Early in my career, during my time at PepsiCo, I had a great mentor, Al Carey. Al, a former PepsiCo North American business executive, practiced and instilled in me the concept of servant leadership and its guiding principles: the idea that leaders should served, instead of being served; that they should set a vision and strategy and then work tirelessly to remove barriers to achieving that vision and strategy; and they should lead by listening and offering support, instead of telling employees what to do. This leads to loyalty and a strong connection with your team. Al showed me that empathy, humility, and vulnerability are at the heart of this approach, with mutual trust and respect also crucial.
I strongly believe in expressing vulnerability. Perhaps this inclination has also spilled blood out of my personal life. After being ill for most of my life, I discovered that in my thirties I was born (and previously undiagnosed with) something called Commonly Modified Immunodeficiency, which is a Primary Immune Deficiency disorder where my immune system doesn’t work properly. This makes me much more susceptible to infection and although I now receive weekly immunoglobulins to help my immune system fight infections, I am still more literally more susceptible to illness than most people. As you can imagine during a pandemic, that’s pretty scary. I wasn’t able to go into any public spaces, including the office, starting in March 2020 and for over a year until I was fully vaccinated in mid-2021 (and luckily I produced antibodies to the vaccine which not all patients with this disorder are fortunate enough to do). I keep my sanity through family dinners, long solo bike rides, and (too) social distancing with just outside visits. This means I’m vulnerable; it is authentic to who I am and likewise has become a core pillar of my leadership philosophy.
For many executives, vulnerable leadership means weakness. Some leaders are encouraged or taught to hide their emotions; they must have clear boundaries separating their personal and professional lives, never showing doubt, apprehension, fear, or worse, failure.
It’s important to understand that when I talk about vulnerability, I’m not talking about putting myself out there like a sitting duck or being emotionally reckless. Instead, when you remind people that you are human first and foremost – and you know they are too – you tear down walls that have been built over the years and at the same time begin to create an environment work that allows people to operate from a place of comfort, honesty and authenticity. This leads to a more positive workplace experience and ultimately has a significant business impact.
As a leader, I strongly believe in 1) admitting I don’t know everything, 2) asking lots of questions (and listening to the answers carefully), 3) putting responsibility and autonomy in my hands. leaders and those closest to customers and 4) establish a culture of empowerment, inclusion, transparency and agility. My philosophy was tested last year: The first COVID-19 lockdowns came just two months after my tenure as president and chief executive officer of liquor and spirits company Moët Hennessey North America. However, I am stuck by these lessons and mantras to lead the company through the crisis…
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