The Power Of Vulnerability

How letting go of 15% of our team brought our team together

Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

Before founding my current company, I worked as the head of operations and education for a health and wellbeing startup. An essential trait of our leadership team was holding information about our financial status close to our chest. At the time, the rationale made sense: We didn’t want our coaches and team members to worry about their jobs. Yes, we were a startup, but we wanted to give our team a sense of stability so they could keep excelling and not have to worry about the “business aspect.”

Then one day, we had to let go of 15% of our team. A year prior, we had made a bet. We bet our sales would continue to grow, and extra team members would not only help us deliver our increased demand for coaching in the short term, but also provide the capacity to expand to future clients. I convinced our founders of this need based on my analysis, and I was wrong. My forecasting failure is one of the toughest lessons I’ve experienced, because being wrong impacted people’s lives.

We knew once we made the layoffs official, we couldn’t go back to business as usual. We had to give our team an explanation. Even writing this, I can still feel the tightness in my stomach from the fear and anxiety I held leading up to this meeting. Our COO encouraged all of us to stop making excuses and simply be open, honest and transparent.

That’s what we did. We laid out the entire financial situation for the team. We told them for the first time in four years that we didn’t know if we’d make it through the year. We shared how we had a narrow runway, and if we executed on a few key initiatives, we could be successful. We gave into our vulnerability, let go of the tightness, and I won’t forget the energy in that room. The people I was afraid would run for the hills at this uncertainty stood up and said they were all in. The energy shifted from fear to excitement to possibility. The team was ready to make this business work and step up in any way they could.

In the subsequent weeks and months, people asked me what else they could do, how they could help secure new business or give a free coaching session to a prospective client. I noticed team members from other departments coming together to work on projects and do the extra work that was needed.

In sharing our vulnerability with the team, we not only showed them we were fallible, but we allowed them to truly feel like owners of the company, not just employees. The lesson from this experience was clear to me: Being vulnerable and transparent — something we thought would scare our team away — brought us together.

Many founders and CEOs I work with are afraid of being this exposed. It’s scary. It’s saying you don’t have all the answers. Being vulnerable is about saying, “I don’t know the right answer, and I don’t know if everything is going to be all right.”

Ray Dalio, founder and CEO of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, runs his company on the principle of radical transparency. He says,

“My most important principle is that getting at the truth, whatever it may be, is essential for getting better. We get at truth through radical transparency and putting aside our ego barriers in order to explore our mistakes and personal weaknesses so that we can improve.”

When you allow yourself to let loose of control, you give your people the chance to opt-in. When they do, they dive all-in because they feel more connected to the company, to the purpose, and to you as their leader.

There is a perspective shift: They go from seeing it as a job to being deeply committed to the company’s vision. Instead of shielding your team from the responsibility of making the company a success, be honest with them and allow them to see and feel what that means. Allow them to be a part of the success alongside you.

Before your next all-hands meeting, ask yourself these three questions:

1. What am I trying to protect my team from?

2. What am I not sharing as a result?

3. What’s the impact of withholding this information on me, the team and the company?

Instead of withholding information, allow yourself to be authentic, honest and transparent about your biggest concerns and struggles for the upcoming weeks and months. It will help your people feel more connected to you and more invested in the company.

If you want your people to be all in — to be fully engaged — start sharing what “all in” really means. Start sharing your company with them.

Originally published in Forbes on May 11th, 2017.