The “V” word certainly isn’t new to business—a decade ago, Charlie Green, along with David Maister and Rob Galford, wrote about it in The Trusted Advisor, linking vulnerability with trustworthiness. Last year, employee engagement expert David Zinger wrote about CEO vulnerability as a critical success factor. This year, researcher Dr. Brene Brown’s TEDxHouston talk from 2010, called “The Power of Vulnerability,” became a viral sensation with over 4.5 million views and counting. (I’ll admit I was one of the people captivated by her talk when I found it, thanks to a Facebook friend.) And there it was again in Kristi’s book.
Kristi is the friend of a friend, so I asked for some of her time to explore this often misunderstood topic more.
Kristi says connection is key to executive presence—being accessible enough that others can relate to you. And she asserts that the core of this relatedness or connection is the ability to balance competency with vulnerability.
Not competency and command, but competency andvulnerability.
She knows this first from the early years of her career, working in politics, where she learned that the key to a candidate’s success was finding ways to reveal his or her humanity. The theme was confirmed as a key driver for leadership success when Kristi transitioned into the corporate sector, cofounding and running a technology communications firm for a decade before successfully selling her interest and becoming a leadership coach.
As a result of her experience, Kristi asserts a direct correlation between vulnerability and business results. “We don’t have connection without being real, we don’t have followership without connection, and we don’t have change without followership,” she told me.
Kristi emphasizes that vulnerability and competence must be in balance. She says that while there isn’t a precise formula for it, there are ways to be more self-aware about what works and what doesn’t.
Kristi underscored that everyone understands the importance of vulnerability. When she asks her clients to think about other leaders they know and admire for their presence, they intuitively understand the humanity piece immediately. What’s tough is figuring out how to express vulnerability. Why? Because no one wants to come across as too weak and everyone tends to overthink it.
The simplest way to be vulnerable without appearing weak, according to Kristi: be more open with your stories—where you’re strong, what you’re challenged by, and what you’ve overcome. In short, Kristi advises, “Give yourself permission to be more of yourself, rather than less.”
I was curious if, in Kristi’s experience, the need to increase vulnerability was just as relevant for executive women as men. Or do women already have the corner on the vulnerability market?
Kristi said that while stereotypes persist—which suggest women want to be seen as more powerful and men as more accessible—she hasn’t actually seen them manifest that way. “A lot of women come across as too commanding and a lot of men come across as too wishy-washy,” Kristi said. “We’re more alike than we give ourselves credit for.”
When Kristi described herself as “a recovering perfectionist who relapses often,” I laughed out loud—a laugh of recognition.
Kristi cautions perfectionistic high achievers, “It serves us well to a point, and then it doesn’t.” She asserts, “In the higher business echelons, where reality is complex and sometimes messy, perfectionism only gets in the way.” Then she hit the nail on the head, “Besides, we don’t trust perfectionistic people anyway.”
Ah, right back to the tie-in between being real and being trustworthy.
Perfectionistic tendencies may put women at a bigger disadvantage when it comes to executive presence. “Women are absolutely susceptible to the perfectionist trap,” Kristi says. “We carry a lot in terms of work and family and community. We feel like the bar is higher and that the consequences are dire when we feel it’s going to slip.” (Not coincidentally, this is consistent with Dr. Brown’s research on shame and women, which she says occurs when we fail to do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.) Kristi pointed out that when working mothers meet, for example, no one kicks back and says, “I completely have this figured out.” It’s more like, “I hope I can just keep all these balls in the air.”
Then Kristi reminded me, “You’re the only one who believes you can be perfect anyway.” And while she was using the universal “you,” her words spoke directly to me.
Something tells me they might hit home for you, too.