A while ago, I had taken over an exciting senior leadership role. I met with the executives to understand their assessment of opportunities, challenges and expectations. Now it was time to meet the team. I was contemplating what should be my message to the team? Customary introduction was given. But in addition, I was thinking what kind of relationship and connection do I want to establish?
I came to know about the new role many weeks ago. I began preparing for the role at once. I had informal conversation with various stakeholders to understand the challenges surrounding delivery, processes and tools. I came to know that the team morale was affected because of the challenges delivering a large program the previous year and the resulting tough annual assessment. I conducted industry research to know best practices in the areas the organization was struggling. Based on the extensive research, I had a clear plan and a roadmap to transform the organization.
I thought that after the customary introduction to the team, I need to motivate the team to lift their morale. I can provide an overview of the current state assessment and paint a picture of the exciting future state with a a solid roadmap to get there. Team should be energized because of the exciting future possibilities. This is the best thing a leader can do for the team – a hero riding a white horse, sword in hand and charging against the enemy. Is it not?
But something did not feel right. This may create a Hero and Fans kind of relationship that is based on awe and reverence. It is a positive relationship and can be helpful in certain circumstances. But I wanted to create a more personal relationship that brings us closer to each other. I wanted to be one among them. I thought that sharing an experience similar to what they went through and how I overcame that challenge may be more appropriate. But I was afraid. Will it portray me as a ‘weak’ leader? Will sharing my failures and vulnerability shake the team’s confidence in me? But after going back and forth few times, I decided to share my stories of vulnerability. I did not want to be seen as an all conquering, insurmountable leader. I wanted to be real. I wanted to be myself. That is what has worked for me in the past and I am going to stick to it.
Finally, the day arrived. I was introduced by the executive to the team and was asked to speak few words. I thanked the executive and the organization for entrusting me with this exciting opportunity. Then I shared the following story:
As you know, we are in an exciting phase of transformation. Future of business is Digital and it will play an important role in the growth of our organization. I am also quite aware of the challenges in front of us. We were quite excited when we started the digital transformation program. We trained hard, we worked hard and gave our best. But these changes were very new to us. Despite our best efforts, the program schedule slipped and cost overran. The executives were not happy that reflected in our performance rating.
Few weeks ago, as most of you, I also had my performance appraisal. For the first time in my career history, my performance was rated as ‘Did not meet expectations’ for this project. It was hard to swallow. Very hard to swallow. As all of you are, I am very passionate and proud about the work I do. Similar to you, whenever I create a deliverable or complete an assignment, I work very hard to make it the best quality that is possible and deliver it on time. Similar to you, I want to see smile on team member’s face when they see my work and be proud of me. I want to see smiles on our customers face when they review my work. So it was very hard to receive ‘Did not meet expectation’ rating for this project. It is specially hard because similar to you, I had worked very hard last year. I had provided a number of strategies to overcome challenges. I had taken up additional responsibility for several weeks, when key members of the leadership team were away. I had worked evening and weekends, as required. I did not know what more I could have done to meet expectations. I was really struggling to accept the appraisal rating.
During the appraisal my leader did acknowledge that I had worked hard. But I was also asked whether we met business and customer expectations? The answer was NO. Then as a leader, I need to take responsibility for the team’s failure to meet customer expectations. That was a fair assessment.
Now I had two choices. Either I can give-up because I had given my best that was possible and the result was still a failure. There was nothing more that I could do. Or try harder based on the lessons learned. As you know, failure is the best teacher in life. You learn much more due to a failure than what you learn due to success. And this is not the first time I am facing such a situation. I have had a number of such learning moments and I am very thankful to them because the lessons they have taught me are invaluable.
Long ago, I joined a consulting company and had come to the client location for a project. They had an industry leading transactional system that was very complex. Our sales team had done a wonderful job of getting the contact by promising to migrate the transactional system to a new platform. Our first assignment was to create requirement’ documents for migration of the complex transactional system. We had full 3 months to complete the assignment—courtesy our sales team. Because the system was created many decades ago, it had no documentation. We had to go through millions of lines of code and reverse-engineer the code to create the requirement documents. The sales team had promised that we had tools that will read the code and automatically create the requirements document. Obviously, no such tool existed.
We worked like maniacs from morning 6 AM, when the first city train started, to night 1:50, when the last city train departed—Monday to Sunday. Within few weeks, clients’ illusion that we will be able to complete this assignment disappeared. The project was scrapped. Client clearly communicated to us how miserably we had failed. We were given a final chance. A multi-million dollar enhancement project. A last and final chance to survive.
What such dire situation does is, it makes you stronger. Because honestly, you don’t have any other option. Second and most importantly, it brings the team come together. Our prestige was at line and we had a very proud past track record. The team was determined to succeed. I am so grateful that I had such a bright team with strong passion and commitment. The new project was to start in a few weeks and we were wrapping up current project closure activity. But after our work day, we will meet as a team every evening to prepare for the new project. The team had no clue about the new functionality that needs to be developed. It was one of the more complex products of the system. We went through documents, we practiced the functionality and gained as much knowledge as possible. Finally the project began and we worked very closely. Each day, we will discuss what everyone did, share the challenges and lessons learned. We will review our design documents and code; help each other out. It was an amazing team. It was a very challenging project to be completed for a very challenging client.
But after one year of hard work, we delivered. We delivered on time, we delivered well below the budget and came out with flying colors. In the customer satisfaction survey, client gave us a rating of 5 out of 5. The team was extremely happy and proud. We delivered. Our team became the most sought after team at the clients’ organization. The team continued to scale new peaks. We delivered breakthrough industry products that generated billions in sales for end customer.
So what does this mean to us? I firmly believe this failure will make us stronger. I firmly believe the team will come together and work passionately. I firmly believe this team will deliver and restore our respected position as a top quality team. We need to learn our lessons to become better. I have met with executives to understand their expectations. I am meeting with other stakeholders to understand their expectations. In short-term, we need to deliver the current program and successfully transition to maintenance. Long term, we need to build a strong team by acquiring newer technology skills and move team to agile process to perform rapid experimentation. I would also meet each one of you and understand your challenges, your needs and how I can help you? Then collectively, we will develop a strategy to reach our desired target state. I am quite excited about the future and looking forward to achieving success together.
Subsequent feedback on the meeting from the team and executives was very positive. My later interactions with the team members were open, transparent and relaxed. I could see impact of the tone set by my first meeting in the subsequent interactions. I was very happy that I chose to share my vulnerability and trust the team to receive it positively.
Recently, I came across few articles on the web (snippets below) that reinforced my belief that to create real connections, we need to share our vulnerability. I was quite happy that I followed my gut feeling.
Harvard Blog – To Create a Real Connection, Show Vulnerability
The mistaken assumption is that if people find out who we really are underneath, they’d remove themselves from our lives. The reality is that if we share the ups and downs of our human experience in the right way in the right context, we build deeper connections. In so doing, we can break down the roles we play (e.g., client/customer, boss/employee, fundraiser/philanthropist) and connect with each other as humans.
Brad Smith – Vulnerability Makes You a Better Leader
I have found that showing vulnerability does not undercut a leader’s capacity to inspire teams, but rather it enhances it. Role modeling that life is an experiment, openly admitting and learning from your own shortcomings and mistakes creates an environment for others to do the same. It is one of the ways we move forward and grow as individuals, and as teams. Always be authentic, embrace your vulnerability. It makes you more human – and a better leader.
Brené Brown TED Talk – The Power of Vulnerability
Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.
Did you ever face a dilemma whether to share your vulnerabilities?
What was your decision and why?
What was the outcome?
[Images: Trust Enablement]