I’d like you to go to google, and image search “CEO” or “Executive”.. Scroll for a minute. See what comes up, what you notice.
I tell you what I notice.
Firstly, there’s a lot of older, white men. Not all of them – there are some women, and there’s some diversity of skin colour, but not a lot. But that didn’t surprise me.
What did stand out for me was the way these individuals are photographed. Crossed arms. Straight backs. A solo person standing in a position of power. Bland, corporate suits. Blurred, empty backgrounds. Direct eye contact. Intensity.
Every one of those images felt designed to convey strength, power, and almost a bland sense of inhumanity. You got no sense of who these people are, they could have been anyone and worked for any company.
I went further and started looking at the “who are we” page of big corporations (including my own). Try yours. The bio headshots of the senior execs and board members are almost interchangeable. The same facial expressions, clothes, body positions. They could have been AI generated.
So why does this matter?
As a leader, we create the space for everyone who works with us. We tell them – often silently – what’s allowed, what’s encouraged, what’s accepted, what’s rewarded. It’s not the fancy speeches or the beautifully copywritten content on our careers pages that matters – it’s the small actions we take every day to show that we are people. To acknowledge we are interesting, flawed, diverse, vulnerable and different – and that’s what makes each of us unique.
I don’t want the people I work with to feel they have to look like me, dress like me, talk like me, work the same hours I work or alter themselves to ‘fit in’ like a bland corporate set of headshots. I want to see difference, curiosity, personality, vulnerability, humanity and passion. I want everyone to feel they have a safe space to be themselves, and the permission to be a brilliant light for those around them.
But it’s not really about corporate headshots (although I’ve personally changed my LinkedIn one to be more human). We need to do more than that, so here are three small actions you might want to consider starting today:
- Offer complete flexibility to your employees (wherever possible) and proactively share when you work flexibly, and why. Recently, I shared on my out-of-office that I was behind on emails due to two sick toddlers. I got an outpouring of support from colleagues, and a lot of emails saying thank you, because I was making parenting an acceptable reason to put a pause on work.
- Ask your team if they feel they have to present in a specific way to ‘fit in’. Do they feel they have to dress a certain way? Limit how they do their hair? Amend how they usually talk? Hide aspects of themselves in the workplace? If they do, talk about why. Encourage them to have the same conversation with their teams, and so on down your organisation.
- Share something personal with your team. It doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. There’s no pressure for you to tell your team everything about your personal life (nor would that be a good idea). But by sharing a small snippet of what makes you you, you’ll give your team a safe space to bring a little bit more of who they are into the workplace.
And then, to get a bit more controversial, my final suggestion: don’t treat others how you want to be treated.
That’s right. Don’t treat others how you want to be treated. Because they aren’t you. They will have a different background, different experiences, different priorities, different strengths and different personal challenges. So instead, ask the people you work with how they want to be treated, and listen to the answer. This is how we truly create the space for everyone to brilliant and be themselves.