Career & Success

Speak Your Truth: Why Authenticity Leads to Better Communication

In this episode, Graham Weaver shares why being true to yourself enables you to show up better for others.

April 16, 2024

From the way you communicate to the way you build your life and career, Graham Weaver, MBA ’99, says it’s about “giving yourself permission to fully be yourself. You can never go wrong when you’re saying your truth.”

Weaver is a lecturer in management at Stanford Graduate School of Business and founder/partner of Alpine Investors. He stresses the importance of direct communication, highlighting how avoiding it can lead to wasted time, energy, and even financial losses. Reflecting on his own experiences in private equity, Weaver admits to struggling with being conflict-averse and not speaking his truth directly. This resulted in getting into bad deals and big losses.

“People think that by being indirect, they’re being kind, but all they’re doing is creating confusion,” Weaver says. “Clarity is compassionate. Even if it’s not what they want to hear, the more direct and clear you can be, the more compassionate that is for the other person.”

Additionally, Weaver says many of us waste our time trying to live other people’s truths instead of our own. “You’re going to be a C+ version of someone else, but you can be an A+ version of yourself. And that’s enough.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Weaver and host Matt Abrahams explore how being true to oneself not only fosters personal fulfillment but also enables us to show up better for others. Authenticity and self-belief lay the foundation for effective communication, leadership, and, ultimately, success.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Note: Transcripts are generated by machine and lightly edited by humans. They may contain errors.

Matt Abrahams: The best communicators and the best leaders start by focusing within. It’s about being present and connected.

I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

Today, I look forward to speaking with Graham Weaver. Graham is a lecturer in management at the GSB, as well as a GSB alum. He teaches managing growing enterprises and managerial skills. Graham is a very popular teacher and has been invited multiple times to present in the graduation last lecture series.

Graham, thanks for being here.

Graham Weaver: Thanks so much for having me, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: I look forward to the conversation. Are you ready to get started?

Graham Weaver: Let’s do this.

Matt Abrahams: All right. You teach managing growing enterprises. What are two takeaways from your class that would help our listeners and their companies as they seek to grow and scale?

Graham Weaver: So number one would be the power of really direct communication. So this sounds so cliche that I even hate to say it. But people just waste time and energy and money by being indirect. They think that by, uh, being indirect or being kind, but all they’re doing is creating confusion. So I’ll give you an example for us at Alpine. You know, I really struggled with this. I’m very conflict averse, I don’t like, you know, saying something that’s going to upset someone. So for a lot of times I would dance around things and it led us to do some bad deals because I just was kind of like, what do you think? Are you sure you think this is a good deal? You know, kind of like that when, what I was really saying is I hate this deal.

Matt Abrahams: Um-hmm.

Graham Weaver: I just couldn’t be that direct and literally I am that direct now. And that cost us millions of dollars in the early years where I just wasn’t comfortable saying my truth. And so in this class, we just do this over and over again, where we get students in the habit of saying your truth. You can never go wrong when you’re saying what is true. And then we talk about how to do that in a way where people can feel safe and valued. But you still got to lead with that truth. So that’s probably the biggest.

The second one is going to be completely different. And so when I started teaching this class for a number of years, I would teach this class on entrepreneurship. And then I realized that people learn all these tools about entrepreneurship, but no one would actually go become an entrepreneur. Even though that’s their vision, that’s what they wrote on their essay, that’s what they wanted to do. So I realized there’s another part of this class, which is, hey, what is going to stand in the way of you actually going and pursuing your dream? And so I added this entire component to the class, which is two things.

First is let’s spend time and energy with students on really getting them to understand what their dream is. What would they do if they knew they wouldn’t fail? What are their superpowers? What is the thing that is easy for them that’s hard for other people or that feels like play for them? That’s work for others or you know, like we spent a lot of time helping them really understand it and a lot of times it’s not the standard, you know, thing that is pitched here. Like it’s not the consulting job. It’s something very, very different. So getting them really clear on that.

And then, this is really critical, is they get flooded then with all these limiting beliefs. Not me, not now, I don’t have an experience. I might fail. How do I raise money? How do I pay off my loans? I can’t do this. You know, my roommate’s brother tried this and failed, all these things flood in almost immediately.

And we actually take, we have a whole class where we take those limiting beliefs. We put them down, we look at them in the cold light of day and we start dealing with them, because if you, we got to name them because limiting beliefs is really fear and it has more power when it’s just in the recesses of your subconscious mind. So we get it down, we look at it and we try to overcome it. So those are two things that, very different, direct communication, and then, um, you know, figuring out your limiting beliefs and overcoming those that might help people.

Matt Abrahams: I find it really interesting that in a class about enterprises, what you’re really talking about are interpersonal skills and intrapersonal information. I think that for everybody to think for a moment, what would you do if failure wasn’t limiting you? I think that’s a wonderful way to get people to reframe what they’re doing. And I love that you are taking time to have people call up those limiting beliefs because you can’t address things you’re not consciously aware of.

Graham Weaver: So I’m fifty-one now and I’ve been in private equity twenty-nine years. I’ve gone, you know, I went to Stanford at, I teach here. And the longer that life goes on for me, the more I realize that most of this game we’re playing is really an internal game first and foremost. And it presents itself as this external game where, you know, we have to do all these things and pay off debt and all this, but it really starts with being an internal game. And the more you can master that, first, you know, the more success you’re going to have in almost no matter what you do externally. At some point, you’re going to have to master that internal game.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. And I think I see that in the work I do. You know, we, a lot of what we do is focus on how you message things externally. But it really starts with what’s going on in your own head, in your own mind.

You recently delivered a GSB Last Lecture on living an asymmetrical life and congrats, by the way, it’s quite an honor to speak at a Last Lecture. What do you mean by an asymmetrical life and how can we achieve that?

Graham Weaver: Well, I use the analogy of investing after being a professional investor for twenty-nine years, you end up with these wildly asymmetric outcomes. So you don’t end up with like a whole bunch of, you know, two or three X deals. You end up with some okay ones and then some just gargantuan home runs. If you look at Warren Buffett, for example, I think through 1988, he had half of his public market gains that in his whole history were from two stocks, Geico and Washington Post.

So you end up with these wildly asymmetric outcomes, which you can explain when you say, okay, you got this criteria, right? You had the right market, the right management team, a big enough TAM, high returns on invested capital. You figured out a way to buy companies. You have a playbook, you know, and each time you stack another one of those, you’re creating like logarithmic type outcomes, not linear. And the more you stack on, the more logarithmic it becomes. So then I started looking at my own life and kind of looking at it through that lens of what could create asymmetric outcomes in life. And I came up with four things.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Graham Weaver: So the first one is do hard things. And the reason that’s on there is that the thing that is keeping you where you are from your next plateau is something that you either don’t want to do or you fear. So that’s why you’re stuck where you are right now. It’s one of those two things, maybe both, probably both. And if you go after that thing, generally speaking, your life is going to get worse first.

So if your thing, for example, is that you need to end a relationship that’s not going well, you know, if you just woke up tomorrow and stayed in the relationship, everything’s fine. But if, but five years from now, it’s going to be worse. But if you wake up tomorrow instead and do the hard thing, have the hard conversation, have the breakup, you’re going to be lonely. You’re going to have to, you know, have that difficulty, but then you’re going to emerge and get to that next plateau. So that applies to everything. And I had this quote that I like to say, which is everything you want in this life is on the other side of worse first.

And the second one is, so number one is do hard things. Number two is do your thing. And so you’re not going to be amazing at this life trying to live someone else’s life. And when you find that thing that you are really excited about, you just show up differently. I worked at a job, you know, I took the safe job when I graduated from school and I just felt a part of me die.

And if you had asked me at the time, when I was in that job, what percent of your potential are you unleashing right now, Graham? I probably would have said like, oh, sixty, seventy percent. Now that I’m actually doing the thing I want to be doing, I look back and I’d say, no, it’s more like four percent. And so when you’re doing something you’re excited about, that’s your thing, you’re just going to show up differently.

And importantly, you’re going to stay with it for a lot longer, which is really the key, which is point three, which is do it for decades. Do your thing for a long time. Like the you’re, if you are getting a little, even a little bit better. We have CEOs who have been running their company for fifteen years and they are better in year fifteen than they were in fourteen, better in fourteen than they were in thirteen. And you know, fifteen years in, when you’re improving, you can be the best in the world at something. But you have to, but it goes into doing hard things, doing your thing, and then you will be more likely to do it for decades.

And the fourth one, which kind of sits on top of everything is write your story. So what most people do, if you ask them to write a book about their life, they would look back, and they would kind of start talking about these events, almost like the events happened to them. And then this happened, and then this happened, and this happened. We have managers, by the way, who do this. Oh yeah, how’d your quarter go? Well, this happened, and then this happened, and this happened. It’s like, well, what if you just did it the other way around? What if you write the story first, that you want to have happen?

Why don’t you just do that? Like, just starting today, from wherever you are, write your story about what you want the story to be for the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or your life, you know, you write that story and then make that story happen. And the magical thing happens is the more clear you can get on that story, the more likely it’s going to be to happen. So those are the four things that I feel like if you stack those on top of each other, you can have, you know, basically anything that you want in this life.

Matt Abrahams: I love that it’s a playbook and I love that it’s all about initiative and willing to go through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff, and plotting a course in advance of actually doing it to sort of focus you, but also set expectations.

And in what you said, I heard a lot of, just get to it. Don’t waste time. And I love this idea of an asymmetrical life and I hope everybody listening thinks about those four steps and considers, you know, addressing them, maybe not in that order, maybe not right away. But put yourself on a path to do that.

Graham Weaver: Any one of those steps will improve your life dramatically. Any of those four. If you just do hard things, if you just do your thing, if you just write your story, any one of those will make a dramatic difference in your life. But if you run the table on all four, that’s what I’m saying. You can unlock just about anything you want.

Matt Abrahams: I love your passion. I love your ideas. And I see that in your blogs, I enjoy reading your blogs, it’s a lot of fun. Uh, you’re a very engaging writer and I learn a lot from them as I’m learning from our conversation. I have to say, I was struck by one of your blogs that was all about you attending a Taylor Swift concert. And I’m really curious to have you share with our audience the lessons you learned while you were grooving and shaking it off with Taylor Swift.

Graham Weaver: That’s my favorite song, actually, Shake It Off by Taylor Swift. So in 2018, Taylor Swift was snubbed for the Grammys, you know, she wasn’t nominated and there’s this video of her where she is on the phone with her agent and she is just crestfallen. And like, you just watch all the energy drain from her face. And then right after that, she goes through this really tough public, uh, disaster with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian about, you know, can she use lyric or can they use her lyrics on the song? And does she approve it?

And there, and the number one trending hashtag on Twitter. Number one, was Taylor Swift is over. Can you imagine being her at that point? You’re like in your twenties and the number one trending hashtag in the world is your demise. That’s how much people have this venom.

And so what does she do? Okay. She, you know, what would most people do? They’d probably go, you know, they’d probably have this thing. I’m a victim. I have, you know, I’m going to blame, you know, Kanye West and the, you know, this woe is me. And she probably had moments where she felt some of that. I’m sure she did.

But instead she said, you know what? I just need to make a better record. That’s what she said. She says that on film. I guess I need to make a better record. And so between 2018 and 2022, she put out more songs than she ever did in her whole life, on the back of that. And I guarantee there were days when she just had the covers over her, didn’t want to get out of bed. But she put her helmet on, goes to work and just put one foot in front of the other and did it again and again and again. And then she won more awards for the work she did in that time period than any other time she’s had in her life. And I think, you know, people don’t see that. They just see her in her concert and it’s a billion-dollar concert. And here’s all these lights and wow, what a great dancer. And she’s got so much music, but my all-time favorite quote, I write quotes on my board every day in class. I’m a huge collector of quotes. I post them almost every day on social media. My all-time favorite quote, Michelangelo, you know, uh, sculpted the David paints The Sistine Chapel and he says, if people knew how hard I worked to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful. And I think people see Taylor Swift’s mastery, but they don’t see all the stuff that went into it. Anyway, I’m inspired by everything she does, but I just thought that one story of her is really just a story of grit. It’s not about talent or, you know, her music or anything. It’s just about like her just and her resolve. Anyway, she’s one of my heroes.

Matt Abrahams: I think that notion, uh, well, one, I think it’s great that, that you take a lesson beyond just the fun and enjoyment of her music. But the tenacity and the belief in yourself. And just hunkering down and doing it. I think there’s a lesson for all of us. And the point about mastery is really fascinating. We’ve, we had a whole episode about mastery and really what goes into it. And it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of things that people don’t see. You write a lot about your desire to continue growing and improving.

What’s one thing that you’re working on right now?

Graham Weaver: So, yeah, great question. So, uh, I had this really interesting conversation with my, a friend of mine a couple of years ago. And we were just. kind of having a banter and she asked me, she said, you know, if you, if you could have one superpower, what would that be?

And so I was kind of like, oh, that’d be kind of cool to read someone’s mind or, you know, whatever. And I was playing, and then, and all of a sudden it got a little bit deeper. And I said, well, what is actually a superpower I could really develop? And what I came up with, the word I came up with was, you know, enlightenment, you know, what if I were just more enlightened, you know, ‘cause what I started to realize and I think this is true for everybody is, you know, your whole life is unfolding as externally and there’s events and there’s situations. And then that life goes through a filter, which is your mind.

And then what you’re processing is your interpretation of those events. So this thing happened, is this good? Is this bad? Is this consistent with what I thought was going to happen? Am I upset about this? You know, do I feel good about this? You know, what, what’s the story I have about how my life is supposed to go?

What’s the story I have about what’s, you know, what’s going to make me happy or successful or what’s the story I have about other people think about me. And like, I just started to realize like all of that story I’m creating myself and that filter is like pretty much a hundred percent in my control. And so a lot more of my life is in my control than I realize. So I started going on this journey, which has been amazing. So I’ve been studying a lot of Buddhism, I’ve been going on meditation retreats, doing journaling and coaching. I’ve been meditating a lot more than I ever did. And it is the best journey, I think probably, maybe the most important journey that anyone could go on. So I’m not there, I’m not a enlightened individual, I don’t know if I ever will be, but I definitely am at least getting closer than maybe I was before I started this journey.

Matt Abrahams: I appreciate you sharing that because that for many people, that’s a very personal quest and the tools that you’re using are tools that I personally do a lot of meditating and reflecting. And I find there is a lot of value in it. And I think in a world that we live in and a place that we live in, we can get very distracted by lots of shiny objects and ideas and to really ground ourselves. I like that.

Graham Weaver: You know, it’s kind of like for me at least, it’s kind of like brushing your teeth. You know, you can’t just brush your teeth for eight hours on January 1st and then say I’m good for the year, you know?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Graham Weaver: So it’s like, it’s like almost like I start over every single morning and have to kind of reprogram and meditate, take a cold shower, you know, write in the journal, do it again. But it does, it has made a huge difference.

Matt Abrahams: Before we end, Graham, I’d like to ask you some questions. The first question I’m going to make up specifically for you, and then the others are common questions I ask everybody. You up for that?

Graham Weaver: Let’s do it.

Matt Abrahams: So number one, uh, you’re a leader. You teach new leaders and work with many. What differentiates an exceptional leader from just an average leader?

Graham Weaver: I would say ultimately, when you get past all the tactical things, the very, very exceptional leaders give themselves permission to fully be themselves.

So I’ll give you a very simple example in my own life. So I started, I was asked to teach at Stanford Business School. And so my first couple of years, I went and watched all the amazing professors here and learn and wrote notes and everything. And for the first few years, I really tried to mimic them.

And, you know, Irv Grousbeck was a mentor of mine. And so I tried to do everything that he did. And I didn’t do very well at all. And at some point, I had this conversation with my executive coach who said, you know, Graham, you’re going to be a C plus version of Irv Grousbeck. But you can be an A plus version of Graham Weaver and that’s enough. And I think it was the that’s enough part that I didn’t believe, which is why I was trying to mimic someone else. And so I think, you know, if you’re in a leadership role, you’re there for a reason, you know, you are an incredibly special person and you’re different than anyone else. And those differences are what make you amazing. And giving yourself permission to fully be yourself is going to be where you’re this incredible light and you’re going to do something different than someone has, you know, someone has never done before. And so I think it is that permission and it is realizing like that’s enough.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really powerful that we just need to be ourselves and through being ourselves, we can succeed in teaching and leadership and lots of other areas, but we get in our own way.

Question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Graham Weaver: I’ll go with, um, Irv Grousbeck who teaches here.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Graham Weaver: So Irv, I think he’s been teaching here for thirty-five, forty years. And he was a very successful businessman before that. Probably best known for owning the Celtics or being one of the owners of the Boston Celtics.

Anyway, he was my professor here. I was a case guest in his class for twelve years. And he was also the one who got me into teaching. In terms of his communication, he just models exactly what I would want to teach others and what I want to do for myself. He’s super direct. He’s clear, he’s authentic, he’s himself.

And then like when you’re in his presence, you just feel like you’re the most important person in the world and that you’re the only person in the world. For that period of time, when you’re with him, he just makes you feel that way. And he’s always been the voice of, you can do this and I believe in you. And that, that might sound cliche, but when there’s someone like that, that you admire in your early twenties and trying to start a business and it’s not going that well. You know, having someone like that just kind of keep you grounded and reminding you that you got this, you know, he’s just been unbelievable. So, he would be the person I’d pick.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. So Irv has got quite the reputation around here. And many people say and share exactly what you did is when you’re speaking with him, you are in that spotlight and feel that it is just you and him in that conversation. And that’s a very powerful thing to feel like you have somebody’s full attention and that they’re really there for you.

Final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Graham Weaver: So the first one would be understanding what is your truth? What is your truth? What do you want to say about this situation? Getting clear on that. Giving yourself a little bit of space where you’re not reacting, but you’re kind of realizing what is your highest value and what is the thing you want to say? And then speak that truth is number one.

Two would be create safety. You know, people are going to hear that feedback when they’re safe. And you know, the opposite of that would be they’re not going to hear anything if they feel attacked or they feel belittled or something. So focus on you know, Matt, the reason I want to address this with you is I really care about our relationship. And I want to see what’s it’s coming for a long period of time, you know that that’s what I mean by safety.

Matt Abrahams: Mm hmm.

Graham Weaver: And then third is be clear on what you’re asking So like we’re having a conversation. So what, you know? What is the specific thing that I’m asking of you or what are the next action items? People forget that and they leave thinking they had this whole conversation. The other person’s like, oh yeah, that was lovely, but they missed the whole point. So I think those are, those would be the three. And I think clarity is compassionate. So the more clear, even if it’s not what they want to hear, the more direct and clear you can be, the more compassionate that is for the other person.

Matt Abrahams: I love that idea of clarity leads to compassion. It’s operationalized, uh, compassion in some way. Uh, as you have alluded to in many of your responses, it’s really about introspection first. What’s your truth? What needs to be done? And that is striking. And I want to make sure everybody hears that, that you are better with others when you are first true to yourself and know what that is. And then being clear and creating safe space for you to have those conversations. Graham, this has been fantastic.

I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with you. The idea that we have to look within before we manage people externally really makes sense. I love your energy. I love that you both meditate and love Taylor Swift and that you can learn from both. So thank you for your time and thank you for your insight.

Graham Weaver: Thanks for having me, man. It was a lot of fun.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford GSB. To learn more about personal growth and positioning, please listen to episode 82 with Nancy Duarte and episode 118 with Dorie Clark. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Jim Colgan, and me, Matt Abrahams.

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