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Questioning My Authenticity – Am I Unauthentic?


In this blog Equal Approach’s CEO, Dawn Hurst, shares her views on authenticity.

Definition: Authentic – Not false or copied; genuine; real; representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself.

How many of us have created a character for ourselves to fit in, to win business, or to make friends?

How many of us have then struggled to maintain this persona, adding huge mental pressure to ourselves to simply be something that we are not?
As someone that works within the inclusion and diversity field, I often talk about the importance of being authentic and accepting others as their authentic selves. However, recent life events have lead me to question my own authenticity, as I’ve had to take a step back from my outward, externally focused persona. I have come to realise that I have taken myself and my authenticity for granted and lost a sense of who I truly am, which has had a big impact on me.

What led me to where I am today?

I started my business thirteen years ago with a clear vision and mission, knowing exactly what I wanted to achieve. Having worked in corporate environments for several years and having had to take part in all the game playing that went on, I vowed that I didn’t want that life any more, it wasn’t who I am or who I wanted to be.

I set out to create my own business free from all the corporate pitfalls. I had a genuine purpose and wanted to create a level playing field for people to succeed whether they were black, blue, purple, gay, straight, had dangly bits or not. My goal was to ensure that things like an individual’s financial situation, their size, or their class wouldn’t matter. Those of you who have followed our journey will know we have done a pretty good job of achieving some of that, winning awards across Europe for the impact we have had to individuals and the corporate clients who have used our services to make a real difference.

Some of you may know the last six months for me has been pretty life changing. At 48 I am to shortly be divorced for the second time, I have not long moved to a new house, and have recently had a serious operation to overcome a kidney function issue which had some complications and almost led to me bleeding out. These things weren’t in the business plan. All of this has made me question my own authenticity and indeed mortality.

So, who am I?

I come from four generations of working class mine workers from South Derbyshire. I was bought up in a home where all the basics were covered, but there wasn’t an abundance of income, although this was supplemented with bucket loads of love and fun.

I left school with barely 5 GCSEs and I don’t think I have ever shared this publicly before, but my parents weren’t able to fund me through my studies, so I had to do it the hard way! I was working in the day, and spending 3 evenings a week at university, coupled with as much self-study as I could fit in. In total I spent around 8 years studying to get to a level that would be considered credible for a business owner on a global stage.

My upbringing instilled within me a sense of respect and deeply embedded morals, but I also have a mischievous side and a passion for rooting for the underdog.  When I can be me my true self, I love to challenge and to break the rules, boundaries and status quo (within reason of course), and this has got me into trouble more times than I care to remember. I guess this is what drives my passion for inclusion. I’ve lost out on a lot of new business over the years, because I refuse to take part in box ticking exercises with clients and I am not afraid to tell them what I think of their existing inclusion and diversity programmes.

I’m a true Cancerian in that I’m an all or nothing kind of girl and I can easily put two stone on looking at a bar of Cadburys! Despite my hardened persona, deep down I’m as emotional as the next person and I can be made to cry if someone looks at me wrong. I enjoy my work and it gives me a sense of pride that my late parents would feel I had achieved something productive with what they taught me.

So how did all this help me in business?

Well the honest answer is that I didn’t think it would, so despite all that I portray about the importance of authenticity, as I talk and write to hundreds of people a week about this very subject, I have come to realise that I am a living embodiment of unauthenticity. Years ago, I set about creating a persona, taking elements of the real me and crafting them into a character that I felt would be more widely palatable. I firmly believed that I was still myself, I had just upgrade and fine-tuned elements to be my best self.

I had a total corporate make over, designer clothes, handbags, briefcases, I swallowed several business manuals to speak the speak, and took elocution lessons to lose the Derbyshire accent which made me unique, and I vowed to never again call anyone “duck” (my PA Tracy has recently told me that she feels this is my biggest crime of all!).

My days of a beer in the pub were replaced with cocktail parties and gourmet dinners, and I became to know the Michelin guide page by page. I acquired every superficial token that a busy executive could want, the diamonds, the Gucci briefcase (that is cute wherever you’re from!), the technology, and I had the flashiest cars and stayed in the best hotels.

I have travelled the world and gained widespread credibility for myself and my business, building a portfolio of the most amazing clients and brands along the way, which businesses much larger than mine would be envious of.

A few years ago, inspired by one of my client’s amazing organisations, I set out to create a similar “yes culture” within my organisation, where anything was possible if we put our minds to it. While this had lots of positive impacts, with the business benefiting as we became much more innovative and collaborative, the result was that I became surrounded by people who said “yes” to me. My amazing team of independent thinkers who I had built up and coached over several years stopped questioning or challenging my decisions and ideas, and instead just raised their eyebrows and made things happen for me. The verbal jousting and fierce debates that I once thrived on where stripped away, and the result was that this created was a very spoilt monster which always got what it wanted. I grew to expect things to just happen in aspects of my life, where I was forgetting what really mattered and who I really was. I had become my persona and lost touch with my real self.

As I reflect because of my current circumstances, I can see that I haven’t been my truly authentic self and I’ve been swept up in my own rose tinted, Instagram filtered professional persona which I’ve built and maintained for years. This daily personal burden has resulted in me feeling increasingly fatigued, unhappy and depressed, leading to the point of a mental health crisis at Christmas 2017.

So why this blog?

Well this is the shout out to all that has happened since! I don’t know whether you, or in fact I believe in fate, but what I do believe is that as cliché as it sounds: everything happens for a reason. So from January this year I began to strip back my life. I’ve started to remember who I truly am and where I come from. The impact has been astonishing, with various people starting to return to my life, who for one reason or another I have drifted away from. Each person from my past reminds me a little more of who I am, what really matters in life and gives me the assurance that it’s ok for me to be me. Each new person I meet is a fresh slate for me to free myself from the shackles of my persona, and start being the real me again. I have come to realise that people value very different things in life and life moves on whether you are being authentic or false, but the difference is that you miss some of the best bits when acting out the persona.

I very nearly wasn’t here to tell this tale. So after having returned to work for a few weeks after being off ill for some time, I wanted to share this blog to mark the beginning of this new chapter in my life. Each Sunday evening, I reflect, and I ask myself again – so, who am I? This is my self-check to ensure I remain true to myself. While I am still on my journey to finding my true self again, I know who I am not and sometimes that’s half the battle.

I am sitting writing this in the living room of my suburban Birmingham home, which I will no longer refer to as being “on the rural edge of the Worcestershire border” because it sounds better. Having recently put my house up for sale, before the year is out I’m looking forward to returning to my roots of South Derbyshire and reconnecting with my real authentic self.

As my colleagues, clients, candidates and peers, I want to encourage you all to think about this very personal blog for a moment today and ask yourself two simple questions: “Who are you” and “What have you changed about yourself to fit in or succeed”. I believe that those of you who are truly keen to level the playing field will really understand and hopefully relate (even just in a small way) to this blog, and those of you who don’t, well we’ve got some work to do. So, if you would like to discuss what this means over a beer in the pub, I’ll be there!

Ta-ra for now duck!

Dawn Hurst

Chief Executive Officer, Equal Approach