A Wealth of Weaknesses
Imagine having your best people come up with a list of your strengths and weaknesses. Maybe a little threatening? Now imagine their list of your weaknesses is three times longer than their list of your strengths. Humbling! But it was just what I was hoping for.
In my early days at Ariba, when the company was just a little over a year old, we hit a dry patch in sales. The leadership team—my direct reports—were a smart, energized bunch, and they were concerned. So they all started running a million miles an hour, trying to solve problems and get things going.
Sounds good, but it got a little crazy. Sometimes we wound up working at cross purposes and getting in each other’s way. Ever seen an anthill that’s had a bucket of water poured on it? Something like that.
After a few experiences with signals getting crossed, I realized we needed to do a better job communicating and pulling together as a team. An offsite seemed like a great way to focus and get everyone on the same page. I really wanted this meeting to matter, so I was especially concerned about getting everyone to share their honest input about the business—and about me.
As it turned out, they weren’t shy about speaking their minds. The meeting taught me a lot about how to improve my own performance and the company’s. And it really helped us pull together as a team. Early in our history, I think it was one of the best things we ever did.
One Way to Get to the Truth
So how did we create an environment where everyone felt safe enough to open up? For this offsite, I brought in an outside facilitator. I thought if it wasn’t so much MY meeting, people might be more comfortable speaking their minds. It also made it possible for me to do a little pre-offsite engineering. I asked the facilitator to interview each member of the leadership team confidentially, and ask them some questions that we would discuss at the offsite. Their answers would be kept anonymous if they wanted.
I had the facilitator ask them what they felt Ariba’s strengths and weaknesses were as a company. Then I had him ask what they thought my strengths and weaknesses were. The facilitator made it clear that he was going to ask the same questions at the offsite in a group setting, and he was writing down the answers they gave in private to make sure the facts came out, just in case nobody spoke up in the group.
As it turned out, everyone felt pretty comfortable speaking up at the offsite. Make that very comfortable. When it came to the discussion about my strengths and weaknesses, it started really well. For my strengths, they listed seven qualities that, of course, made me beam. But when it came time for my weaknesses, they listed 21—three times as many! Not that easy to hear, but incredibly valuable input.
At the end of the day at the roundtable discussion, one of the executives said to me, “You’re probably the best CEO I’ve ever worked with, but 21 weaknesses! How does that make you feel?” I didn’t blink an eye. I said, “It makes me feel great. Because that’s one of the big reasons I’m doing this at Ariba, creating another company all over again. The big thing for me is that I want to get better at what I’m doing.”
I went on to say that it turned out I could divide the 21 weaknesses in to three buckets–naturally seven weaknesses for each. I told him, “Bucket #1 is for weaknesses I already knew about and am working on. For example, I know sometimes I move too fast on critical decisions. Sometimes I think I know the solution to a problem, or the next strategic chess move, because I’ve done it before at a prior company. So I go right to the answer and don’t take people on the journey of the thinking behind it. This is something I need to keep working on.”
I continued, “Bucket #2 are super-valuable. They’re blind spots that I didn’t know about before. There were some comments that sometimes I put together timetables for projects that are too demanding. I didn’t realize this was affecting people’s family life, because everybody wanted to please me.”
“Bucket #3 are the ones I believe you guys are just wrong about. Somebody mentioned that when there’s a disagreement on the team I always side with the last person out the door. I really don’t believe I do this, but perception is reality, so I’m going to take the initiative to demonstrate that this isn’t happening. If it’s a real weakness, I guess I’ll be fixing it.”
Here’s a video of Keith telling the 21 Weaknesses story to world renowned author of the Multipliers, Liz Wiseman and 200 of the top global CEO coaches at the Goldsmith Thompson Growth Leadership Summit. The topic was how you have to be a Multiplier before you can become a transformational leader.
Feeling of Safety
I’m sure the preparation we did for the offsite was helpful, but it wasn’t the whole story. That feeling of safety needs to come out of everyone’s day-to-day experience. Without that, it’s not going to happen magically at an offsite.
I’m sure you can remember a time when you were with a group of people and really wanted to say something, but held back because you didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. Maybe you thought your idea would be shot down. Maybe you had an experience in the past where voicing questions or different points of view wasn’t acceptable. Probably everyone has felt this way at some point in their lives, in a business setting or a personal one.
For people to flourish in your company—for you to build a high-performance team—people have to feel safe. What does a safe environment look like in terms of day-to-day experience? It means no one’s afraid to voice an opinion or a point of view that is different from those around them. It means that employees shouldn’t be stressed out that someone is going to make fun of them or be critical if they share an idea that might be a little wacky. It means people know they can try something new, take risks, without worrying they’ll get fired if they make a misstep.
The principle of a safe environment was deeply ingrained in Ariba’s culture. Our Team Rule #2 was, “No idea is a dumb idea.” It embodied the principle of creating a safe environment, as did our value of respect for the individual. We fostered open communication in the form of weekly roundtable discussions, where employees at all levels could openly voice whatever was on their minds—including listing out what my weaknesses were.
When the CEO can talk honestly about his weaknesses in front of his or her people, that’s the beginning of a safe environment. The CEO becomes human to everyone, which, in turn, makes others feel that they can show their vulnerabilities, too.
That offsite was a powerful validation of these principles. We’d been so disjointed at that time in Ariba’s history, I wasn’t sure if the leadership team felt a sense of safety in the company. I had hoped that giving team members a chance to talk privately and confidentially about their concerns would demonstrate my commitment to safety.
You Might Not Know
Remember this: as a transformational leader, if you think your company environment might be unsafe, it is unsafe. But even if you think it’s safe, it still might not be. It’s best to keep in mind that most people need some encouragement to open up. And you’ve got to keep taking actions to demonstrate that it’s ok to do so.
Going through this exercise at the offsite reinforced that strong sense of safety. We had a fantastic discussion about the company, about what was working and what wasn’t. We got a lot off our chests and really became tighter as a team. In fact, that offsite was such a success that I asked each of the VPs to do the same exercise with their individual departments. I told them, “I don’t think you’ll have 21 weaknesses! You may only have two or three. But think what a safe environment you’ll create for your team if you do that!” This was a way for us to cascade that safe environment through the whole organization and reinforce that culture throughout Ariba.
You might be thinking, “Well, that’s great for Keith Krach to take all that criticism, but am I ready for it?” Or maybe you wonder if some of your leadership team can deal with it. You’ve got to develop a humble attitude that allows you to listen to constructive criticism, without being defensive.
And I’m not talking about acting humble – people can smell that from miles away—I’m talking about being humble. It’s hard at first, but the more you do it, the more you see that it’s appropriate. Nobody’s perfect. We can all benefit from some feedback. How do you start? Like a lot of things, you just have to jump in—even if you’re not comfortable—and do it!
When my VPs saw me listening openly, reacting humbly and positively, really wanting to improve and learn from what they were telling me, it had an impact. It served as a role model for my VPs and then they served as role models for their direct reports, and so on throughout the organization. Everyone could see the positive results of this process and they were encouraged to do it themselves. Such open communication creates that positive, safe environment that’s essential for building a high-performance team. I’ve seen it over and over again. When you’re looking to build a high-performance team, you’ve got to remember: Ego is your enemy. Humility is your friend.