J. Mike Smith

J. Mike Smith – The Power Of Authentic Leadership

People Strategy Forum | J. Mike Smith | Authentic Leadership


In today’s competitive landscape, authentic leadership is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. In this episode, seasoned management consultant and founder of Back West, Inc. J. Mike Smith dives deep into the concept of authentic leadership, exploring its key pillars and offering practical strategies for cultivating it within your own organization. Mike dives into the importance of self-awareness, guiding listeners through exercises to uncover their core values and strengths. He then explores the art of building trust, highlighting the power of vulnerability and transparency in fostering strong team dynamics. But authentic leadership isn’t just about being true to yourself; it’s also about embracing inclusivity. Mike discusses the delicate balance between authenticity and being mindful of diverse perspectives and experiences within your team. Tune in and discover how to lead with integrity, inspire your team, and create a more positive and productive work environment.


J. Mike Smith – The Power Of Authentic Leadership

We have a special guest, a long-time colleague of mine. Let’s introduce our hosts, who are joining with me. We have Char Miller. She’s worked with CompTeam for a number of years. She’s started with a Strategic Thinking Institute, and she’s doing a lot of good work there. Char is a seasoned compensation professional. She inspires everyone to reach out to her and connect with her on LinkedIn. She is a wonderful resource.

We’re thrilled to have Mike Smith. He is a Senior and Seasoned Management Consultant and Founder of Back Wests Incorporated. We worked early in our careers. Several years ago, we were at Barclays Global Investors. Mike has gone out and started his own practice since then. He has been doing that for a long time.

He’s from the San Francisco Bay Area and brings a few decades of experience in executive coaching, team building, and leadership development. He’s played a pivotal role in cultivating talent and culture at Atara Bio from its inception and beginnings to over 300 employees. He has experience spanning a diverse range of sectors, including financial services, high-tech, and biotech. He’s going to unpack the essence of authentic leadership, sharing his insights on how to have that genuine leadership feel and culture for businesses to succeed. Let’s dive into this topic and learn more about Mike and what he does for his clients. Welcome, Mike.

Welcome, Sam and Char. Thank you very much for having me with you. I appreciate it.

Becoming A Consultant

We should have connected many years ago. It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken, but I would love to dive in here at the beginning and learn more about you. You worked in-house in some large organizations, such as Barclays Global Investors, and you decided to start your own practice. What was the heart of that decision? What made you go from being inside to becoming a consultant?

Years ago, I had a bug that I might want to have my own consulting practice. I was in Chicago. The name Back West comes from, for those of you who are out East, when people say, “What’s it like out West?” For those of us who grew up here, it’s back home. I said, “If I ever do this, I will come up with a name called Back West.”

My background is a broad HR generalist. Earlier in my career, I was senior VP and Head of HR for McKesson’s $15 billion, 4,000-employee business unit. I left that in ‘96. I found myself in a case where I thought I was in the wrong place at the right time. If you think about what was going on in the mid-‘90s in San Francisco with the start of the internet boom, I was working with a 155-year-old firm at that time. It is a legacy firm. I thought there was something better I could do.

I thought that perhaps what I should do is get some other experiences to credential myself. I left McKesson and went to a biotech firm called Chiron. If you think about what’s in the Bay Area in terms of industries, it’s capital markets, tech, and biotech. I punch my ticketed Chiron Corporation. I ended up taking a role as a managing principal with four founders for a tech firm. That was my tech punch. I eventually landed at Barclays Global Investors, Sam, with you, which was getting credentialed in capital markets.

One of the things about having an impact on folks is people want to know, “Have you done it?” If I say Mishar, who spends time in Mexico, what’s it like? She tells me that she’s read a book on Mexico or she has spoken Spanish since third grade. She’s not well-credentialed, but the fact that she spent half a year in Mexico speaks Spanish credentials. For me, looking long term to eventually have my own practice, it was a thought that I need to have in-house experience in biotech capital markets.

Is there anything else in your early experience that you’ve had in your career that shaped the way you coach managers and leaders?

I do three things. I do about a third of my practice as executive coaching, typically working with CEOs and CEO direct ports in the C-Suite, which is working with early-stage startup teams that are about a third advisory. The lens I bring to it is, and it’s from experience, things you don’t have, such as you don’t have time usually and you don’t have the ability to forecast what’s happened.

Part of that coaching is to be flexible, nimble, and quick and not to disparage big legacy corporations, but large companies are slow and bureaucratic. That could be some competitive advantage, but it seldom is because things move quickly. The type of slow, non-critical thinking you could do several years ago is much harder to be competitive now. I’m working with a client. They’re eight years old, and part of what we’re trying to impress upon the team is that you have to think and act. You don’t have the luxury of not moving quickly but not thinking.

In that transition from going to some of those large company environments into coaching startups, what were the main hurdles that you found during that time? You’re going from large to small. What were the main differences that you witnessed?

I got lucky because McKesson, which is a Fortune 5, gave me great institutional rigor. When I used to do executive recruiting, I had people do a brief amount of time in a large company that trained them well. That’s piece one. I went from McKesson to a place called Chiron, which at the time was about a twenty-year-old company acting like a teenager, and recognized that you need some infrastructure. Chiron was a company where, I still remember, one April, the budget for the year that started in January got published.

I thought, “You need to be better at doing that if you’re expecting people to meet certain goals. You need a certain amount of rigor. My experience after that was an early-stage startup company. I took them from about 20 to 120. During the bust, I took them back down to twenty. You need some structure, but you need to be nimble. It’s figuring out how to do all those things.

Authentic Leadership

Let’s dive into the topic of authentic leadership. Mike, can you tell us what that means for you? What does that mean for your clients?

This is like beauty and love. If you ask 100 people, you’re going to get 100 different answers. Part of the way people experience authenticity is that the person knows what they’re talking about or speaking. They have conviction. They have a point of view and are credible. That is a matter of weaving those three elements together. There are some foundations beyond that so that the person knows that whoever they’re dealing with is what I call the real deal.

People Strategy Forum | J. Mike Smith | Authentic Leadership

Authentic Leadership: Part of the way people experience authenticity is that the person knows what they’re talking about or speaking. They have conviction. They have a point of view and are credible.


The flip side of that we see is that authentic leadership is viewed as a wrapper. If I do certain things and Elizabeth Holmes is my exhibit A, B, and C, I’m going to be experienced as part of the real deal authentic. That’s unfortunate, and we’ve seen what happened with Holmes. There are other people out there. It’s an approach where there typically is some self-work to do, there’s some rigor to be gained, and putting yourself in a setting, whether it’s in person or virtual, where you are able to convey what it is you’re trying to push forward.

I’ve witnessed companies and leaders in my consulting practice that have taken the rip-the-Band-Aid approach off when it comes to authenticity. I’ve witnessed that a few times, and it’s been a bit hurtful for them as they got some feedback from people. I would love to hear about your experiences and some of the challenges that you have seen in your practice of leaders who transition to becoming more authentic.

I’m thinking of a guy who I work with who’s a CFO of a major tech company. What I said is there are several elements. When I think of people who are authentic leaders, they have some pillars that they’re building their thing on. One is they have subject matter expertise. You come out of the comp world. I’m going to have an expectation that you know what you’re talking about on the conversation side. That’s stuff that you’ve built over the years.

The second is that you have a degree in business jobs. These are common business skills, budgeting, project management, conflict resolution, and a series of things that come with it. I’m a big fan of the work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner. They have a book called The Leadership Challenge. It’s based on a bunch of research. They have five key competencies that they anchor their work on when they’ve looked at systematically, such as who’s a successful leader. My favorite one is attributes they call models away.

People Strategy Forum | J. Mike Smith | Authentic Leadership

The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations

The work for me with coaching is out of the gate is where the client is and those skill sets or competencies because if I am trying to be an effective leader, those are pieces of armor that can fall off easily. When they fall off, it’s like the emperor’s new clothes. They let go. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and that invites investigation into what else is not there. That’s piece one.

In the case of the client, I’m going to give you a long answer. He had all that stuff. We were about some things in terms of leadership competencies, but what he didn’t have is a clear sense of articulated personal values. The other part of the work with him was how to show up physically and in person so that you’re able to be seen as real.

Going back to the Elizabeth Holmes example, she started from the outside in. She started with, “Let me look like Steve Jobs.” If you follow the trial, she spoke about an octave below what she normally would. Let me sound like I’m real. Once she started picking at the story, there wasn’t much there. In the case of the CFO, it was a matter of, let’s get clear about your inner values. We did some inner work. Let’s reposition how you show up virtually because CFOs do a lot of sessions like we’re doing. They have to look okay on screen.

That’s something that’s interesting, as you mentioned, that the modeling or some people take on the persona of what they think a good leader is and not be their true self. I experienced that early in my career a lot with women. Women were taught that they needed to be more like men in dress, hairstyle, and everything to be able to be successful.

I want to add to this, but I do want to mention an interesting story when I first started out as an HR coordinator. I’m about to become an HR manager. My HR manager at the time whipped out an HR magazine and said, “Char, you need to have a power do.” He flipped through the magazine. I said, “What’s a power do?” He goes, “Your hairdo is certainly not like that.” At that point, I said, “I’m going to have long hair in my entire career.”

That’s a great example because there are different standards for genders. The standard for leaders, traditionally, and you don’t know this, but Sam does, I’m 6’5”, is you’re a tall White guy. You’re a tall, straight White guy. That’s an interesting burden to carry, but it’s also not accurate. I was presenting to a group called the HR Executive Council. Those man suits, which looked incredibly uncomfortable, were not flattering. I don’t think there were power suits.

I will say that because we’re talking a little bit about dress, you need to find a dress that works, and you need to find a dress that is comfortable. That’s going to be different for different people. The third leg of that is it has to be appropriate for the setting. For example, if a company is holding a beach function and I’m in a three-piece suit, I’m looking like a dork. I know a guy I work with who would go to the beach and would dress down. It would be a button-down start shirt and shorts. That’s dorky, too. There is some intent behind that. Char, back to your experience, what’s appropriate for that situation that I’m comfortable in that conveys what I want to convey?

The two of you have been following me for the last 24 hours. I was meeting with a neighbor. She was going to an executive board meeting. She was talking about the power suit that she was required to wear. That was an interesting discussion. This is amazing. This is why this is timely. I went to a group called the Premier Membership Community for Ambitious Sole-Led Women. What they talked about was bold authenticity, which is championed by valuing self-trust and the uniqueness of every individual.

It was women, and I’m sure we’re opening any Indy gender. What was interesting is we talked about the nervous system, particularly in the olden days when women or feminine energy people were in a boardroom. We go into what’s called fight, flight, and freeze, which is the traditional commentary. That’s true. People like myself would freeze a little bit. We had something to say but were interrupted or felt intimidated as a talent management strategist.

One other word they came up at this particular women’s group is talking about authenticity. Have you guys heard of the word fawn? Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. It was a person that deals with neuroscience intelligence. She studies neurosematic intelligence. I’m a big people pleaser. Have you heard of people calling themselves chameleons?


Changing Times

I could be in, and it’s not a strength of mine, but I can be in any audience and be a fond people-pleaser chameleon. I agree with what they’re saying. I go to the next person and agree with what they’re saying. That’s not authentic leadership. That is going with the flow, not speaking your authentic self and what you truly believe in. I do believe times have changed in the boardroom. I’m curious, Mike, about some of the commentary. What do you think about the changing times in this realm?

It’s changed. We’re not where we need to be. That’s what I think. I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of dress, but I have a couple of thoughts that come to mind. Let me go back to the CFO client that I was talking about. He’s an Indian-born man. He’s Brown. One of the tricks for him is how to show up virtually. One of the parts of the work is the camera setup. He looked like the top of a brown head with a blank background. Visually, unlike Sam, he got lost. I said, “Let’s do a couple things. Let’s change your wardrobe and put on a darker white shirt or blue shirt so you pop a little bit.”

Sometimes, Char, for women who tend to be not 6’5”, most of the time, you’re a boardroom. You have to figure out how you will show up. Women tend to be smaller. Don’t wear those muted clothes. Do not wear flaming neon. That’s not going to work. Wear some colors that you like when you show up. That’s a little segue.

I have a client who works primarily with venture capitalists who are primarily men. The challenge with the fawn piece is that in certain settings, those guys are pure alpha-type sharks. Saying to somebody, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve heard,” is going to get you eviscerated. If you’re a male, you can get away with it. If you’re female, you are going to get clubbed.

Part of the work with her was coming up with what I call a different script to use. She wasn’t fawning and agreeing because that can be the inclination. The script was, “It’s an interesting idea. I’d never thought about that.” I circle back after some reflection and get back to you. You’d have somebody who would say, “We should have peanut butter cure cancer.” It’s a dumb idea. If you say that’s a dumb idea in certain settings, you’re going to get knifed.

Readjusting how you rebut in a way that works was an effective way to do it. That could have been any number of marginalized people, and use that. The other guy would call her and say, “I thought about that. That was a dumb idea.” She said, “I had some questions I couldn’t answer.” If they didn’t call, she would call them, or the 5% didn’t call and say, “Here’s some questions I couldn’t answer to get back to you.” There are dynamics in the boardroom. It helps to be able to read them. In the ideal world, it’s a more inclusive environment that values that thing. We’re not there all the time.

In my experience, it’s difficult to coach executives and senior leaders to change their behavior in a boardroom. I’m curious to know your opinion about this. I’m a strategy skills consultant as well as a talent management consultant. I believe evaluating our competencies and identifying that perhaps we’re not strategic or need to work on our business acumen or need to be more financially or whatever the competency may be, one, to identify that, and from a learning and development standpoint, work on that particular skillset. We are feeling more confident in those types of settings. It’s one thing to think that we have the strategy or the mindset, but it’s another thing to develop those fully, and every leader can work on that development. What are your thoughts on that, Mike?

When I coach somebody, apart from collecting 360 data and interviewing people, I do it in the old-fashioned way. I used to run employee survey programs. I know way too much about data collection. The other thing I do, which is rare, and now that we’re out of the pandemic, is shadow people. Sam knows I’m a tall White guy. I become the smallest little knit in the corner and watch how people behave because what you can do is you can see that.

At 11:00, I’ll be sitting in on a leadership team meeting with a client. The purpose is to see how they interact. My job there is to spot-coach people. If somebody is not enabling folks to participate, I’ll say, “Here’s what you did. Here’s what the impact was. Is that what you want as an outcome?” If the answer is, “You’re shutting down people.” That’s not what they want. Most of us, including myself, are incredibly not self-aware. There’s a lot of data on that. You’re not aware of those behaviors. You have to call them out.

Part of the work is how you shift behaviors so that new behavior becomes adopted, durable, and reflexive. We all have this. Somebody described it as, “Are you not aware that you’re picking your nose?” The answer is, “Most of us, no, we’re not.” It’s identifying the competencies you want to work forward and grading a learning path. Practice. Sometimes it’s inner work, sometimes it’s out of work, and sometimes it’s having the person adopt a new habit.

Part of the work is how you shift behaviors so that new behavior becomes adopted, durable, and reflexive. Share on X

Authenticity, Style, And Inclusion

We were talking about authenticity. You’re bringing up some great examples about how certain people, when they are themselves, could be caustic in certain situations, and they may drown out people. Where is the balance between being authentic and improving our style to where we are more inclusive of others?

Part of that authenticity is, and this is the inner work, and cruises and positive people have these little value packs cards that I’m quite a fan for, is identifying what’s important to you. That’s a prioritization exercise. Is being inclusive important to you? Is being dominant important to you? There’s no right or wrong here. Working with somebody to identify how you exemplify that value that’s appropriate.

I’ve got a client I was working with where they have some company values, which is nice, but they don’t have many descriptors on that value in action. One of their value is to think like an owner. When I think like an owner, one of the things that comes to my mind is to think like a customer and take care of the customer because that’s what owners should be doing.

One of the issues there was that they had somebody on the team who was on duty at 5:00, which was the end of her day, and she was not going to take care of the customer. If you can say to her, “In our organization, thinking like an owner means accepting responsibility for taking care of the customer.” Articulating that and giving her some examples of behaviors that we would expect to see. Is there a handoff when you leave at 5:00, and somebody else is going to take that customer? She has a cognitive idea about what the behaviors are and supports her around what that behavior looks like in action.

The challenge we have is to take responsibility. That sounds good, but trust me, her idea of taking responsibility may be different than my idea of responsibility. The richness in the conversation is, let’s talk about what that looks like. I’m going to pick on people, not in Colorado and California, but if somebody says, “Let’s go out for a great meal.” If I’m in certain parts of the country, I’m going to go out to Chick-fil-A and have the double shake. For those of us who have been around too many good food restaurants, it takes a different thing.

You have to put some flesh out. You have to say, “This is what the behavior is.” Let’s talk about how it gets experienced. At the end of an engagement, I also go back and collect data. If somebody is shifting behaviors in a way that is comfortable and works for them, they get experienced differently. I’m not an Apple bigot, but if you look at how Steve Jobs impacted people, Steve is the real deal. The early Steve was not a great leader and manager. The later Steve was quite a great leader. His behaviors were authentic and impacted people in certain ways.


The next thing is, over the past few years, vulnerability has been a big topic with Brené Brown and so forth. How does that play into being an authentic leader?

When we go back to the models, there’s a myth that the leaders always get it right, and they don’t. Not to go on a political slant, I don’t know the last time I heard a certain former president say, “I screwed up. I’m sorry.” If you want to model that saying, “I made a mistake. Let’s fix it. Let’s move forward.” You have to be able to do that.

Part of being vulnerable is appropriate disclosure and being thoughtful about saying, “Here’s where I’m a little concerned.” Being able to move forward. Being a CEO is tough. It’s a tough job. For CEOs to say, “Our sales have dropped by 90%, and I have no fricking idea what we’re going to do,” is not necessarily helpful. It will scare people as opposed to saying, “We have some challenges. We’re going to figure out a way to work it out. We can solve this together.” Admitting the challenge is healthy and enlisting people to do it. When she talks about things, part of it is being vulnerable.

There’s a new book out by Charles Duhigg called Supercommunicators, and people assume vulnerability is always about talking about mistakes. I would say that’s not the case. One of the things that you can do to be vulnerable is talk about shared experiences. There’s a little practice that I’ve started to adopt. I get asked to assess and talk to a lot of people. I want to get to know them quickly. I know we have finite time, but I am asking a simple question.

One of the things that you can do to be vulnerable is talk about shared experiences. Share on X

We all ask the question, “Where’d you grow up? Where you’re from?” Ask a simple follow-up like, “What’s your favorite experience?” It elicits some vulnerability from the person and gives you an opportunity to share your favorite experience, which is about getting to know the person. That is about being vulnerable. It can come in a variety of ways.

Can I mention something about this? As talent management executives, as we’ve done or are, vulnerability is not going to occur unless there’s a true sense of values and trust. If our leaders or employees don’t feel that trust to be vulnerable, or the culture does not protect the psychological safety that we talk about a lot at People Strategy Forums, many leaders and employees will not be vulnerable. I have been in that situation with a president where he asked for vulnerable or candid feedback. It was scary because I didn’t quite feel trust that my job would not be on the line. What are your thoughts about the cultural aspects of trust and those values that affect vulnerability, Mike?

This is something I crib from Trium Group. I did some work at BGI, but they have a trust model I like, which is trust has three legs like a stool. One is, do I understand the person’s motive? Am I clear about that? Are they dependable and reliable? The third is that they’re competent. If somebody asks me for feedback, I’ve had this happen to me, and I’m not quite clear about what the motive is.

Is the motive to savage me for what I’m sharing with them? I’m not going to trust them. If people have those three, I have to trust them. I’ve got an electrician showing up to fix some stuff that I screwed up at home. Do I trust him because he’s reliable and competent? His motive is to make money, but his motive also happens to care for his customers. I trust him. Part of it is putting that filter on because it can be unsafe to give feedback to folks who made you harm with that feedback.


I was going to tell you a story about one of my clients long ago. What happened is that she was the CEO of an organization. She got feedback early on that she was a little bit caustic. She had some issues. She got a coach to help her through these problems. One of the things that the coach advised, and I think that this didn’t go well, is she did a 360 assessment and she got information from all the people in the organization. It was a small company. It wasn’t difficult.

In that team meeting, I was doing a compensation debrief, and I witnessed what happened. One of the first topics was going through the 360 with the entire company. She got roasted by the feedback that she received during that entire company meeting. She was hurt by the feedback. There might be a fine line, or we need to think about it when we’re thinking about authenticity and transparency. What is that balance, Mike?

Part of it is building on trust because I work deep in organizations. It’s important for my clients to know that if I’m working with you, Sam, I’m not going to be having a side conversation with Char and say, “Let me tell you what’s going on with Sam.” When I work with folks, one of the things I strongly encourage them to do is share feedback. The way I lecture my 360s is, what is the person? Where are the opportunities?

You could be great at executive comp, and maybe you’re good at non-exec, but you could be better. That’s an opportunity. That’s not necessarily how bad you are doing. Where is the upside? Where’s the opportunity? I also focus on what are the strengths. What do you want that person to keep on doing because they work well? The structure of the feedback enables somebody to say, “Here are some things that I’m going to work on because I’ve got upside opportunity, and here are some things I’m going to continue to work on because they’re sustaining.” That lands differently than somebody saying, “I cause SOB.” That’s piece one.

Piece two is I do think the feedback is helpful to share. You guys don’t know this, but I think potatoes should be their own food group. Anytime I see a French fry, I’m there. If my feedback is working on avoiding eating hypoglycemic foods like potatoes, the fact that you know what I’m working on is going to enable me to spend less time at McDonald’s eating french fries because I’m out of the closet on it. That is extraordinarily helpful for the person trying to make the change. If they’ve never been to a twelve-step meeting, but my hunch is that’s part of the dynamic that works there, here’s what I’m working on. There is an art to how you share that feedback and how you get trusted with it.

People Strategy Forum | J. Mike Smith | Authentic Leadership

Authentic Leadership: There is an art to how you share that feedback and how you get trusted with it.


Going back to Char’s question, I’m privileged and lucky that I collected all this feedback, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. Nobody’s ever said, “You told Sam that he’s an SOB for me.” No, because it’s theme feedback, but the themes are what’s important. How that helps you is how you show the feedback. The reality is, for that CEO, everybody knows that already. These are secrets. People like to think that they don’t know that. After you spend a little bit of time with somebody, you know what’s going on.

On the same topic of transparency and authenticity, there are some situations where, during hard economic times, companies may fall into a situation where they may have to reduce their workforce and lose some people. There may be some concerns around their financial performance and some leaders struggle with how far they should go and being transparent about certain events. There’s a legal side to this, and I’m not talking about that. Where’s the fine line between disclosing as much as they can without scaring people and having a constructive dialogue?

We talked about this before. It’s being thoughtful about what you messaged. Something we didn’t talk about before is being consistent with your messages. I had a biotech client. If you follow the markets in 2018 and 1920, there was what I would call funny money going on when Char decided that peanut butter was a cure for cancer. She could raise a lot of money doing that. That tapped off at the end of 2020, maybe early 2021 and funding got tough.

What you saw in that sector is a number of biotech companies. I would refer to them colloquially as drunk sailors, realizing that they need to get silver real fast. A lot of layoffs occurred.

In this case, one of the things the CEO did quite effectively was to say, “Here’s what our runway is. Here’s what our progress is. Here’s how I think about things we would do, whether we get cash in or cash out.” He had a point of view, which was that retaining people who were performing was the most important thing for the company. He has a strong belief in avoiding layoffs. The guy has been around for a long time and intermittently repeated that message so that people knew. They eventually did a small riff last October 2023. It’s a 10% riff riff. That was the last resort for the company. The company employees were clear about how they were thinking.

The problem frequently is the people at the top are saying, “Things are good.” The next thing you know, 25% of the team gets whacked. They’re saying, “Where did that come from?” They don’t have that understanding of how you think about that under the hood. Reality is crazy. Things happen. You may have a board one day that says, “We’re going to fire you unless you do something.” Boards are somewhat unpredictable. Think of it as a longer conversation. A lot of times, people want to do one pass. One pass is not a conversation. One pass is an announcement. It doesn’t usually stick.

Leadership Across Industries

When thinking of your experience across multiple industries, such as biotech, technology, and the financial industry, does authentic leadership have nuance between those different industries?

Part of this is you’re swimming in a pond. Earlier, we were talking about clothing. You need to think of clothing you’re comfortable in and what the setting is. There are nuances between people who are in capital markets. You and I have worked around a lot of people in asset management companies and private equity. The cycle is different than a tech company, where they may be open and shut within a year.

If I’m doing a fundraiser and I’m looking to invest out several years, my hair is not quite on fire all the time as it may be on the tech side where the cycle turn is much quicker. One of the things for me as a practitioner is that I have to recognize that the way I experience folks is going to be different. I have to adjust my own cadence and temple.

You mention something about hair because when I was a junior HR leader, I often had a CEO and a president who would criticize me because I was responsible for hiring twenty people in a month’s time. There was a lot of critique about hair. There are cultural differences in hair, dreadlocks, braids, and colored hair. There are people who don’t have the perfect hairdo that was acceptable several years ago. Diversity inclusion needs to be considered when we talk about dress and hairstyles. It’s not like everybody has a crew cut.

It’s a big range. Part of what we have to realize is where that change is occurring. It wasn’t all that long ago that if I saw a CEO in many industries, they always had a tie on. This goes back several years. Kevin Meyer took a job at Disney. Part of his deal was he didn’t have to wear a tie. Now, when somebody wears a tie to a meeting, I assume they’re a banker because in the San Francisco Bay Area, they’re the only folks that are wearing a tie, or somebody is going to a funeral or wedding. Even in a wedding, you don’t see that.

Part of it is you have to point that out. Sometimes, people have all sorts of funny biases about things. Char, if you’ve done talent management, my favorite exercise is when you’re looking for a senior search, and somebody has got a job spec. The effective way to do that is to say, “Here are five people who aren’t candidates, but I want you to look at their resumes and call out what pops up.” Somebody says, “Sam went to a state school. I like that.” That’s not on the job spec. You’ll get people saying, “Did you notice that X, Y, Z?”

I work with one of my favorite recruiters, who’s a tall woman. She’s great. My screening process usually involves a phone screen because recruiters spend much of their time on the phone. I want to start with the most important thing on the phone. When she came in, I thought she was a tall person. Some people would be intimidated, but the reality is that she’s great at what she does. It’s not an issue. You have to push back on that.

I’ll say as short people because my partner is 6’6”, but I’m sure people are like a cup of coffee. We’re short, but we’re like an espresso. There’s a lot of power being short. You have a tall cup of coffee. It is the same amount of coffee. It’s in a taller cup.

There’s a Gary Larson cartoon with a dog and a computer. It says, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” I’ll tell you, “On Zoom, nobody knows what your height is.”

As we wrap up the conversation here, Mike, it’s been a great conversation. Thank you. What are the main things you would like our readers to walk away with?

I’d like two things. One is to be aware of your setting because one of the ways we experience leaders is it’s generally speaking. It’s a visual world. What’s the intent behind how you show up in person? Avoid being fake because it’s easy to spot. No man suits unless man suits are your idea of comfortable clothes. Show up in person and on screen, and apologize in advance. I’m at a client site. The usual background I have is not there. Think about that in person.

The second thing is to have some clarity about your personal values. If you have convictions about certain things, like I have convictions about being inclusive, you want to be comfortable with expressing that in a variety of ways. Have conviction around your personal values because they show up. If you say, “Customer service is important to me,” and it’s not, it shows up in a host of other behaviors. Those are the two things.

Have conviction around your personal values because they show up. Share on X

Thank you so much, Mike. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I have gained great knowledge from you. It’s great.

Sam, it’s been great to reconnect. Char, I’ll send you the mirror we talked about. His artwork is available. It’s great.

Please connect with me. I love what you said. I’d like to share our experiences.

Thank you, everyone, for tuning into the People Strategy Forum. We’ll see you next episode. 


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About J. Mike Smith

People Strategy Forum | J. Mike Smith | Authentic LeadershipMike Smith is a seasoned management consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area with over 30 years of experience in various industries including high tech, biotech, and financial services. He specializes in executive coaching, team start-ups, team building, and group facilitation.

Mike founded Back West, Inc. in 1996 and has worked with diverse organizations from startups like Atara Bio to Fortune 500 companies. His approach combines deep theoretical knowledge with practical experience, ensuring fast starts and lasting results. Not just a theoretician, Mike has held roles from cubicles to executive suites and is also an MBTI® Certified Practitioner.

His consulting practice is deeply influenced by his roots in the Pacific West and his time in Chicago. For consulting inquiries, contact

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