I have decided to take a leap and do a series about vulnerability, something so many of us struggle with on many levels. So, when I refer to vulnerability, I am referring to the ability (or not) of a CEO to receive help, advice, suggestions, and even criticism from others, including employees.  This “help” may come from within the company or it may come from outside.  However, our ability to remain vulnerable and accept this information is an important step in creating a safe working environment for everyone.  Let me explain what I mean.

I learned a very valuable lesson from an employee 20 year’s my junior.  It wasn’t an easy lesson to receive.  It was about training vs mentoring.  Let me tell a little about myself and the situation.  I am a visionary.  As such, I sometimes forget that other people aren’t.  I see things in big pictures, from that 30,000-foot view.  I surround myself with people who understand my communication style and are not only ok with it, actually work well with it.  My communication style has always been more minimalist in nature.  Ideas and concepts live in my head and I share information as needed.  For example, when I’m working with someone, I like to give them projects that stretch them.  I intentionally assign things slightly beyond their current skill set.  Then I provide minimal guidance on how something is supposed to be done.  I like to do this because I find it interesting what people come up with.  Many times, I am surprised at the creative solutions that people bring back to the table.  They are often nothing like I had envisioned, but as effective, if not more.  I have learned, too, that most of the time, people enjoy this freedom to explore a new subject.  Unfortunately, this minimalist attitude has occasionally carried over into areas where more guidance is required.  This is an example of one of those times.

I hired a young engineer knowing that she was weak in some areas and would require more training.  Knowing this, ideally, I would have worked with my training manager to set up a very specific training plan for her.  I didn’t.  I instead went into my normal modus operandi and chose more of a mentoring tact.  She shadowed a couple of facilitators and then she was observed by the training manager and myself.  I felt that she was doing a good job, and my QA/Training manager was happy with her work.  So, I was surprised when about a year into her job, she and I were working on a project together, I noticed that her attitude was slipping.  I asked her if she was happy and learned that she really wasn’t.  From the ensuing conversation, I learned that she found my communication style, or in her opinion, lack of communication very frustrating.  She felt that she needed, and wanted, more structure and guidance in how to do her job.  In short, she felt like she had been thrown into a sink or swim situation.  While that had not been my intent, that is still how she felt.  We talked further about how we could resolve this so that she could again enjoy her job and feel like she was successful.  She suggested that regular communication on some particulars of her work would be beneficial for her and she requested weekly communications with me regarding her work.  In this weekly communication, she wanted to cover a variety of topics, including ongoing projects, future projects and ongoing training.  I set these up for her, but quickly realized that I am not the person to conduct these.  While I believe them to be beneficial, I find them tedious.  It was her that suggested maybe there was someone else in the company that I could assign to work with her in this manner.  We did.  The weekly conversations started, and she received the training that she both wanted and needed and became quite successful.

From that series of conversations, I learned several things.  I learned that there is a huge difference between training and mentoring, something I intuitively knew but had not acknowledged nor did I fully understand until that point.  I also took the time to really look at my employees learning styles.  From those observations I was able to pair each person who needed any kind of training with someone who’s style is better suited for them.  So, our training program was revamped slightly.  In addition to modifying our training program, I realized that while I have always had an open-door policy, not everyone feels that they can speak to me.  Therefore, we also did a reorganization of the company, creating positions and lines of communication that better suit both the job and the needs of each employee, while still fulfilling the needs of the company.

In addition, when I promoted my US manager to the position, I was very up front with him about my communication style and we discussed his learning style.  We set up a plan to ensure he received the information that he needed in the format most effective for him without feeling like a burden for me.  I have that young engineer to thank for the realization that I need to be up front and aware when mentoring someone vs training.  Her bold honesty was hard to hear, but by choosing to be vulnerable and listen to someone 20 year’s my junior, I learned a valuable lesson.  Hearing that my communication style was a major source of frustration for her wasn’t fun, but it WAS appreciated.

Communication within our organization has since improved greatly.  This has, in turn, improved morale and productivity. By allowing everyone to see my vulnerability and subsequent commitment to make positive changes has allowed people to feel safe talking about mistakes they’ve made, concerns they have, changes they would like to see implemented and areas that they want to explore.  In short, my allowing myself to be vulnerable and listen to someone’s honest criticism of me has changed the way I see vulnerability.  It’s not all bad…

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