Taking Authenticity Beyond the Buzzword

Christine DeBiase of MetLife on how honesty can and should guide your management style

It might not be a popular thing to say, but, to me, “authentic leadership” is bit of a corporate buzzword. Authenticity itself is the thing we’re after—or, at least, I know that I want to be authentic. And I want my associates to be authentic.

Authenticity involves an awareness of self—an awareness of your strengths, your limitations, and your emotions. It’s an internal strength of character derived from self-awareness and self-acceptance. Those two things shape a kind of honesty with yourself that guides your relationship with the world around you. Authenticity is innate and intimate. Only you know who you are. Letting your self-awareness out into the world is something only you can choose to do, and doing so makes you authentic.

If you live an authentic life, you’re automatically cultivating it in others. There’s no other way. You cultivate it in the workplace by living it and letting others see that you’re living it. Perhaps that’s authentic leadership—not a style of leadership, per se, but acting authentically as a leader to encourage others to do the same as members of a team. When people see you being authentic, they feel safe. They can be open. I try to promote openness in every situation in the workplace. I want everyone to speak his/her mind.

We don’t have to agree. In fact, it’s better if we don’t. I want to facilitate healthy discussion in which it’s okay to have conflict—where there’s no negative consequence, no punishment for conflicting ideas. That’s what creates diversity of thought. There’s an ability to disagree without disrespecting that’s absolutely essential. It fosters really rich dialogue.

We’re going through some changes in the US retail legal unit of MetLife. One of my direct reports isn’t close to retirement but could retire somewhere in the near future, and that person recently said to me, “As long as I’m working for you, I want to work as long as I can. With you, what I see is what I get. I trust in your word, and I can never ask for more than that.” Obviously, we have a very enjoyable working relationship, but that really struck a chord with me.

Authenticity means my team knows what matters to me—and that they matter to me—and that shapes the way we work together.

MetLife recently moved its US retail operation to Charlotte, North Carolina. The key leaders of each partner group, including legal, also moved. You can imagine the apprehension about relocating. It was scary. We weren’t moving everyone, but we were committed to having a meaningful presence in Charlotte. How we were going to achieve that presence required an honest discussion. It was a tense conversation at first, because you’re talking about the possibility of relocating people and jobs. It was very difficult, but it stayed very respectful.

It was, without a doubt, one of the most difficult conversations I’ve had as a leader. But right in the beginning, we said, “We have to make these decisions, but let’s talk about the best way to do that in the most respectful way to all of our positions.” Doing that meant that we needed to hear from everyone, and that meant that everyone felt safe to share what was on their minds. I emphasized how tough it was to talk about. That’s because it was. The outcome of all of it, though, is a healthy, thriving US retail legal division. Within a year and a half we had ten lawyers and four support staff in the Charlotte office. We’re thriving in New York and Boston, too. We have what we set out to have, ultimately, which is three legal hubs of excellence.

My time on soccer and softball fields taught me so many important lessons and skills that inform my approach to business. When you’re a committed member of a team, your motivations are genuine and authentic. You and your teammates share a common desire that fosters respect and acceptance. All of the benefits that come from a team atmosphere—relationships, teamwork, self-confidence—are all essential to success in anything in life. The benefits of playing team sports aren’t about wins and losses—they’re about the approach to the pursuit of wins. When the approach is authentic, it has value in and of itself, regardless of the outcome.

I’ve done a lot of different things within the law department during my career at MetLife. I’ve had these mini career shifts to different areas of practice. I don’t think you see that very often in-house. You either specialize in one area or another. But I’ve been in the litigation area and the regulatory unit. I was the corporate secretary of the company, and now I lead the legal unit for the largest individual US business division. When I moved from litigation to regulatory and then into the corporate secretary’s role, I was taking a big leap. A risk. I didn’t have a corporate law background, per se. Executive leadership in the company thought that I had the skill set and attributes to be an effective, successful corporate secretary. But I didn’t have the corporate law background, which scared me.

The only way for me to be effective was to reveal some vulnerability and rely on corporate law experts and leverage their expertise. I had the utmost confidence that I could learn on the job while relying on my existing experience to guide me, but I had to offer my unique skill set to those associates, and together we could build a winning combination. I could have hidden from the vulnerability, and I would have set myself up for failure. That wouldn’t have been authentic—I wouldn’t have been honest with myself or the people around me. Without that vulnerability, my authenticity would have gone right out the window.

If you don’t take risks, you’ll always be asking “What if?” I don’t want anyone who works for me to be in that situation. I want them to explore, be curious, and ask questions. And if the opportunity arises to take a risk that they love, I tell them to go for it. That’s authentic—and it’s also vulnerable. I don’t want to lose my star players as they chase their own opportunities, but encouraging that freedom is how we attract and cultivate talent at MetLife.