by Sarah K. White

IT leaders share their strategy for creating authenticity

Aug 17, 2016

Authenticity at work is more important than eve, but what makes a leader authentic? These four key traits will help determine if you're leadership is viewed as authentic by your employees.

With technology, it’s becoming harder to remain inauthentic at work, according to Todd Horton, founder and CEO of KangoGift. With the modern culture of sharing, thanks to social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, there’s a sense of openness that might not have existed in companies a decade ago. “For better or worse, the digital age maintains a snapshot of everything and leaders are more sensitive to how they are perceived. It’s on leaders to take inventory of how they are perceived and adapt,” says Horton.

Authentic leadership is a keystone to a successful business, but what determines an authentic leader from an inauthentic leader? After talking to people in positions of leadership at their companies, there are four key traits that will help determine whether or not you’re an authentic leader.


As the vice president of People at Addepar, Lissa Minkin deals with people day in and day out, and she knows the importance of being authentic with your employees. She says one essential quality of an authentic leader is follow through and the ability to back up what they say.

“Your company values shouldn’t just be words on paper that aren’t lived every day,” says Minkin.

For instance, if you tell your employees you consider their personal lives and outside interests important, back it up by “offering flexible work schedules and emphasizing work-life integration by leading by example,” she says. Or, similarly, if you tout a “family-friendly” atmosphere at work, prove you mean it by offering family perks, such as “generous parental leave or the flexibility to pick children up from school.”

Minkin says there are so many startups and tech companies trying to “disrupt these big, longstanding industries.” And to do so, you’re going to need a dedicated team that is willing to stick around for the long haul, because disrupting an entire industry takes time and effort. Your employees are more likely to feel committed if they perceive their leaders as authentic, which makes them feel more connected to the company and the leadership, says Minkin. Following through on what you say helps builds trust, and gives your employees the security of knowing they’ll be treated well by the company.

At Addepar, Minkin says the CEO focuses on making the company a family-friendly workplace, and encourages employees to schedule “family time” on their calendars, so coworkers will know not to book any meetings during that time. And since the CEO had his first baby, he’s been leading by example, making employees feel comfortable to do the same with their calendars, she says.

“If your employees don’t feel that you’re authentic in what you say and how you act, you run the risk of losing great talent and jeopardizing your company’s long term future. Your business is only as good as the people who comprise it,” Minkin says.

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To be authentic, you need to be transparent, according to Leigh Espy, IT Project Manager at FedEx; as the leader of high-visibility IT projects at FedEx without an official management-chain authority, Espy has found that authentic leadership has become a cornerstone in implementing successful IT projects.

Espy points to leaders like Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, as great examples for her own leadership tactics. Espy notes that Polman has reduced the environmental footprint of his company, while also increasing Unilver’s social impact.

“When he shares his thoughts on leadership, he highlights humility, transparency, diversity and serving a higher social purpose. He demonstrates authenticity and integrity by demonstrating these traits in his actions as well,” she says.

And in her own experience, she’s seen leaders lose respect by adopting fear-based approaches to management, or by taking personal credit for their employee’s work. In that type of environment, employee trust erodes, leaving uninspired workers who grow resentful of the business.

To avoid falling into those pitfalls, Espy practices authenticity at work, and knows that in the end, it will make her team stronger. “In my role leading projects, I do consider it my responsibility to set a standard of authenticity. I strive to act as a model for the behavior I expect and value in others. Acting authentically in my daily interactions demonstrates my expectations of others and how I expect to be treated.”

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Being ‘real’

Stephen Nigro, president of 3D Printing at HP, says that one of the most important traits for authentic leadership is “being real.” But just keeping it real won’t cut it, you also need to be respectful, empathetic and humble — and it all needs to be genuine. You can’t fake authenticity, he says, and if try to fake it, you’ll quickly be found out.

“Eventually, the motivation behind what you’re doing will become apparent. If you want to have followership, you can do that based on authority,” he says.

However, if what you want is an engaged and innovative team, you’ll need to get authentic. “Leading by being true and direct, staying connected enough to your team, and real with your beliefs. And, making sure your beliefs are based on the best information available,” he says.

Authenticity at work can lead to greater engagement with your team, and Nigro says that doesn’t mean everyone always has to agree with you either. It’s not always about being on the same page, but instead about “being clear on what’s driving the business decision or motivation, and making sure there is two-way engagement.” Make every decision a conversation with your workers, give them a voice and let them know the company values their input and ideas.

In his 34 years at HP, Nigro says he the company was built on authentic leadership, starting with its founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Hewlett and Packard believed leadership was less about control and more about engagement and trust — equipping people with clear objectives and the right resources, and then trusting them to get the job done. They fostered a culture of collaboration, says Nigro, and avoided micro-management.

“HP’s values, which were instilled in the very beginning, include contribution, superior performance, setting objectives and then giving people freedom to operate, investing in the community and, ultimately, operating with the highest integrity. This is what allowed HP to become the company it is today. Establishing core values and making them transcendent — people want to be a part of that,” says Nigro.

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Of course, none of the characteristics for authentic leadership can be complete without a sense of self-awareness. Blake Angove, Director of Technology Services at LaSalle Network, a national staffing and recruiting firm, says that being an authentic leader means you need to be upfront with yourself about your own shortcomings.

An authentic leader knows their own weaknesses and strengths, and will “use their team’s individual strengths to support the skills they may be lacking in. They don’t have egos and are able to delegate various tasks, and most importantly, they’re not afraid to ask for help,” says Angove.

Similar to other leaders, Angove equates authenticity with trust, stating that if a leader is inauthentic, their team is less likely to trust them. And, without trust, comes a lack of commitment and motivation from workers. He gives the example of Steve Jobs as an authentic leader — even though he asked a lot from his employees, Angove says that he was always upfront about the goals of the company and what he expected from Apple’s new products. With a focused and strong message, his company was able to align under one goal and become successful, because everyone knew what to expect and what was expected of them.

Ultimately, Angove says authenticity starts at the top — if the CEO is authentic, it will trickle down all the way to the most entry-level employees. It’s about creating a culture of authenticity, and it’s the responsibility of the leaders in the company to foster that environment.

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