Episode 17: Emotional Vulnerability

September 10, 2019
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Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X Podcast connecting you with insights from women in tech. This is Angie, founder of Girl Geek X and Women 2.0.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is Sukrutha. By day I’m an engineering manager.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This is Gretchen and I’ve been working in tech for over 20 years.

Rachel Jones: This is Rachel, the producer of this podcast, and we’re the team behind Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences, where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over 10 years.

Angie Chang: And today, we’ll be discussing vulnerability.

Rachel Jones: For our last episode, we discussed vulnerability related to software security, but now we’re taking it back to our normal general career advice type of episodes and talking about emotional vulnerability. So what does this mean to you all?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think it’s something you learn over time. I think you spend the beginning of your career trying to figure out how to pretend like you know what you’re doing when you don’t and worrying about a lot of what other people think. And then I think you move into managerial roles, and you start thinking about, “How do I get these humans to do what I want them to do?” And then at some point, you start thinking about, “Rather than just manage people, how do I lead them, how do I pull them to me?” And then I think you start really realizing how important vulnerability is.

Angie Chang: I think Gretchen’s absolutely right. It’s something that you don’t arrive to until you are a more experienced person. Often when you begin your career, you are doing the fake it ‘til you make it kind of approach of bluffing and doing things. And then oftentimes a vulnerability part comes into play when you maybe hit roadblocks when you become a new manager, or you go to therapy or some kind of group therapy for the first time, and then you realize that this is something that you can be working on.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I definitely have changed how transparent I am at work. For example, when I first graduated and I started work, we were a whole bunch of new grads who joined the company, and we all did everything together. So, sort of like that same environment you create in college. You think you can replicate it at work, and so you hang out at lunch, and then you work together, and then you go home, and then on the weekend you hang out again. And I realize the dangers of something like that and the benefits.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Obviously with the benefits, you make friends for life. It’s great. You are happy at work because you’re working with friends. But then the dangers of that is that at the end of the day, people are your colleagues and coworkers first before they are friends. It’s what I come to realize. Everyone has a different opinion on this, but this is how I feel like, if for some reason, one of you grows faster in the company or one of you becomes the other person’s manager, then it becomes very complicated and difficult. So, I’ve started to scale back how much of myself I shared at work.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, Sukrutha, it sounds like you’re sort of equating vulnerability with sharing personal details.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Not only personal details, but just sharing anything beyond–there’s a line. You don’t want to share too much beyond your work persona, sometimes, because then you’re viewed differently. Whether you want to be viewed differently… What that means in terms of being viewed differently. It’s what I’ve struggled with.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean, I guess I define vulnerability just a little different. And that’s probably something that’ll be really interesting that’ll come out of this podcast as we all look at it in a slightly different way. I don’t necessarily look at it as being transparent in my personal life or, but I did… and I mean, I came to vulnerability in the worst way possible, kicking and screaming. But I think what I realized was I didn’t have to know all the right answers. And actually, when I got to a point where I was so exhausted that I had to turn to other people for the answers or for the help that I thought that they shouldn’t have to give me was when I really learned that I had a team that really was behind me. They liked being needed, and they wanted to step up, and that was really cool.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: How you show your weak moments at work is very dependent on your working relationship with the people around you and how comfortable you are. Right? If you are more than just a work relationship but a little bit more of a personal connection, then you show it differently. And so, I think that’s where it’s been really tricky for me where when I’ve been stressed at work or I’ve been unsure about the decisions that I’ve needed to take that impacts the team, how comfortable I am to show what’s going on in my mind or what emotions I’m going through or when I need to take help, and when I don’t know the answer. That’s where, you know, the difference is.

Angie Chang: Yeah. When Sukrutha was talking earlier about appearing stronger, it seems like there’s this trend now with social media to have as, the rumor was that Cheryl Sandberg’s conference room at Facebook was called “only good news,” and you’re really allowed to only share good news on social media and with others, let’s say for example at work or some kind of, I don’t know, sanitized environment. So there’s definitely, I think, a trend toward maybe needing to have someone with some vulnerability and maybe articulating it in a different way. I think that’s what Sukrutha might’ve been getting at.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Recently at our dinner with HomeLight, Tina Sellards shared her own thoughts on the importance of vulnerability.

Tina Sellards: It was really important to me as I started to move into a more people role in organizations that I was doing. How do we as a group, as a community, really build that interaction and not silo ourselves into these easy data groups or easy breakup groups that we can put ourselves in? I think one thing that really just kind of zoomed in for me was fear. Fear is really kind of a driving factor, right, and why we allow ourselves to be siloed into some of these groups: fear of maybe that big tech company to break up your industry, or a fear of the unknown of a different group of people or community than you. Unfortunately, fear really can kind of drive some of these things, and I think that’s kind of where we’ve come with some of the data in technology. How do we get away from that, right, is the next question.

Tina Sellards: I very much subscribe to Brené Brown. I don’t know if any of you listen to Brené Brown or any of that, but vulnerability is how we do that. And leadership with vulnerability is a really key point in the human connection. I think we can really hurt ourselves and break ourselves up by just kind of communicating with the groups that we know and doing the things that we always know. Being vulnerable and letting ourselves be open to that information and being open to other people’s experiences is really how we build these communities.

Tina Sellards: Something here that I really appreciate about HomeLight and just kind of bringing it together is a core value for us. And it’s not only a core value, it’s something we really live is being a part of our family and really being that open, unique kind of environment I think is super important because I don’t think we’re going to conquer these fears and these issues that we have as a larger society if we don’t start opening up to that and really starting to have those conversations as a group.

Tina Sellards: So, I just wanted to share a little bit about my experience on that and data and the human connect and hope you all stay vulnerable, open, and communicate as a whole community together because that’s important in building communities like HomeLight, and Girl Geek, and things of that nature. Keep those communities open. Be vulnerable.

Rachel Jones: I think that this quote is interesting because, just like Gretchen said, there are a lot of different ways to understand and think about vulnerability. In our discussion so far, we’ve been talking about vulnerability as in, “I’m going to share something personal about myself.” Or “Yeah, I’m going to reveal that I don’t feel competent,” or something like that, but also thinking about vulnerability as even opening ourselves up to those kinds of situations. So vulnerability as in, “I’m going to take on this project that scares me, and I don’t feel completely secure in,” or vulnerability as in, “I’m going to work with these people that I haven’t worked with yet and see how that can stretch me.” So, even getting outside of just like vulnerability that’s revealing something personal about yourself. It’s also a way to open yourself up to challenge and new experiences and have that space where you don’t know everything, but even take that step into that environment.

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s a really valid point. You actually have me thinking just sort of the backstory on how I kind of figured out how to be vulnerable and then eventually came to embrace it, at least on some level, was being a founder and having so much pressure. You’ve taken money from VCs, you’ve hired people and they could have a job somewhere else, but they’re coming there every day to build your dream. But as a founder you’re wearing so many different hats but no matter what you think you’ve done to prepare for it, you’re never really ready. Most of what you’re doing, early stage is, like, just a crapshoot, like you’re literally could flip a coin for a lot of the decisions that you make.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And me just being at the end of my rope and not having answers and feeling like I was letting everybody down is sort of what led me to just, I just didn’t have the strength to pretend like I knew what I was doing anymore. And that’s really when the employees and my co-founders really came through and shined was they thought I had it and once they realized, like, “Oh she doesn’t have it, that’s cool. We can come and help her.” And that was huge. Because then I realized this kind of changes everything about how I manage people and a whole bunch of other things. I was pushed so far out of my comfort zone that I had no choice left but to be vulnerable, right?

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. When I had been… You know, I have been a manager now for a few years. I think over the last year, the position I’m trying to take is that when someone gives me feedback, I don’t respond to it right away where I would sound defensive. And so, I try to respond in a way where I sound more open and I ask questions, and so someone says, “You know, I don’t like the way blah, blah, blah happened.” And I’m like, “Okay, can you help me understand how that made you feel and what I could have done differently or tell me more?”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And I think that has helped people feel like I’m more open to listening, and that makes them feel like there’re in a comfortable situation. And so, that has been so difficult for me to get to that point because my natural instinct is to try to assure the person that there was no harm meant, and in essence sound defensive, but that quickly shuts down the conversation.

Rachel Jones: I think even just asking for feedback is such a vulnerable thing to do because you’re literally opening yourself up to scrutiny. But as much as you can model that and even show you’re kind of making changes based on that feedback, that just makes everyone’s work stronger, and it makes your team more able to trust you.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And you do really–I mean, it’s such an important thing because if you’re the type of manager who’s like, “Why do I never find out something’s broken until it’s come off the rails?” It’s like, well how do you take that information? Right? How does someone get treated when they come to you early with a problem? You know, do they feel safe doing that? Because that’s a really good way to get information early and a really good way to not get information early depending on how you treat them. So, I think, you know, what Sukrutha’s saying is also she’s taking the feedback, but she’s also creating this open line of bi-directional communication and building that trust also.

Rachel Jones: Tina references Brené Brown in her quote. She’s done a lot of talking about leadership with vulnerability. Is this a conversation that you have heard in the tech world recently?

Gretchen DeKnikker: You know, I think you’re hearing a lot about Brené Brown also because she just… her Ted Talk was pretty famous. But I think now that she has got the Netflix special, she’s really come on to more people’s radar, which is awesome to sort of create this courageous, and yet, vulnerable culture.

Angie Chang: I was made to watch the Brené Brown Ted Talk at a group support offsite thing where we were all apparently high-performing people that were starting to see some struggles. And I noticed in the group, they’re all very Type A early stage startup founders or high-performers who were at early stage companies.

Angie Chang: There was this point in the day where people were just getting really stressed out and then breaking down emotionally because they had built up a lot of themselves to be so strong, and they realized they weren’t. And they were admitting their vulnerability of, “Maybe I could be a better CEO,” or “Maybe I could have been a better manager,” and then having some tears shed and come to Jesus moment. And we were instructed to watch Brené Brown.

Angie Chang: Recently, there was the Amy Poehler Wine Country special where Brené Brown has the entire cameo where everyone in that birthday party is like, “Oh my God, Brené Brown!” and was talking to her – and she’s being very nice. I think we should maybe go watch this Netflix special that Gretchen mentioned, The Call to Courage, and check it out.

Angie Chang: Sandhya Hedge and Samantha Pluth responded to a question about the potential risks of being vulnerable during our dinner with Amplitude.

Sandhya Hegde: Being vulnerable is hard, and people who struggle to do that, for them it’s like you’ve taken over the agenda for the conversation by being vulnerable. It can be a very powerful thing to do if you lean into it and do it very confidently. The bad way to do it would be, “I don’t know if this is the right thing to do right now, but I kind of have something to say.” Don’t do that. All right? Just lean into what you’re doing, which is to say, “Hey, I have something to share. I can’t really read how you’re feeling about my work, and I would like to know more just so that I have a good understanding of whether I’m on track to keep up with what you would expect from someone like me.” You can make it very professional and very direct, and that’s a power move. That’s not going to detract from anything.

Samantha Pluth: I want to add another note. When you’re vulnerable, you’re inviting people to care for you, and if there’s anything I’ve seen, like our CEO is constantly vulnerable in a really powerful way. He recently led a fireside chat and second question he chose to answer was, do you think you’re the right CEO for the company at this time? That was like, an, “Oh, you’re going to take that question?” and he answered it gracefully. He was honest. There are things that he’s still learning, but he truly believes that he can lead us, and he’s doing everything he can, and he’s constantly getting feedback. Vulnerability and feedback tie into each other, and I think that’s garnered a lot more respect because he’s doing that.

Rachel Jones: I love this idea of vulnerability as a power move because I think, yeah, when people think about vulnerability, it is very much like this, “Oh, here’s how I’m feeling. I’m sorry, don’t hurt me.” But it actually really is powerful and direct to say, like, “Hey, here’s how I’m feeling. Here’s what I need. Let’s be clear about this and move forward.” I think that’s a really empowering way to frame this conversation.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. I like how they both have like different ways to talk about vulnerability, especially when Samantha’s talking about how her CEO is vulnerable, but in such a powerful way. I think that’s really, really interesting to me. You know, when you’re tying the word powerful with vulnerability, to me, I think if you can strike that balance, that when it doesn’t put you in a situation where it may work against you. So I wonder what it’s taken for the CEO to get to that point where, you know, they can actually be strong and powerful while being vulnerable at the same time. What did you think, Gretchen?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, I mean I think what is attractive to Samantha about that and many, many, I’m sure other people at the company, is that it shows a level of humbleness and you can be humble and admit like “I’m not the best at this and I’m not the best at that. But we’re kind of working on here as a company, the direction that we’re going. And here’s why I think I do have some skills to be leading right now.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: But to just talk about the ways that… I mean there’s no perfect CEO for any company, but I think the fact that he’s humble enough to even take the question, I think is what really builds that trust and definitely loyalty to you as a leader.

Angie Chang: When I first heard that quote, I was like, of course the CEO’s going to be vulnerable. And then I realized that not all CEOs are vulnerable. So maybe it is setting the tone from the top, where if you are a CEO that is vulnerable, you are giving permission and creating a safe space for other people in your company to be vulnerable as well.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean, I think if you have a blustery wind bag CEO, then you’re going to have a blustery wind bag management team, right? And that’s going to be your marketing style and whatever. And if you have a very transparent leader, you’re going to see that within the organization also.

Angie Chang: I was just trying to imagine, like the girl geek who was in the first decade of her career trying to come to a place where, like she can be, feel comfortable saying things and being vulnerable as opposed to the CEO.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I don’t know. I didn’t figure it out until I was 40, and then only because I was just at such a point that I had no other choice than to.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s usually how it happens. You know? Because, you aren’t taught to be… You’re not born with the ideal leadership and management style, right? You pick it up based on what you think is effective and which is why you suck when you start.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah. Because you manage everyone the way that you would want to be managed, which is not the way other people want to be managed, generally.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah. Or you are trying to control the situation when you know you can do things faster, right? There’s that other problem, too.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And so just like giving up control and letting people fail and then being open to improvement yourself, all of that only happens when you literally have no choice.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, so what I would say, to answer your question, Angie, is what I realized when I finally gave in or gave up or whatever it was that happened, was they were just waiting to help. The team was right there, just waiting for me to say, “Come on in. Let’s all work on this together.” Right?

Rachel Jones: Also coming back to your question, Angie, a lot of an early career person being able to be vulnerable depends on having CEOs model this behavior and having managers create these kind of environments that allow for people to be vulnerable.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Colleen Bashar spoke about the importance of creating an atmosphere for vulnerability during our 2019 Elevate virtual conference.

Colleen Bashar: So, I think everybody has career aspirations, and sometimes they’re hesitant to tell you what they are because they may not be on your team. It might be an aspiration outside in a different organization. And creating an environment where people can feel comfortable being vulnerable and telling you that can change the game. Because now they feel like there is a special relationship between them and their manager where they can be honest upfront, and their manager can help them develop skills that will get them to that next step.

Colleen Bashar: And in that skill development, they might find that the relationship they have with their manager has made them grow so much that they no longer want to leave the organization. They want to stay within. But it was the willingness to have that conversation of I don’t care if you want to go to a different org within Guidewire, please, let’s just talk about what makes you challenged and happy and inspired.

Rachel Jones: So, I think here Colleen introduces yet another way of understanding and thinking about vulnerability. Here, it’s kind of being vulnerable about what you want in your career and what your goals are. I think, yeah, she’s right. Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable sharing that with managers because they don’t want to offend if it’s not what you think your manager might want for you. But as a manager, building the space for people to be able to share those things so that you can partner with them and help them in those career goals is definitely a valuable thing. So how do you create that environment for vulnerability?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think I’d try to do it from the outset in the sense of like what Colleen is talking about, of you start having those conversations during the interviewing phase of tell me where you want to go with this, and not tell me your five-year plan, but tell me what you like about this. Tell me what you want to learn. Right? And you’re having these conversations all the time, and you’re explicitly saying, you’re here to like grow, and I’m here to help you grow. Whether that means that you move on from this company, or you move to a different department, or I can create a path for you, or whatever it is, I’m on your side, and I’m here to help you as a human. And I think you have to be explicit with that from the outset.

Angie Chang: It’s an interesting approach of creating it from the interview.

Rachel Jones: I think this also shows the benefits of vulnerability even just outside of for you as a person. This quote came from a talk about building high performance teams, and it was actually a response to a question about losing high performers and creating a vulnerable space, really being a tool to encourage people to stay. So, I think, thinking about just what’s the benefit of creating a vulnerable environment. It’s not just so people feel like open about their feelings and we all get along. It’s also how you can make your work and your team the strongest it can be.

Angie Chang: To play devil’s advocate, I think of companies that are older and more established, I think Guidewire has been around for two decades where they have a big enough infrastructure, and they know what they’re doing at this point. So they can be vulnerable, and they can take their time and invest in people. Whereas a lot of the more, you know, VC-backed companies that are growing, growing, growing may have less of a tolerance for this type of attitude, unfortunately. And that’s kind of what we’ve been hearing in the news. I think we’ve seen a lot of poor management and abuses in workplaces when there is too much emphasis on growth.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think generally why we need to figure out how you can create an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable. The best thing that comes out of it is people showing that they want to improve, they want to make the workplace better for their teammates and for their team. And so, maybe if you’re struggling to put yourself in a situation where you feel vulnerable or you’re exposed that you’re vulnerable, come at it from that angle so you’re focusing on the good that’s going to come out of it. That’ll make it easier then for it to trickle beyond just your team where more and more people are comfortable in asking how they can improve and do better. Like the example where Colleen talks about, the manager helping grow people while also not trapping them and helping them. They’re helping that feedback that he or she would get to then make the team a better place, or the org a better place, within Guidewire.

Angie Chang: I just realized that when I was looking at this vulnerability topic, it seems like something that’s “feminine or feminized,” like it’s something that is more equated to women than it is for men.

Rachel Jones: I think that’s definitely true how vulnerability is kind of a gendered idea. I wanted to ask even with the, going back to the last quote from Samantha, do you think if it was a female CEO who answered that question that it would’ve gotten the same response that it did from this male CEO thing? Like, “Yeah I can mostly do this job, but not all.”

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, I question whether it’s related to also sometimes women being more susceptible to imposter syndrome where then that makes it even more difficult to show that you don’t know something, or that you are struggling with something, or you are open to hearing feedback. Because sometimes you, that moment are too afraid to hear anything negative.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, I think men and women actually suffer from imposter syndrome the same. I think they just process it differently. But I think it also comes from being in the right environment. You know, we’re talking about it sort of coming from the top and creating that environment and definitely if you’re someone who’s able to create that environment for other people. But there is that double bind. Right?

Angie Chang: I think you touched on an interesting point about the double bind that women face, and as much as we want all leaders to be vulnerable and still perceived as powerful and smart and able to command, there is always the risk that, you know, it’s not just you, it’s you and your imposter syndrome with the world at large, that’s going to be assessing your competence when it’s not necessarily about the competence, it’s about the bias in people’s minds as they assess their competence.

Angie Chang: I was listening to a podcast with the StitchFix CEO and founder, Katrina Lake, and I was listening to her speak about how she says the word like in interviews and someone called her out. I think it was [inaudible 00:30:30] that called her out and then said, “Did you know that people can take you less seriously because you said, like,” and she said, “I want to lead with my authentic self. I say words like, ‘like,’ and that’s fine, and I may have had a harder run.”

Angie Chang: I think she mentioned that their road to IPO was not easy, but as a result of that longer road, she was able to do things like “I’m just going to hold my son while I’m up there.” And I didn’t realize that that photo op wound up with a ton of response from women coming up in many industries saying, “I’m really proud of you for standing up there, ringing the bell at the first day of trading with your infant son and being the CEO and founder of this company, and this kind of having a balanced that and being okay with that.”

Gretchen DeKnikker: I mean I think it does. I will tell you if you’re in your 20s or 30s and listening, it does get easier. You just start caring less what other people think. I don’t think you ever feel like more competent, but you have life experience wisdom that seems to be helpful. But you also just stop caring as much. And I’ve been told by women in their 50s and 60s and 70s that it gets even better, and so, I can’t wait for that.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And if you’re in an environment where you really don’t feel supported by the people around you, then think about that too, of, is this the best place for me? Is it temporary? Would I thrive more if I had people around me that I didn’t feel like I had to put up a front as much?

Rachel Jones: Do I need to go to a Girl Geek Dinner and surround myself with people who feel like I feel?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Please.

Gretchen DeKnikker: You do.

Gretchen DeKnikker: At the very least you can just come and listen to other women and be like, “I’m not crazy. This is a thing.” And you can feel better.

Angie Chang: Yes, Girl Geek Dinners, where you realize you’re maybe or maybe not being gaslit.

Angie Chang: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X Podcast. Please rate and review us on your favorite podcasting app, and we’ll be back soon with more advice from women in tech.

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones, with event recording by Eric Brown, and music by Diana Chow. To learn more about Girl Geek X or buy tickets to our next dinner, visit girlgeek.io, where you can also find videos and transcripts from all our events.

Angie Chang: This podcast is sponsored by HomeLight, a Google-backed startup with a line of data driven real estate products that empower people to make smarter decisions during one of life’s most important moments, buying or selling their home. This podcast is also sponsored by Amplitude, a Series D funded leader in product analytics. Amplitude provides digital product intelligence that helps companies ship great customer experiences. Last but not least, this podcast is sponsored by Guidewire. Guidewire Software provides core backend services software to the global property, casual and workers compensation insurance industry.

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