Much like professional sports, the world of business is traditionally seen as a very macho environment. This is not just because it tends to be male-dominated (although sadly this is still largely the case) but because of the sheer bravado that is associated with getting to the top.
Too often we are regaled with tales from our most successful businessmen of the long hours they worked, the sacrifices they made, and how they wouldn’t have made it to the top without them. It seems like we are supposed to be impressed somehow that they have neglected their children and families and abandoned all social life and personal interests, to devote their entire lives to their work.
For too many people, this image is an off-putting one. Because the fact is that most people these days are not willing to go down the same path. Fathers want to spend time with their children; they want a family life; and they also want something resembling a work-life balance.
Personally, I found the macho perception particularly hard to shake off. I was born and raised in New York; the very epicenter of macho. And working as an entrepreneur, I quickly found the same narratives becoming true of my life.
But as I began to enjoy some success and build a team around me, I quickly realized that this perception rang pretty hollow for my staff. Far from impressing and motivating, it seemed to throw up barriers and even resentment.
This got me thinking about what I could do to help foster a stronger team ethic and a closer bond between me and my team. I felt this was vitally important for the future of my business, and so it proved in time.
There were a few false starts I must confess, but ultimately it dawned on me that the best approach was honesty and openness. By dropping all the faux bravado and false barriers, and baring my soul, I hoped to create the begins of an open and comfortable environment in which my team, and I, could thrive.
So I made the conscious choice to become a vulnerable CEO. It was a little awkward to start with as I would be making a conscious effort to open up about different things to different staff members. Of course, as well as talking about myself, I made an extra effort to enquire my staffs lives too, asking after family members and how their weekend had been.
Some took to this new approach more readily than others; I endured more than my fair share of odd looks and awkward pauses. But a handful readily leapt at the opportunity to chat and after a while, more and more followed suit.
At the same time, I also used Slack, our internal communications tool, to create personal communications channels too. I would set up channels like #gratitude and #songoftheday and invite other team members to join the discussion. The old me would probably have looked upon this an unproductive, but it was clear in just a few days that the vibe in the office was changing.
After those tricky few days at the beginning, I really felt I was onto something. I knew I had a great team working for me anyway, but they really reacted positively to this new approach. Even those who perhaps thought I was having a bit of breakdown soon came to realize that what was breaking down was the office barriers.
I had wondered how I would know when the vulnerable CEO approach was really working, and the watershed moment came in the most unlikely, and I guess sad, circumstances. One staff member arrived half an hour late into the office and was visibly upset.
I immediately sat with her, got her a cup of coffee, and began to talk. It turned out that she had seen a car crash on her way into the office. It hadn’t been especially bad, but unknown to me she herself had been in a bad crash a few years previously in which a friend had been badly injured. The episode had brought it all back to her and she was visibly shaking.
Another colleague had also been in a bad car crash when he was a child and he immediately came over to console her and talk. Before long, the whole team was gathered round and it was a powerful and beautiful moment.
From that morning on, the dynamic amongst the team was renewed. It genuinely felt that we were far more than just work-colleagues; we were friends. And importantly, that was true for everyone from me, the CEO, right down to the intern.
And as well as a much more positive working environment, it also proved to be the catalyst for a more efficient and productive team too.
Inter-team communications improved beyond all recognition. Feeling a bond with your colleagues really does make such a different, and far from awkward team-building events, my team were readily inviting each other (and me) round to their houses, or out to watch a football game at the weekend.
The office was buzzing with chat too, both on Slack and, just chatting generally. It is mostly about work (as it should be) but there is plenty of general discussion and banter going on too. And I am glad of it.
A happy team is a productive team, and my business began reaping the rewards pretty quickly. They were certainly not under-performing before the culture-shift, but they are now very definitely over-performing. For example, my VPN comparison site has grown at a rapid rate and is now one of the market leaders in what is a very competitive field. This is in the most part thanks to my staff’s efforts.
I now find myself opening up to my team in a whole new way. I have to thank them for their brilliant work, their loyalty to me and my business, and for making it a joy and pleasure to go into the office in the morning.