Vulnerability isn't the norm for most CEOs. Even those with high emotional intelligence try to shield their team, and their partners, from the natural uncertainties in the world of business. But today – in the midst of the biggest fight for survival most business leaders are ever likely to have faced – showing your vulnerability, saying "I don't know," and asking for help may be just the tools your business needs to come out of the coronavirus epidemic stronger and better than ever.
Most CEOs suffer from imposter syndrome – a belief at some level that they aren't equipped for the job they do. Insecurity is a powerful driver for the most ambitious, and most capable, leaders. Thinking you are an imposter doesn't translate well into showing your vulnerability. After all, surely being open to challenge and admitting you don't have all the answers will demonstrate that you are an imposter, right?
But today is different. These are not just uncertain times, they are unprecedented. To believe you have all the answers is delusional. To pretend you have them is dishonest. And destructive. And many CEOs understand that – leaders of all sizes of business today, from all types of industries, are asking for help.
I should know. At All Together we have over 100 volunteer advisors (all current or former CEOs or founders) taking requests for help every day from business owners and CEOs, small and large, across the UK and Ireland.
New ways of thinking
Right now, uncertainty is the defining mode of these COVID-19 times. But we are seeing the most amazing thing happen: an incredible burst of creativity. And creativity and innovation will be the lifeboat for businesses struggling to come out of this crisis.
Let's be clear – the vast majority of businesses, even when they are allowed to operate at full capacity again will face significantly depressed demand. Consumer confidence will be flat lined for many months, maybe even years, until a vaccine is fully deployed. And even if consumers wanted to consume at historic rates, social distancing rules will enforce lower demand, drastically reducing footfall in retail and hospitality for instance. And then there is the unknown – how much unemployment will come once the government removes its furlough job retention scheme. Let's not kid ourselves. These job losses will be significant and will drive us deeper into the recession we are already in, and make it last longer.
Assume your business has to innovate to survive. We need to find ways to operate in The New Normal. For retail and hospitality, this means developing operating processes to maximise footfall while maintaining social distancing rules, and convincing customers that your spaces are safe, for them and staff. And it means finding new revenue streams, because the expected level of reduced demand will render most sites unprofitable.
For manufacturers, it means increasing investment in automation to maximise output with minimal people. For those who could sell their products or services online, this is the time to develop your digital practices and operations and make them as effective as your physical world.
Vulnerability starts with you
But how will you, as CEO, unleash this creativity? Through top-down crisis management? Of course not. While this may be comforting for your team, it doesn't drive them to innovate and think differently.
By admitting "I don't know," you start from a position of vulnerability. I don't know the future, but I do know we need to redesign our business for this New Normal. I don't know all the ways we can deliver our products and services in a world overcome by social distancing rules and soft demand. But I do know my team will all have ideas that I need to hear – ideas not just to survive, but ideas for us to thrive. I don't know whether we will all have a job in six months, but I do know that if we work together, listen to each other, respect each other's views and be creative, then we will give ourselves and our business the best shot.
Being vulnerable means saying, “I don't know.” This is not a natural thing for CEOs to say. After all, employees, investors and your board all look to you for the answers. And in crisis, all these groups crave the certainty that strong leadership brings. But being vulnerable is not the opposite of strong leadership – in a crisis, vulnerability can be the cornerstone of it.
I don't know. But maybe by showing vulnerability, CEOs can unleash a wave of creativity and a culture of innovation amongst their teams that can not only build better businesses, but a stronger and more vibrant economy for years to come.
Jamie Mitchell is the former CEO of Tom Dixon and Daylesford. In April, Jamie launched All Together, a pro bono mentoring and coaching service for CEOs and business owners of UK and Ireland SMEs. Over 100 current and former CEOs have signed up as Volunteer Advisors. Visit www.alltogether.company to sign-up for this free mentoring and support service from some of the UK's best business leaders.