APS conference: vulnerability and strength in leadership

Chris Paton, formerly a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines, described his most vulnerable moment

Thursday 7 June 2018:

A single buzzword emerged from the Association of Professional Sales’s conference on leadership today, and the word was vulnerability.

In an inspiring event, the importance of admitting ignorance or failure and learning from one’s mistakes cropped up repeatedly as the hallmarks of an effective manager.

Valerie Risk and Rishi Rout of Fujitsu explained what it really means for a company to be “agile”: fail fast, absorb the lessons then move swiftly on. It was also one of the hardest processes for most corporates and executives to embrace, warned Valerie Risk. Most organisations are steeped in a culture of working to a plan and going to extravagant lengths never to admit vulnerability when things go wrong.

For former Royal Marine commander Chris Paton, who organised the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan, vulnerability was the key virtue for leadership in and out of the services. “It’s about being open, about being able to say I don’t know everything,” said Lt Col Paton.

He revealed that when he and his relatively new consultancy business were highly vulnerable, after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he used another military technique to pressure test his plan for how things would be managed while he was having major surgery. Three teams war-gamed his ideas: a blue team setting out his proposal, a red team playing the part of stakeholders in the business raising queries and objections, while the scenario was organised and managed by a third team whose job was to identify the key findings and refine the plan.

Claire Edmunds, CEO of Clarify, used vulnerability to heal her company’s internal conflict

Honesty

Claire Edmunds, founder and CEO of Clarify, spoke of a “dark Friday evening” when her company nearly hit the rocks, because her unwillingness to tolerate dissenting voices and acknowledge mistakes had created artificial harmony in her senior management team. Fixing the toxic atmosphere took a “clean language” specialist, to teach them the power of being vulnerable, so they could talk to one another calmly and honestly. The strategy worked and a reinvigorated Clarify went on to greater success.

Finally, Phil Jones shared the greatest disappointment of his life: the moment when, after five years as sales and marketing director of Brother, he was passed over for the job of CEO. His Japanese mentor told him bluntly it was because he was “too positive”, and the company’s leaders were scared by his seeming inability ever to admit that something was impossible.

The insight seemed crushing at first but ended up being hugely beneficial. Jones realised he needed to change gear – another skill that cropped up during the afternoon – as key to weathering the harsh conditions at the top of an organisation. Jones has now been CEO of Brother for five years.

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The APS conference – an exploration into sales leadership was held on June 7, 2018 at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 1 Birdcage Walk, London

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