IPO he continued to reach out to Carla as a trusted advisor. “Being authentic created a proprietary relationship because I had the courage to bring Carla Harris the singer in the room with Carla the banker. It was a point of differentiation.

The lesson, says Carla, is that “Any time you bring ‘the real you’ to the table, people will trust you and it will give you a penetration into that relationship that no other competitor can get.”

So don’t try to build a career while twisting yourself into something you’re not. Take it from me, a reformed “professional pretzel,” and also from Carla Harris, “the hamburger queen” herself: being authentic can often be the ultimate differentiator in a world full of competitors who’ve twisted themselves into knots trying to blend in while you’re standing out!

Jo Miller

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. Jo is founding editor of BeLeaderly.com. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.net and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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  • Emily

    wonderful article – perfect timing – it gave me chills – spoke to me

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