The value of being authentic in your professional life

Vic Hancock Fell

Lockdown and enforced working from home seemed to level us somehow – CEOs working from home in their comfy clothes, children and pets causing chaos in the background of online meetings, glimpses into people’s perfectly imperfect lives – leaders and those in positions of power suddenly didn’t seem so ‘other’. In this episode, we talk about how to get comfortable leading as your authentic self and bringing your whole self to work, using tools that will help you and the people you work with achieve more and enjoy yourselves along the way.

Vic is the Founder of Fair Development. She has almost 15 years of experience working within the small charity sector and is passionate about helping small charities access the appropriate and affordable support they need and deserve. Vic specialises in strategy, organisational development, systems thinking, and change and transition management. She loves supporting charity leaders to turn chaos into order!

To find out more about Vic’s work, visit:

Resources and links


Zac Parsons
Hello everyone and welcome to the Charity Professional Development Webcast an opportunity for you to learn, develop, and contribute more to your cause. Today I am joined by Vic Hancock Fell, who will be talking to us about bringing our whole selves to work. Vic is the founder of Fair Development. She has almost 15 years’ experience working within the – excuse me – the small charity sector and is passionate about helping small charities access the appropriate and affordable support they need and deserve. Vic specialises in strategy, organisational development, systems thinking, and change and transition management. She loves supporting chatty leaders to turn chaos into order. So, Vic, it’s absolutely lovely to have you. And I will hand over to you.

Vic Hancock Fell
Thank you, Zac, it’s good to be here and hello to anybody watching. And as Zac said, my name is Vic. And I’m passionate about working with small organisations. And I’m talking to you today about authentic leadership and bringing your whole messy self to work.

And I decided to talk on this topic because this year, in particular, I feel like I finally realised that being my imperfect self in a professional setting has actually been a benefit to me. Whereas in the early years of my career, I really saw that as something that was hindering me that I needed to fix and hide away. And so I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you today.

I used to feel that I really needed to be this kind of professional, guarded person, perhaps wearing certain kinds of clothes, talking in a certain way, doing certain things to be considered professional or a good leader. And hopefully today, I can share with you some reasons that I think being authentic, and being imperfect, is actually what can make us better people to work with. And it can benefit our organisations as well.

The first thing that I want to show is this video. Now, you’ve probably seen this video before – and I’ll talk in a minute about the response that this person gives in the video – but I wanted to share it as an example of really one of the first times that we saw people being forced to drop that professional persona.

In the pandemic, when we were all forced to work from home, we started to get glimpses into people’s lives. Into their messy imperfect lives. We would see people’s messy houses in the background, we’d see people’s kids, their pets causing chaos. And for me, it really helped me to realise, “oh, these are just people”. This is not a scary, intimidating person that isn’t like me or that is somehow other to me. And I found it really really nice actually seeing these people who perhaps I’d once be intimidated to speak to just being a normal person in their home with their pyjama bottoms on in their suit jacket. So, I just want to share this video and then share some reflections on it.

Robert Kelly
Scandals happen all the time. The question is how do democracies respond to those scandals?

BBC Interviewer
And what will it mean for the wider region? I think one of your children’s just walked in. I mean, shifting sands in the region. Do you think relations with the North may change?

Robert Kelly
I would be surprised if they do. The… Pardon me… My apologies… My apologies.

Vic Hancock Fell
So I mean, bless him, obviously that dad did not respond very authentically, he obviously had a real issue and a real discomfort in showing the father part of his persona. And he got a lot of backlash, and probably rightly so, I mean, he’s putting his hand on the kid’s face. And they did quite a few as a couple… They did quite a few interviews afterwards saying like, obviously he regrets dealing with it in that in that way. But I think it just is a really good example of one of those first instances where we were getting glimpses into people’s lives and this man, obviously, he’s suited and booted, he’s got his smart hair, he’s being interviewed by the BBC, and he’s putting on his professional persona. And he’s completely neglecting the rest of his personality. The fact that he’s a father. The fact that he’s a husband. The fact that he’s in his home office and it’s a little bit chaotic.

And, actually, there are some other examples of similar situations where professionals in a work capacity are being interrupted by pets or family members. And they’re dealing with them in a much more human way. They’re picking up their children and putting them on their laps, or they’re just acknowledging to the interviewer like, “oh, sorry, that’s my doorbell going off”. And I think that we all really react much more positively to the latter.

You know, this poor guy got a lot of backlash for not being his authentic self. But I think it’s one of the things that really just got me thinking about why authenticity in a professional capacity is really important.

I actually have never been able to not be authentic. And I don’t mean that to sound in a braggy sort of way. But just the way that my brain works is, I have verbal diarrhoea, I have no filter, I can’t stop the thoughts coming out. And early in my career, I really felt that that was a disadvantage to me. And I was told by people that it was a disadvantage. And so I have learned to restrain myself somewhat.

But I’ve also learned to realise that being transparent and open, and vulnerable, and genuine have been really positive. And I’ve had lots of people later in my career, saying that they like those things about me, it makes me approachable and easier to work with.

So, for anyone who’s listening, who’s perhaps earlier on in their career or not as confident in bringing their authentic self to work, I would just tell you to push back against those people who tell you that you’re not professional, and therefore you’re too open or honest, it’s only ever helped me.

And, so, what does it mean to be authentic?

It means to be genuine, to be honest. And I often use the phrase ‘radical honesty’ when I’m working with clients, both from myself and how, both in terms of talking about myself and how I interact with them, but also how I would encourage them to interact with the people that they work with, and their donors and supporters.

And being open, being relationally transparent. So, if you want to say something to someone, don’t say it in a passive-aggressive way, don’t try and say it behind their backs to other people. Try to surround yourself with the tools and develop the skills that you need to be able to have those difficult conversations, but to do them in a transparent and caring way.

To be fallible, and accept that we are all humans, and we’re all imperfect, and to accept that and own that.

To be self-aware. So to have some awareness of how your behaviour influences and affects other people, especially if you are in a position of leadership in an organisation where your behaviour can trickle down and influence the culture of the organisation.

Can you be a safe person? Can you create an environment and an atmosphere in your organisation where people feel safe and coming to talk to you? Are you attentive? Are you paying attention to other people? Are you noticing if somebody feels perhaps not able to talk to you openly? And are you vulnerable?

Again, this is something I’ve never not… I’ve never been able to not not do. If I’m not feeling… well, if I’m feeling stressed, if I can feel that my mental health is starting to struggle, the only way I know how to cope with that is to tell people. And if that’s my partner, or my family or friends, or my colleagues, especially later in my career, I’ve not distinguished between those groups. And it’s partly because we spend a lot of time working with our colleagues; we spend more time, perhaps, with them if we’re in a full-time job. We’re spending more time with our colleagues than we are our family or friends.

And so, for me, being vulnerable and saying to a peer, or a colleague, “I’m really not feeling it today”, “I’m not feeling good at the minute”, “my mind is not working in the way that needs to work for me to get this piece of work done”. That has helped me and I think it’s helped the people on the receiving end of that vulnerability because it’s helped them to understand how they can best work with me to get the best out of me.

And it’s scary to be vulnerable. Some people are very comfortable with it and some people really don’t want to let their guard down. And so I’d say if you’re on the end of the scale where – are on the end of the spectrum where – you really don’t feel comfortable with that, is just to explore what level of vulnerability does feel appropriate for you and how to just start having those kinds of conversations.

And most recently, my biggest vulnerable thing that I did was to speak to my line manager.

I’ve been running Fair Development alongside day jobs in-house at charities for the last six years. And it was just in the summer this year that I left and became fully self-employed. But when I was in that last job, with my line manager and lovely Chair of Trustees, I had come back from maternity leave, and was diagnosed with postnatal PTSD.

And the symptoms of that are memory loss and brain fog. And I came back to my job and I was forgetting conversations that I’d had the previous day with someone. I was forgetting key bits of information. And before I knew it was PTSD, I just thought, “I’m completely incapable of doing this job anymore”.

And so I was coming up with lots of coping mechanisms to try to manage this. I was taking copious notes. I had my calendar was blocked out in minute detail, trying to remind me of all of the things that I needed to do to get around this. And in the end, I just thought, “I’m gonna have to tell my colleagues that this is something that is happening with me, so that they can compensate, I suppose, for for my uselessness”. And I really did feel useless. Like, gosh, I can’t even remember these most basic things.

And I had that conversation with them. And, luckily for me, they were incredible about it. And they said that they understood, and that they weren’t going to be really annoyed if I didn’t remember something, and that it was okay, if I needed to come to them and ask for reminders of things or ask them to remind me of that thing I said that I would do that I didn’t do. And it was such a huge relief for me. And that was something that internally my organisation knew.

And then, a few months later, I decided just to make that public knowledge. So now when I’m working with clients directly through Fair Development, I will have that conversation with them early on where I say, “my memory is really poor at the minute, I may need to ask you to remind me about things or if I forget a date, or if I forget something, please don’t think it’s because I’m not paying attention or not trying. It’s just that I have PTSD, and it affects my memory”. And I found that to really set us off on the right foot when it comes to understanding each other and getting the best out of each other.

So how does it benefit you and your organisation? Well, it certainly benefited me to be very vulnerable in that particular instance, but it’s benefited me over the course of my career, just feeling like I can be myself for a start. And it was just a couple of years ago where I actually decided just to get rid of all of my like professional clothes, because I didn’t feel like myself in those clothes. I used to wear these special outfits if I was going to an interview or a special event and I thought, “who am I pretending to be here? I just want to wear my own clothes”. Why should clothes have anything to do with how I’m perceived as a professional? So, it has benefited me to be authentic and vulnerable, and open and transparent. Because I feel like people are just getting me and there’s not going to be a nasty surprise if I let my guard down.

Before 2020, mental illness was the leading global health issue. And since the pandemic, around a third of young people and adults say that their mental health has got worse. And so I think leading in this way working, in this way of being your true self and accepting your messiness and imperfection and bringing it to work and just not trying to put on a persona of something else, for me, that has helped my mental health and job satisfaction.

In the charity sector, hiring and keeping staff. And burnout is on the increase, especially in the charity sector. We’ve got fundraisers and charity sector staff leaving the sector en masse. We’ve got higher than ever burnout rates. People being free to bring themselves to work as they are, with all of their imperfections and things that they need you to help them do as a leader or an employer to help them function at work can only help us here.

It – hopefully – will reduce the levels of burnout and it will create a culture in the organisation that you’re in of care, and consideration, and compassion, and vulnerability. Organisations that foster these authentic behaviours are typically more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic, motivated employees and psychologically safe cultures. So it’s good for your organisation as well.

And it feels good to be yourself. It feels great to wear the clothes that you feel comfortable in. It feels great to use the language that you’re comfortable in using. And it feels good to know that people in your organisation get you for who you are, not for some professional version of who you are.

Something that I came across earlier this year, which is the first thing on my to do list for 2023 is to create a user manual for me. “The manual of me” … if you just Google that you’ll find that online, it’s a free template that you can use. I’m using an example here by the wonderful Cassie Robinson. And it’s basically a user guide for you.

So, perhaps instead of having those vulnerable conversations over and over again, with new people that you come into contact with, you can say, “here’s my user manual, have a read, and you’ll get to know a bit about me”.

And I won’t read all of it. But I’ll just read some of the examples here from Cassie. She likes to work in quiet working conditions. She finds it hard to do work that requires concentration, if there’s lots of noise and distractions. Things she struggles with. She talks about that she’s an introvert. And so working in the open is something that she has to work hard to do. Too much critiquing and logical reasoning drains her energy. Things she loves. She loves organising team things, birthdays and evenings out and so on. And she likes risk-taking culture. She feels comfortable in that environment. Other things to know about her. She likes to use her intuition to make decisions.

And after reading all of this, I know I could work much more effectively with Cassie knowing these insights. And these are things that typically we wouldn’t expose about our personalities and about ourselves in a professional capacity. And in some cases, these are the sorts of things that we might have previously been encouraged to hide away and not talk about.

And so I think this should be part of every person’s induction, you come into your organisation, you read everyone’s manual of me, you get to know them a bit, and you create your own manual of me. And it’s definitely something that I’m going to be doing in the new year. So that I can write down all of these things about myself and the way that I like to work with others.

And I think that there’s a lot of… I mean, we’ve seen a lot of really terrible leadership this year, not naming any names, but I’m sure you’ve all got a few people in your mind. And I really think it’s shown us how damaging it can be to not lead authentically. People can tell when you’re not being your authentic self. And I think it makes it much more difficult for yourself as a person to be in a position of leadership or to be working with others. It certainly makes it harder on the person who’s on the receiving end of that.

And it’s not good for organisations either. So if you’re ever worried about saying that thing that’s in your mind, that intrusive thoughts that you want to say. If you’re worried about wearing a certain outfit or saying a certain thing or revealing a certain part of your personality. I would encourage you to push past that discomfort a little bit. And perhaps you will realise that whoever you’re saying this too, and was waiting for an opportunity to be able to say it back to you as well.

And that’s something that I’ve really noticed. The more open and vulnerable I am and the more I tried to lean into this authenticity and imperfection, the more I get it back from others as well. And it really helps to create great relationships that, in turn, leads to better quality work.

Zac Parsons
Amazing. Vic, well, thank you so much. I mean, there was a lot in there and I feel really encouraged to now go out and try to be more authentic. I have to admit that I am at that stage where I am I still get the flutters and the, “Oh, I know I need to have a difficult conversation because I know that, in the long term, it’s going to help me and everyone around me”. And I’m still getting over those things. So this has been a good 20 minutes of … kick up the bum, in a way, to actually remind myself to do it.

And I think it will be a good resource. I’ll come back and watch it when I feel like, “okay, I need to have a difficult conversation, what would Vic say?”.

I like to think, as well, with the BBC video, that I’d be the person who picks the child up and introduces them, but I’ve not had it happen. So I don’t know whether I will be. But here’s hoping.

I love the idea of a user manual. I think it’s really, really useful. And I also think, on top of doing it in an induction, reading other people’s user manuals, I think it opens up an opportunity for you to sit down with colleagues who you’re going to be working with a lot and figure out, “okay, so where are the potential pitfalls in our relationship? “where are we going to butt heads on things?”. And you can have that conversation early.

For me, personally, in my past, I’ve had a line manager say to me, “oh, you’re so lovely and personable in person, but over email, you’re really short”. And that’s just because I see emails as information sharing as opposed to rapport building. And I’ve accepted that I need to build a little bit of rapport over emails now. And I’ve softened up a bit over email. So I’ve taken the feedback. But I know that my natural style is to just get in the information that needs to be there. So actually having a conversation at the start of a relationship to say, “if I send a short email, it’s just because that’s my natural writing style, I’m really sorry”. And it might avoid any potential disagreements or hurt or, or anything like that.

This has been a wonderful session. And I hope everyone can take as much away from it as I have. Do you have a final thought? And if people want to find out more about you, where should we go and look?

Vic Hancock Fell
Sure. Final thought… Is it a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway? Or is it just a catchphrase? Anyway, it’s something that runs through my mind when I’m hovering over a vulnerable post that I’m thinking of putting out there or pressing send on an email that is perhaps a little bit close to the bone. Usually, I just think, “oh, well, I’ll just do it and see”. And that is partly my personality, but I would encourage others just to push past that little feeling of nervousness – how am I going to be perceived? – because generally, humans are humans, and we are all just people faking it until we make it and trying our best.

I’ve worked with some people who, before I interacted with them, I felt very intimidated. And then I got to know them. And I realised it, they were just a person like me who make mistakes. And so I would just encourage people to remember that it’s just another person. And that has helped me to feel a bit safer in bringing that vulnerability in.

And in terms of keeping in touch, I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn, just as my name: Vic Hancock Fell. That’s probably where I’m most active. And if anybody’s watching and they’d like to connect, or have a go at being vulnerable with me in my messages, then I am happy to be the guinea pig for your first attempt into vulnerability. So please do get in touch if anybody’s interested in chatting more on that.

Zac Parsons
Brilliant. There you go, everyone; an opportunity to have a test go. Well, thank you so much, Vic. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. And I hope to see everyone in the future.