Radical Candor: Pink Hair, Piercings, and Professional Services

By Elisa Hebert, Head of Operations and Client Solutions

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series about Radical Candor and authenticity in the workplace. To start at the beginning, check out the first post in the series.

If you look at photos from me at 10, I don’t look all that different from today, down to the haircut. A little more grey, and a little (though let’s be honest, not that much) taller. But then as now, unwilling to conform much to mainstream standards.

During my whole career starting at 7 with apron strings dragging behind me in my parents’ pastry shop, through my years in HIV prevention, and the last 15 years in technical professional services — I’ve been lucky to say that nobody has asked me to change. Then again, I’m well aware of the privilege I bring to the party. I’ve always known which fork to use and that $20 at the tailor can make a world of difference.

Early in my professional services career, I had short, bleached-blonde hair and a facial piercing. I was in a week-long series of planning meetings with a customer, and I noticed that one of the leads on the customer side refused to make eye contact with me. Instead, when I’d ask a question, he would give an answer to one of my colleagues. The next day, I showed up sans facial piercing, and it was as though he had met me for the first time: direct eye contact, a palpable difference to his disposition on my expertise.

I never put the piercing back in.

We all have to be Radically Candid with ourselves when it comes to bringing our full selves to work. Where are the lines, and what are our non-negotiables? In that case, I was willing to sacrifice personally for what was immediately and demonstrably helping me professionally. Do I wish the world was different and I didn’t have to make that choice? Absolutely. But I also have to balance the reality of my context with the reality of my authenticity. And, I recognize, just the fact that I have that flexibility is a privilege in and of itself.

I am tidy and appropriately dressed. I attend customer and industry functions after hours when necessary. But there are lines I refuse to cross. I am unapologetically queer — and I am unwilling to hide that. I am a female who is frequently misgendered — and I won’t change my appearance. I am a parent — and I make sure I am home, most nights, for dinner with my wife and two little girls.

I teach a class for all Kenzanites called Client Solutions 101. We talk about all manner of things related to how we engage with our clients. The net is this: what we want, above all else, is to be known for the work we do. Dress a little better, arrive a little early, be a little more conservative with your language. When you roll in 5 minutes late, with your shirt tail hanging out and dropping an F-bomb, it can be a little bit distracting. Don’t let these things take anyone’s attention away from how brilliant your work is, or how much our customers really like working with us as humans.

AND be yourself. We are not interested in automatons. We want to bring a level of rigor to our customers’ experience with us, but we’re not looking for the human equivalent of Roombas.

The “Lead with Authenticity” podcast, part of the Harvard Business Review Women at Work podcast series, brings up the decisions that people make and the lines they straddle when it comes to authenticity. At one point, there is this exchange between host Nicole Torres and Tina Opie, Assistant Professor of Management at Babson College:

NICOLE TORRES: I just think about when I got my nose pierced and I told my mom, she almost fainted. She flipped out and she’s like you’re never going to get a job with that. And my thinking was well, I don’t want to work anywhere where that’s not OK. Is that a millennial attitude? I know that’s kind of a privileged attitude. I can pick where I’m going to go. But I wonder if that is a different mentality associated with younger generations.

TINA OPIE: I do wonder though, if you were a black woman with dreadlocks and a pierced nose and pink hair, if it would be acceptable. Because it’s sort of, like, maybe we can venture out in one or two ways but don’t come in here totally non-conformist. That’s not going to be accepted.

As a leader, I have the privilege now to pay forward what has always been true for me. I will always push for my organization to welcome your authenticity. I own my relative conservatism in certain spaces (tuck your shirt in when you’re interviewing or meeting with a customer). AND I believe deeply in being Radically Candid with yourself about your own lines (what’s core to who you are and where your growth edges are).

The Venn diagram of what’s true to yourself and what you think the world wants from you is something only you can decipher. But whatever that intersection is, I will absolutely help you defend it. So if you’re a Black woman with a nose ring and pink dreadlocks who can crush some code or help us maximize our operational efficiency — and can make our stakeholders sing your praises while doing it — then we want to meet you. No need to take out your piercing for the interview.

Just tuck in your shirt.

You’ve just finished the fourth in a series on Radical Candor. Read the full series from Elisa below:

Part 1, The Daily Practice of Crit(ique)
Part 2,
Calling Yourself Out
Part 3,
Management Style: Sunny With a Chance of Bananas
Part 5,
Pandemically Candid
Part 6,
Rocket Fuel for Your Teams

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