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The Art of Not Knowing

Being vulnerable is no fun.

There’s a reason we have nightmares about showing up to work in our underwear. Our brains crave safety; the itchy distress of leaving our comfort zone is enough to send most of us running.

The world is an upside-down place, though, and of all the lessons I’ve learned as president of burkeMICHAEL+, the most important may be that vulnerability is the birthplace of success.

Dr. Brené Brown, a social scholar whose insight into human behavior has earned her a TED talk and Netflix special, sees vulnerability as “…the cradle of emotions and experiences that we crave.”

In other words, when you walk out on a limb, the faraway things you’ve always wanted suddenly get a lot closer.

At work, we’re often forced to be vulnerable whether we like it or not. Our professional decisions are reflected on our team, sometimes on the whole company, leaving us feeling exposed and eager to please. That vulnerability can tempt us to pretend to know things we don’t.

Believe me, I’ve been there. In the early days of my career, I was an ardent subscriber to the ‘must-know-everything’ mindset. When something went wrong, I’d twist myself into a pretzel to prove that it wasn’t my fault.

Then I met Michael Barbush, burkeMICHAEL+’s co-founder and champion.

I’ve written about the tremendous impact Michael had on our industry, and what he meant to me, personally. Over 30 years of collaboration, his greatest contribution to my success was showing me how to let go of my compulsion to know everything. He built an environment that allowed me to fall on my face, so long as I was reaching for something great.

As president of burkeMICHAEL+, I’ve tried my best to replicate that environment for my own team. Here’s how:

I own my blindspots. I’m very good at my job, but I’m not infallible. The most important thing I can do to foster an honest workplace is to lead by example, and cozy up to the phrase “I don’t know.”

I don’t call out, I advise. If someone on my team slips up, I don’t waste time scolding them. Instead, I re-center the conversation around making sure they have what they need to prevent future gaffes.

I ask ‘I’ questions. When advising a project, I ask ‘I’ questions. Lots of “Did I explain that well?” and “Is there anything else I should clarify?” This helps my team feel comfortable admitting confusion and asking for the clarification that can save a project.

I open up the floor. Strict top-down power structures have their place, and that place is several zip codes over from burkeMICHAEL+. I frequently ask my team to bring out their wildest ideas. Not all of them land, but the hit ratio is a lot higher than it would be if I told them it’s my way or the highway.

Brené Brown, again: “A leader is someone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people, in processes, and has the courage to develop that potential.” Michael was overflowing with responsibility and courage. I’ve made it my mission to lead by the same principles. That means encouraging, exhibiting, and rewarding vulnerability.

It may be uncomfortable, but it’s always the best way forward.

Mary Frances





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