Now more than ever, we need authentic leaders — those that embrace the fullness of who they are so that they can use all of their gifts and talents to create unique movements for good.
To help us all tap into our potential for this kind of leadership, I’m sharing a series of conversations with some of the most authentic leaders I know. And today I’m featuring April Willis. Based in Austin, Texas, April is consultant for small businesses, nonprofits and startups. Her goal is to grow her business into “a large enterprise with a team of experts supporting our clients in maximizing their potential for the greater good.”
April candidly shared with me her own journey to authentic leadership, from the #Firestarter who inspired her to a setback she turned into an opportunity. (Our conversation is edited slightly for length and clarity.)
What brought you to your specific career path?
Before becoming a consultant, I worked at the campus, district and state levels of education. I started as an elementary teacher, moved to statewide school improvement in Texas and then became a director of business operations for a charter school district with principal and superintendent certifications. Education was always prioritized growing up, and as a first-generation college graduate with a doctorate and three master’s degrees, including an MBA, I knew I needed to gain firsthand experience before I could help others in a consultancy role.
How do you describe or define authentic leadership?
Authentic leaders are confident in their ethical position, optimistic about what their team can achieve and effective in building genuine relationships based on goals, attitudes and beliefs. The authentic leader has the power to influence others based on a strong moral compass and a drive to connect. People want to be heard and represented by a leader who understands them and who demonstrates authentic values.
Have you always been an authentic leader?
Building positive relationships has always been my primary approach as a leader. When I was a teacher at a charter school housed at a safe place facility, I had a class of elementary students who were escaping sexual and/or domestic violence. My first order of business with them was not focusing on reading, math or science. It was centered on being a kind and trusting adult with boundaries whom they could feel safe with. We spent the first week of class playing get-to-know-you games, practicing routines and giving each of them a voice. Through building those relationships, I always had the highest-performing class, academically and socially. These students wanted nothing more than to please me, and, as a result, they learned quicker, had fewer behavior issues and were empowered to take ownership of their learning. Building relationships is an incredibly critical component of leadership at every level — from a classroom teacher to a C-level executive.
How do you remain authentic without crossing the line into being unprofessional?
Being authentic in the workplace is not about creating a new personality or a fake personality. It’s you dialed up or down from your baseline. As a professional, you have the responsibility to demonstrate that you understand the situation and know how to respond appropriately. You should remain consistent with the parts of you that matter — values, beliefs, attitude — while still packaging them in a professional and respectful manner. Be your authentic self while exhibiting situational awareness and responding accordingly.
Can you share the most interesting story involving authentic leadership that has happened to you in your career?
Authentic leadership starts with people. When I look back on my career, one distinctive relationship stands out. About 10 years ago when I was teaching, I was assigned a classroom volunteer, Donna Raskin. She would mentor and tutor students twice per week. As we got to know each other, she encouraged me to join the Junior League of Austin. I told her I would consider it when the time is right, and we stayed in touch over the years. A few years later, I joined the Junior League, and, although I was no longer teaching, we continued to keep in contact. Then, a few years later, I placed an ad in the Junior League magazine for my consulting company, and Donna reached out because she had started the nonprofit organization Austin Kids Can! and was seeking a consultant. It ended up being a perfect fit, and she is one of my most valuable clients to this day. I believe this relationship is a result of being an authentic leader from the classroom to the boardroom. You never know the impact you are having and how your professionalism and leadership can create significant moments in your career.
What advice would you give to readers about how to create an authentic workplace or team culture?
Focus on people first. We are all in the business of people. Without them, none of us would be successful. Put in the work to build positive relationships, even if it means sacrificing some valuable work time up front. Once solid relationships are formed, everything else comes easily. Without those relationships, everything feels like a struggle. People will begin resenting leadership when they don’t feel heard, understood or valued. As Peter Drucker stated, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In other words, you can have plans, strategies and priorities all laid out, but without a solid culture, success won’t be easy.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you?
Of course there are books like “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “Drive” by Daniel Pink that have influenced my leadership. But, at the risk of sounding self-serving, the books I published have had the most significant impact on me. I wrote my first book in response to a negative interview experience. I had a great job, but was looking to move up the ladder pretty quickly. I had an interview for a position that I felt very qualified for and that would have been a title greater than the role I was in. At the end of the interview, the hiring manager told me, “Quite frankly, April, you are overeducated and under experienced.” Well, nothing lights my fire quicker than someone telling me I can’t do something. So, first I got a job with an even higher title at another organization. And then within a few months, I wrote and published my first book, “Overeducated and Under Experienced: Navigating a Saturated Workforce.” I then established a scholarship fund for all of the proceeds of the book and conducted a three-city book-signing tour in Texas. After such a great response, I published a follow-up book, “Work For it: Excelling at Your Career,” which I use to host workshops and seminars. Being a published author allows me to share tools and strategies for creating professional success while accelerating my own achievements and gaining credibility in a highly competitive field.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to become more authentic?
1. Be observant. Observe how you act when you are in a low-key situation and then observe how you act when the stakes are high. What is different? What is the same? What do you want to keep, and what should you work on improving?
2. Explore your beliefs. What values are most important to you? Where did they come from? For example, were they taught to you as a child or did you pick them up from media? Evaluate whether these are the beliefs you want to identify with.
3. Reconcile perceived deviations. Reflect on varying situations and notice how you may be perceived differently. Are those perceptions rooted in deviations of beliefs or deviations of demeanor? Is this an area that may need to be aligned in order to remain authentic across the board?
4. Be honest. We can quickly dismiss personal growth by creating rationales for one-off scenarios or explaining away why certain situations are irrelevant. Are you making progress on becoming your authentic self, or are you making excuses for why you don’t need to improve?
5. Be a light. Most people are trying their best. They want to live peacefully, and they want to make a difference. We all need a little grace, and sometimes we need a little encouragement. Living by example with integrity and kindness can be enough for us to grow stronger in our leadership journey while being the light someone else needs to shine on their path.
What resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to live more authentically?
1. Friends. Having a core group of 1-4 friends who can be honest with you. I’m talking boldly honest, not sugar-coated honest, and who can hold you accountable for your behavior. People who can talk with you about why you react certain ways and why you think certain things — and who can brainstorm with you on how you can improve. These people are the source of your relational growth and should be valued. They are your greatest resources in growing as an authentic leader.
2. Reflective journaling. Reflecting on your own behavior and outlook is incredibly important. Oftentimes, we react to situations or we overthink what’s to come. Rarely do we allow ourselves to reflect on what has occurred — with the exception of the times we dwell on situations we wish we had handled differently. Reflection doesn’t have to be punishment or anguish. Reflection can be a time to dissect where feelings and opinions came from. We can observe our actions objectively instead of defensively.
3. The internet. A simple search for “how to be more authentic” will lead you towards tens of thousands of articles, books and videos. If you’re really interested in hearing what others suggest, then spend some time with those who are invested in sharing their authentic-development expertise with you.
What is your favorite “life lesson” quote”? Do you have a story about how that quote was relevant in your life?
Albert Schweitzer said, “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” This quote has guided my leadership for the past 10 years. We all want to be happy in life, and serving others is the key. Service has always been a part of my life, from being a member of the Junior League, to serving on a school board for six years, to launching my own scholarship fund, to serving my city on the Ethics Review Commission. I have always dedicated a portion of my life to improving conditions for others.
You are a #Firestarter, a changemaker and a person of great influence. If you could start a movement for social good, what would it be? Leaders turn moments into movements.
I am on fire when it comes to helping people achieve their full potential. I’m all about leveraging strengths to maximize outcomes. One way I have been helping people actualize their gifts is through resume writing using a name-your-price approach. I believe every person has the right to be considered for roles they are qualified for, regardless of their ability to convey their gifts and talents on paper. The name-your-price approach allows me to serve all clients equally no matter what they can afford. I have supported everyone from recent high school graduates with no work history but extensive community involvement to stay-at-home moms transitioning back to work after a decade of leave to CEOs who are crushing the professional world. All of these clients want someone who knows how to help them get their foot in the door at a rate that they can afford, and I do just that. I would have to say that my movement would be #CareerEmpowerment.
Who is a #Firestarter that has influenced your career?
When I was 12, my dad came home from work and told my mom he had just quit his job. She was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad was the only one working to support our family of four. I remember my mom looking a little shocked and asking what we were going to do next. My dad laid out a plan that required taking out loans and starting his own business. With no guaranteed income, but a dream and a supportive family, he made it happen. I remember typing his first invoices on my word processor and answering the phones in his office after school: “Thank you for calling A & M Glass Solutions. This is April. How may I help you?” I felt so grown up and loved that he let me be a part of the process. Watching him go through the steps of establishing a successful business that is still running after 20-plus years has been quite influential. He didn’t have anyone to mentor him or show him the ropes, but he figured it out and financed it all on his own. I’m so proud that I was there to see it all happen. By the way, “A & M” in the company name stands for April and Monica, my sister’s name, so we felt extra special.
How do you keep yourself grounded?
I stay grounded by maintaining close relationships with those who know me and love me best: my family. I talk to my parents, Reed and Nasrin Michaud, and my sister, Monica Portillo, almost every day. I am who I am because of their constant encouragement, motivation and investment in my successes. They still celebrate big wins with me and are genuinely excited about what I’ve accomplished so far and what I am still on track to do. I also have a wonderful husband, Matt Willis, who is supportive, intelligent and a bit competitive. We enjoy eating out, being outdoors and planning our bright future together.
How can readers follow you on social media?