By now, of course, we all understand the virtues of authenticity, including how it benefits us at work and as leaders. What’s not so clear though is how to attain and put into practice the type of authenticity that embraces all of who we are, both the positive and the more challenging, the wins and the failures.
The type of authenticity that allows us to remove all of the stories we have about ourselves and the facades that we put up for everyone else to see. In her new book, Naked at Work, Danessa Knaupp, a former CEO and current executive coach leadership expert and keynote speaker, explains not only why, but how.
Nikki Van Noy: Today, I’m joined by Danessa Knaupp, author of the new book, Naked at Work: A Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity. Danessa, thank you so much for joining us today.
Danessa Knaupp: Thanks for having me Nikki, I’m delighted to be here.
Nikki Van Noy: Danessa, let’s start by talking a little bit about your background–you actually have experience as a CEO yourself and I would love to talk to listeners about that.
Danessa Knaupp: Sure, I spent 20 years in the corporate leadership ranks. Sometimes working for companies that were large, tens of thousands, up to 50,000 people as a senior vice president, sometimes working for smaller companies and functioning as a senior leader there or ultimately as a CEO.
I started straight out of school, I was a psych major looking for a job that didn’t involve grad school and I jumped into an operations role at a quickly growing company. That opportunity really allowed me a chance to grow and learn. But I noticed, over the years, even as I amassed promotions and raises and new responsibilities, I was really distracted by how I thought a leader should be, who I thought should be around that table and how I did or didn’t fit that mold.
For example, I would think about how I didn’t go to grad school, I don’t have an MBA, maybe I shouldn’t think about that when I hear this problem, maybe I should let somebody else answer? I found it to be a pretty distracting experience for me.
I built a really big and successful career but even in doing that, I noticed that sometimes my own story about myself would get in my way.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m curious when you look back on that experience, do you feel like it impacted how you actually were as a leader or more your experience of being a leader?
Danessa Knaupp: I think probably both. I think first in how I actually was, I think I was less bold and brave than I am today. I think it took me longer to do the right thing when it wasn’t obvious–when there was conflict or concern about it. It took me longer to raise my voice and my experience as a leader, I think I spent more time than I needed to think about what I should do, what it should look like versus really just trusting that I was perfectly prepared to lead us, which I was. And getting down to business.
Nikki Van Noy: Did you personally have a moment or some sort of event where there was that shift for you or was it something that just sort of happened over time as you got more experience under your belt being a leader?
Danessa Knaupp: Well, Nikki, I think I was like you, I had lots of moments. I wish that I could say hey, I had this kind of neat learning experience and then I just changed myself for the better. I had a lot of different experiences that kind of led me to this space.
One of my favorite quotes by Oprah Winfrey is that the universe whispers and then the voice becomes louder when you don’t answer. There were times when the universe sort of tossed the ball right up against my face there.
Nikki Van Noy: That phenomenon, yes.
Danessa Knaupp: Exactly. I noticed it and the weight that I felt from it varied throughout my career. Certainly, as I became more experienced as a leader, as I rose up through the ranks, as I became more confident in my abilities, I noticed it less but even as I shifted into executive coaching, the moment that led to the book was a moment where that gremlin, that I thought I’d conquered about, “Hey, I’m different or I got here on a different way,” popped right back up for me. That’s when I thought, you know, this is time to really talk about this more openly.
Nikki Van Noy: Interesting. Can I ask what made that gremlin pop up for you?
Danessa Knaupp: You sure can. Readers will know it because it’s the very opening of the book. I have a peer who I care deeply about and we get on the phone about once a month and kind of wrestle through what are we facing, what are we thinking about.
Without a full broad company of CEOs doing the same thing in my town which would never happen, CEO is a lonely job and so I seek out peers and he’s one of them. We were talking about opportunities to think differently about business and he said, “You know, I think you should teach a class on confident, grounded leadership.”
I thought, “Dude, we have to stop talking because you’ve lost your mind.” I know I am a grounded leader, I know I am a good leader but it was the confident/grounded that got to me. I thought, “You know what? I have so many questions about what I’m doing and how I’m thinking, and should I be thinking about it in a different way each time? I don’t show up as confident to myself in my head,” and so I said to him, “You know, what are you talking about? I could list my failures for you,” and we’d spend the next hour on the phone and he said, “Yeah, I think you allow that to influence you.”
He said, “Let me list for you what I’ve seen,” and he was really complimentary about how I’ve built three businesses, I’ve built three, entirely different, well over six-figure careers.
That is what he saw when he looked at me. I thought you know, that is just as true a story as what I see. I should think about what would happen if I believed that story? The book is the result of that.
Nikki Van Noy: How did that shift things for you?
Danessa Knaupp: Well, for me, it was a little bit humbling because I’ve had that conversation before playing his role in it. I’ve done that, I’ve shown somebody how they show up in a way that’s different than what they think. For me, the way that it unfolded was, it became the last time that I was going to wrestle in any active way with those gremlins.
In doing so, I was going to do it in a way that I could bring it forward for other people, that I could tell you how to do it and what happens when they start whispering again and how to think about showing up as that best version of yourself. I used it as the ultimate case study.
The book is put together Nikki–I know you know this but for your listeners who might not have read it yet–the book is put together both as leadership theory. What does it mean to be an authentic leader and what’s the case for authentic leadership, are they really better at things? Spoiler alert, they are.
Then it’s a second layer of anonymized examples of senior leaders in huge organizations that have trusted me with their personal journeys. It’s leaders and companies you know that are showing up for you in a different way.
Then the third thread through the story is what my own experience was, doing this work. It’s written in a way that the reader can really walk alongside all of those threads and have their own experience and make it the last time that they wrestle with their gremlins.
Nikki Van Noy: I mean, sign me up, what amazing promise. This obviously applies to leadership and that’s what you’re talking about in this book, but this seems to me like something that just, in general, can impact the entire scope of your life, if you’re able to change that story about yourself.
Danessa Knaupp: Yeah, let me be clear. We’re talking about the last time you actively wrestled with them, they are still on the bus, right? But you are going to notice that old story distracts your attention but the process I put out there for leaders and readers is about, how do you not let them drive the bus?
How do you not be hooked by that anymore? How do you really believe what is authentically true for you today, not the story you wrote a long time ago. That can be really transformative. It feels much lighter to be that way, frankly Nikki.
Nikki Van Noy: I can only imagine. I still have several passengers on my bus some of whom, I would prefer to be in the back, so I get that. I want to talk about some of those tips because I think that’s very intriguing but before I do that, in this book, you distinguish between authenticity and being naked. Can you talk to me about how you see the difference between those two things or how they interplay together?
Danessa Knaupp: Yes, throughout most of the book, I talk about being naked as being authentic, but I have a really specific definition of authenticity. When I think about leadership authenticity Nikki, it isn’t, “Hey, I am who I am, take me or leave me.” That’s sort of the Elon Musk version of authenticity that cost him and Tesla more money than Twitter has ever made for a single tweet.
You can’t just be who you are and expect people to accept it. When I think about authenticity for leaders and when I talk about being naked at work, I mean, bringing forward the full richness of your experience.
Every time you got smacked in the face by the ball, every time, as Brené Brown says, you are face down in the arena. And bringing what you got from that forward in service to your team and organization.
Thinking about, “What do I know, what have I experienced and how has that shaped me, how do I give that to this task, give that to these people, give that to this team and how might it help them perform more effectively?”
Failure is Feedback
Nikki Van Noy: I love that. What I’m hearing here and correct me if I’m wrong, I think that there can be this tendency for us to either self-flagellate over some of our failures in the past or things that we perceive as weaknesses. But the truth of the matter is that most of us are probably learning just as much, if not more from those things than our successes.
It’s a matter of allowing ourselves to bring those to the table as well so that we’re presenting this more holistic and ultimately more beneficial version of ourselves in business, is that accurate?
Danessa Knaupp: Absolutely. Think about it, I know you probably have a lot of runners listening to this and for those of you walking, pretending you’re running, I’m with you. But you think about racing and if you run and train for a race and you watch your diet and you think about what you’re going to do–this is said by the way by a total non-runner, so runners rolling their eyes, you are welcome to do that. It’s a high-level metaphor.
If you think about that and you win, you never have a real understanding of what worked or didn’t work. If though, you run and you lose, you’re going to tweak something, you didn’t get what you wanted. You’ll start something else. You’ll maybe train harder or differently or eat differently or put on a layer of clothing or take off a layer of clothing. That will get you a different result.
Failure, when engineers think about it, failure is just feedback, it’s just information. We wrap it all up in this great blanket of shame in our culture. When we fail, it means we tried, great, let’s try again, you’ll know more next time.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, that’s such a façade too because everybody fails obviously but that point does not necessarily seem so obvious when you’re in the heat of the moment and just ruminating over that.
Danessa Knaupp: Yeah, I mean, this is the big piece of this. I have vetted this process with hundreds of clients over the course of my career as an executive coach. They all think somehow that I mean that failure is awesome, right? Let me be crystal clear. Failure sucks, Nikki.
Failure feels awful, it’s sometimes humiliating, it’s really disappointing, and it’s incredibly rich. Those two things can be true. I’m not some crazy Pollyanna saying, “Yay, you fell down, time to get up,” right? That really sucks when that happens. And it happens to everyone and you are more informed when you stand.
Nikki Van Noy: Right, okay. I would love to tether this down since you have had the benefit of working with so many powerful leaders. Just talk to me about how you’ve seen people transform in their leadership as they’ve walked through these steps and practices that you’re discussing in the book.
Danessa Knaupp: Sure, I have a lot of examples and they come through at all different stages of this process. Ultimately, this is a several step process, all simple. One of them, that comes to mind is about a really terrific, charismatic leader in Manhattan. He is a private equity banker, he’s a legit Olympian so, you know, not in a metaphorical Olympian. He has a medal.
He was up for a promotion and he didn’t get it. He was shocked and the reason he didn’t get it is he wasn’t playing nicely with other people. He wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t engendering followership, people weren’t compelled to listen to him, he didn’t have a deep and powerful influence, he wasn’t demonstrating his emotional intelligence and for him, what we got to is, he was responding to a dynamic that had been in place for him since he was about six years old.
He is the baby brother. He is the baby brother of three boys who are all impossibly more accomplished than he is. He’s always been running to catch up. He’s never had to work with people. You’ve always been evaluated on what you deliver in his experience.
Once he understood that, once he understood that his promotion wasn’t about winning when we could articulate that and kind of look at it–I call it holding it out in front of you and just kind of turning it around like what does that mean, how has that story showed up for me that I’m always competing?
How is this now getting in my way? This competing means I’m not partnering with people. I’m not bringing other people along. How do I let go of that? He was able to achieve just a really impressive change in a really short amount of time. He secured that promotion in less than six months.
For him, his name is Simon, when he talks about it today, he says, “You know, I just needed to understand that I was different and that the game was different.” I think so often, we just don’t think about that Nikki. We play the way we’ve always played–we do the things we’ve always done sometimes without thinking.
So, holding them out in front of us and thinking, “Is this the right strategy here? What if I believed something else about myself? What would I do then?” It can get us to a really different place.
Nikki Van Noy: What’s also interesting to me about that story and I think it’s true for a lot of us but difficult to parse out in yourself often is that even though the work culture is generally shifting, it can still be easy to make this sort of separation between who you are at work and who you are more holistically. So, what is fascinating to me about that story is how his childhood and this sort of very personal characteristic was impacting everything. It wasn’t actually a business thing at all.
Danessa Knaupp: Right, it almost never is, Nikki, and so what I would say to people is we have this vestige of what is and isn’t okay at work and there are rules in there that are appropriate, that keep us focused on the task at hand. But what we know is that leaders who bring forward who they actually are in appropriate ways are actually far more effective.
The example that I walk through in the book–one of the examples, there are lots of them–is Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. Let me be clear, Sundar is not a client of mine but his story is very public and that is that he has always been a huge proponent of how technology can transform communities. He talks about it all the time and he’s visionary about it and he bases that experience on the idea of his own understanding of when that happened to him and his community. Sundar is my contemporary. He’s in his mid-40s and when his family got a refrigerator, he was 12 years old.
And he remembers what it was like to not have to be at the market every day. He remembers how that changed his life and he uses that experience as fuel. There are lots of leaders who come from humble beginnings who feel they need to conceal that when ultimately understanding how that has impacted them, understanding how that impacts the lens through which they view the world could help them connect really powerfully with people.
Nikki Van Noy: What a great example. So there is so much in this book and we don’t have time to go to all of it in depth but what I would love to do is give listeners an idea of these steps that you were walking them through to help them get to this point of being naked at work.
Danessa Knaupp: Sure, so they are really simple and like lots of simple things, they aren’t necessarily easy. So, I do my best to give lots of examples and lots of ways to practice or exercises so that it can be really easy to go through them.
Essentially first we need to understand who we actually are, not the story we tell ourselves or how we think we should be, but who we actually are and in doing so, we need to let go of the idea that there’s one mold that we have to fit into.
So, you let go of that, you understand who you actually are, then you want to think about what have you actually achieved, what are you good at, how do you think about those things? I give readers lots of ways to do that. When they do that and we start to think about that inevitably what comes up for us is things we’re not so good at or old stories that don’t feel great or times where, and this is a real example detailed in the book, we forgot the words to songs in front of more than a thousand people.
You know, things like that may have hypothetically happened to people on this podcast Nikki. So, as we think about that, I teach readers how to reframe those, how to look at those differently, how to let go of the story you’re telling yourself about it because it is just a story and start to believe something else.
Because this isn’t a self-help book. This isn’t about centering people’s chi and making them feel better. That’s awesome, but this is about creating really great leaders. So, we talk about how you take that to work, how you then tap into that reservoir of energy and information, how you do that in the right way because we’ve all had some experiences at work that we can say, “Wow that was super authentic and also really wrong.” So, let’s be clear, authenticity isn’t about being no holds barred.
This about thinking about how you bring this forward in service to your team and in service to other people and then how you create environments where whole teams feel safe to do that?
That’s Amy Edmondson’s–out of Harvard–that’s her concept of psychological safety and if you think about it, if your listeners really think about a time where they felt totally safe at work, they can then understand how performance soars because when you feel really safe, when you’ve had a boss who will back you, who understands, where you feel aligned and you trust them, you probably did the best work of your life. It is entirely within leaders’ power to create those environments for people and Naked at Work tells them how to do that.
Nikki Van Noy: You mentioned as we started talking about the content in this book that a lot of this is simple but not easy. With that in mind, I am wondering if in your experience with coaching and working with people is there any part of this that you’ve seen people especially struggle with or have blocks against?
Danessa Knaupp: Yeah, I think the hardest is this concept of truth and let me be really clear. We live in an environment where what we believe is true or not is all twisted in a topic of conversation. So this is not about choosing your own facts, this is not about denying science or data but what it is about is for us, when we examine what we believe to be true, we actually don’t have as much data as we think when it comes to thinking about ourselves. So, I will give you a brief example Nikki if that is helpful.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, absolutely.
Danessa Knaupp: I am five-ten. My entire life I have been tall and people have taken one look at me and thought, “Please come play on my basketball or volleyball team.” I am very uncoordinated. You don’t actually want me on your team and so for years, I avoided any kind of competitive sports environment. I used to say, “I don’t speak sports.” I wouldn’t even go watch sports, I hated kickball in elementary school. I fell flat on my face trying a new sport in front of everybody who knew me.
Any gift I ever got that was sports-related got returned. I would say I am not sporty and so what I noticed is that story both served and limited me, right? It got me out of stuff I didn’t want to do. I didn’t have to go to the gym because I wasn’t really a jock, but it also limited me. I missed out on building relationships with people in that way and I had this identity as, “Hey that is something I can’t do,” and so I really sat down and started to examine, what is it that fuels this story of, “I am not athletic?”
There were three key pieces to that. The first was that when I was young, I took a matching test where you have to match a soccer cleat to a soccer ball and the baseball bat to the baseball just drawing lines simply in between them and I failed it miserably. My parents got called in and they thought that I had a learning disability. That’s the first one. The second one is that when I was in the fifth grade, I was playing kickball and I was out on a base and I just kind of zoned out.
And before I knew it, someone was running towards me, they lapped me, we lost the whole game because I was out and I didn’t even know what happened and people were upset with me. I remember that.
Then the third is I used to get teased when I tried out for track because I would call it rehearsal and apparently it is actually practice.
Nikki Van Noy: I mean the same thing, right?
Danessa Knaupp: Right, seriously. However, so it’s cemented, right? I am not athletic so let me give you some additional data. So that test that I failed was taken less than two weeks after I returned to the United States and up until that moment, I had been living overseas. I had never seen any of those items. At the same time that I was getting lapped in the kickball field, the exact same age I was a really terrific, really fast swimmer.
And when I realized these things, when I realized that I was selectively choosing data that fit my story and I started to select other data, really notice what I could do, I redefined myself. That same year I ran a half marathon, the one and only time I’ve ever run. I actually don’t like to run but I did so to give myself additional data. None of that stuff is untrue but the block that people experience is thinking, “Well, I am not going to believe something that is untrue.”
Those things really happened. What I would say to you, our listeners, is yeah and a bunch of other stuff happened too and so what if you looked at all of it? What if you looked at it through your adult eyes today instead of your six-year-old eyes or your 10-year-old eyes or your 14-year-old eyes, what would the story be then? And so, the biggest obstacle I get is I am not going to believe something that is untrue. I am not going to fluff myself up about it. I am not asking you to do that. I am simply asking you what other data might be available.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s so powerful to me in that example and this also applies to the earlier example you gave that by doing this, we’re able to look at these stories that are so foundational differently. That is really incredible to me.
Danessa Knaupp: And when you understand, “No I’m not somehow unable, I’ve simple chosen not to for some time.” Wow, that is really empowering.
Rewriting Your Story
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, absolutely. I want to just go back to that one marathon that you ran. Did that shift things for you in any way outside of just rewriting the story of your identity?
Danessa Knaupp: It really did and to be clear because facts are important it was a half marathon.
Nikki Van Noy: A half marathon, especially the context of this conversation absolutely, thank you.
Danessa Knaupp: It was so important. I actually cracked the exterior, I believe it is the tibia, the supporting bone in my calf and finished that marathon. I cracked it at mile seven and finished that half marathon and that was a tipping point for an enormous season of change for me. I didn’t know it at the time but when I crossed that half marathon finish line, within six months I left a relationship that no longer served me and hadn’t served me for some time.
I made a plan to go back to school. In the next year I had left my corporate job and walked away to establish a job that I thought and now understand I was going to love. That one moment really cemented my courage.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow that is absolutely incredible. If that is not a testament to this, I don’t know what is.
Danessa Knaupp: I never thought it would be even when it was happening. You know these big things happen in our lives and the movies would tell us that we should notice by the soundtrack playing behind us that this is the triumphant moment, right? Except that doesn’t happen in your real life. I left that half marathon and went home and nursed my leg and changed the baby’s diaper and returned to my emails.
It is only in retrospect that I can see how that subtle shift in my identity made room for lots more. Glennon Doyle is a favorite author of mine and she has a book out now, Untamed, where she’s talking about what happens when you forget what you’ve been taught. Elizabeth Gilbert is another author who says, “Sometimes you just know not this,” and for me, that half marathon was about listening to myself and saying, “I can choose. I can choose to write this in a different way.”
People asked me why I finished. At the moment I didn’t know why I finished, and I think now looking back, that was 2012, it’s been years, but I understand I had to finish that. I needed that data point.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s amazing how all of that unfolds over time and sort of takes its appropriate place in our lives, but hearing you say this it occurs to me that the greatest invention that could possibly be created is a soundtrack for our lives so we know where everything fits into place.
Danessa Knaupp: I mean so helpful with scary moments, right? You can just be like, “Is the music bad? I should probably not be going there.”
Nikki Van Noy: Exactly, time to move.
Danessa Knaupp: Exactly. Are things creaking and am I suddenly alone? Time to move away.
Nikki Van Noy: Precisely, so obviously you know this very well at this point Danessa, but writing a book is a major endeavor in terms of all kinds of resources, time, energy, and emotion so what was it for you that makes getting this message across was so important and worthy of all of those resources?
Danessa Knaupp: I think for me, it was because this was something I would have really benefited from. If I could have found this path, these steps, I would have made it my own. This is not a prescriptive do it this way and ta-da, but it would have saved me lots of time and lots of heartache and lots of feeling like I was wandering around in the desert.
So, as I wrote it, it was almost a love letter to both my younger self and it was a love letter to my children about, “Hey, when things go so far left you think you can’t fix it and you’re stuck in your head, there is a way out.” And a love letter to people who may not yet be in coaching or who may not have access to coaching who are stuck in a story that doesn’t serve them, and who are better than they are showing up right now and they know they’re better and they just can’t quite unlock it. It’s there.
This book tells you it’s there. You can be the leader that you think you might be and it’s not that hard. One of the best things about this is that I get to live with people on this journey every day in our business, Avenue 8 Advisors. We do leadership development and executive coaching and it is really our privilege for me and our team of coaches that I work with to walk with people on this journey.
Not only can you read about it, but if you read about it, if you want more help if you would rather have this one-on-one that’s something we can help with. I am just so grateful to be in a place to really accompany so many people on their own journey of discovering how awesome they really can be as leaders in their organizations. You can find more at avenue8advisors.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Beautiful. Again, the book is, Naked at Work: A Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity. Danessa, thank you so much for joining us today. Outside of the book, where else can listeners find you?
Danessa Knaupp: Sure, well first, thanks for having me. It’s been just an absolute pleasure. They can find me at danessaknaupp.com and you’ll have my last name spelling in the notes, but it is Knaupp. They can find me speaking at conferences. They can check the schedule and I am often out speaking about this and this book is about authenticity. It includes my personal email address. They can just email me.
Nikki Van Noy: Love it. Perfect, thank you again Danessa so much for joining us today. Congratulations on the book and enjoy being an author.
Danessa Knaupp: Well Nikki thank you so much for having me. It’s just been my pleasure. It’s such fun to talk to you and I really appreciate you making the time for me to talk to your listeners about Naked at Work.