We’ve all felt the feeling that an organization is not being honest with us. Maybe they are saying the “right” things, or showing the “right” images, but when it does not ring true, we wonder; do they really believe this? Perhaps evidence elsewhere contradicts. So we do not believe them. We tune out and move on; an opportunity to connect is lost.
Usually, the organization is not trying to confound or mislead on purpose. Rather a significant gap exists between reality and perception – both in the market and, importantly, within the organization. To be truly effective in communicating with their target audience organizations need to bridge that gap.
The bridge is Authenticity.
Webster defines authenticity as “real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate.” So how do organizations demonstrate this characteristic? The leaders in the organization are the ultimate arbiters of authenticity – without authentic leaders there can be no authentic organization, business or brand. It is up to the leaders to create truthful, genuine stories for themselves and their organizations.
So how do we create authentic leaders that can drive authenticity in the organization? There is no shortage of business literature on authenticity. I like the following. Bill George, in his 2018 book Lead True, highlights five qualities demonstrated by authentic leaders:
- Understanding their purpose
- Practice shared values
- Lead with heart
- Establish connected relationships
- Demonstrate self-discipline
George goes on to write in a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article, “’Faking it’ is the antithesis of authentic leadership. Following this advice is the most likely path to failure as a leader. You cannot act like a leader until you go through the hard steps of developing yourself from within.”
These characteristics are personal and the real challenge is how to infuse these qualities across the organization. This task becomes to shift the way the organization operates so it aligns with the authentic nature of its leaders.
Start on the inside.
Authenticity is an inside job. Don’t bother with the external stuff until the internal is taken care of. Here is a simple but clear illustration we can all relate to; if transparency is an authentic value of the organization – don’t just say it – do it. Make internal transparency part of your operations. If you tell your audience you are transparent in your dealings with them, but secrecy is rampant inside your organization, no one’s going to believe you.
Align the “who we are and what we believe” with what the organization is actually doing. Reveal it internally before going externally. Look at the team – does the team fit the alignment? If not, recruit them. Recent research from Rob Gofee and Gareth Jones at the London Business School suggests that the qualities of an authentic workplace can be summed up with a handy mnemonic – DREAMS:
Difference – “I want to work in a place where I can be myself.”
Radical honesty – “I want to know what’s really going on.”
Extra value – “I want to work in an organization that makes me more valuable.”
Authenticity – “I want to work in an organization that truly stands for something.”
Meaning – “I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.”
Simple rules – “I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules.”
From personal experience, as I have built Advantages I had to take a hard look at different aspects of my business that didn’t align internally with what I hoped to communicate externally – one of those was my office location. Moving from a retail space to a professional, open-plan creative office was an operational change that turbocharged the connectedness and agreement on my team and aligned with my vision for Advantages.
Then go external.
At Advantages we apply a specific approach to discover the authentic within our clients to help them communicate that authenticity to their target market. The 3 Keys – Values, Purpose and Story – are tools to be used to develop a brand foundation that can be used to build a strong connection between business and consumer. It’s not a patina, it’s not “just” a marketing campaign. Authenticity emanates from the core of the business outward through all interactions with the marketplace.
One client, Seasons, a kosher grocery, used the 3 Keys process to identify “family” as the authentic characteristic of their company. “Shop with Family” became the marquis message. Throughout the in-store promotion, advertising and digital the focus on family was paramount. Within the company, workers, suppliers and customers alike were treated like family. Employee retention increased. Supplier costs decreased. And customers kept coming back. Authenticity works.
It isn’t easy.
“Fake it till you make it” doesn’t work. Your organization’s insides must match its outside. Unless you focus on the inside first – the gap between perception and reality will arise and you risk alienating your audience. It is difficult, but worth it. Bridge the gap with Authenticity presents a phenomenal opportunity to take your team wherever you want to go and achieve the impact you envision.