It was an incredible privilege to attend Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s keynote speech at INBOUND 2017 – and to say that everyone in the room walked away inspired would be an understatement. Before the former First Lady even walked out on to the stage, the room – which was filled to the brim – was buzzing, and the energy only continued to grow through her hour-long conversation with New York Times best-selling author Roxane Gay.
Throughout their conversation – which flew by – Mrs. Obama discussed topics ranging from, her time as First Lady, challenges in the spotlight, making the transition both to and from the White House, women’s empowerment, how her management style has evolved over the years, the Obama’s legacy, her upcoming book and her thoughts on the current state of the country.
As you can imagine, Mrs. Obama is incredibly charismatic, and while the entirety of the discussion was both enlightening and inspiring, she did stress a few points more strongly than others that resonated with me as a woman and communications professional in regard to teamwork, client relationships and doing what you love.
1) Your authentic self will get your further than any fake persona.
“I was never tying to be anyone else, and it’s hard to keep going if you’re not you – and you have to ask yourself, why would I ever want to be anyone else but me?”
This was the most resonant component of the discussion. Mrs. Obama shared that what you see is what you get when it comes to how she presents herself to the world. Being authentic often comes down to a person’s general temperament, it’s all about how you treat others and never letting your voice go unheard. This point was especially resonant as a professional working in the field of communications. We work closely with clients to capture their real voices and to develop authentic, meaningful content, whether it’s a blog post or Op-Ed. Mrs. Obama emphasized the importance of being yourself – but also developing strong messaging, framing of language and knowing when and how to “pick your battles” so you remain confident in your abilities.
2) Don’t let what other people say define you.
“Each challenge, failure, crushing blow has made me stronger and life is so long and teaches you grace along the way.”
Mrs. Obama explained that one of the more significant parts of the Obama’s legacy is being humble and leading with grace. From her time in the White House to present day she spoke about living under a microscope, she explained while you can’t control the negativity and comments coming from other people, you can control how you choose to respond to outside voices. This sentiment can be applied to every aspect of life and the business world is no different, as we work with organizations every day to enhance their messaging and communicate their vision and mission to the media. Mrs. Obama stressed how important it is to take a moment to know your truth and make sure you love yourself before caring about the outside noise.
3) Let your work speak for itself.
“Let my work speak for itself and let that replace all the misinformation out there.”
Mrs. Obama explained that while the President was developing his agenda, so did she – because she didn’t want to be a First Lady of slogans or symbolic gestures. She didn’t want to talk be a “talking head” when it came to creating change. She wanted to drive it, and to do so, Mrs. Obama knew she would have to present strong ideas and significant initiatives that made a difference – which is how programs like Let’s Move!, Joining Forces and Let Girls Learn were developed. She stressed that people want to work for good people, and if you’re doing good work, and it has a positive impact on people, then just keep going. She said this was especially helpful as she looked to drive the conversation from “What’s First Lady Wearing?” to “The First Lady is leading these initiatives that help change XYZ, and is also wearing a nice turquoise dress.” This point was particularly meaningful working as a young woman in the workforce. As Mrs. Obama pointed out, we each have the tendency to question our own gut – even when we know a recommendation or plan is the right path – and it was helpful to know that even the former First Lady experiences the same thing.
4) Create a space of empathy in the workplace.
“Empathy. Compassion. Patience. That’s all part of being a good manager.”
Mrs. Obama started by stressing that you can try to lead with fear, but it doesn’t work. She stressed the importance of taking time – whether it be at the start of a meeting or one-on-one – to check in with each other and remember that we’re all human beings. She explained that in many situations, knowing what is going on outside of work for another person explains what’s happening in the office. With the business world moving at such a fast pace, this point was a helpful reminder to focus on building strong, trusting relationships because that will ultimately lead to more productive communication and stronger results.
Of course, no conversation between two strong, empowered women would be complete without giving a nod to another icon – Beyoncé. In case you’re wondering, Mrs. Obama’s favorite song on Lemonade is “Love Drought.”