Claudia Williams: Authenticity Starts Inside the Organization
  • Season 1
  • Episode 3

Authenticity has become a buzzword in marketing and branding over the years. However, before authenticity can make its way into external messaging, it needs to start at the relational level of co-workers, leadership, and employees internally. Join me as I discuss how this is possible with Claudia Williams, speaker, coach, and Vistage chair as well as the founder of Frientorship®.


Button Scroll Up

Jessica Hughes
Viscul / Fork & Lens

Claudia William
The Human Zone, Frientorship®

Quote from Claudia Williams
Trust builds respect, and respect drives the loyalty. It’s a cycle that keeps building on itself, stacking up like a staircase.


Jessica Hughes: 00:01 Hey everyone, as you know, authenticity has become quite the buzzword in the past year, but especially around the past several months. But, before the marketing team runs with authenticity in their efforts, it first needs to be part of the internal organization as a whole.

Today, we have Claudia Williams joining us, from The Human Zone, and she is probably one of my closest mentors, and friends. She has helped me navigate the waters of growing VisCul, as well as other parts of my professional career, and I couldn’t be more excited to have her with us today. Here we go.

Welcome to the Fork and Lens podcast, brought to you by VisCul.

Claudia Williams spent more than a decade as an award-winning attorney, coaching leaders of organizations of all sizes through challenging workplace situations. Founder of The Human Zone, Claudia is a business coach, consultant, speaker, and workplace trainer, author, as well as Vistage chair. Claudia helps leaders and companies solve problems and develop their people to face tomorrow’s challenges. Claudia also developed Frientorship®, a model that encompasses key principles of Frientorship®, mentorship, and leadership. When leveraged, you can drive collaboration, innovation, and connectivity, and you set a workplace culture on fire. Say that three times fast. Business is personal, and the Frientorship® model shows leaders how to develop and leverage purposeful and meaningful relationships with their employees, customers, and clients. You can find her Frientorship® TEDx talk on YouTube.

Immediately prior to starting The Human Zone, Claudia served as the associate general council, global HR, and litigation for Hershey Company. She’s an Athena International Leadership Award recipient, and a Business Woman of the Year nominee. She also received the PBA 2015 Special Achievement Award, in recognition to her pro bono commitment to Veterans and first responders. She was named as one of Central Penn Business Journal’s 25 Women of Influence, and named one of the Top 100 Women in Business in Pennsylvania. Please help me welcome Claudia Williams.

All right, obviously you have seen it all, the wonderful, the good, the bad, the ugly, in terms of what people look like within the workplace. I think that’s key in all of this, because authenticity comes in different forms, which I want you to get into. But, when it comes to marketing, it’s become a buzzword. From my perspective, it’s not authentic to have an authentic brand that doesn’t start internally, and within the organization.

How would you describe authenticity, from your perspective?

Claudia Williams…: 03:00 Authenticity is, in its simplest form, it’s just real, and it’s something that starts from the leader of the company, and it’s how that person shows up every day. So companies, they do these funny things. They have a lot of great words, and they have great posters all throughout their workplaces. As you know, they have great branding, and they make beautiful posters, and they hang them all over the place, and they use these great words that say, “Oh, this is who we are!”

When I look at it I say, “Is it really?” Then I say, “Okay, well if this who you are, then show me.”

Jessica Hughes: 03:52 Right.

Claudia Williams…: 03:53 That’s what their employees are saying, too. Thanks to social media, their employees have a chance to say, “No, that’s not really who we are.” That’s when their customers are going to say, “Well, what are their employees really saying about them?”

So, the words and their branding have to match what their employees are saying about them. And when that’s not consistent, then it’s not authentic.

Jessica Hughes: 04:18 Right. Because when you think about branding, it’s the collective experience of all of your customers, but it’s also the collective experience of your employees because they can create as much user generated content out there as your customers can.

Claudia Williams…: 04:31 Exactly. Employees have a much more powerful voice today than they’ve ever had before, so employees have as much impact on branding now as a great commercial, or as a great video, or as a great billboard, or whatever it is. It’s more important than ever to make sure that a company’s brand is consistent, both internally and externally.

Jessica Hughes: 04:59 So when it comes to, obviously, the authenticity starting at the top of the organization, with the owner or the president, but how does that trickle down in? Especially as you get into these larger teams, you have every personality, from the person who keeps someone at arm’s length to make sure that they have that separation of professional and personal, to the person who just puts on a front, and is not really who they are on a day-to-day basis, but they have that professional persona behind them. Then, you also have the people that are so authentic, and so transparent, that they overshare, and make everyone else in the room uncomfortable.

Claudia Williams…: 05:41 Yeah. Yeah, it’s about teaching people how to find the balance, and it’s a daily thing. So it’s something that has to be talked about daily, it’s something that has to be lived daily, and it’s something that has to be reinforced daily. It does start from the top, but it’s this combination of top and bottom, and coming together in the middle. It has to start from the owner, from the president, from the CEO. Once that person sets the expectation of this is who we are, but it starts with this who I am, so this is who we are. Then, that person cascades it to the senior leadership team, and that person cascades it to the next level of leadership, and the next level, and the next level.

When they do that, the key is consistency. It’s not just at the strategic planning session that they do at the beginning of each year, in anticipation of the beginning of each year, that it sounds great, they have this big rah-rah session, and they all walk away. It happens at every single meeting, every single team meeting, where they go back. It doesn’t have to be this big, long two hour thing every single time, but for five minutes to reinforce a core value, to do something for a really short period of time, that reinforces some key aspect of a value, or something that demonstrates a vulnerability, and ties back to the company personality, because that’s really what it’s all about.

As long as they’re doing that consistently, steadily, regularly, that’s where the reinforcement of it happens. Then, it just starts happening without people even realizing it, and that’s how culture happens. Then, it’s just the norm, and it’s no longer something that feels forced, it just becomes who they are.

Jessica Hughes: 07:42 So how does an organization go about that, whenever their culture maybe doesn’t look like that currently?

Claudia Williams…: 07:49 Culture change is something that takes a long time to happen. So this is process, and it can take a year, it can take two years, for real change to happen. The key is just not to give up, and to accept that this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, because behavior change takes a long time. People aren’t going to trust it at first, particularly if it has been not good.

So it starts with acknowledging that it hasn’t been good, and putting it out there that we’re going to make a change. These are the things we’re going to do to make this change, and we need everyone to buy into this. To get you to buy in, we want you to know these are the things we’re going to do at the top. If you don’t see us doing it, call us out on it. These are the promises we’re making to you, these are the promises we’re making to each other, this is how we’re going to do it, just put it out there. And have everyone play a part in it, and make sure everyone is really clear on what the part is they’re playing. You have to start somewhere.

Jessica Hughes: 09:00 Right. I think of Zappos, because they’re this … They’ve been put on a pedestal when it comes to corporate culture, right?

Claudia Williams…: 09:13 Yeah.

Jessica Hughes: 09:14 Their employees live out their values, and those values are then communicated to the customer. But, if they didn’t reinforce those internally, they would never get to the customer base the way that they have in the past five years. So obviously, this relates to the external image, and the brand, and the marketing efforts that go along with that.

Claudia Williams…: 09:37 Yeah. Can we be okay with saying when we make mistakes, please?

Jessica Hughes: 09:43 Yeah.

Claudia Williams…: 09:43 Everybody, say we made a mistake, say what the mistake was, say that we’re sorry. Say, “We might actually make that mistake again, because we’re not perfect.” Just put it out there.

For some reason, we don’t like to acknowledge when we make mistakes, but I’m pretty sure everyone makes them. Employees really appreciate when leaders acknowledge the mistakes they make, and customers really appreciate when companies acknowledge the mistakes they make. That’s what drives loyalty.

Jessica Hughes: 10:20 It is. It develops trust. If you’re not being transparent and authentic in that, and you’re constantly just pushing blame here or pushing blame there, who’s going to trust you?

Claudia Williams…: 10:34 Exactly. Trust builds respect, and respect drives the loyalty. It’s a cycle that keeps building on itself, stacking up like a staircase, over and over again. When you get knocked down a step or two, it’s okay because you’ve built some leverage. You know, when you’re staring from the bottom, if you don’t have any of those things, all you’re doing is just digging a deeper hole.

Jessica Hughes: 11:07 So you’ve become known for your Frientorship® model. How does that fit into this picture?

Claudia Williams…: 11:15 Well, Frientorship® relies on pillars of friendship, mentorship, and leadership. It’s all about trust, respect, and loyalty, and building on those things. Leveraging communication is a key for leaders to be vulnerable, and having high levels of self-awareness, to hold themselves accountable, to hold the people around them accountable. These are all things that go into driving engagement within companies, to treat information as something to be shared, rather than using information as a currency to be traded for self-gain, rather than for the greater good within an organization.

I know many people who worked in places where we hold in close, and wait to use it only when it’s something that will propel us over someone else, rather than knowing that the things that we can do to build each other up really helps us all go farther faster, rather than going alone on a journey. These are the things in a company, you can tell where everyone is working together toward common goals, rather than alone, to try to reach the top.

When everyone’s working together, yes there’s still people who will get promoted, there are still people who will be great individual contributors, but we cheer on each other’s successes, and celebrate people for what they bring to the table. And there’s no second guessing, everyone’s in it for the greater good.

We’ve seen some of that in the wake of the Coronavirus in organizations, where people rallied to create PPE in companies that never made PPE before. We see people come together for good causes, and we see what it does for the brand of the company. There’s a lot of good that comes from people trusting each other, people working together. It propels organizations to new places, and that it propels their brands in the public eye, too.

Jessica Hughes: 14:08 It does. I think we think of a lot of the companies that have been extremely successful in the past three months, with the Coronavirus, and the economy. I think the ones that have excelled the most are the ones that have strong cultures. It has nothing to do with finances, it’s the people who are able to rally together as a team, and push forward together, all in one direction with the shared common good in mind.

Even those who have pivoted from one product to another, I’ll take Ford as an example. They’ve reached to GE, they’ve reached out to others, in order to help with production of ventilator systems and other items that were needed during the crisis. It’s because they all have the common good in mind. They did the same thing back in World War II, when they were helping build tanks for the war. They all said, “Okay, this is the part that we can do, and we’re all going to move forward together. And we’re going to bring in the partners that we need in order to have knowledge that we need, in order to make those things happen.”

So I think this serves not just in internal, and brand and marketing, but also when we’re looking for people to collaborate with, and partner with in business, are those people. People that are authentic in what they’re doing with their own internal teams, and are they going to be able to have those transparent conversations with you.

Claudia Williams…: 15:36 Yeah, people can smell fake a mile away.

Jessica Hughes: 15:40 They can.

Claudia Williams…: 15:41 Right? They can smell it, they can see it, and they want nothing to do with it anymore. We’ve had enough. They don’t want to work for fake, they don’t want to spend money on fake, they’re not going to invest their time and energy in fake anymore.

Thanks to online customer reviews, and thanks to websites like Glassdoor, where employees can go on and post reviews … and I’m not saying that all of the reviews are true, but I’m saying there’s enough information out there where, if companies aren’t monitoring the information, and timely responding to information, and staying on top of things, there’s enough information out there now, and consumers are savvy, and job candidates are savvy. We will invest our time in searching, and making sure that we’re spending our job searches looking for the right places, and we’re spending our dollars in the right places.

Jessica Hughes: 16:51 Yeah, you just brought up a really interesting point, because you often think about marketing teams working with sales and other departments in merchandising, especially in food and beverage industries. But, you don’t necessarily think about them working hand-in-hand with HR, and what are the efforts that they’re putting into showing off employees, but also the efforts that they’re taking in order to provide positive feedback to the negative feedback on sites like Glassdoor, and Indeed, and all those different sites.

How would you recommend the HR department do that, given your background?

Claudia Williams…: 17:28 I think it’s really important for an HR team to either have a partner within a communications department, so marketing and communications should be working really closely with HR. Or, depending on the size of the organization, have a dedicated communications person working with HR. If the organization is much smaller, it would be great if HR has a team member dedicated to internal employee communications.

This is part of an overall, larger HR strategy. So that person is focused not only on the internal, but the external communication side for the company, that’s targeted at working with leaders on part of an overall culture campaign strategy for the company. So that person can manage the social media responses, and keeping a finger on the pulse of what people are saying outside of the company on social media sites. But also, having a really good campaign for keeping leaders in touch with employees internally. Newsletters, email campaigns, videos, keeping in touch with people where they are.

Jessica Hughes: 18:56 Right.

Claudia Williams…: 18:58 I know there’s some employees who still don’t have access to email, or internet, so we still need to send written messages to people. Then, there’s some employees who are nowhere but TikTok, so we need to be meeting employees where they are.

Jessica Hughes: 19:16 Yes.

Claudia Williams…: 19:16 And keeping up with them, where they are. It’s really more important than ever to make sure we have a good, targeted communication plan.

Jessica Hughes: 19:26 Yeah. It’s funny, because we’re getting to that point with younger generations that they’re not on Facebook, they’re not on Twitter, they’re on Instagram and TikTok. Sometimes, they’re not even on Instagram, they’re just on TikTok.

TikTok has almost become this platform that is known for profanities, and for lack of a better term right now, silliness.

Claudia Williams…: 19:49 Yes.

Jessica Hughes: 19:50 How do you embrace that, especially from an HR perspective? Because that’s not necessarily what you think of when you think of buttoned up HR people.

Claudia Williams…: 20:00 Yeah. So you can play the game, you don’t have to play their game.

Jessica Hughes: 20:06 Exactly.

Claudia Williams…: 20:07 It’s about having a presence. You can do the fun dances, you can be silly, it’s just about having a presence so that when they go to search you, they can find you there. Or, you can send a message and you can say, “Hey, we’re there,” and they can follow you. So play the game, but you don’t necessarily have to play their game.

Jessica Hughes: 20:27 Right.

Claudia Williams…: 20:27 Just be where they are.

Jessica Hughes: 20:29 Yeah. Now, it’s interesting for sure, and I think TikTok is one of those platforms that has definitely gained some traction in the past several weeks and months, and something that I know our marketing clients have been taking a peek at. Of, what’s the strategy behind this, and how do we produce content for this that is relevant, but doesn’t take us away from our core values as a company? Because a lot of companies aren’t slapstick funny, prankster, profanity kind of companies, they want to make sure that they’re still a little buttoned up. I think there’s a balancing act there, for sure.

Claudia Williams…: 21:10 There’s a way to highlight a brand. [inaudible 00:21:13] find a way, but it’s not to say that TikTok is for everyone.

Jessica Hughes: 21:20 Yes.

Claudia Williams…: 21:20 Just because there is a social media channel, it doesn’t mean you have to be there. You’re that expert.

Jessica Hughes: 21:28 Right.

Claudia Williams…: 21:29 Just because there’s a channel, it doesn’t mean you have to be there.

Jessica Hughes: 21:32 Right. So when it comes to authenticity, what would you say are your big three takeaways for someone listening today?

Claudia Williams…: 21:44 Don’t be someone you aren’t. I mean, the biggest thing about being authentic is being true to yourself. Stay true to your values, don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t because, like I said, people can smell a fake a mile away.

And particularly, if you’re out there on social media, people should feel like, when they meet you in person, you’re the same person. They should feel like when they meet you in real life, or on video in a Zoom chat, that they already know you, and that they aren’t meeting you for the first time. So however you talk, however you speak, type, write, show up the same way. Your employees should feel like that about you at work, too. Send emails, use your voice the same way you would when you’re speaking in a video, when you’re typing an email. Be the real you, all the time.

Now, in doing that, if there are pieces of you you need to work on, then be real about that, too, and acknowledge the things you need to improve, and be open and real about that, too. Work on those things, and get an accountability partner, and ask your accountability partner for help in working on those things.

What else could I say about that? I think those are the biggest things.

Jessica Hughes: 23:29 Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting because I always think back to interviews, and the fact that, whenever … One of the most commonly asked interview questions, and it’s probably a little bit outdated at this point, is what are some of your weaknesses? You always try to spin your weaknesses into positives, when you’re interviewing.

I remember sitting at a professional development session, and there was someone there who literally stripped away a resume, and translated what was on their resume, all the positives, and said, “This is what really happened,” in college, or in this job, or in that job. They were just super authentic about it. Then, they turned it around and they made their board do it, because this was a CEO of a company. The board was like, “What do you mean you want us to do this?” But, they did it. It created this stronger comradery, and trust within the group, because they were all able to say, “Yeah, I completed this course in college, but I barely passed it.” Or, “I did this job, but I didn’t meet my sales numbers, even though I didn’t all these other sales things.”

It’s interesting, because you’re constantly trying to put your best foot forward, but at the same time, in doing so, are you going to that gray area of is this really the truth.

Claudia William…: 25:01 Yeah, I love the reverse resume.

Jessica Hughes: 25:03 Yes.

Claudia Williams…: 25:04 I love telling the story of these are all of the things that I barely skated by, and basically flopped at. I love the reverse resume.

The thing I’ll say, that I think might be one of my most personally important mantras is mistakes don’t define us, at all. What defines us is what we do in the wake of our mistakes. It’s the people who acknowledge the mistake, learn from the mistake, and truly do something differently in the wake of the mistake, who are the people I look up to the most. The people who fail to acknowledge the mistake defend to their death the wrong act that they did, and just go the complete opposite direction of what I would expect from someone who did something wrong. That’s when I lose respect, and that’s when I start writing people off. I mean, that to me is the character defining moment.

It’s not the mistake, the mistake is not what defines someone, for me. It’s what they do in the wake of the mistake, that’s where I really look at someone and say, “Who are you?” That, to me, is the marker of authenticity.

Jessica Hughes: 26:40 Yeah, for sure. Well great, that was a great conversation.

Claudia Williams…: 26:46 Well, thanks so much for having me.

Jessica Hughes: 26:48 Thanks for joining us.

Claudia Williams…: 26:50 Always great to be with you.

Jessica Hughes: 26:53 Yes, it is.

I hope you enjoyed today’s show. Follow Claudia on Instagram at @FrientorshipQueen, F-R-I-E-N-T-O-R. Or, feedback and LinkedIn, under Claudia Williams. Also, feel free to check out her TEDx Talk on YouTube, or her website at

Every meal is better shared, feel free to share Fork and Lens with your team, colleagues, and friends. If you enjoyed today’s message, please hit that subscribe button to get weekly access to new recipes of creative and marketing success. You can also check us out on Instagram, and our website, or Until next time.