Some years ago, I told a business partner that I didn’t want to be a CEO. I was terrified of being the face of an organization, where I might be asked to give public presentations, speak to the media, and be responsible for answering every question about the business. I was content to take a background role in a startup, doing what I do best by facilitating strategic planning and managing financial matters.
Little did I know that I was about to dive into starting a business and being a CEO, and I would be asked to do all those things that terrified me. It was, and continues to be, a vulnerable position. I realized I had a choice. I could “fake it until I make it”, which didn’t feel right to me. Or, I could embrace my vulnerability as a strength, and lead authentically.
Choosing to embrace vulnerability means letting go of some commonly held beliefs about leadership and taking emotional risks with customers, employees, partners, and other stakeholders. It becomes a constant practice of shifting our mindsets and how we interact with others.
Let Go of Perfection
It’s normal for us to want to hold back the release of a product or launch of a business until we feel everything is perfect. But, we need to understand there’s no such thing as perfect. It’s natural to be imperfect. Take any object in nature and look at it carefully – you will always see some imperfections. That’s because we are projecting onto the object our own assumptions and expectations of what it is supposed to be, and overlooking what it is.
As I started Uptima, I had a perception of what a perfect business accelerator curriculum would look like – three 12-week modules focused on launching, funding, and scaling. I also thought I’d have all the materials lined up before the start of the first class. Well, there wasn’t enough time in the day, and I found myself writing the materials the night before each class. As I awkwardly delivered the materials each week, I learned more from our members’ about their business challenges and needs, and midway through the program, I split the second module into two modules to make it a year-long program. By launching with something that wasn’t perfect, I learned how to make our accelerator more effective, and I was more ready to adapt it when I got new insights. In addition, our members appreciated being engaged in the process of shaping the programs.
Admit You Don’t Know All the Answers
Remember in school when the teacher would ask a question and you didn’t know the answer? For some of us, we would look away or duck and cover so we wouldn’t be embarrassed if we were called on and couldn’t come up with an answer. When we don’t know the answers in our businesses, we might be inclined to do the same thing.
With every new cohort, I get asked new questions or thrown into new situations that expose gaps in Uptima’s processes and systems. Instead of trying to cover up those gaps, I strive to be transparent by letting people know the question or situation hasn’t come up before and I need to gather information and work with the team to determine how to handle it. Not only are they usually willing to work with me as I find a solution, but they get excited when their question or situation helps me improve our processes. By admitting I don’t know the answers and being transparent about how I will get to an answer, I build stronger relationships and more trust with our accelerator participants.
Ask for Support
Many entrepreneurs have difficulty asking for support, for many reasons: we’ve been led to believe that entrepreneurs are self-reliant, we think it’s a sign of weakness, we don’t want to inconvenience other people, we don’t want to be indebted to someone else, or we don’t know what to ask. Some entrepreneurs would risk failure rather than face the vulnerability of asking for help.
In the first cohort of Uptima, I was enrolling participants, teaching, mentoring, and doing all administrative tasks. As we started to run multiple cohorts at a time, I recognized this was not sustainable. It was clear that other people needed to be engaged, but I was uncertain about who would be qualified and fit the culture of the program. I mentioned my needs to our first participant and cooperative member and discovered that he was interested in supporting the program by coming on as a mentor. Since he had been through the class, this solved my challenge of finding someone who was qualified and fit the culture. Now, he is a lead instructor for that class and continues to be instrumental in helping to refine our mentoring procedures and curriculum.
According to author Brené Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” So, as an entrepreneur, I encourage you to embrace your vulnerability. It might open up opportunities for you to build a stronger business.