In our last installment (here) we discussed the fact that not all weaknesses are immediately worth erasing. In fact, sometimes, strength can come from those weaknesses. That is not a justification, however, for not trying to grow in self-awareness and competencies. So, today, I’d like to tackle the flip side of the coin…what it takes to address weakness, grow as a leader, and how both of these concepts relate to marketing and product development excellence.

Addressing weakness starts with being vulnerable enough to acknowledge those weaknesses.

Now stop for a minute and think about the connotations of the word vulnerable. Do you feel comfortable being vulnerable? Do you want to be vulnerable? What is the image you see when you picture “vulnerable?”

Really. Think about it. I’ll wait… 

Does the word vulnerable make you uncomfortable? Does what you imagine make you uncomfortable or sad?

In our society, we stigmatize being vulnerable. Many times, as individuals and leaders, we present a positive, strong face regardless of our fears and vulnerabilities. We do this masking in order to protect our individual brands, typically based in our strengths – and from the previous blog, you would know that that is the right thing to do – focus on doing what you do well so you can deliver results as expected. But, what if in masking those vulnerabilities for others, we lose sight of them ourselves? If we forget our weaknesses, mask them to the point of ignoring their existence, do they stop existing?

Narrator: Nope

So, what can we do?

We can get comfortable being uncomfortable. We acknowledge our weaknesses and instead of trying to turn them into strengths, we work to face them head on and determine the ways in which we will avoid having them be blind spots. Consider the great Greek hero Achilles. His mother dipped him into the Styx to make him invulnerable – but she held him by the ankle. That ankle was his vulnerability (hence that great feller of middle aged athletes everywhere, the Achilles tendon). It eventually brought him down – really, he probably forgot it was there, because his brand was that of Great Warrior Hero. But what if he had acknowledged it? He could still have been a bold and ferocious fighter. What if he just wore extra leather shielding on his ankles?

Now, what does this have to do with product development and marketing? Two things:

  1. Marketers and product managers need to lead their teams to solve customer needs. How can you lead effectively if you’re not aware of your brand – both the good and the bad? How can you offset your weakness if you can’t acknowledge it?
  2. Vulnerability in individuals and organizational humility are mutually reinforcing and have to be part of the culture. For many customers, this can be a real selling point! The flip side of this coin is the perception of arrogance – fine when you’re on top…a steep slippery slope when you’re stumbling.

Demonstration: 

I once worked as part of a team in which the business was floundering. A leader asked what was going on, and his direct reports told him the product was perfect, but that the sales team was failing to convince customers of the value. I was representing the sales and marketing team on the call and heard multiple issues we had presented glossed over – we had plans to address and mitigate all these gaps! We just needed some resources and a mandate from leadership. I sent a message to a friend on the call and asked why the gaps and plans weren’t being presented. Her response? “____ doesn’t like to hear about issues or gaps.”

How well do you think he led that business? If you can’t hear about what isn’t working, can you fix it? As a leader – especially the leader of a product team – your relentless focus should be knocking down barriers and issues for your team, or enabling and empowering them to do so. If you don’t want to hear about gaps, how empowered do you think your team is? What do you think happened to the talented problem solvers on that team? How do you think the sales team responded to being told how they were the ones responsible for real product gaps? The talent flight created a vacuum in the organization.

Meanwhile, how do you think an organization with this attitude is perceived by customers? “We’re perfect and our products are amazing, I can’t believe you don’t want to pay a 20% premium”… is that a sales pitch that works?

On the other hand, I’ve led discussions with customers in which we have dived into a perceived weakness to uncover and better address the customer’s needs. For example, the competition presents a solution talking about a feature that’s “cool.” Customer gets excited. Coming in after that presentation can be hard. Options:

  1. Stammer, apologize for not having the feature, say you’ll add it to your pipeline,
  2. Brashly deny the utility of the feature, tell the customer that they have been conned by flashy marketing,
    or
  3. Engage the customer in a discussion of why they think the feature is interesting, how they envision themselves using it, and what might be some operational needs for the organization …

Option 3 allows you to position yourself as a partner, and use customer feedback to add real insight customer delight into your own future product development plans. Perhaps that cool feature isn’t the best thing you can do for them… maybe a service delivery model will add more value? Maybe not. But we can’t assume we know, and we can’t discover until we are vulnerable enough to ask.

More practical applications: 

Figure out where you can get comfortable being vulnerable. Home? Work? With friends? Pick one, or try a little in all three realms. As someone who spent decades in male-dominated and technical fields, I learned early to shove my fears WAY down and bluster my way through situations. Being vulnerable is hard for me! At the same time, I’ve found that vulnerability makes me a more effective, engaging and empathetic leader.

As with all learned behavior, it’s harder to practice when you’re stressed. So, find a safe place to practice vulnerability, get better at it with practice, and then see if it makes a difference for you. Need help with a fresh perspective or an outside lens? Try me…I love learning about new opportunities! Let’s connect!