Last Thursday morning, I pulled into a Sonoma retreat ranch for a four-day “Leaders in Tech” conference. I knew the focus was going to be on effective leadership. I knew that we would review feedback from colleagues on what we were doing well and where there were opportunities for growth. I knew it was going to be 24 Founders, CEOs and other top executives from high growth startups, primarily from Silicon Valley. I had read, and mostly ignored, the sentence that said it would be intense and you might not want to book anything important afterwards.
I could not have been more unprepared for what came next, which was four of the most intense days of learning, connecting, and practicing new interpersonal behaviors that I have ever experienced. From 9am to 10pm, we covered topics ranging from “Understanding Our Differences” to “Influencing others” in a model of “learn-discuss-practice”. By the end of the program, the most common word used by the executives in our group was “transformational”. The entire experience also reinforced how so much of what goes well and what doesn’t, at work and in life, comes down to our ability to build effective interpersonal relationships.
The Leaders in Tech program grew out of Stanford Business School’s incredibly popular Interpersonal Dynamics course, lovingly referred to as “touchy feely”. Dr. Carole Robin, one of the founders of Leaders in Tech, has also just published a book based on the course, Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues. I came away thinking it should be required reading for everyone on this planet.
One of the core tenets of the course is that relationships are built when we get to know each other through disclosure and feedback. But how, when, and what you disclose and give feedback on really, really matters. Doing it well requires a word you don’t often hear in business and when you do, it’s not generally an asset: vulnerability. It’s a word that seems more synonymous with weakness, like “without 2 Factor authentication, we are more vulnerable to a security breach”.
But in interpersonal relationships, vulnerability is critical. Weirdly, when you are vulnerable in relationships, it generally makes you, and the relationship, stronger. If you doubt it, the research shared by Brene Brown at her TEDTalk on the topic is incredibly convincing.
The other giant a-ha is that even in a room of some of the most successful people on this planet, people are carrying such heavy burdens. We as humans have experienced so much trauma and such deeply hurtful discrimination. So many of us have deep insecurities and a sense of never feeling good enough. We’ve experienced accidents, addictions, and suicides. We’ve had our own painful divorces or watched loved ones' relationships crumble. We are facing our own or our children’s mental health crises. Many of us are deeply worried about what’s to come with the climate crisis, our political situation and the war in Ukraine. Because we are tech leaders, we are anxious about the unintended implications of what we build - especially if we work in AI. Many of us are literally working ourselves into severe health issues due to long hours and high stress.
The experience was a big reminder that our employees are no different and they don’t leave those burdens at the door when they come to work. It’s why working to make your culture more inclusive matters. It’s why acknowledging and offering physical and mental health and wellbeing programs matters. It’s why doing everything we can to support Ukraine, civic engagement, or reduce our own carbon emissions matters. It’s why, as a leader, encouraging and modeling boundaries and a time to recharge matters.
It was also a big, giant reminder of why WeSpire matters. Helping employees with these topics is not easy for companies. Yet it is increasingly required. And when you do, your employees do better and your business does better.
I needed that reminder. Building technology that creates a better world for people is not easy. Building a company might be even harder. But this world needs what we do.