Mariana Atencio on the Importance of Authentic Leadership

At CEMA Summit, award-winning Latina journalist Mariana Atencio will take what she learned about authenticity from her experiences as a reporter and apply it to leading teams in a post-COVID world.

Author: Curt Wagner       

Mariana Atencio

“There’s no question that the past few years changed our lives forever — changed the way we work and most importantly, why we work.” — Mariana Atencio, journalist, author, and CEMA Summit Keynote speaker

For Mariana Atencio, being true to herself is the key to her success — in business, in life, and in times of adversity. The Peabody award–winning journalist, author, and business professional will show CEMA Summit attendees how to lead with their own sense of authenticity during her opening keynote Aug. 1 at the JW Marriott Nashville in Tennessee.

Atencio, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Venezuela in 2008, comes by authenticity the hard way. While working for NBC News and MSNBC, she fought to cover stories about the Latino community and was once told by an executive to not look “too Latina.” Her book, Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real, turns those kinds of experiences into self-help advice for others.

Atencio took a similar approach during the pandemic when asked by Microsoft to help develop “Envision,” a digital series about leadership. She viewed more than 5,000 interviews she had done over the last 10 years, listening to interview subjects who were facing or had overcome adversity.

“I started thinking, ‘Okay, we’re going through uncertainty and chaos’” — just like those people she had interviewed, Atencio told Convene. “So I took what I have learned from them — lessons that are universal — and show my audiences how that can apply to them in their own lives.” Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

How does bringing our full selves and our authentic voices to work fit into being an effective leader now?

In order to really be the best leader that you can be, you need to first discover what makes you unique and bring that to work every day — whether it’s physically or virtually now. And we don’t do that. We “cover,” which is something that I’ve studied in-depth for many of the Microsoft engagements that I’ve done with Prof. Kenji Yoshino, who’s at NYU [School of Law]. He does a lot of work on how [we cover] parts of [ourselves] that [we] don’t necessarily associate with being a leader — like coming from a certain community or speaking a certain way, or having a certain name, or maybe having a disability or a sexual preference. All of these things. If you are covering, you erode your sense of belonging, your excitement to be [at work], and ultimately you won’t give your best. Many times, you will even walk away. That’s what happened to me at network news at the top level. Taking from that experience, I want to help companies and leaders avoid doing that with the talent they recruit.

Leaders have to bring their full selves so that they can effectively lead …

… and foster an environment where others can show up as themselves as well. The first part of my talk will be discovering what makes you unique as an individual, as a leader, then we’re going to go into what I call my Three-Up Method; look up, speak up, pull up. Three easy ways in which you can promote that environment where others can show up as themselves. We’ll finish with the Control Framework — a seven-step formula to promote productivity, authenticity, and resilience in this time.

You’ve talked and written about your experience being the only Latina journalist in the newsroom. What advice would you have for anyone who is the “only” in any room?

Every single time you’re in those rooms, choose authenticity. … Authenticity is not black or white — you’re not authentic or inauthentic. It’s a muscle that you have to flex every single day. When you wake up in the morning, when you choose what to wear, when you walk into any room — even a virtual [meeting] — or when choose how to pronounce your name.

And it’s tough [to do]. There will be days when it’s going to be hard to make that choice, and that’s okay. After hearing me speak, [CEMA attendees] will have tools to fall back on during those [difficult] days.

How does allowing employees to be their authentic selves translate into driving performance and productivity?

When you show up as your authentic self, there’s something magical that happens because you give your best, because you are open and vulnerable, you are more creative, and you really feel invested in the place that you work. It becomes like a family. On the contrary, if you cover you start to drain your energy and ultimately you don’t give your best.

It seems the pandemic accelerated innovation, but how has it changed the way we lead teams?

I think the pandemic made us realize globally that we can endure so much more than we thought we could. And it’s definitely accelerated innovation in unprecedented ways. We’ve leaped forward 10 years maybe in terms of technology and in terms of hybrid work, even in terms of issues like sustainability. We’re not going to go back from that. … And the important thing now is, how can you as a leader really meet this moment and the needs of your employees or your attendees?

In your experience, do you see most companies eager to embrace this new way of doing things or wanting desperately to go back to the way things used to be?

We’re not going to go back to the way things were and the recent talent migration data proves that. So, the sooner leaders start thinking about how they can give employees flexibility [for work/life balance], the sooner they will attract the best talent out there and really generate that sense of belonging.


CEMA Summit takes place July 31-Aug. 2 at the JW Marriott Nashville in Tennessee.


Curt Wagner is digital editor of Convene. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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