advertisement
advertisement
The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Why leaders need to practice productive vulnerability

As leaders, we need to strike a balance between being vulnerable and making decisions.

Why leaders need to practice productive vulnerability
[Jacob Lund / Adobe Stock]

The future of work is a constant force to be reckoned with. While the world has generally agreed that it’s hybrid, flexible, and driven by technology, many business leaders still grapple with how to handle the omnipresence of uncertainty.

advertisement
advertisement

As the chief people officer of a 3,000-person global enterprise and public company, I appreciate finding opportunities in the unknown. There are opportunities to try new things and make bold changes. It’s a time for leaders to embrace discomfort and use it as a learning opportunity. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella summed it up quite well: “The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all.”

I can admit that I do not know all the answers. And I think it’s safe to argue that my peers, including those I work with as well as those at other companies, do not either.

But, we do have the responsibility to find and trial solutions we believe in. And to find these solutions, there is no better resource to serve as a think tank than your own employees and the teams that you, as a leader, support.

advertisement
advertisement

I find that the most inspirational leaders turn times of uncertainty into moments in which they uplift the voices and ideas of others. One of the best ways to do this is by practicing what I like to call productive vulnerability.

PRODUCTIVE VULNERABILITY

Productive vulnerability is about striking a balance between being vulnerable and making decisions.

It starts with owning the fact that you do not have all the answers. In fact, if the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that there is a lot more out of our control than we realize. It’s better to own this early on rather than make grandiose statements and cement policies or programs that you ultimately go back on, causing confusion for employees. Simply put, be honest and open.

advertisement

This doesn’t mean you should stand there and wait for or require your employees to solve these challenges for you. As the leader, you have a major part to play in steering the ship. However, you can and should provide the opportunity for your employees to join you on the journey to cross uncharted waters. You might be the one at the helm, but your employees should unequivocally be included in the discussions that inform the direction the ship goes.

One of the best examples I can give of this concept in action goes back to Coupa’s adolescent days. Our company was growing at a rapid pace through both organic and inorganic (i.e., acquisition) growth, and our CEO challenged me to strengthen ties between teams so that all of us (i.e., every single Coupa employee) was informed on and excited about the company’s path forward, and how we work within the framework of our values.

While I certainly had ideas based on my nearly 30 years in human resources, I realized my ideas might not be the best ideas, and in fact, I wanted new, out-of-the-box ideas that would push the envelope. I saw it as my responsibility to build the framework that would inspire this type of thinking, but made clear to my team I was unsure of the best solution and I wanted their help in building the actual program. Empowered, the team responded quickly, designing a program in less than a week and running pilots a few weeks later.

advertisement

BRING A VALUES-BASED FRAMEWORK TO YOUR VULNERABILITY

Now, this is where the productive part comes into the equation. Be vulnerable (and open), but explicit in how you want employees to problem-solve with you. It is important to frame these discussions to be actionable, scalable, adaptable, and—perhaps above all else—aligned with the core values of your company.

When decisions and actions are aligned to a company’s core values, they will undoubtedly drive the business forward, regardless of the situation. If you do not think your company’s values are capable of serving as this framework—as a lens through which to make critical business decisions—then perhaps you should reevaluate them.

We have three core values at my company: ensure customer success, focus on results, strive for excellence. Our CEO uses them to make the decisions he does, which sets a precedent for everyone else at the company to do the same, especially during such challenging and uncertain times. Strategies and solutions might change based on the situation at hand and the external environment, but the values will remain absolute. They enable us to productively solve for the macro-level challenges in the world that are outside of our control.

advertisement

Let’s revisit the example I shared earlier. The task was to develop a new employee experience program. The framework that served to guide the proposed solution was our company’s values. The outcome was a series of events, courses, and reference materials entirely designed and developed by the employees I support on the learning and development team. The programs were highly interactive with case studies, role play, and group debate. Employees reflected on how they see Coupa’s values contributing to the actions they take, challenges they face in their roles, and the direction they want to see the company go in the future. The reaction to the initial program was so powerful that it has expanded in scope—it is now part of our onboarding for every single new hire and has one of the highest engagement rates across all training programs.

UNLEASHING THE FULL POTENTIAL OF OTHERS

Leaders have the responsibility to build every single employee up to unleash their full potential. Practicing productive vulnerability enables you to do so. It enables you to be open for optionality and make decisions on when to stay steady and when to change course. But more than that, it enables employees to be the drivers of change and quench their desire to have meaning and purpose in their professional lives.


Chief People Officer at Coupa

advertisement
advertisement
advertisement