Authentic Leadership & Lifelong Learning-Webinar Recap

February 13, 2024


DHR Global’s Leadership Consulting team had the privilege of hosting a webinar with guest speaker Jim Fielding, author of “All Pride, No Ego,” on the topic of Authentic Leadership.

Jim is an experienced and respected retail and media industry veteran, with his expertise consisting of storytelling, product innovation, merchandising, and consumer experiences. He currently serves as a partner at Archer Gray and has served as president of Disney Stores worldwide for four years, where he first came across DHR. He also served as CEO of Claire’s stores. Jim is an active community leader, a philanthropist, and an author.

Leadership Consulting Partner, Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, PhD., led a “fireside” chat with Jim where he gave us insight into what being an authentic leader is all about.

Key Takeaways:

  • Building cultures and high-performing teams revolves around creating work environments where people feel safe, respected, and empowered to be themselves.
  • Authentic leadership comes out of the EQ movement.
  • Authentic leadership is a learned skill.
  • Self-awareness and EQ play an important role in guiding authentic leaders.

Tell us about your journey into authentic leadership.

“I didn’t really know that my leadership style had a name – I think that it was just this leadership style that I built up over time. As I got further in my career and in different positions of responsibility, I realized that building cultures and high-performing teams for me revolved around creating work environments where people felt safe, respected, and empowered to be themselves, to be innovative, and to take risks. There was a big movement at the time in servant leadership, and I used to think, ‘I’m a servant leader.’ As I matured and got more experience, I was like, ‘No. What I’m about is authentic leadership.’ I believed that if I lived and led authentically myself, that we could create a culture where other people felt comfortable doing the same.”

Can you explain what authentic leadership is, and why it is beneficial to understand the impact it might have on hiring and retention?

“There are so many terms for leadership traits and characteristics about what you need to be in the C-suite and what you need to be successful. I think authentic leadership comes out a lot of the Emotional Quotient (EQ) movement. To be a successful leader you obviously have to have industry experience and knowledge. But increasingly as the world, marketplace, and workforce get more complex and challenging, all of those things taken together, it’s incumbent that leaders create these safe and secure environments for people to be themselves. I felt that if people felt safe and secure they would bring their best to work every day, and that would help drive performance and an economic payoff.”

“First and foremost, for your engagements, you have to go with what your clients are looking for, but if they’re asking you for your advice and your amazing experience that DHR has, I really hope that in the world of searches, we are looking for people who combine this IQ and this EQ. For me, I think how you achieve the results is as important as achieving the results. I don’t think I’m that unique in that because I’ve met a lot of other people like that. I hope, increasingly, people are asking for what is probably called the softer skills rather than the hard skills. I think leaders today and in the future need to be extremely balanced in their soft and hard skills and embrace everything that comes with that. Our job as leaders – whatever your role or function is – you need to attract, retain, and develop the best and the brightest in order to be successful.”

How should executive search consultants apply this idea of authentic leadership to the placement of leaders?

Can authentic leadership be learned and developed as a skill and as a mindset?

“I definitely think it’s a learned skill. I will say upfront that there are some people that have a higher EQ, but I have so many examples now looking back on my now almost 40-year career, and I give Disney credit. I was president of Disney Store, and at that time, they really invested in executive development and we had a culture survey, measurable tools, and 360 feedback of how your team was feeling. What I loved about Disney was they saw something in me and I had been deemed a high potential when I first got there. They were investing in me to make me a better leader. I definitely think it’s teachable and trainable but companies have to have a long-term vision for this. It’s not a light switch – I don’t think you just flip the switch to authentic leadership. It’s an investment.”

What is the role of self-awareness and emotional intelligence in authentic leaders?

“It’s huge. I mean I think you have to go on this journey of self-discovery and self-awareness, because discovery is like researching yourself. It’s almost like what really makes you tick, what are you good at, what could you use more time on? Only then I think you achieve this kind of self-awareness, owning your strengths, your developmental opportunities, and your blind spots, which we all have. After self-awareness, you get to the self-acceptance of, ‘This is who I am, this is how I’m going to lead, this is how I’m going to manage, this is who I am.’ I think the level even beyond that is complete unconditional self-love, and in a way saying, ‘Not only do I accept everything about myself, but I’m also aware of it, and I’m always going to continue to work and grow, I’m actually exactly the type of person I’m supposed to be in an exactly where I’m supposed to be.’ You make mistakes and I talk so much in my book about how many mistakes I made. You learn from those mistakes. I don’t think you can go in as a leader and say, ‘I’m trying to create this environment where I want all of you to embrace your stories,’ if you’re not doing that yourself. I think it’s the epitome of walk the walk and talk the talk.”

“I don’t want to use a cliche term but, it’s active listening and then active action. I think the return-to-work questions are what are the rules of this post-COVID, are we going to be in the office two days a week, three days a week? I think that has pushed so many companies. Everybody’s grappling with this. I think it’s a big retention issue, particularly with the younger generations who in many cases got hired by these companies during the pandemic and have never worked in an office. All of a sudden they get an e-mail saying, ‘You have to be in the office four days a week.’ That doesn’t go so well usually.”

How can authentic leaders drive engagement and retention with their employees?

Can you give some examples of how an authentic leader shows up and imparts learning to their team?

“To me I think it’s challenging digitally and physically with remote workforces and working from home. A lot of what I’m going to talk about will be more driven off the physical interaction of being physically in the same proximity. It’s about one-on-one meetings, the small group meetings, and it’s about larger group meetings. So much of it is about active listening and active sharing, again not oversharing, but sharing and talking about influences that are happening in the marketplace or competition. A lot of times when I would go out and do these meetings, people would ask what’s keeping me up at night, what am I worried about? I have a very practical tool that I share in my book, it was called Java with Jim, and we would randomly pick 10 or 15 names out of a hat so that it was not about title or tenure or anything. Those 15 people would get invited to a coffee and donut breakfast where it was 100% safe – I  wasn’t taking notes and I wasn’t reporting back. I did it monthly which meant we got through everybody in a year. I developed the reputation and the credibility that they could come in and share positives, negatives, questions, what were they worried about, what were they happiest about, and what were they most proud of. It became an incredible tool and it was huge because, many times, the higher you get in the organization you don’t spend a lot of time with the assistants or the entry-level people. I also met every person on the team where I could, sometimes it was virtual, before they started. I wasn’t interviewing but I would meet the final candidate to have that connection.”

When it comes to working virtually, how can authentic leaders foster sharing and self-awareness?

“It’s still about storytelling, it’s still about sharing, it’s still about vulnerability. The one thing I would say is, as a leader, even if you’re dealing with a mostly remote team, there are still those opportunities. I think universally human beings crave connection. I don’t care even if you say you deal with a team of introverts and all they want to do is look down all day. I would challenge that because I liken it to the same thing when they said streaming DVDs was going to be the death of movie theaters. I went to the movies on a holiday, and they were packed because we liked the human experience of actually being in a theater with big sound. And, it’s not just the sound or the image on the screen, it’s being in community. It’s that collective gasp during a horror film, a collective cry during a romcom, or the collective joy during a musical. All you had to do was go to the movies to see what being in community was. People were in costume, I mean they were dressed up and singing along and dancing in the aisles. That does not happen on Zoom calls, right? That does not happen on Teams. But I think even if your team is 100% remote there are still opportunities to pull them together and my bias opinion: people want that connection.”

“I think it’s difficult in your personal life to sometimes ask for help or admit frailties or admit fear. I think it’s hard to develop that trust sometimes even with your family or your friend group, let alone in a corporate environment. It’s important to have boundaries, I mean it’s still a corporate environment and even though I want people to respect me and trust me and see me as a fully formed human being, it doesn’t mean I overshare. I think part of my authentic leadership philosophy is: ‘Two heads are better than one,’ and so I would often go into group meetings and say, ‘If you guys are waiting for me to come up with the answer to this problem and send out an email from my office, you’re going to be waiting a long time.’ I want to hear from them how they think we need to address this issue, and of course, I will make the final decision if we can’t come to an agreement. That’s my job. But before I make that decision, I want to gather data and input from those who are actually working on the project. I think that’s a vulnerability too, to admit you don’t have all the answers.”

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