When Farah Mohamed stepped up on stage, the first thing she did was trade in her formal black blazer for a zippered hoodie. The CEO of the Prince’s Trust Canada, a Toronto-based nonprofit focused on improving the lives of young people, wanted to demonstrate to the audience that she now felt more like herself. Shedding the business-casual staple felt like letting go of a “100-pound weight,” she added.
Mohamed was the keynote speaker at the Booth Women Connect Conference in early March, and she was proving a point: Authenticity needs to be at the core of leadership.
“I pride myself on being myself,” Mohamed told an in-person and virtual audience of nearly 1,000 people. “Being authentic also means learning and growing not only my values but my application of my values.”
Mohamed was one of numerous speakers at Booth’s daylong conference exploring the theme: “Leading with Authenticity to Redefine the Modern Workplace.” Other speakers delved into seizing the power of vulnerability, leading multigenerational teams, implementing change, and redefining failure.
Mohamed, who was previously CEO of the Malala Fund, which was based in London, and worked alongside Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, spoke with Tyeise Huntley, director of the Rustandy Center Golub Capital Social Impact Lab at Booth. Here are several takeaways from the conversation.
Showing vulnerability makes it easier to lead
Authentic leadership sometimes requires divulging information that makes people feel vulnerable, but results in a more positive and productive workplace environment, Mohamed told the audience. On a personal level, it’s important to be willing to offer up thoughts that demonstrate who you are and make clear your intentions. The payoff is a greater capacity to lead effectively. “In your own life, you would never follow someone who was being inauthentic, so why would you do that in the workplace?” she said.
Come from a place of humility
Searching for answers to workplace challenges means leaders need to be honest about what they don’t know and continue on their own journey of learning. That kind of humble approach also enables much-needed dialogue in the office rather than one-sided conversations. Allowing others to share their ideas and validating the importance of this kind of equal exchange is critical to effective leadership. “Influence works both ways—you can be influential and you can be influenced,” said Mohamed.
Work on your listening skills
Keeping an open ear during not only meetings but informal conversations as well can make it easier to understand those around you. It’s also a way to find much-needed points of connection at work. “I’ve not always been a great listener,” Mohamed told the audience. “But now, I actually listen to the subtleties in conversations; it makes you more in tune with what people need versus what you think they need.”
Don’t go it alone
Focus on building coworker relationships with colleagues who allow you to be your most authentic. Often times that means prioritizing ways to connect with those who recognize that conveying emotions can be a part of a healthy workplace. “Surround yourself with people who will allow you to be yourself,” she said.
Being open and honest shows others around you that you are all part of a team. This kind of transparency can pay off in more challenging times. “You must trust your team. The more they know, the more likely they will be in a position to help you navigate a tough decision,” she said. More importantly, admitting when you need help or don’t know the answer is critical. “Toss that idea of ‘Fake it 'til you make it’ out the window,” she said. Ask questions instead.
Enabling others to have their own promotion-worthy moments without taking all the credit is critical to leading with authenticity. Day-to-day, it’s important to strike a balance to let those on your team share the spotlight, especially when taking on more challenging projects, she told the audience. “Empower others. Know when to lead, when to follow and when to get out of the way,” she added.
This story originally appeared on the Booth School of Business site.