By Kelly Vandever
One of the things that makes leadership difficult is that it’s not a matter of “do these three things and you’ll be a great leader.” Leadership is very nuanced. Leadership is adjusting to dichotomies that both need to be true. Leadership is a balancing act.
Part of that balancing act involves maintaining a professional self versus being personable and open about your life outside of work.
Professional vs. Personal
I was “raised” as a leader in the military. It was very explicitly part of the culture that you didn’t fraternize with your staff. You keep business and personal lives separate. Period.
Even after moving to corporate America, I followed that approach…though I did loosen up a bit and call people by their first names!
Home Life Bleeds into Work – Even for Leaders
My mother survived lung cancer only to die from esophageal cancer. (She was a smoker).
When she was diagnosed with cancer the second time, I told my boss what was going on. But I didn’t tell my staff.
This was a personal matter, so of course I wouldn’t mix personal life with business.
Following my mothers diagnosis, I spent most weekends driving 5 hours from Atlanta to Florida where my parents lived. I’d take off Friday night after work and turn around and drive back Sunday afternoon. I did this while my husband took weekend duties taking care of our two young children. It was stressful and I felt inadequate. I wasn’t there like I needed to be for my parents. I was neglecting my husband and kids. I worried non-stop about my mom.
Through it all, it didn’t occur to me that the strain was leaking through to my work. I was convinced I was keeping the challenges in my personal life from interfering with my work.
Even when the first of my staff of 10 resigned, I rationalized that she wasn’t that good a fit anyway. It’s all good. I’m holding it together.
Then the second employee resigned.
Then the third.
It was the third resignation which finally got me to realize maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it was me. But by this time, I was too far gone.
Luckily for me, my boss didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
After my mom died, he moved me to a new role…a role that I did exceptionally well in and saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. That role lead me to another management position that I held for 7 years.
I had lunch two years after my mother’s death with the third employee who resigned. I told her what was going on at the time.
“You never told us.”
It was clear from her expression and the words that followed, that if I’d been honest, if I’d been transparent, things might have transpired very differently at work.
Will Kelly Learn Her Lesson?
Flash forward a few years later. Life was busy as I was transitioning from managing one group of employees to managing a new group of people. The new team was part of a recent acquisition, and their previous boss had left the company…and it was performance review time. I was having to get to know 20 new employees, collect feedback on their performance over the last year from their internal and external clients, and write performance reviews from the 20 people in my “old” group before they transitioned to their new managers. And did I mention, the acquisition came with a new product and new group of customers to get to know too? It was a busy time.
It was in the middle of all work drama that my daughter, then a senior in high school, told me she was pregnant.
I wish I could say that I’d learned my lesson after not being open with my employees during my mom’s illness and that I made a conscious decision to be more transparent with my staff about the challenges in my personal life. I wish I could say it was part of a larger decision to be a new kind of manager who was willing to cross over into the personal side of my life and develop a richer, more meaningful relationship with my employees. But I wasn’t that thoughtful or progressive.
I decided to share the information because you can only hide a pregnancy for so long.
Regardless of why I did it, the results were that I did build more meaningful relationships with my employees and customers. Here’s what happened.
I shared with my employees and customers that I was going to be a grandmother a few years sooner than expected as my teenage daughter was pregnant. So, in addition to the busy work activities, I would also be planning a wedding to take place in less than a month. I asked for their patience and let them know how they could reach me with urgent problems or concerns.
What I expected was to receive some judgmental looks and the loss of respect.
What I found was that people were incredibly kind. I heard stories about how “that happened to us” or “I was the child of a teenage mom” or “good for you — my parents threw me out when they found out I was pregnant” and “you’re handling this with such grace.”
It was one of the most heartening experiences of my life. People were amazing.
Still it was a balancing act.
At home, I was a wreck. I cried to my friends and family. I felt ashamed and like a horrible mom. I worried about my daughter’s future.
But I kept that part of the drama at home. I didn’t unload those challenges on my work colleagues.
The balance I struck was being willing to be vulnerable and say, this is what’s going on. And people responded graciously.
I believe I had better, closer relationships with my employees after being transparent about my personal life than I did all the years that I tried to maintain an illusion that I had all my crap together.
It’s Still a Balancing Act
The balancing act of personal and professional life comes from that fact that followers want a leader to be competent and confident. But they enjoy connecting with a real live human being.
You can share your personal stories, you can share your lack of perfection. But don’t take it to such an extreme that they lose respect. Your employees are not therapists. Don’t dump garbage on them that will make them so ill-at-ease that they’ll want to avoid you.
Start Opening the Connection with Stories
There is no magic formula about how much sharing of the personal life is appropriate or inappropriate. So start small and try telling a story.
Begin with a story from your early work life, ideally from a time when you learned a lesson through a specific mistake. Even better is when there was a mentor or a boss who gave you advice or insight that helped you recover from the mistake.
Even though such a story is work related, it’s still personal because it reveals something about you.
Second, if you’re willing to show vulnerability and provide proof of your humanity, employees will respond. You’ve trusted them with an embarrassing moment. You’ve willingly admitted that you don’t have all the answers. People connect with people.
Your Current Struggles
Leaders have such an impact on their organization. If you’re struggling, find help.
Talk to your boss or a trusted peer.
Sign up for a leadership training program.
Reach out to past colleagues and get their perspective.
Don’t wait for 33% of your employees to leave to get the message. Work now to connect in a meaningful way with your staff.
And if you want an outsider’s perspective, give me a call at 770-597-1108.
Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world. Connect with Kelly and discover how being professionally human can bring you better business results.
Contact Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her or tweet her @KellyVandever.