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Take Off the Armor: Why Vulnerability Is a Leader’s Greatest Strength

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You probably believe, as I once did, that the president of a $12 billion division of AT&T—overseeing 10,000 employees and a massive budget—would hold the necessary power and influence to successively drive an organization’s transformation and, more importantly, dictate the pace of that change.

But if you believe that, you’d be wrong. Or at least I was.

When I first took on the role of President of AT&T Global Services, I was immediately tasked with turning the business around—quickly and efficiently. I followed a playbook that had served me well in other corporate turnarounds. To start, we focused on customers, competitors, costs, and internal communications. But just 30 days into my new job, word came of an unexpected reorganization, one that drastically cut our headcount by 50 percent, pushed longtime customers to an unproven new partner, and strangled our account management. In short: it created chaos.

These challenges hit my Global Services team during our first quarter together, before we had a chance to build a strong rapport or any real momentum. So it didn’t take long for the rumors to start, and for people to grow weary and worried. I needed to find a way to connect with my employees, who increasingly viewed AT&T corporate officers as part of the problem, if not the problem.

To help alleviate these internal anxieties, AT&T scheduled a number of town hall meetings as forums for frank and open discussion. Not surprisingly, the conversations often became testy and heated. That certainly was the case at a meeting I led in New York City, where I was to unveil details of a new voluntary benefits program.

During a Q&A session, an employee stood up and asked if I truly understood the impact of losing healthcare benefits while a family member was battling cancer.

The room grew silent as all eyes focused on me.

It was clear that the audience assumed executive officers—like me—were somehow insulated from the layoffs and cuts to company benefits. It was also clear that this was an opportunity to illustrate that all AT&T employees—including leaders like me—shared the same concerns and anxieties. So I decided to take a risk.

You could have heard a pin drop when I took a deep breath and said, for the first time publicly, “I am a cancer survivor, and I know how important healthcare coverage can be.”

Years earlier, my doctor had discovered a malignant tumor and recommended immediate surgery. Concerned about how it might hold back my career and advancement, I kept my cancer battle shielded beneath a suit of armor. No one in my professional circles knew I had been diagnosed with cancer until this fateful AT&T town hall meeting.

But as I explained how transition healthcare insurance would continue to cover employee families, I realized that revealing my own vulnerability created an immediate connection with my team.

By talking about a very personal experience, I acknowledged that the link between our personal and professional lives is paramount. After this moment, more and more employees began to engage me in conversation. The initial animosity I faced as an AT&T officer melted away, and news about my disclosure quickly spread; I was surprised by how many times it came up in later discussions with employees.

Now that I was seen as a warrior in the same battle, employees stepped up to lead. I call these people Chiefs—those who embrace change and become fully engaged in an organization’s transformational efforts. These Chiefs were a driving force behind our division’s success, in spite of the challenges we faced. Our Global Services team doubled our revenue growth and achieved record levels of customer satisfaction. But perhaps most significant was the jump in employee satisfaction and newfound confidence in our division’s leadership.

If you’ve ever had a time where you and your team have faced a difficult situation, ask yourself:

-In what ways does this situation impact your team members’ personal lives?

-How do their feelings impact their ability to create and work through change?

-Does being honest and open—admitting your vulnerabilities, worries, mistakes, or dreams—allow you to build trust?

-Will sharing personal challenges create a bond with your employees?

-Will this bond lead to your group’s success?

As leaders, we need to recognize that title, position, and authority don’t automatically translate into power and influence. Rather, vulnerability is what makes us more powerful—and more able to effect change.

Rick Miller is an unconventional turnaround specialist, sought-after speaker, servant leader, and expert in driving sustainable growth. For over 30 years, he served as a successful senior executive in roles including President and/or CEO in Fortune 10, Fortune 30, nonprofit, and startup companies, including AT&T Global Services and Lucent Technologies. Throughout his career, he has been recruited from the outside to turn around poor performance in difficult times. His new book, Be Chief: It’s A Choice, Not A Title, helps leaders at all levels achieve their true potential. To learn more, visit BeingChief.com.

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