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In this special “minisode” Jennifer Brown shares her reflections from hosting over 20 episodes of The Will To Change and discusses the importance of vulnerability for leaders. Discover why vulnerability is so important when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and the cost of failing to be vulnerable. Jennifer also shares her thoughts about balancing the need to be transparent with the possible risks that sharing your story can bring, and the potential positive impact that one authentic email or discussion can have on others in an organization.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why it’s riskier for some groups to be vulnerable (2:30)
  • Why it can be safe to be vulnerable in some areas, but not others (5:30)
  • The importance of embracing discomfort as a leader (6:10)
  • How to start embracing vulnerability (8:00)
  • How to mine your life for powerful stories (9:30)
  • Why vulnerability will help attract top talent (11:00)
  • Why we need to “throw out the rule book” when it comes to leadership (12:50)
  • The cost of not embracing vulnerability in the workplace (14:55)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. You might notice that this is not Jennifer Brown, this is, in fact, Doug Foresta, the producer of The Will to Change.

But Jennifer Brown is with me, and today we’re turning the tables. And I’m going to be asking her some questions about her reflections from doing over 20 episodes of The Will to Change.

Jennifer, welcome, thank you for joining me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug, for doing this. I can’t wait to be in the other seat. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Yeah, how does it feel to be on the other side?

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m loving it. It’s so much easier. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. (Laughter.) So, what we wanted to do is to really give listeners an opportunity. They do hear your voice twice a month. They hear your voice and they hear you talk to guests. But, at the same time, we wanted to give you a chance to reflect on the episodes and themes that have come up from them.

The first thing I wanted to talk about is about vulnerability. One of the themes that’s come up over and over again is this theme of vulnerability and the importance of being vulnerable as a new model of leadership.

My first question for you: Is that something that you’re seeing in your own work as you travel the country? Do you think that that’s where we’re headed in terms of the idea of a more vulnerable style of leadership?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It has been a theme in all of the episodes. And, honestly, I push it to be the theme, even though some folks are not so comfortable talking in a vulnerable way in the business context.

I see my tools and my abilities as being uniquely suited to create safety for more vulnerable sharing on the part of business leaders.

It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that it’s more risky for certain leaders who look a certain way or have a certain background or identity to be vulnerable, actually.

For example, when I prepare a range of executives to tell their stories, their diversity stories — because everyone has a diversity story — there is a different level of fear and trepidation and hesitation depending on who the person is that’s going to do the personal storytelling and the vulnerability that’s embedded in that. If it’s a powerful story, they’re usually not so comfortable to share, and yet have this amazing impact on the world.

So vulnerability, for example, underrepresented talent — if you’re a woman in a male-dominated business environment or you’re a person of color or you’re LGBTQ, for example, or you have a diverse ability, for you to be additionally vulnerable feels more risky because every day of your life, you’re walking a riskier path.

For me, I want to hold the space differently for people who are already sticking their neck out every single day just by being who they are and being the “only and lonely,” as we say, being somebody who is raising the diversity issue to people around them who don’t look like them. It’s relatively more risky and I always want to be cognizant of that.

On the flip side, who it is less risky for is in the business world, if it’s a male-dominated and white-dominated world in the corporate echelons of power — in the corporate world, that’s certainly a true statement. Vulnerability comes with different baggage and fears. That vulnerability is really about, “Am I going to say the wrong thing? Do I have something to say?” The zeitgeist right now is, apparently, very hostile and very reactive and very quick to react negatively to everything. If I stick my neck out to share, how will my message be taken? How will it be interpreted?

It’s really interesting to notice that when we talk about vulnerability, I might ask, “For whom and because of what?” We need to support and coach our leaders and whoever is listening here, whether you’re a coach of leaders, somebody that’s mentoring or reverse mentoring somebody, or somebody who’s trying to bring the courage up in ourselves to bring our diversity story to the fore. All of those identity-related elements do come into play, and that’s okay. It’s something that we should actually talk about.

It’s interesting because I think about the amazing stories that we’ve had about vulnerability. We had, for example, Rick Welts, who’s the COO of the Warriors, right? How he came out in the NBA. He came out, and the vulnerability that it takes to do that.

For example, the other thing I was thinking is how one could be willing to be vulnerable in one area, but then it’s another level. Do you remember, Jennifer, when we interviewed Christie Smith about inclusiveness? She talked about suffering from PTSD, and she was willing to be vulnerable about being a woman in the workforce and what that was, but then to talk about how she was having PTSD symptoms from 9/11. That felt a little bit like a bridge too far that she eventually did share. I wonder about your thoughts about that. There are levels and layers of vulnerability.

JENNIFER BROWN: So well said. It’s true. Over the span of our individual work on ourselves, as we mature and find our voice, we should be going deeper and deeper. We should be crossing new thresholds all the time in terms of our comfort level, because that’s how you know you’re leading is that it should feel uncomfortable. You should never be too comfortable because the world is changing around you, and if you’re not changing with it, you’re going to be left behind.

DOUG FORESTA: Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Even for me and my story, maybe seven, eight, nine years ago, coming out was a huge deal as an LGBT person. Right? That felt, to me, like an uncomfortable stretch and something I had to challenge myself to do. And now it’s receded into the list of things that scare me every time I get up and speak.

I’m always on the hunt for what’s going to scare me next that people really need to hear from my story, from my experience.

So you’re right, there’s a hierarchy of what we’re willing and comfortable to share. There is easy to hard. If we can get people sharing the easy stuff, that builds the muscle. And what happens, then, is it becomes self-reinforcing because, inevitably and invariably, you get this tremendous outpouring from people. For leaders, you get all of this unexpected positive reinforcement to say, “I love what you said about this,” and, “That’s my story, too,” or, “I have a similar story, but it’s different, and I want to tell it because you told yours.”

It goes this way. And I think that really surprises leaders. It certainly surprised me when I shared my story about losing my singing voice on the TED stage, and not really knowing who that would resonate with and if it would matter. Is it a pity story? Is it something that’s worthy of being shared? And yet, it resonated with people in ways that I could never anticipate or predict.

When I work with leaders now, I say, “Okay, let’s choose something that feels like it’s a little bit of a stretch, but it’s not so risky that you feel you’re putting everything on the line.” Honestly, I would never counsel leaders to do that in this environment.

I would say, “Let’s start somewhere.” I promise you, it will probably be a positive response. I can’t always promise that. Who am I to tell anyone how to manage the risk of bringing their full selves to their workplace and their employer? It varies widely.

So I think that all we can do is stretch ourselves, challenge ourselves, remind ourselves that our story is going to be meaningful to someone out there that will hear it, that we don’t even know who they are, we don’t know how it’s going to resonate, we don’t know what kind of courage it’s going to give them, and that one story will lead to, “Maybe I can talk about this, maybe I can talk about that.” Over time, and there’s no magic number of years or whatever, some people really accelerate fast through this process. Over the span of a year, you see a leader show up really differently. All of a sudden, stories are occurring to you on a more rolling basis, so it’s not such a labor. It’s not such a consciously uncomfortable act, it becomes woven into your leadership. Literally, something that happened to you yesterday, you bring that in and you use that to make a point about something.

Eventually, the muscle is built. Sometimes maybe that first step is the hardest one. Once you get it rolling, then you see stories everywhere, then you start to mine your life every day for small things, big things, and you think, “How can I teach from this?”

DOUG FORESTA: One of the things that’s been so fun and powerful about The Will to Change is that you’ve been able to find some straight, white men. I think of Aaron Dignan, who talked about wearing a Batman outfit while he was a kid for 300 days in a row or something like that. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: That was so cute.

DOUG FORESTA: But you found men, Ray Arata talking about the failure of his marriage and how he dealt with that.

One of the things I’m wondering about is, on the one hand, I understand. You’re saying, “I can’t promise what the outcome is going to be for a leader if they share something.” But, on the other hand, we’re going to talk about future of work in another one of these “minisodes,” but I wonder if, in your experience, especially for millennials and younger talent, would they be okay, would they accept a leader who says, “Don’t worry about who I am, just do your job. I’m the leader, don’t worry about me as a person.” Do you think that that kind of leadership is going to be harder and harder to engage top talent?

JENNIFER BROWN: My goodness, yes. My sense of younger talent is they have grown up honoring completely who they are and having that reinforced, supported, and encouraged.

And then they come into this workplace that is, frankly, still built and being run by not just generation X, but baby boomers in many situations. For that generation, it was, indeed, all about, “Here’s my work persona, here’s my life persona, ne’er the twain shall meet. It’s a need-to-know basis about who I am.”

It’s a really hard skill for these senior leaders, especially in the latter years of their professional powers and career, to then take a risk of rethinking, “What do I think success looks like and to whom? How am I going to show up? Am I just going to coast and keep my head down and stay out of trouble and do as little as I possibly can get away with to not rock the boat in the final two, three, five years of my career?” Not every leader in those last stages is really hungry for change.

It’s a shame because, in the meantime, somebody at that level, especially if it’s senior, can shift the feelings and the degree to which people feel supported, seen, and heard. One e-mail or one comment at a meeting has this giant ripple effect.

I never think we’re done leading. Even at the end of the journey, it’s not an excuse. In fact, if anything, you should know all that you don’t know. It’s that “VUCA” world, right? Volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. It’s a military term that’s been adopted by business.

At this point, I don’t care how senior you are, throw out the rule book and say, “How am I going to lead? What do I want to be known for? So much of the estimation of me as a leader still matters even if I’m in that final stage.” It matters maybe more than ever, but it is a different stance for leaders. It’s admitting what you don’t know. It’s knowing how to ask the right questions, it’s not having all the answers, it’s being a servant leader, even though you’re an executive. It is somebody who wants to be reverse mentored.

The millennials and younger talent in general, bringing themselves into the workplace saying, “I want to be seen and heard for fully who I am. I expect my employer to see that in me and want that for me.” Anything that’s out of sync with that is going to cause disconnections and tear at the fabric of the relationship between any employer and any promising young leader. To the extent that, potentially, that young leader will say, “This organization isn’t for me. My leaders don’t get it.” I don’t hear them talking authentically about things. I don’t see them honoring their full selves because they’re parsing out their identity.

A lot of young women will say, “I see senior women, but I can’t relate to them. I don’t understand why they do this and why they do that, and they don’t talk about this.” It’s easy to criticize from where you sit, and that’s a whole other question, Doug, for you to ask me. Why do we hear that so much?

There are plenty of senior leaders — I’d say probably most in the LGBT community are still really closeted. They might be out to their teams, but they’re not out on a broader scale. They’re not out to all employees. And it’s just tragic, but I understand that they perceive that it’s risky, and that’s important to acknowledge.

Not an easy answer, but those are some of the nuances swirling around your very good question.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. So if I had to pull out some things from that, maybe vulnerability is not an “all or nothing.” That’s one piece of it. The other piece is if you’re not willing to be vulnerable at all, it’s going to be very hard for you to lead the next generation and to be a leader in the future of work.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. I admire how you just boiled that down. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much, Jennifer. Thanks for this. We’re going to wrap up this “minisode” here, but thank you for sharing your reflections on vulnerability and the importance in leadership.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.