Some people have a tendency to compartmentalise their personalities and identity. It’s like we are one person at work and another person elsewhere. Some do this consciously, others unconsciously. I strongly believe this is a big mistake when it comes to leadership. I’m not talking about maintaining privacy and not over-disclosing, that’s just good sense. Identity is something deeper. Let me illustrate.

I learned this lesson many years ago when working with a manager whose development need was in the area of influencing without authority. This was highly relevant for the project she was working on as she had to influence several levels up in her organisational hierarchy. We had experienced a good deal of success but there was still an issue of her lacking some confidence and not being able to assert herself as strongly as she would like.  It was by accident that I picked up on something she dropped in conversation. Imagine my surprise when this woman, whose issue had been a lack of confidence, had competed at fencing to such a level she had been invited to trials to select her country’s team for the Olympics!

This was a revelation to me. Here was someone who was struggling to assert herself confidently but in a different guise, competed at such a high-level  inan incredibly adversarial sport! Where had that part of her character disappeared to?  She had in fact just left it at the door. Just like many others, she had developed a work identity and not integrated this incredibly valuable and powerful component of character within that identity.  I went on to discover that the strip that fencers compete on is called the Piste. When we looked at situations she had to succeed in as if she was a fencer on the piste (with a strong, competitive will to win), her ability to assert herself was transformed.

I now consistently spend time getting to know far more about the backgrounds of my coachees to discover other components to their personalities that might be missing in the workplace. The indoor hockey captain, the baseball player who called the plays for his team, the rower who went on to coach his university squad, the drummer who was the heartbeat of his band, the martial artist, the ballet dancer. The list goes on. It’s very rare that these elements of ‘private’ personality cannot be brought more fully into one’s business life to enable a much more authentic, and robust identity at work.

Being clear on the identity you hold for yourself can be a short path to highly effective change. How do you think of yourself at work? Who are you being?
I look for a noun, not a set of adjectives. Someone who sorts out problems would be a fixer. Someone who gets things done a Do-er. Someone’s right-hand man/woman a Lieutenant etc. These particular identities are limiting as a leader but they’re actually quite common.
Much more useful identities that clients have identified include Conductor, Coach, Captain, Cox and even Sumo!

I find that a useful metaphor for most workplaces is a cruise ship and the difference between the Chief Engineer and the Captain. What is important to both, i.e. what are the values that have their attention and drive their decision making?  For the chief engineer what will be important is looking after the engineering components of the boat, the engines, energy supplies and how that relates to the safety of crew and passengers. He/she is driven to maintain a reliable ship that functions to certain standards and solves problems that get in the way of that smooth running. Their focus is very much internal to the boat.
A captain, on the other hand, is responsible for the safety, well-being and enjoyment of all crew and passengers. They have an external view concerned with the navigation of the ship and will be expecting constant updates on the weather and shipping conditions. In the evening they are also the face of the company, dining with and entertaining passengers.  It’s quite obvious in this example the differences in what is important according to the identity of the role. For the captain, it is important to focus more externally, think more strategically about where the boat is going and has a much larger remit in terms of the well-being of all aboard. For the chief engineer, it is important to have a more internal, expert and tactical focus, with a more limited remit concerning crew and passengers.

Someone moving from a more limited, functional or expert role intoa director position is likely to experience a shift similar to that of a chief engineer taking on the role of captain. They need a change of focus and priorities, leaving behind the comfort of whatever their metaphorical boiler room was, where they were master of their domain, to a role where an external perspective, dealing with setting strategy and direction is critical. The difference is easier to see on a ship. A captain can’t do their job from below deck, they need to be on the bridge. It can be easy to take on the job, but if your identity stays the same you may unconsciously ‘stay below deck’ where it’s safe rather than get on the bridge.

When working with identity I have found that organisational labels, e.g. Strategic Director, just don’t have the desired impact. It’s best to have a single word that relates in some way to you and your passions and interests. It’s important that your work identity has at its core something that is really you.
It’s important to note that taking on a new Identity doesn’t change who you are in and of yourself. What it does do is help you to more quickly achieve a shift in the criteria by which you make choices.

My clients have come up with a lot of ingenious ways of reminding themselves of their new identities. Here are some of them:

  • Changing the password on your computer login. Entering a password is something that many of us do many times a day and is often a great habit-change reminder
  • Having something on your desk.
  • Placing something on your car dashboard.
  • Changing the background image on your smartphone’s screen.
    Post-It notes on the mirror in your bathroom.
  • Placing something in your pocket or on your keyring (I had a client who would put his hand in his pocket when he felt less confident. The item on his key-ring triggered his new identity into action)

What identity are you currently holding for yourself at work? Is this the most useful identity for you to have? What would be a more useful identity for you to hold?

Answering these three questions are fundamental.