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

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

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Based on her work with hundreds of thousands of women, she developed a pragmatic and powerful roadmap that guides women to become the leaders they aspire to be. Jo shares this proven process in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2019.)

Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at www.JoMiller.com and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

25 Questions to Ask a Mentor

Whenever I’m asked “What are some of the best questions to ask a ...

Four Types of Questions To Ask Your Mentor

Have conversations with your mentor gotten a bit repetitive lately? Perhaps you approached ...

25 Songs For Your Leadership Playlist

What are your all-time favorite leadership songs — the ones that make you ...

How to Shut Down a Colleague Who Takes Credit for Your Work

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting and the unthinkable ...

5 Ways to be a Leader, Not a Manager

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a manager and a leader? ...

11 Leadership Lessons Learned

Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about leadership—mostly from much-admired colleagues, and just ...

100 Leadership Qualities

What are your leadership strengths? That’s a question I ask in a survey ...

10 Killer Leadership Skills: The Great Differentiators?

Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company. ...

Influencing Without Authority—Using Your Six Sources of Influence

I am in the difficult situation of being unofficial project lead, responsible for ...

9 Traits of Exceptional Leaders

Truly great leaders are hard to come by, but it seems everyone thinks ...

Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…
Leaderly Quote: We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses…

We are often so focused on trying to fix our weaknesses that we neglect to

Book Review of Woman of Influence: A Handbook for Building a Professional Brand
Book Review of Woman of Influence: A Handbook for Building a Professional Brand

The first book review of Woman of Influence is in! Here’s what Jo Miller’s hometown

Leaderly Quote: Don’t become indispensable for doing work that hides your potential
Leaderly Quote: Don’t become indispensable for doing work that hides your potential

Don’t become indispensable for doing work that… • hides your potential • sells short your

Unhappy at Work? Persuade Your Boss to Redefine Your Job.
Unhappy at Work? Persuade Your Boss to Redefine Your Job.

Every morning, Jonas backs into a parking spot at work so he can leave faster

If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong.
If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong.

These bonus opportunities have the power to boost your leadership cred and wholly transform your

The Case for Why Millennial Women Should Job-Hop
The Case for Why Millennial Women Should Job-Hop

There are strong arguments for and against the debated practice, but for millennial women, job-hopping

Infographic: How to Slay a Stretch Assignment
Infographic: How to Slay a Stretch Assignment

Recent years have been full of talk about how to elevate women at work. Have you

Panel Presentations: Does Speaker Order Really Matter?
Panel Presentations: Does Speaker Order Really Matter?

On speaker panels, does the panelist order matter? If you’ve ever attended or spoken on

4 Tips for Failing Forward
4 Tips for Failing Forward

After you make a mistake, it’s easy to focus intently on your defects. And then

Press Release: Be Leaderly’s Selena Rezvani Wins 2019 Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism
Press Release: Be Leaderly’s Selena Rezvani Wins 2019 Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—July 9, 2019—The General Federation of Women’s Clubs is pleased to honor Selena

At Be Leaderly, our mission is a simple one: To provide proven career strategies that help you lead, climb, and thrive as a rising woman of influence. If you’re ready to lead, we’re here to support and inspire you.

Copyright 2019, Be Leaderly