The Flooding Smile

How I Got Comfortable Bringing my Whole Self to Work Again

Photo by Bridgett Colling

Our CX Practice Lead David Whited calls it “the flooding smile” — the smile that spreads across your whole face and welcomes people to be present with you. I’ve become very familiar with this smile after witnessing David’s many times in workshops with clients or just around the office. The flooding smile is a powerful tool that brings warmth, confidence, and energy to the room.

In my personal life, I love showing genuine care and concern for people through my own flooding smile. But that smile was something I selectively brought to work. As a woman working in a male-dominated industry, I learned that smiling warmly could be unsafe or a threat to my success. There was often a fine line between establishing sincere rapport with a group and being asked inappropriate questions about my personal life. When I started meetings with a more stoic presence — rather than a flooding smile — my audience was more quickly attentive and invested in our conversation. Since starting at Highland, I’ve been slowly unlearning this habit of checking part of my true self at the door.

David’s flooding smile in action. | Photo by Charissa Morgan

When I first heard about Highland, I loved reading about our company values. But I was skeptical. Most companies I knew gave lip service to their values but struggled to live them.

During my first interview with David, he was transparent about weak spots in his leadership and openly talked about pain points in Highland’s history. His honesty and vulnerability were refreshing. Before taking the job I thought, “These are people I can grow with.”

I hit the ground running my first week at Highland. A consulting engagement had me on the road most weeks and I was hardly in the office. One day when I was back in Chicago, Highland’s President Jon Berbaum asked if we could get lunch. Our conversation started with Jon sharing areas that he was working to grow in professionally and personally, and I was surprised and encouraged by his openness.

I wasn’t just expected to do good work; the work also needed to be good to me.

In turn, he asked me how I was doing; specifically, he was afraid of me burning out or overextending myself for the sake of a job since I had been traveling so much. Jon made it clear that Highland could adjust the project to ensure the pace was reasonable — I just needed to let him know if it was too much. I wasn’t just expected to do good work; the work also needed to be good to me.

While working on this intensive project, David and I had our first conversations about “the flooding smile.” We talked openly about the challenges I’ve faced as a woman in a male-dominated work environment. He showed me he gave a damn (my favorite Highland value) as he listened to my experiences and trusted my input as to how they informed our work together.

Through these conversations and the ways David, Jon, and other Highlanders have responded, I’ve had my own growth breakthrough: People can respond however they want to my flooding smile, but bringing my whole self to work is worth it. This doesn’t eliminate the possibility that I may still have to deal with unwanted comments or disrespect, but I’m done compromising my authentic self for the sake of others.

Having a company and a team that supports me has been critical to this phase in my own professional journey. When I was hired, David told me that everyone at Highland was “in my corner,” and I’ve felt them backing me up during challenging times. I’ve seen the team lean into our values and seek growth, and I’m proud to be on this journey with them to put people first, be curious, be transparent, and give a damn — about our clients and each other.

People can respond however they want to my flooding smile, but bringing my whole self to work is worth it.

Highland’s values aren’t just for our clients; they’re for ourselves. When I choose to bring my whole self to work, I invite my colleagues and clients to choose the same. I’m thankful for this season of learning new habits with Highland — flooding smiles and all.

Have you seen values lived in a professional environment that had surprising impacts on your life? Or do you have a reflection on your experience as a woman in the workplace? Charissa would love to talk to you! Send her an email (and don’t be nervous, she’s even nicer than she sounds in this blog post.)

Got a flooding smile you want to bring to work? Check out our open positions.