Can You Bring Your Authentic Self to Work? Three Senior Women Executives Get Personal

Executive women discuss how they have managed to build a viable executive presence and share work experiences.

Photo by Shutterstock


Photo by Shutterstock

Cynthia Marshall, Lisa Garcia Quiroz and Linda Verba are senior women executives who have built successful careers in corporate America. In a recent panel discussion they explained how your authentic self enhances your executive presence at work.

“Executive presence is what I’d call leadership presence,” said Verba, Executive Vice President of Retail Operations and Service Recognition at TD Bank. “I think it’s about character, I think it’s about leadership, it’s about communication. It is absolutely something we can teach each and every one of our employees, particularly those that are in unrepresented groups.”

Marshall is Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T. She agrees with Verba.

“There is a model for leadership,” said the former Chair of the North Carolina Chamber. She was the first Black person in the position. “And I think it’s around professionalism, it definitely is around character – that’s at the center of our extraordinary leadership model at our company.”

Marshall said AT&T, and most companies now, understand the importance of bringing your authentic self to work. However, you must keep in mind professionalism and company culture.

She shared a story from early in her career when she wore red sandals to the office.

“I remember my first week in the company, I was a 21-year-old,” she explained. “I had a boss who told me, literally, ‘Take off those red hooker shoes, and take your braids out.’ You know what I did? I went home and took my braids out all night. The sisters in the audience know what I’m talking about.”

Marshall grew up in a housing project in Richmond, Calif., and said education propelled her out of poverty. She had to call someone to bring her a pair of shoes because she didn’t have any other shoes, besides the sandals, to wear to work.

She believes the person who gave her those instructions had good intentions and wanted her to fit into the company culture. But times have changed since then.

“First of all, a company would not tell me that now,” said Marshall who has been at AT&T for 33 years. “And secondly, I wouldn’t have responded to it.”

Quiroz is Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Cultural Investments at Time Warner, and President of the Time Warner Foundation. During her career, she conceived Time for Kids and People en Español. She offered that executive presence can vary from company to company.

“A person with executive presence has to have supreme empathy and understanding of the culture which they’re navigating,” said Quiroz. “Owing your power — this is a phrase I’ve been using more and more around the office, especially with some of the women in the office.”

She brings her authentic self to work, though admits that as a Latina there are certain stereotypes she tries to avoid in terms of dress, especially since she and her staff reside on the same floor as the CEO. She strongly encourages them to dress up for work.

“I don’t look the part of someone when you say ‘American CEO,’ even someone in the C-suite,” Quiroz said. “So I am extremely conscious of what I wear and how I look.”

Wearing an outfit with “TD Bank green,” Verba explained that appropriate work attire depends on the situation.

“I am wearing what are sometimes known as power flats because I was walking around New York,” she said. “But I will tell you from an executive presence standpoint,” she said, as she stepped into high heel shoes, “look at how my height has changed. I know when to wear ‘big-girl’ shoes and when not to.”

Quiroz added, “And I’m only 5-feet-tall so I wear my ‘big girl shoes’ probably most of the time.”

The panel discussion was a part of the 2015 DiversityInc Top Companies for Diversity event on April 23 in New York City. ​

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  • Julea Mitchell

    I absolutely relate to their experiences. I have always been conscious of the ‘company culture’, and after 26 years in the energy sector, it remains relatively on track with majority culture expectations. In being my authentic self in corporate america, it is always heavily balanced with expectations of corporate america. I would love to embrace a ‘natural hair style’, but for acceptability purposes, I continue to relax my hair.

    A recent work incident occured where a more senior hispanic female told an african-american intern that she needed to remove her ‘street hair’ (read braids), and look more corporate. Fortunately the conversation reached the right ears and the senior female was coached on the impropriety of her statement.

    It is 2015, but I believe that until the C suite is representative of america, the corporate culture will remain relatively unchanged.

  • I find the characterization of heals as “big girl” shoes disturbing. High heels affect women’s posture and gait and cause foot damage over time. While a woman may choose to wear them, the impression given in the article is that despite their drawbacks, one must wear high heels to be successful.

    Also, the introduction to this article says the panel discussion was about how women’s being authentic in the workplace enhances their executive presence, but then launches into a discussion of “big girl” shoes. So wearing the right shoes is bringing your authentic self to the workplace? Really?

      • S. Remisiewicz

        I’m disappointed by your dismissive response. This article is filled with mixed messages and I had to read it several times to find the key takeaway for women. I found it in these two sentences:

        “Marshall said AT&T, and most companies now, understand the importance of bringing your authentic self to work. However, you must keep in mind professionalism and company culture.”

        The corporate ‘uniform’ for success for men is pretty clear cut and has not changed in decades. The ‘uniform’ for women is not so easy to define and women have to make choices between being authentic and adhering to unwritten standards that shift as often as fashion designers change their clothing lines.

        • It wasn’t meant to be dismissive, but I can see how it can be received that way, I apologize. What I meant to say was the message sounded a lot better at the event.

        • I agree with you S. Remisiewicz and J. Mitchell. I read this article and I was actually insulted because it is titled “Can you Bring Your Authentic Self to Work?”, but without a discussion about bringing your authentic self. I assumed that a panel discussion with 3 women would be transcribed in more detail to discuss something with more meat.
          I also read this article as soon as it hit my in box a week or 2 ago, but I took time to really sit and marinate on this issue before posting.

          When I see that for a woman to bring her authentic self means a discussion of attire it just reinforces the old stereotypes that we as women are reduced to what we look like. I figured that maybe there was more to it at the panel, but I’m surprised at the lack of detail of that discussion to support the article’s title.
          I was also really irritated (like you) that the article mentions that high heels are “big girl” shoes. High heels became popular for women because they are meant to enhance our appearance in a sexual way (“including: greater pelvic rotation, increased vertical motion at the hip, shorter strides and higher number of steps per minute”). This is counter-intuitive to the strides we are trying to make to stop being sexualized.

          This newsletter and it’s articles are almost always on point. This is the first time I have something critical to say so I hope that you take it seriously from all of us.

  • Any minority person knows (or knew back when) to avoid stereotypical dress and speech in the workplace. Often the only minority female in white-male dominated offices (I rarely saw any black males, recalling only one of high rank), I knew to dress and speak conservatively. It wasn’t difficult because that is my authentic self.

  • notreallythatsurprised

    As a young AA entering the work force around 2005, I knew that I needed to be professional at all times and to not be “my true self.” Its unfortunate, but I can attest to feeling the pressures of not being too this or that. I also feel the pressures of not being too threatening as a confident women of color. I have sat in on high level executive meetings and the first thing they (executives) do is look at the minority in the room (scan my hair, my facial expressions, my dress code, how i speak, and of course they want to KNOW my title). I have also experienced the opposite in high level executive meetings when they (high power executives) don’t pay any attention at all to my presence in the room. It all depends. Though I feel that it is very important to “fit” into the corporate image. That means not wearing “bright colored red shoes” to a meeting or wearing something attention grabbing around the office. I also feel like as an employee I have to constantly weigh by behaviors and responses to staff to ensure that they don’t fall into the stereotypes that are projected on me simply because I am an AA woman. Truthfully, I also feel like there is always this wait and see period from another race… see if I am just like any other or every other AA woman they saw on tv or think they know.

  • I love the idea of bringing your “authentic self” to work. I think everyone feels that they have to hide their true selves at work, no matter who they are. By working hard to provide a safe space for people of diverse identities to authentically express those identities in the workplace, we free up space for everyone to have a more authentic experience at work. This should be a win for everyone.

  • I believe authenticity is more than attire. some of the best leading women executives I’ve had the pleasure of working with was professional inside and out. They may not have worn the tailored suit and the highest of heels however the were true to themselves and inspiring. Having an executive presence is more than a suit in heels, it is carrying yourself with dignity, uncompromising your standards, knowing who you are and not apologizing for doing the right thing. They don’t allow themselves to be pressured into being something they’re not. Inspiring others to be all they can be and not ridiculing those which don’t fit the click.

  • I was not offended by “the big girl shoes” comment. The author was being playful. She was being herself. If the article is in fact a transcription of a conversarional (non-scripted) speech, then there will naturally be some repetition and slight rambling. Some people are better communicators in written form, and brief better using notes. As to heels sexualizing women and being anti-progressive, I get that. However, some people, like me, enjoy looking nice. Flats are great when traveling. I think higher end heels designed for comfort look the best. You can look at them and see they are comfortable, but also that they are attractive and complementing. In otherwards, they are functionable, appropriate, in good taste. Many men fret over watches, ties, and shoes too. I uses to sell shoes and fine Jewelry in high school, so this I know. I was not particularly moved by the article, because I already know the power of being your authentic self and balancing that with corporate expectations. If you are well read and academic in nature, then your authentic self will narurally be corporate and classy, so I supose there is an advantage there as the commentor Meh pointed out. Finally… and this is what I have been luding to; every complaint about this article thus far is petty. If an article is not your taste, why take the time to say so, and point out moot things. Would you respond to my comment to tell me it is more a stream of consciousness than a comment? You might be right, but again, what is the point of doing that? Unless their is a critical message to discuss (and the high-heels comment is not critical in my opinion), then why criticize at all? This is just a simple, light-hearted but heartfelt message.

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