“For as long as I can remember, being vulnerable has always been viewed as a weakness. Especially within the rather macho world of business.”
The idea of “dropping your guard” or “bearing your soul” in a professional environment seems so counterintuitive when you see guys like Don Draper and Harvey Spector reaching such dizzying heights in their respective fields largely because they never show vulnerability.
Power-play after power-play between colleagues and bosses is what I had come to expect, especially having grown up in New York, the home of macho. Wanted to get that promotion? Be fearless. Got an eye on the corner office? Show no mercy.
This mentality stuck with me right up until I found myself growing my own business (and team) faster than I had anticipated.
At this point I quickly found myself exhausting the traditional “team-building” techniques of trying to win colleague friendships via retreats and exercises that inevitably never worked as they lacked any real emotional intent. Let’s be honest, none of us have ever really built a better relationship with our colleagues or our boss as a result of going paintballing in the woods, or working together to build the highest tower of paper we can with no sticky tape.
The only reason these sorts of ‘team-building’ exercises appeal to teams, is if they are not that happy sitting in the office together in the first place. I knew I wanted more than that from my team. And I knew that if I wanted to make a success of my business, I had to find another way.
Thus began my exploration of less conventional approaches to creating a strong team environment and office dynamic, out of desperation more than anything!
“Yet that’s the funny thing about desperation – when you’re in it, you either buckle and break, or you lay your heart on the line and let the chips fall as they may. The latter being an apt description of vulnerability.”
Luckily for me, that rang true and I concluded that if I wanted a genuinely strong team in my business, then that genuineness should start with me; from me.
So I made the conscious choice to remove that self-imposed barrier I had built up since adolescence that had kept me from being completely open and vacant to each and every team member I had hired. I decided to bear my soul with my team in the hope that they would embrace this open environment and similarly open up as well.
I became a vulnerable CEO.
The first week was a little odd, for the team more than myself. I was never an emotionless robot by any means, but it was immediately noticeable that I was grabbing at little opportunities to be fully open and vulnerable to whomever I was talking with.
I was more attentive to the general ‘vibe’ of an employee when they would walk in the office, taking an extra 5 minutes to see how their doing in all aspects of their life and asking the sorts of questions that raised a few eyebrows and led to more than a couple of rather awkward pauses.
Throughout the work day, I would use our internal communication tool Slack as a personal chat, setting up channels like #gratitude and #songoftheday to share daily messages therein.
Most importantly, I would not shy away from sharing my own thoughts and feelings when the opportunity arose. And after a while, this really proved to make a difference with the rest of the team feeling much more open to sharing their full personalities.
At first, I think, they were maybe asking each other if I was drinking a little bit too much of an evening, or perhaps in the midst of a full-on nervous breakdown. Those first few days were hard, and made me wish I had gone with this approach from the very start, but gradually they began to realise that I wasn’t having a breakdown, I was just breaking down the team barriers.
In the end, I got lucky (in a manner of speaking) when one of my team, a fairly young girl I had hired straight out of college, came in one morning and was clearly pretty upset. She was dead-set on not talking and sat silently staring at her screen for a while.
So I went and made her a coffee, sat down next to her and we talked. Pretty soon she was tearfully explaining to the whole office that her pet cat had been run over the previous evening. Someone else in the team had also lost a pet in a traffic collision, and so it was that this rather sad and tragic event, served as the moment when my team bought into the new open and vulnerable philosophy and became a proper team for the very first time.
It wasn’t long at all before the whole team dynamic had completely evolved into a powerful family that shared a genuine, deeper understanding of one another.
This new approach proved to be effective on a number of levels. Firstly, inter-team communication improved dramatically. It’s amazing how much easier it to talk to someone about work, if you know a bit about them as a person, and even quite like them. The days of sitting in a silent office, sending formal emails to each other were over. We chatted on Slack, and we just chatted as well. I even found that Slack was being used out of office hours, and even while people were on holiday.
Then there is loyalty. The issue of brain drain has never been a problem for me because people are so comfortable and at home in their working environment. They are loyal to me, and to the rest of the team, and whilst I have hired many more staff since first trying out this approach, I can count the number of people who have left on one hand.
The result for my business has been fantastic. We work in IT, across various different strands, and in all areas, we have seen significant growth, and increased productivity. For example, my VPN comparison site has grown exponentially to become one of the market leaders.
And these results weren’t gradual either. Once the team had bought into the new approach, I could see the benefits within the first month. It was an astonishing transformation of a team which was not under-performing, but hardly over-performing either.
Being the vulnerable CEO, I have had to open up to my team again and again about how fantastic they are and how well they are doing. But they seem to like that too, so I guess everyone’s a winner.