The Power of Vulnerability

Recently, I watched Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. It was insightful. It also reminded me that the toughest job I ever had was also the same one that taught me about the power of vulnerability.

It was 1999 and I had just been named as President at AT&T’s Global Services Division. I was ecstatic

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…for a short time. I had joined AT&T three years earlier as an outside recruit to help a great team turn around the Eastern Region at Global Services. Our team had tripled the growth rate to fifteen percent and maintained that growth rate for three years to build a strong $5B unit, all while improving employee and customer satisfaction.

After I was promoted, I thought my biggest priority was to quickly introduce myself to the great team that comprised the Central and Western Regions and get started expanding on the approach that had worked in the East. It quickly became evident, however, that things were brewing both inside and outside the company that created a set of challenges I had never encountered, and it brought me to a place I had never been before.

Inside the company, thirty days into the new assignment I got a new boss. He was not a fan of mine. Thirty days later I learned that due to budget cuts I needed to lay off fifty percent of my work force using a voluntary program with no exclusions. The best producers could leave. Shortly after, I learned that forty percent of my accounts would be shifted to other business units at year end.

Outside the company, we faced a competitor who was operating illegally. Specifically, Worldcom was reporting overstated revenue and profit growth at the same time they were waging a price war in our market. (CEO Bernie Ebers subsequently went to jail.) Our business targets had been set to match the competitor’s growth claims.

Employees were shaken and so was I. But I was able to rely on a roadmap that had served me well in other difficult situations. I had experience using discipline, support, creativity, and values to align our team. I also had experience with insight to keep me balanced in the face of the lunacy. The challenge was to find a way to connect our nationwide workforce in order to pull together and raise their game in spite of all that was going on around them.

The answer came as the senior leadership team continued our practice of open dialogue yet added a willingness to acknowledge and share our own feelings of concern for the future. Personally, I openly shared my concerns and my vulnerability. I made it clear that I was not sure what senior management’s plans for me would be in the future. I was not looking for sympathy but rather simply trying to model straight talk. This was not typical of senior leaders at AT&T. Then, at one particular all-hands meeting I decided to go even further.

At the meeting, I was asked by an employee about the health care coverage options available for those who voluntarily left the company. He went on to explain that his wife was recovering from cancer surgery. I chose that time to share a secret I had held for over ten years—that I too had battled cancer. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium as I shared my news. News about my disclosure spread quickly—I was surprised by how many times it came up in later discussions with employees. In hindsight, I may have actually “joined” the workforce at AT&T that day. While some might question the wisdom of this level of openness, for me it was the right decision and made a huge, positive difference. My vulnerability allowed me to connect to the team at AT&T. Brene Brown explains this very phenomenon in her talk.

Amazingly to some and in spite of all the challenges we faced, the Global Services team actually doubled our revenue growth rate that year, although we did not reach our plan. We also set record levels for customer satisfaction. Perhaps most significant was our record-setting employee satisfaction improvement. Employees—who saw half their peer group leave during the year including those who were being transferred out of our unit—reported a huge increase in their confidence in unit leadership.

There is no doubt that our team worked hard and smart that year. For me, however, the breakthrough that enabled this amazing performance was the level of teamwork prompted in part by our choice to be open, honest, and vulnerable.