“Don’t cry at work. If you are upset, go home and cry in the shower.”
This was the advice I once gave a female colleague when she was going through a hard time, leaking tears all over our Excel spreadsheets. It was 2006 and we were climbing the management consulting ladder. To be successful, I felt we should come to the office with both our suits and emotions steam pressed.
Since then, I’ve changed my attitude. Over the past few years I’ve unapologetically kept a dating blog while in a public facing role leading client relationships. Vulnerability became part of my professionalism and I let failure and emotion wrinkle around me like a linen suit in the summer time. Online — for everyone to see. The dirtier my laundry, the sweeter the deals?
When a friend read my last post on “Leaving Perfection”, he was concerned, “Are you sure you want to be that vulnerable online? You’re a leader in a well known design firm. Isn’t your open writing style bad for business?”
Would revealing emotions cause others to doubt my professional ability?
Would I forgo the trust I had established with clients?
My answer? Hell, no.
Over the years I have found that being vulnerable leads to much greater business success than staying buttoned up.
Camaraderie: Colleagues Know You Are Human
When I first started working at IDEO as a business development lead, I walked around with a nervous twitch. The twitch was caused by a hunger to be productive and a desperate need to prove I could “make shit happen.” It was often mistaken for a case of Tourette’s Syndrome.
My urgent need to perform made me seem suspicious. I could sell, but could I empathize?
“You would do well in New York,” I was often told. This, for a west coast firm, was NOT meant as a compliment.
I kept working hard trying to lead teams and close deals, although I wasn’t quite sure what deals to create nor who to include to help me. I felt frenetic, insecure, and alone.
Then an industrial designer stopped me in the hallway, hair wild, eyes alert with intrigue.
“Heidi, I have a confession. I started reading your blog…”
I was surprised. Back then my blog had few followers outside of my mom and ex boyfriends.
He continued, “And um, wow, it was really intimate. I didn’t know MBAs like you had emotions. You know, I went through that same thing last year. Maybe we should work on something together. Maybe I can help you.”
After that interchange, designers started asking me out for coffee chats and ‘get to know you’ beers. A year later, half the studio had read about my struggles with perfectionism and tragedies in romance. This led to an invitation to stay at their Burning Man Camp. By being vulnerable and (literally) naked with them, I started to understand the designers I was serving and could better scope programs that mattered. I didn’t just sell a lot more work, but I sold programs that our designers wanted to do. It wasn’t about selling independently, it was about creating together. The best part about this new approach? My Tourette’s went away.
Trust: Clients Feel You’ll Empathize
Two years ago, I was particularly excited about a proposal to work with an established technology company and rethink the future of entertainment. However, right when the statement of work should have been signed, silence ensued. I hit “refresh” on my inbox until my fingers bled. Our bottom line depended on the contract so I called the Vice President of our client company to inquire about the holdup.
“Well, I’ll admit. I spent some time Googling you and the team and I came across your blog,” he said.
I was horrified. I had just written about freezing my eggs. And my prior post compared dating to mismatched socks. Shit. Had my blog just torpedoed our business relationship?
“I must say,” the client continued, “You reveal a lot. But hell, I think it’s great. My wife had fertility issues once and we found no one talked about it. Happy you did. I always want to know who I’m doing business with. With you, I have a VERY clear picture. If you can take risks and empathize with others, you can empathize with us. I’ll sign the contract today.”
A year and many dollars later, the same client reached out to me for advice on making a career change. Because he trusted me, he felt comfortable asking me for advice on where to go next. Vulnerability connected us as humans and fostered a long term relationship that extended beyond singular contracts and companies.
If you want to do business in the long term, it can never just be business. It needs to be personal.
Bravery: Your Network Will Applaud You
Many public figures are open about the terrible tragedies that have befallen them.
Sheryl Sandberg was open about her husband’s death, writing howdesperately she needed her support group to help her survive.
Actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler recently came out about her battle with Multiple Sclerosis in an interview with People. “ I don’t want to hold a secret where it feels like I have something to be ashamed of or have something to hide,” she said.
These types of individuals are applauded with “Oh, they are so brave.” Perhaps they are.
However, it’s much harder to talk about things that we DID wrong, as opposed to the wrong things that happened TO us. After I wrote about a breakup, a girlfriend told me, “Your outpouring is like reading the mistakes your internal organs made.”
She was referring to the mistakes of my heart. As a professional, am I not supposed to have one? My posts on fertility, love, or relationships are often met with raised eyebrows. “Are you sure you want to reveal all your personal issues?”
Yes, I am. Unlike my past conviction to only “cry in the shower,” I no longer feel we should pretend these feelings and trials don’t exist. The need for love and understanding unites us as humans. Leaders are not immune from it. Nor are we immune from failure.
When we post about our own struggles, we inspire leaders from other organizations to be more vulnerable in their workplaces. Together we create a global web of not just thought leaders, but heart leaders.
According to Brené Brown in a 2013 Forbes article, vulnerability enables success by helping others relate to us. She said,
“The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness…. People connect more with those who have weaknesses. Every superhero has a weaknesses (Superman has kryptonite, for example). What makes these people more relatable? If they were perfect, would we care as much about them? Most of us don’t trust perfect and that’s a good instinct.”
She’s spot on. This year I’ve had many leaders from different industries send me personal emails thanking me for my openness and in turn, gave me the gift of being open with their own challenges. They’ve told me about domestic violence, catastrophic divorces, company lay-offs, and a litany of other failures. People I never thought I’d have a chance to meet are now my allies. Well, at least on Twitter.
140 characters notwithstanding, a whole community of ‘heart leaders’ exists. In the next few weeks I’ll draft stories of others that were able to embrace openness to move success forward, whether it be their company’s, their community’s, or their own. Stay tuned for more.
There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. —M. Scott Peck
Heidi is a writer and strategist based in San Francisco. She directs business development for IDEO’s retail portfolio and advises high growth startups on the art of storytelling in sales. Follow her on Twitter at @hisern.