August 1, 2018 | by Bob Weidner

Authenticity & Success

“[T]o win the respect of intelligent people and children … This is to have succeeded.”

 – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson listed other accomplishments in his definition of success, but this line struck me at the memorial service for a dear family friend.

I’d known Marietta Morgan Paynter and her late husband, John, Northwestern’s long-time director of bands, since I met their daughter and eventual son-in-law as an undergraduate. After Kathy and I got married, Marietta knitted Christmas stockings for us. She created another after the birth of each of our children, and they still hang from our mantle every holiday season.

The Paynters were major influencers in the Chicago cultural scene – Marietta’s memorial service was at the Pavilion at Ravinia, a century-old Highland Park music venue – and, given their status, they easily could have been aloof. Instead, they captured the respect of children – my own, especially, since Marietta’s stockings held Santa’s treats – and the “intelligent people” who comprised their impressive social circle.

How does one earn the love of these radically different groups?

Authenticity. Marietta and John were so thoroughly themselves – whether hosting major Northwestern donors, or with family.

Authenticity is useful socially, but it’s also essential for business and politics. Authenticity, after all, is another word for truthfulness, and dishonesty drives away potential friends, customers, and voters.

We can debate President Donald Trump’s policies, but his supporters view him as authentic. A 2015 primary season poll found 76 percent of Republican voters thought Trump said “what he believes” not “what people want to hear.” Authenticity also mattered in 2012. A November 2016 survey found more than half of voters thought President Barack Obama said what he believes. Far fewer voters said the same of Mitt Romney.

Presidents Trump and Obama got the partisan juices flowing in the American electorate, but, to some extent, we still admire people willing to state their honest opinion, even if we disagree.

Authenticity creates real connection, which fosters empathy. In business, empathy allows entrepreneurs to identify what the market is lacking, and why customers and employees remain loyal. When we’re authentic, we’re better bosses, suppliers, and leaders.

Ask Warren Buffett. An Omaha waitress who has served the billionaire for more than a decade recently noted, “Buffett is always himself … I’ve waited on him with big head honchos … and he acts pretty much the same exact way as he does when I wait on him and his family.”

Buffett’s personal authenticity undoubtedly is connected to his success. Buffett doesn’t suffer fools. As a 2005 Harvard Business Review article explains, authentic leaders surround themselves with similarly transparent advisers. Or, as Roche Pharmaceuticals CEO Bill Burns explained, you “keep your feet on the ground when others want to put you on a pedestal” because “after a while on a pedestal, you stop hearing the truth. … You end up as the queen bee in the hive, with no relationships with the worker bees.”

In almost two decades at MSCI, I’ve seen that the leaders of the most successful and long-lasting companies are the ones most closely connected to the truth – the truth about the economy, and the truths spoken by the men and women who work for them.

For companies trying to attract the millennial generation, authenticity is especially important. A survey of 2,000 adults by Stackla found 90 percent of millennials consider authenticity when deciding what brands to buy. When it comes to employment, recruiters Anne Kimmel and Bo Stevenson say millennials value “the truth.” The two advise, “[P]ing pong tables are not the way to keep your millennial employees happy. Instead, be authentic about what you and your company value and represent, and communicate openly about your organization’s successes as well as the challenges you face.”

It’s not just millennials who crave authenticity. Stackla found 85 percent of Generation Xers and eight in 10 Baby Boomers consider how genuine a brand feels before buying its products. In my own life, it was the employers and mentors who were transparent that attracted me the most.

As a trade association, MSCI also must remain authentic to be successful. That means staying true to our mandate to represent service centers across North America. In a very nuanced trade debate, our effort to remain authentic has informed our advocacy. We’ve consistently asked that the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments focus on countries that are truly bad actors and exempt North American trading partners from tariffs. We’ve argued for actions that aid companies up and down the supply chain.

I’ve had dozens of passionate discussions about this advocacy over the past months. Our position hasn’t always been popular, but it fits our mission. I hope member companies and their customers, and the policymakers we engage, value our authentic voice.

Henry David Thoreau said, “We are constantly invited to be who we are.” The world would be better if more individuals accepted that appeal.