Creating a Culture of Courage: Alex Cheney Of A Little Bit Alex On How to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic & Why That Helps the Bottom Line

An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

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Lead with humility and allow yourself to be open to differing opinions and ideas. It will foster a much more collaborative environment where your team members feel safe to regularly communicate and contribute.

In today’s fast-paced world, authenticity in the workplace and in our personal lives has become more crucial than ever. Yet, fostering an environment where individuals feel secure enough to express their true selves remains a challenge. The importance of authenticity cannot be overstated — it is the foundation of trust, innovation, and strong relationships. However, creating such a culture requires intention, understanding, and actionable strategies. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Cheney.

Alex Cheney recently launched A Little Bit Alex, his recruiting consultancy focused on helping people-first organizations build their teams and recruiting practices through the lens of inclusion. He brings with him a twelve-year career in HR and Recruiting across multiple industries. His recent focus has been in growth-stage tech startups.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in Voice Performance from James Madison University in Virginia and spent 12 years as a professional entertainer before moving into the corporate world. In 2010, I was a new transplant to Las Vegas looking for a management job in Entertainment when I stumbled on a job posting for a Talent Acquisition Coordinator. This sounded like a great fit on paper — it wasn’t until I started the screening process that I realized this had nothing to do with Entertainment and everything to do with HR and Recruiting, which was a career path that had never been on my radar. I ended up getting that job and looked at it as a “filler job” until I landed my next role in Entertainment. I very quickly realized that I had just opened a very unexpected door to my future. I remembered in my own job search how often I felt like I fell into a black hole after sending in an application or resume and how many times I had been ghosted by recruiters after an interview. I promised myself I’d never be like that, and that is what has driven both my candidate engagement and stakeholder management strategies. Fast forward 12 years, and I had landed in the world of tech startups and endured two layoffs in the course of nine months. My partner gently encouraged me to start my own business (something that had been on my radar more and more)…and here we are. I have always had a passion for equitable and inclusive hiring practices, and I brought these principles with me as I launched A Little Bit Alex.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My career in entertainment afforded me many opportunities that I know I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I spent six years working on cruise ships and was able to literally travel the world while learning about so many global cultures. I cherish these experiences, not just because of the travel aspect, but also because they have helped me as I shifted my career into a more corporate environment. I worked with people from all over the world an had to learn how to communicate with a very diverse group of individuals. This has shaped how I approach conversations in business. On land, I also had some pretty interesting things happen in my entertainment career. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in my friend group who can say they handed a water bottle to Celine Dion while escorting her to a performance venue.

You are a successful individual. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Empathy — I pride myself on how I engage with both candidates and stakeholders alike, and I think my empathic nature has helped me in cultivating those relationships. The first thing I do when engaging with a new candidate or stakeholder is to understand that person’s needs. Having that information up front helps me to tailor my further conversations and make sure that I am able to provide the best service.
  2. Perseverance — In business and in life, we often hit unexpected obstacles that can feel insurmountable. I firmly believe that it’s not always about the obstacle in our way, rather how we react. I’ve had several moments in my life where unexpected events forced me to make some significant pivots, and I think that ability to pivot has helped me get out of my own way.
  3. Growth mindset — I’m a big believer that we are surrounded by opportunities for continuous learning. It’s illogical to expect that things will be 100% perfect 100% of the time, and I feel that one of my strengths is being able to turn an “opportunity” into a moment for learning and growth. When a project doesn’t go as planned, instead of dwelling on the WHAT, I like to understand the WHY. This helps me to learn where missteps may have happened, and I can then start to formulate new strategies to mitigate future issues.

Ok, thank you for that. Lets now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you share a pivotal moment in your career or personal life when being authentic made a significant impact on your success or well-being?

I grew up in Virginia in the 80s and 90s, which was not the easiest place for someone coming to terms with their own identity. I had been indirectly (and not so indirectly) taught that being gay was disgusting, unnatural, a sin…the list goes on. Even as I was coming out of the closet, I felt the need to hide my true identity to most of the world, only sharing the “real” me with a handful of selected individuals. I was hearing stories and seeing my friends being disowned by their parents and families for living their truths, and I felt like I had to hide who I really was. This started me on a very long road of trying to assimilate and be the person people WANTED me to be. Even into my 40s, I found myself making decisions about both my personal and professional lives that weren’t necessarily what I wanted, yet fit a narrative and a mold into which I was trying so hard to fit. This got me into a very dark place in 2019, and it started to scare me. It was at that point, I decided that I couldn’t carry these expectations with me any longer. I was going to forge my own path, and if if people didn’t approve or want to be a part of it, they didn’t need to be. Going through this and coming to this realization has completely changed the way I approach all of my relationships, both personal and professional. It also helped me understand that I carry a high level of empathy, which has changed the way I approach my role as a recruiter. Early in my recruiting career, I would ask lots of skills-based questions and was simply focused on the tactical parts of a role. While that is still part of my process, I make sure to ask questions about the candidate’s needs, wants, desires, etc., which helps me build an even stronger rapport with candidates. When I was launching my business, I had someone question its name and my choice of a unicorn as its logo with a message that no one would take me seriously. My response was that I no longer worry about fitting in with other people’s expectations. I want people to know who I am right off the bat. If that doesn’t fit in with their ideals, that’s completely fine. It saves me time trying to show someone how awesome I am.

What strategies have you found most effective in fostering an environment where employees or team members feel safe to express their true selves, including their ideas, concerns, and aspirations?

Any initiatives on DEIB have to have the support of senior leader and executives, or they will completely stall. When I was at Sendoso, I helped the organization create their first Employee Resource Group (ERG) that we launched in conjunction with Pride Month. Our execs were totally on board with this and even helped promote the initiative and express why it was happening. Our Head of People raise their hand as a volunteer to be our executive sponsor. I did this because of my past ERG experiences in other organizations where I saw so much education, empathy, and compassion. When I was a recruiter at Binc, we set aside the first Wednesday of every month to come together as a team and talk about a topic on diversity or educate ourselves on an underrepresented group’s history. While the initiative was initially started by senior leadership, they gave us the reigns to decide on topics and lead the discussion. It was a safe space where everyone was welcome and questions were encouraged. Not only did we feel like we could be our true selves, it created a culture of belonging.

How do you navigate the challenges that come with encouraging authenticity in a diverse workplace, where different backgrounds and perspectives may sometimes lead to conflict?

One of the things I’ve learned is that you often have to meet people where they are. People in “majority” groups often have misconceptions on why we celebrate things like Black History Month, Pride Month, etc. I find that creating safe spaces where groups can come together for real conversations to educate is very helpful in these situations. Those of us from underrepresented groups have spent many years being told that we need to fit into expected molds, whether that be regarding appearances, the way we communicate, or even what and how we eat. Having these moments of education can make it easier for individuals from underrepresented groups feel comfortable and safe showing up as their authentic selves.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share 5 Ways to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic?”

1 . Foster environments of psychological safety where individuals can come together and share their ideas, their concerns, and their worries without fear of ridicule or repercussions.

2 . Create ERGs where employees can come together and learn about different cultures and their backgrounds, struggles, how they have overcome adversities, etc. When I have participated in these types of groups, I have felt safe to share my own personal struggles, which has enabled me to be more authentic in my work.

3 . Provide opportunities for development and advancement that are not solely based on performance/fiscal results. We all have different strengths, and when those differing strengths are harnessed, you are able to build a more well-rounded team of individuals who are able to lean into their true passions.

4 . Allow (and encourage) your team members to ask WHY. One of my previous organizations had “innovation” as one of their values, yet when we brought new ideas to the table in hopes of improving processes, we were met with much resistance. When we asked WHY we were doing things certain ways and WHY there was opposition to new ideas, we were viewed as uncooperative and not being team players, which caused us to just come in, do our tactical work and little else. None of us felt safe to share our ideas which led to increased turnover on our team.

5 . Lead with humility and allow yourself to be open to differing opinions and ideas. It will foster a much more collaborative environment where your team members feel safe to regularly communicate and contribute.

In your opinion, how does authenticity within an organization influence its relationship with customers, clients, or the broader community?

From personal experience, I can share that when I feel safe to bring my authentic self to work, I feel a stronger sense of belonging within and loyalty to the organization. It also makes me highly engaged and more productive within the organization, which is a huge win for clients and customers, both internal and external. I have also found that organizations who foster these inclusive environments of belonging are more attractive to community organizations who may be looking for new strategic partnerships.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see more empathy in leaders at all levels of our world, both in business and globally. I feel like decisions are being made across the board with little to no consideration for actual human impact. I’d love to see leaders embrace ideas and opinions that differ from their own. Just because you don’t like something or are against something yourself doesn’t mean that it should be taken away from or blocked for everyone else.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/alexcheney) or through my website (www.alittlebitalex.com)

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is a mom, entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. Vanessas talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion allowed her to be one of the most acclaimed Latina CEOs in the last 30 years. She collaborated with the worlds leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Broadcom to bring innovative solutions to travelers and hotels around the world. Vanessa is the lead inventor on 120+ U.S. Patents. Accolades include: FAST 100, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies, Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founders Award, Ernst and Youngs Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year among others. Vanessa now spends her time sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles, speaking engagements and music. In her spare time she writes and plays music in the Amazon best selling new band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, trains dogs, and cheers on her children.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack, Instagram, Facebook, and X and of course on her website VanessaOgle.

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Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo