Being vulnerable as a business owner is not easy, especially when business is not going as well as you would like. There is a fine line between giving employees enough information to keep them from becoming fearful and jumping ship, and not. This is a lesson that I learned the hard way. Thankfully, it turned out in my favor. I’m going to share with you my story.
My company has always done very well. We have grown organically, through word of mouth and the occasional new client that finds us through the internet. We have always had a solid reputation, and my team and I have always been proud of that. Then, one year, we had the perfect storm. We lost two of our top team members, a large contract and several projects pushed out into future months. Add to that, the need to hire someone new, due to the loss of the two team members forcing an increase in our training budget; cash flow became a challenge. However, we had to have someone. I hired a young man that, on paper, appeared to be a great fit. He never did come up to speed and I let him go at the end of our 90-day contract. Just as a reference, a new hire is typically billable after about a month. He never was. I then hired someone else, who fortunately was billable after a month, but this led to a higher than normal output for training.
On top of this, our top client switched out their invoicing and accounting process. This led to a series of issues in getting payment. 48% of invoices to them were over two months overdue. Another client, who had always been net 30 days, changed owners and went to net 60 days. As I said, 2018 was the perfect storm.
I became fearful for my company’s future and ended up making several poor decisions that culminated in incurring quite a bit of debt; debt that almost put us out of business. During that period, my team obviously knew that there were problems because they were not going out on projects. However, not having any information left a lot of room for the imagination, room for fear, resentment and for a lack of trust to start to build. It was becoming noticeably palpable in our communications.
I decided that it was time to shift the energy. I met with each of my team individually. I explained what had happened, at a high level, where we were, and what we were doing to improve the situation. I gave enough details of the financial situation to provide context and squelch the fear. I then focused on providing more details about path forward, looking to them for any ideas for solutions. It was fantastic. All team members thanked me profusely for being so open, and for the continued trust and support in keeping them employed. They also thanked me for involving them in finding solutions. A couple of them had been in positions where they were blindsided with a layoff when they didn’t even know the company was hurting that badly. So, they were thankful to know that I was willing to be so up front with them.
Now, I won’t say that talking with them was easy. It wasn’t. I have always played my cards fairly close to my chest. So, this was new, it was scary, it left me feeling vulnerable, AND it was the right thing to do.
The upside is that we pulled out of the mess, leaving the company much stronger, and me thankful for the trust and support of an incredible team. It also reminded me that vulnerability is not necessarily a weakness. It took strength to be honest with my team. It took courage to tell them what was going on…honestly. Vulnerability can be both of those things; strength and courage, when managed well. Now, I don’t suggest you go out and let it ALL hang out, so to speak. That opens you up to a different level of vulnerability. However, letting a little vulnerability into your leadership opens the door to compassion, connection and collaboration. And isn’t that what we all want?