Podcast: Vulnerability in Leadership

In my first article, I wrote about being asked to appear on a Podcast and how terrifying the idea of that was! But, despite my fear, the wonderful Gillian Davis made the whole experience really enjoyable.

We talked about the importance of vulnerability in leadership and when working with and in teams.

You can hear it on Soundcloud or iTunes Podcast.


UPDATE: I've spent some time transcribing this Podcast so if you can't listen to the Podcast and are up for a long read, please be my guest.


Gillian Davis: Hi everyone and welcome to the overtime leader podcast. I’m going to be chatting to Kate Rees today and I’m looking forward to this one because we are going to talk about vulnerability. So, welcome Kate. How are doing?

Kate Rees: Hi Gillian, I’m good thanks how are you?

G: I’m good, thank you. It’s good to have you on here, this has been a long overdue episode!  

K: Yes, thanks for inviting me!

G: Kate, just like I do with all our guests, why don’t you give a little intro as to where you’ve come from, what you’ve been doing and where you are going next. 

K: I’ve got a sort of very long history of work experience, which led me through various digital roles in to ultimately working for ustwo, which is where we met.

While at ustwo I became an Agile team coach and I did a huge amount of training around how to support teams, coaching teams and developing creative leadership and things like that. Resilience work as well.

All of that opened my eyes to a world of working in a very honest, open way with people and the coaching style, which I’d always had an inclination towards but never realised I could put a name to it in that way.

I left ustwo last year to set up my own coaching practice and now I coach teams, and individuals. I work as a life coach - which I suppose is the best way to call it - but also with teams around team dynamics as well. 

G: For those that may not know what an Agile coach is, there are so many terms used from Scrum master to Agile coach and it varies by organisation, what did that mean for you?

K: For me, I was the expert in the Agile mindset, Agile principles and practices, the tools and the methodologies. Agile is a way of delivering software, for those that don’t know, but it’s a very collaborative, goals driven way of delivering. Because of that it brings out a real opportunity to really coach, rather than manage, teams. So I would coach teams and try and understand what they wanted to achieve; with the product, with the roadmap, what the vision was for the product etc.

That would be with a team working in the agency environment - with a client and the agency team - bringing them together as ‘one team’ as well. Essentially giving them clarity around what’s a really effective, efficient and least risky way of delivering product ultimately.

But for me, my passion was about actually seeing how the teams came together. That pure coaching side of what I did as well was wonderful. How to create high performing teams, how to create really wonderful open communication and collaboration, to the point where you bring everyone together in a way that is so seamless that you can walk away at the end of it.

That should be the ultimate goal for a team coach is to be able to just walk away quietly and no one even notices. 

G: Yes, music to my ears! I guess there wasn’t really much friction when you moved into one to one coaching ‘cause it’s very similar approaches? Identifying on outcome and helping people get there without directing or leading them too much into a path that they’re not comfortable with or hasn’t come from within. 

K: Yes absolutely, and I think the slight tension working in an agency side is that you had a client and they had lots of business goals that were often financially driven. So for me the real art of it was about understanding how to build empathy around that, not just from me as a coach, but from the team working with the client and also from the client working with the team. To build this two way thing where they all could understand that they could learn from each other as well. 

G: How did you do that?

K: For me - and this ties in really closely to my passion point, which is about vulnerability - the quickest way to do that is for people to see each other as human beings.

G: Versus?

K: Versus seeing people as a role in an organisation.

What I found so effective was, because I’m quite an open honest person I do wear my heart on my sleeve. I think what that did was combine with other techniques to encourage people to actually get to know each other on a really human level, not just that “I’m coming into work and I’m doing a job and this is what my role says I can do”. It was about actually really getting people to understand who they were working with. What other things they could bring to what they were doing?

There’s a tool called the Johari window, which is about how you have these blind areas that other people can see in yourself. Also, that you have hidden areas that you hide about yourself. It might be skills. It might be that you go into work and you’re a developer and you code all day, but actually you really love, I don’t know, sketching mood boards or something, whatever it might be. So creating a space where people can talk about that, bring that out, and really work to everyone’s true talents and nature for me is the really special point.

And that really helps forge these friendships.

I said friendships but that was actually a slip of the tongue, but for me it creates a space where people can empathise with each other as human beings and ultimately form strong bonds.

I still have a WhatsApp group with one of my old clients and teams. 

G: Oh wow, from the client side and agency side? 

K: Yes, we worked together a few years ago for a long time and we still have a WhatsApp group where we keep in contact. So that transcended just going into work and delivering a great product, it became something more.

G: So it’s beyond the job description and seeing people, in a non-cliched way, but as their whole self in terms of all the things they can bring to the table. The good and the bad?

K: Absolutely, warts and all. If you can lay everything out, I think something that’s really powerful and something that is really overlooked is being vulnerable, because that’s actually what makes us humans.

We are vulnerable. We are vulnerable as a human. We are soft. We break. We are emotionally vulnerable and to pretend otherwise for me seems strange.

But we do that to protect ourselves, to pretend we’re not like that.

So, the good and the bad is about being open. If you’re having a bad day, so often people don’t say “Oh it’s awful, I had an argument with my partner last night” or “I slept badly” or whatever it might be.

What actually often manifests, because people communicate with way more than just verbal communication, you can get into a place where you don’t understand what’s going on with a colleague because maybe they are having a really crappy time outside of work.

Also with team dynamics, one of the really powerful things is encouraging a safe place of conflict. If everyone stays in the place where they are not being honest and open and saying what they really think, then teams will never move into a high performing state.

If you look at the Tuckman model of teams, the forming, storming, norming, performing model, the storming part of that is about creating space for conflict and then helping people to understand how to resolve the conflict.

And that can be really messy!

G: Yes, it’s funny you mention that, that’s been a hot topic of my week and I’ve been sending the Tuckman’s model around to some of the project managers or managers.

Because what I’ve noticed, and I’m sure this is present in all organisations, when you start seeing the conflict people get very uncomfortable. It’s labelled as “Oh there’s a problem with that team” or a problem with that individual and what they unintentionally do is move them back into forming.

Which means, like you said, they never get into high performing because they just jump straight back into staying comfortable and not rocking the boat.

What I’ve been trying to reiterate this week, it’s a very timely conversation for me, unless the team is actually dysfunctional - and a manager should know that - it’s great that individuals feel comfortable enough to voice their concerns.

For me that’s a sign of passion and care and frustration, not trying to derail anything. They’re so involved and they’re frustrated and that’s causing conflict. They feel comfortable to voice that conflict into the team instead of going out and drinking beers and bitching about the organisation. They’re bringing it to work because they want to find a resolution and the organisation’s job is to move them through and get them over that line. 

K: Absolutely, and I’ve even had teams where it felt like that was impossible and managed to, maybe not get them to performing, but at least get them out of that deep conflict.

Conflict comes from people having their own agendas. It comes from having unspoken agendas. It comes from people completely misunderstanding each other and not bringing an empathetic eye to what’s going on.

You’re never going to move into a space where you have really wonderful open pure collaboration - I LOVE that, it’s the most exciting place you can get to - unless people really understand each other and understand that. 

As I said, the role of a good team coach is to be able to ultimately walk away. You are never going to be able to leave a team, easily, in that state. Actually one of our roles is to help almost bring them into conflict in order to move through that. 

G: To get people comfortable.

K: Yes, but NOT to fix it and that’s something to be very careful about as a coach. To make sure you are empowering those individuals or the teams to work out their own resolutions to their own problems, unless you can see something really clearly that will help. 

G: Yes, let’s just switch the light on.

K: The more you can do that - and this all comes back again to being human, all those emotions you talked about like passion and frustration - give people a space to air those in a safe way.

There’s lots of feedback models you can use to support that as well, if something is really challenging. People have to feel comfortable to go along with it and that can be a real tough stretch but I don’t think it’s impossible though to bring everyone on the journey.

It does take some role modelling I think and that’s something I’m really passionate about, really role modelling that with teams. That it’s ok to be honest about how you’re feeling, that it’s ok to be vulnerable. Because all of that helps, it all speeds this up as well. It speeds up that process and then once they can understand how to resolve their own conflicts in the team, it doesn’t mean they’ll stop having conflict, it just means that they understand that actually this is a problem that can be solved.

G: Exactly, it’s not the end of the world and not like we are fighting so we need to leave or break up.

So, you’ve recently written your first article on the subject of vulnerability, so how was that experience for you?

K: Well it’s interesting because I talk a lot about role modelling and I feel like it’s something I hold very dearly. Particularly role modelling all of these behaviours I’ve just talked about. 

When I started my own practice last year I realised that a really effective way of putting yourself out there as an individual working in any industry, is to give people an insight into more than just a list of what you do and what’s skills you have and to actually give people an insight into who you are. The easiest way to reach people is to write about yourself.

In fact, I found my own coach because he wrote a really interesting article that someone shared with me on LinkedIn and now I’ve been working with him for at least 6 months.

So I’d had this in the back of my mind for a long long time that I needed to start writing but it put me into a blind panic just thinking about it.

I had this absolute moment of clarity though when I realised it was because I was scared of putting myself in a vulnerable place.

G: Do you know why?

K: Well, because there’s a lot of fear around putting out your opinion into the world.

“Your”! MY opinion. I had a lot of fear.

Because I don’t want to be judged. I’m starting out with my own business and I don’t want someone to judge me and for them to read something I’ve written and it actually becomes something that makes them not want to work with me.

From a business point of view, but also just as a really human reaction, just actually putting myself out there was quite a big step.

The title of the article is ‘This is an article about how terrifying it was to write this article’. 

G: So how did you come through that fear? What did you have to say to yourself to get past that, cause a lot of us stay in that negative space?

K: I had a few conversations with my coach, for one. But also I had a bit of an inner monologue where I thought “If I’m going to put something out it needs to be about something I really care about and if it doesn’t resonate with people, it doesn’t, but it might deeply resonate with some other people.”.

If I really care about this isn’t about me selling myself, this is about me just putting something out there. So that was really important.

G: So shifting the outcome.

K: Yes, the outcome was not about selling. As soon as you say I’m going to sell myself, that doesn’t sit with me at all well. I thought “What’s interesting for people?”.

What’s interesting through all of the people I coach - pretty much unanimously - is that feeling of imposter syndrome or lack of confidence and that’s all I was suffering from, imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence. With everyone I work with I talk about “What are the barriers that are holding you back?” “What are the beliefs you have about yourself that are holding you back from moving yourself forward?”.

I realised all of these thoughts were the beliefs I was holding about myself. My belief that people wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say or that “It’s already been said a hundred times so why would I put it out there?”. Those sorts of thoughts.

So when I coached myself through those thoughts, I realised that the only way of extending my comfort zone was to just do it.

If I was coaching someone else this, is exactly how I would work with them.

G: How did it feel when you pressed publish?

K: Terrifying! Literally. I wrote in the article that I felt a bit nauseous.

But then I started getting a response. Not just people viewing it, but people writing to me saying, I really like this article and it really resonated with me.

As soon as I got that response I felt great about it, because I realised that I was practising what I’m preaching in the article, and the article is telling that story of what I just said.

For example, I had some professional photos taken and I barely slept the night before because I was so terrified of having my photo taken. I always pull a silly face.

G: Yes, it’s one of the worst experiences ever

K: Yes, and I found an amazing photographer. She’s wonderful. She made me feel really relaxed and she did get some great photos. So just doing that was really powerful for me.

The fact that a few people said “I want to hear more from you”, what a wonderful response to something that filled me with fear!

So it was interesting.

G: So, are you writing another one?

K: Not at the moment but I was actually interested to see what came out of this conversation to see if there was something that was a thread of something. I feel like there is something about role models and role modelling and where that sits.

G: Because we all have imposter syndrome, I think. Everyone is running around thinking they are going to be found out, when actually everybody is running around having no clue what they are doing and we are just all making up as we go along.

I think as soon as you can accept that you can move forward but imposter syndrome reaches even the most confident looking and sounding people.

K: Absolutely, yes. I’m just answering some questions for someone who wanted to publish some information about me and one of the questions was; “What would be the advice you would give yourself when you were starting out?”. I wrote exactly that, pretty much, which was, “Don’t ever believe that everyone else is more confident and capable than you are, however confident and capable they seem.”. 

G: Yes, everyone has their own internal battle but we often don’t talk about it. There’s more and more literature and talks on dealing with this kind of inner dialogue. Negative talk from the likes of Susan Cain ‘Quiet’, I think that was eye opening and obviously ‘The Imposter Syndrome’, I can’t remember who wrote that, but it actually put imposter syndrome on a map. People were saying “Oh that’s what that is. I get that.”

It sounds like from your experience that how you got through that was to, one, identify what it was that you really wanted to get out of it, instead of all the other things that would have been good outcomes - like maybe you’ll get more business. But actually it’s about being honest and talking about my story to touch someone else. That’s a very feelgood tangible outcome regardless of any ROI attached to it.

And then the other things was just doing it and stepping into the fear.

K: Yes, just doing it and it fascinated me. I went last week to a spoken word event, where my friend was doing a piece there, and they asked everyone to write a limerick and stand up and perform it. I felt so fearful!

They gave you a name of someone in the room, and a Cards Against Humanity card. Before, I would have just not done that, but part of me was saying “Well everyone is going to get up so I’d rather be one of the people who gets up rather than one of the few people who was left sat down.”.

What happened, of course, was that only a third of the people got up. But I got up and I read this limerick that I had just written, on stage, in front of 50 people! I doubt very much that I would have done that if I hadn’t had written that article a few weeks before.

So it’s like a butterfly effect, you make those small steps then other things will just start opening up, and it’s tiny tiny steps you can take.

G: I was talking to some managers who were setting goals for people and we touched upon the word ambition, but to be mindful not to judge what ambition means to the people in your team. That, for example, if someone is starting a new habit and putting themselves out there and being vulnerable, an ambitious goal for them might be, you know, buying a book that they wouldn’t have bought last week. Or, I have this thing with a friend of mine where she is trying to create a habit of going to the gym and the starter was just go to the gym. You don’t have to do anything when you get there, but going is an act in the right direction so being really mindful of that.

With that, I think sometimes we can inadvertently push people away from stretching themselves because our version of ambition isn’t actually achievable for them. Then it’s like “Oh well I’m useless.” and “What the point?” and “Look at all these signs around me that are showing me that I shouldn’t do this.” But actually the smallest step can be really the biggest and celebrating that.

K: Yes, and that’s really important, the celebrating, and that loops back amazing well to the team work

Something that is so important with what we do with Agile teams is to deliver really quickly and often and to celebrate our successes, because you have achieved something. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a huge big launch of some app or product or whatever it might be. Everyone has achieved something and people need that recognition. I found that people do more if they are encouraged and supported, if you try and take away a bit of the fear for them. Not by doing it for them but by giving the support and encouragement and by role modelling that it is scary.

Everyone gets scared. People who don’t seem like they are scared are probably still scared.

I mean I stood up a did this limerick on stage and my friends who were watching me said “Oh you seemed like you weren’t worried at all doing that, you seemed really relaxed.”. I wasn’t in the slightest and it’s really eye opening when you see that.

I think fear is something that is never going to support anyone. A bit of feeling excited and a little bit of anxiety that comes with that is good, but I think channelling something into where you feel an excited. Writing that article was exciting, it was more exciting than terrifying. If it was too terrifying I probably wouldn’t have done it. Does that make sense?

G: Yeah. I think for me I’ve had to accept that fear is never going to go away. There’s a great quote from Ginni Rometty, who is I think managing director of IBM, and she says “Comfort and growth do not co-exist”.

What she means by that is we are not going to grow if we don’t have fear. You can’t expect things to be different if you don’t change and by changing, trying something new, going into the unknown, brings up those feelings of fear, vulnerability etc.

I often say to my clients, “If you feel those feelings of fear, which is the same for everybody, you know, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, not being able to sleep whatever, whatever, then you are doing the right thing, because that means you are growing.”. Often we will run away from those feelings and go into our comfort zone.

K: Yes, but I think there’s something to be checked in with that though as well, because you’ve got your comfort zone and then you’ve got your stretch zone, which sits around your comfort zone. You can expand your comfort zone into your stretch zone and then your stretch zone will expand as well and it’s really important to stretch into that.

But outside of that is a panic zone, and it can be quite unhealthy to keep going into the panic zone. There is an excited adrenaline that you get, for example anyone who’s done any sort of presenting or facilitating or anything like that or just doing something as simple as doing something new, you will get those physical feelings.

The important thing is to not push yourself to the point where your amygdala hijacks your brain and you end up in ‘fight or flight’. As soon as that happens your body stops functioning that well and prepares itself for getting the hell out of the situation.

G: A high cortisol stress reaction

K: Yes, and the problem with that is that really is a panic and that’s when you use empathy for people, you lose ability to make creative decisions as well and it’s not healthy to be in a state like that a lot.

This is where growing emotional intelligence is super helpful. You can then understand whether you’re in that state and where - someone on my coaching course said - apparently you can lose up to 20 of your IQ points.

G: In panic state?

K: Yes. So putting people in that state all the time is not ever going to be helpful for anyone. But being physically and emotionally aware enough of what triggers that, how you bring yourself back from it and what is a comfortable state of stretch, those are really important things to be aware of.

Because I completely agree with you, to stretch is really important otherwise you don’t grow.

G: I think that would be a really great next post, because I think that’s awareness that both individuals need about themselves and managers could use about how to build others. Because I have seen this “Well they show potential so we are going to throw them into a situation which they’ll manage because they are high performers.” but there is a personal tax to survive that because the organisation or team hasn’t given them the right support.

They’ve been thrown in “You’re great, you can handle this, go for it!” and they do handle it but inside they are in that panic state and that’s not good. You don’t want to do that again.

K: And there’s something there that for me is really important. It’s about who’s making the decision for someone to do that and are they accountable for that? I think you are more likely to put yourself in a stretch place if you’ve decided that’s helpful for you. If someone else has made that decision for you it can be more challenging, even if it’s something you would have naturally come to anyway. It can be way more challenging because you’ve lost your accountability in that moment as well.

G: Very true. Yes, you are out of control which is just not good.

K: And you’ve not had the input into what actually is the right goal for you.

I understand in business it’s really important to have some view of career progression and to support people on that but if we could create environments whereby there’s a huge amount of input from the person who’s actually doing that as well, then I feel that would be more of a growth opportunity.

G: So that’s a two way conversation.

K: Yes, absolutely. It comes back for me that there is something really really important here around role modelling and the sort of leadership that we have as well. The management and leadership. I know that’s a real passion point for you around supporting leadership.

I think inherently what people generally understand as leadership is someone being very vocal, who’s very controlling maybe, and there’s many different other forms of leadership. As a leader, there’s a time and a place, for sure, and if you have someone who’s visionary and who’s really leading people in that moment then I think that’s really important. But equally I think you need to inspire people and not create fear, because otherwise as soon as you create fear you end up in a space where it’s not healthy for anyone. 

G: Our definition is that you inspire and enable teams to succeed to get the outcome done, and that specifically and consciously allows for the flexibility of that coming from very different leadership styles. Because in some cases you might need a more command and control leader, in other cases it’s a facilitative supportive leader, but the outcome is the same. That you have to get your team there by inspiring and enabling them and making them feel confident that they can get the work done, not that you’re doing the work for them.

K: Or giving them goals that they don’t even know how to achieve, and that for me was the difference working with Agile teams, compared to my past history as a project manager working in Waterfall projects, where essentially I was managing the output of other people.

It never felt right.

G: No, you want to feel like you own it. Tying it all back to vulnerability, I think everything that we’ve touched upon, going from ownership to understanding and embracing fear, emotional intelligence, all of those things are what create a space that allows someone to be vulnerable, and without that stuff it’s impossible.

K: If you look at the Google research that was done around what creates the most effective teams, they were so surprised when they found out the results and that the number 1 was nothing in the end to do with the roles or the skills that people had.

It was all about, does everyone understand what they are working towards and how they were going to do it? But the number 1, the most important one, was that people felt psychologically safe.

It almost gives me goosebumps when I think about that, it’s so powerful. That is because you need to create, exactly like you said, those safe spaces and when you create those safe spaces people flourish. People can be themselves. That for me is the most important thing.

If you create a space where someone can truly be themselves they are going to do work that they are bringing everything to, they are giving it passion, and they will bring something extra that maybe might have not been expected of them. That can only be good, it can only be good.

G: That’s fantastic, I think we are going to close on that note because I don’t know how we can top that! Thank you so much Kate for being here and giving your time.

As a closer, is there any reading or resource that you would recommend to someone who would like to dig a little more into this topic?

K: Well if you want to talk about vulnerability, Brené Brown is the queen of vulnerability. In terms of the models we’ve talked about with high performing teams and things like that, there are many different sources. I think the Tuckman model is for me though is just a really powerful tool.

G: It is, so simple yet so powerful.

K: And also the Google research. I think there was an article on the Google blog about it. 

G: Perfect, well thank you so much for being an Over Time guest and I hope to have you on again in the future.

K: Thank you, it’s been lovely to talk to you.


Google study into effective teams: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
Explanation of the Tuckman model: https://www.businessballs.com/team-management/tuckman-forming-storming-norming-performing-model-234/
Brené Brown on vulnerability: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability