Why it’s good to get personal.

Ian Sanders at the 2015 Do Lectures

In October 2017, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella published a post on LinkedIn about his experiences of becoming a father (‘The moment that forever changed our lives’). His son, Zain, was born prematurely in 1996. He has severe cerebral palsy that requires 24/7 care. In his post, Satya explains how Zain’s birth was a turning point in his life. He tells of how having a child with special needs has shaped him not only as a parent but also as a business leader. The experience has helped him better understand the journey of other people with disabilities. It focuses him on building accessibility into Microsoft product development and also hiring more people with disabilities.

Satya ends the LinkedIn post with this: “Zain is the joy of our family, whose strength and warmth both inspire and motivate me to keep pushing the boundaries of what technology can do. And I’ve found that the moments that so deeply change our lives can also be a catalyst to empower those around us. This is what I see in the scores of passionate people at Microsoft. My hope is that we can collectively work together to amplify this across the planet.”

Sending a signal

By using a personal story, Satya was able to communicate how his leadership signalled a new direction for the company. It puts into context his drive and desire for Microsoft to do good. There is no ambiguity. He’s not looking for sympathy — rather, he’s creating empathy with his audience. The message is saying, I experience challenges, just as many of you do, and I want to use this to move the company forward.

What’s more — he is showing how he is nurturing a new, more understanding culture. He is leading the way through his openness and empathy. Sharing his story enables him to reach the organisation’s 182,000 employees and make an emotional connection, something he’d never be able to do in person.

Sharing your vulnerabilities

Whether it’s shared internally or externally, the act of putting a personal story out there humanises a business leader. Research from Lauren C. Howe, Jochen I. Menges and John Monks published in Harvard Business Review found that when leaders (those they call Sharers) are open about their own fears, stresses and other negative emotions, their teams feel more comfortable doing the same. The researchers make the case why such Sharers might be better leaders.

Sharing vulnerability also engenders trust. Daniel Coyle talks about the Vulnerability Loop in his excellent book ‘The Culture Code’. The Loop happens when someone sends a signal of vulnerability which is then reciprocated by the listener. It’s a virtuous circle, which starts with one person being open. Contrary to what we might think, trust comes from vulnerability, not the other way around. If you’re looking to create a culture in your team or company of openness and story sharing, then it’s key to lead from the top.

Both Satya Nadella’s story and the vulnerability loop are elements I draw on in my training sessions. They always elicit an interesting and engaged discussion. In reality, telling such stories are as much about your audience as they are about you. They demonstrate your ability and desire to relate to your employees or colleagues. It shows you understand some of their fears and worries. It demonstrates you care about making a connection with your teams enough to be honest with them. It enables them too to feel safe enough to do the same.

Is it for me?

The upshot is, if you want to build trust, show you’re on your team’s side, elicit support for your cause: then be prepared to get personal.

But this doesn’t suit everyone.

I often get asked: ‘do I have to share my personal story?’

And the answer is no, you don’t have to.

It all depends on context and being true to your leadership style. If it’s really not you, then trying to be something you’re not could come across as inauthentic and insincere and will likely backfire.

Here are five key questions to ask yourself about whether to be open and vulnerable with your team:

  1. Is being open consistent with my leadership style?
  2. Who is my audience — how will sharing my personal story build trust?
  3. Is it better that I share a ‘lite’ version, rather than every detail?
  4. What’s the reason for sharing my personal story? How do I want my audience to think/ feel/ behave once they’ve heard it?
  5. How will I share this story? A 5,000 people all-employees call or a 6-member more intimate call will likely need a different approach.

Context matters. It shouldn’t be gratuitous, there has to be a purpose for doing so. But if you have the courage, it can be a game changer in establishing trust and building relationships. Revealing something of the Real You can have deep and lasting effects.

If you need more help exploring the powerful effects of telling stories inside organisations, I run ‘Storytelling for Leaders,’ a bespoke training programme for leadership teams. Contact hello@iansanders.com for more information.

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IanSanders

Sparking change through story. Energising people at work. Author of 365 Ways to Have a Good Day (out Nov 2021). Fuelled by coffee, curiosity, walking.