Authenticity is the secret sauce that the most successful speakers have in their repertoire to win over and truly connect with their audiences. However, is it always pragmatic to put your true self on display? In the first of our Speaker Spotlight Series, HR industry veteran Syed Ali Abbas tells us how he navigates this dilemma both as a business leader and professional speaker.
Authentic leaders are able to embody their true selves in their roles, show their vulnerabilities and take ownership for any mistakes that they make. Through these behaviours, they develop honest relationships, winning over the trust and loyalty of their employees.
In 2015, an article in the Harvard Business Review declared, “Authenticity has emerged as the gold standard for leadership.”
Syed Ali Abbas, chief strategy officer at lifelong learning technology company Epitome Global agrees with this notion, but with a caveat. He says, “Authenticity is a complex topic that should be given far more attention than it currently gets. Theoretically, it’s about being true to our own beliefs and desires as individuals. In practice, there is some filtering needed to express these beliefs and desires in a balanced way that is acceptable for the world we live and work in.”
“Filter too little and you become the socially awkward person who everyone wants to avoid. Filter too much and you become the corporate yes man (or woman) who nobody trusts,” says Abbas who has over 15 years of senior leadership experience in companies such as Global Fashion Group (parent company of Zalora), Pacnet and AT&T.
Authenticity in leadership
Though many self help gurus preach that leaders need to be 100% true to themselves to be authentic, leadership in today’s business world is too complex for any single style to work effectively in all scenarios, says Abbas.
“In my early leadership roles I felt very comfortable being completely true to who I was as an individual, secure in the knowledge that my hard work and my skills were what mattered most to be an effective leader,” shares Abbas. However, over the years, he realised that his approach needed some tweaking.
“I learnt the hard way that to be a truly effective leader in the long run I also had to learn to flex my leadership approach, my communication style, my personal behaviour and yes – how much of my authentic self was on display at any given time,” says Abbas.
“After all these years I’m finally mature enough as a leader to find a balance where my leadership style is my own and in line with my personal values, but I can dynamically adjust my leadership behaviours depending on the situation,” he explains.
Yet, leaders should also not be afraid to show their vulnerabilities, says Abbas. “I remember a senior business leader in one of my previous companies who had a reputation for being completely soulless and having no care for anyone except himself. Then suddenly one day, he opened up in front of our entire sales force at an offsite event. He said that he knew he had not been a great colleague and explained that he had been distant because he was battling a serious personal medical issue. He said he was very grateful to everyone in the company for putting up with him despite everything, ” Abbas shares.
“It was unexpected, it was genuine and everyone could see it came from his heart. He won a lot of people over that day and rightly so,” Abbas says.
Connecting with your audience
The ability to connect authentically is also a valuable skill in public speaking. Speakers who can do so are a fresh breath of air for an audience who are fatigued from being constantly sold to or spun at.
As a seasoned public speaker, Abbas applies a few proven strategies to build an authentic connection with his audience.
“First and foremost is delivering value to the audience because everything else is irrelevant without that. This value comes from delivering a session that is well-researched, helps my audience have an “Aha!” moment of discovery and then equips them with a usable understanding of the topic for the future. This is not easy to do,” he explains.
For example, Abbas is wary of content which he describes as “junk food for the brain”.
“Think about some of the really cool quotes and videos we see online these days from self-professed experts on culture and leadership and change. Their revelations seem so amazingly simple and life-changing when we see them but then 24 hours later we literally can’t remember anything they said. I personally try to ensure I’m not pushing that to my audiences,” he explains.
Abbas also tries to avoid using overused management jargon such as “VUCA” and encourages one to look past sensational headlines for the real story.
Never put down your competitors, advises Abbas. “If I’m on stage as a subject-matter expert, the only things off-limits are hard selling my own product or singling out individual products and companies for criticism,” he explains.
For example, Abbas says that some of his company’s competitors often tout Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities in their products that are technically impossible. Instead of calling out such companies by name, he equips his audience to ask the right questions (e.g. How do you do Machine Learning with such limited data?), spot red flags, and learn to make their own judgements in the long run.
When it comes to body language, Abbas tries to keep things relaxed but animated to set the right mood. “My body stance is very open, my facial expressions are animated, my hand gestures help guide the conversation and my effort is always to include the entire audience when I’m speaking,” he says.
According to Abbas, eye contact is critical to authenticity. “Please ensure you are picking out people for eye contact in various parts of the room. This is especially important to be inclusive of the entire audience when you are in a situation where you cannot walk the stage as a speaker,” he explains.
Lastly, Abbas says that having a sense of humour works wonders in terms of audience engagement. “It’s great as an ice-breaker, breaks the monotony of sharing complex information and makes speakers more approachable for Q&A,” he says.
Using storytelling as a vehicle
Storytelling can be a great vehicle for speakers hoping to create greater authenticity in their presentations. “There is no better tool than storytelling to make a topic come alive so that it can be shared with others in an authentic way. This is a powerful skill that all leaders must cultivate in my opinion,” says Abbas.
Yet, there are three potential pitfalls to storytelling that one should try to avoid, cautions Abbas. “First, the story must be relevant to the topic and interesting. Nobody likes a random story forced on them by a leader who attended storytelling training or attended a class on the topic at the Changi Airport School of Management (i.e. bought a book on the topic before a long-haul flight),” he quips.
“Second, the story must be true and personal. It’s ok to share the stories of others as part of cultural folklore in a company (e.g. about the founder or some amazing employee) but things go downhill once you start borrowing stories from others or embellishing your own stories too much,” says Abbas.
“Third, do not become the guy who always has to have the best story like the appropriately named Topper character in Dilbert. Even if you have had an exciting life and career filled with the most amazing stories, sometimes it’s best to keep quiet and let others have the spotlight,” says Abbas.
“I’m not ashamed to admit I fell foul of this third pitfall early in my leadership journey,” reveals Abbas. “It was all done in blissful ignorance and in the right spirit of sharing my experiences with others, but that did not make it right. Over time I’ve controlled my inclination to be Topper and I’m sure my colleagues are as happy as I am for the change! Now I’m just Catbert,” he says.
Balancing business interests and the authentic self
Business professionals often need to strike an often delicate balance between their authentic self and their company interests when speaking at industry events and conferences. How does one avoid becoming just a corporate mouthpiece?
“It’s certainly challenging to represent a company externally and be a completely authentic speaker. There is no such thing as a perfect product or company with no flaws. And corporate life involves both good times and bad times. Finding your balance of authenticity in these situations is really a matter of personal choice and the issue at hand,” says Abbas.
He reveals that he has adopted an open approach while representing Epitome Global at speaking engagements, customer meetings and investor pitches. “Authenticity is even more powerful when representing a company because your audience doesn’t expect you to be so unfiltered,” he explains.
“Talking openly about our relative strengths and weaknesses as a company gives our stakeholders a lot of confidence in us. That being said, sometimes it’s more appropriate to use a more cautious “tip of the iceberg” approach of sharing 10% up front on stage as an opening conversation and then the remaining 90% details in a more private setting,” says Abbas.
“The fascinating thing is that you will often be in a situation where there are equally strong arguments for using both approaches, even in situations as extreme as crisis management. At that point, each of us needs to consider what our authentic leadership style is and what is in the best interests of all stakeholders, and act accordingly,” Abbas concludes.
Bio-brief: Syed Ali Abbas
Syed Ali Abbas is the Chief Strategy Officer of Epitome Global, a next generation lifelong learning and talent analytics company headquartered in Singapore. In this role, Abbas is driving a major pivot in company strategy as well all matters relating to people, partnerships, M&A and legal. Before joining full-time in 2019, Abbas had served on the Advisory Board of Epitome Global since it was founded in 2016.
Prior to CXS, Abbas was the Group HR Director for Global Fashion Group (GFG), a global corporation consisting of leading fashion e-commerce companies including ZALORA in Asia. He was part of the corporate leadership team that transformed GFG and led it to a successful IPO in 2019. Abbas has served in other senior HR leadership roles with similar transformational mandates, including Chief HR Officer for the Pacnet Group and Executive Director of HR (Asia Pacific and India) for AT&T Inc.
In addition to his corporate activities, Abbas volunteers to serve as a member of the Executive Council of the Singapore Human Resources Institute (the national HR professional association of Singapore). He is also a member of the Board Nominations Committee of AWWA Limited (a major social service organisation in Singapore). Abbas is also an active angel investor and advises early stage companies on people, leadership and strategy.