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21 December 2023

“Be Yourself at Work” – Where Do You Go To Practice?

Written By:

Ginny Baillie

Trusted Leadership Coach and Culture Change Consultant



We moved to Wales 22 years ago where we knew not a single person (we’d camped close by, thought it looked nice and here we are). As a business owner, I duly set off to all the business networking events in Cardiff – and found it hard to make real connections. However, there were a handful of people I did click with, fellow business owners, and I invited them to meet with me.

I told them I wanted to create a group where we would be championed, inspired, and challenged. Where we could show up in a power suit having rocked the deal (and everyone would get what that meant) or in a three-day old tracksuit with mascara running down our face as it had all gone to s**t (everyone also knows how that feels).

They were all in.

The definition of belonging is to be seen, understood, and valued without having to change yourself. We created a sense of belonging between us, a space where we could come and be completely real. We continued to meet for 10 years, and it was a critically important group for all of us.

There’s an idea that says anyone in a corporate role is doing two jobs, the one they were hired to do and the other one of covering up how they really feel. This second job is exhausting and overlooked. Spending time on this takes away from all the resourcefulness and brilliance the person could be putting into the business. Being worried about the politics, the opinions, the hierarchy, self-consciousness, imposter syndrome, it all takes up time away from the real business results needed.

One of the things that really troubled me in my 1:1 coaching contracts was how common all the challenges that the leaders experienced were. Often, they thought they were the only ones. They were reluctant to be truly open with anyone in their business for the danger they would look weak. When I asked them who they talked to like they talked to me the answer was invariably their spouse, or no-one. This leads to an issue because bottled up emotions have a way of leaking out in unhelpful ways like anger, emotion, short tempers, stress.

They didn’t believe me when I said ‘you’re not alone, you’re not the only one’ so I decided to show them. I set up Drum for Leaders – 6 people with the same seniority gathering around a theme. Themes were things like ‘How do I lead when I don’t have all the answers’, or “how can I motivate my team when I’m so demotivated myself’. Also ‘I’ve had a great year; how do I make sure next year is stronger?’.

The theme got the right people into the room, it was not necessarily the content to be discussed. There was a rigor to it, it wasn’t a coffee morning it was a work event. They learnt to hear each other, coach each other, know the truth of what leadership was like for each other and they were amazed to see how similar they were.

We set up the first group inside Discovery Channel in 2017. We were expecting to complete one then review and see what to do next. Before we were halfway through three others sprang up. Leaders want to talk, they want to share, they want challenge, and they want to be better. People asked us ‘how do you get people to open up’? We don’t get them to do anything, we create the conditions, and they dive in.

You usually never hear stories of challenging times until after the event; when things are back to normal and all better and it’s framed as a growth opportunity. In these Drums they were hearing the insecurities, the not-knowingness, and the ambitions in the moment as they were happening. What they powerfully experienced is vulnerability as strength, it’s compelling. It also changed how they worked with their teams; it was obvious that others in the business would be experiencing similar emotions and that was OK.

There are so many reasons to make spaces for leaders to show up as themselves and access their potential like the advent of AI, powerful role modelling, creative solutions, energy for the job and strong mental health. When we’re connected, supported, and challenged by people who know what we’re capable of we can take risks with our leadership, we can step up into the spaces we need to be, we can create equitable seats at the table and our businesses are the stronger for it. We all want to be seen, understood, and valued without having to change ourselves, it’s the basic human condition.

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