While it may be tempting to lead from the front on all matters, honest leaders are those who recognise employees are often better at their role than they are – as two SME owners explained.
When you start a business at the ripe old age of 21, you won’t have much success convincing anyone that you know it all. So, when Caroline Plumb co-founded research consultancy FreshMinds straight out of university, she heeded the advice that was given to her: “know what you don’t know”.
This approach – honest leaders who are not afraid to admit they don’t know it all – has informed her leadership style ever since. Having helped make FreshMinds a success, Plumb has now turned to running her second business, Fluidly, a fintech startup that offers SMEs cash flow management services using machine learning. Founded in 2016, the London-based company now has 16 employees.
Through necessity, Plumb was open about where the gaps in her knowledge and experience lay, and turned her attention to finding ways to close them. “I think this approach turned out to be a strength – it meant I’ve always been keen to explore new ideas and ways of thinking”, she said. One of her favourite quotes is by management thinker Peter Drucker: “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”
Strengths and weaknesses
Plumb believes that being open about where you stand and asking good questions can be a powerful strategy. This belief collides with the current trend for “authentic leadership”, which Plumb defines as “being the best version of yourself”.
“Work is busy enough that trying to be anything other than yourself would be exhausting,” she said. Being an honest leader – both with yourself and with your team – means you are able to openly identify your strengths (for her this means her optimism and energy to get things done), and trying to channel your weaknesses (in this case impatience) as positively as possible.
What’s more, as Plumb noted, the role of CEO is necessarily broad. “There’s no way any one person could have all the answers, so it’s not credible to pretend you know it all,” she said. “No-one can be an expert in everything, so it’s far better to understand where your strengths and weaknesses are and build a complementary team around you that you can trust.” Plumb’s commitment to being an honest leader has helped her create a workplace culture at Fluidly that she hopes is open, warm and straightforward.
Honest from the outset
While Plumb would have found it difficult do anything but hold her hands up and admit she didn’t know it all when she started her first business, Jenna Ackerley, founder and managing director of Suffolk tipi hire business Events Under Canvas, carefully honed her “honest leadership” approach. She founded the business, which provides tipis for hire for festivals, weddings, glamping and other events, in 2013 and employs 30 people during the high season summer months.
“I believe that a leader’s job is not to know everything about the business, but to know how to get the best from their teams,” Ackerley explained. “Asking people you lead for advice and help is a brilliant way to earn respect from them. Admitting when you’re wrong is vital and using the experience and knowledge of your teams is essential to any business’s success,” she said. “Acting as though you need to know everything implies you don’t trust your team to do things themselves.”
However, contrary to popular misconceptions, honest leaders open about their vulnerabilities require bravery. In fact, opening yourself up to any kind of risk requires courage. “It takes confidence about what you are trying to achieve, and I don’t think you can fake it. It can also be very scary putting your trust in people when it doesn’t come naturally,” she added.
Yet the payoff, she said, is worth it. Her honesty as a leader has helped create a culture of trust, empowerment and support, where staff are encouraged to do their roles autonomously and to take responsibility for their actions. Ackerley said such an approach has led to greater team morale, performance and customer satisfaction. “Your confidence grows”, she admitted.
Being ready to admit she doesn’t know it all means if one of her managers asks her for advice on how they should tackle an operational problem, she will send them to one of her experienced colleagues. “This empowers the crew member and lets them know we value their opinion, encourages the manager to consult their teams more, and ultimately means that together we make the best decisions.”
Her advice for leaders is three-fold. First, practice admitting when you don’t know something, and see how confident it makes you feel. “I think our auto response is to blag or pretend when we don’t know something, for fear of looking silly. However, admitting when we don’t know something has much better results all round but it takes practice and overcoming fear,” she commented. “I have certainly blagged in the past, and I relate this to times when I lacked confidence. Once you are comfortable in your own skin and the role you play, then being open and honest becomes a lot easier.”
Second, when you personally do something wrong, admit it openly and take responsibility. “It is only when your team see you doing this that they will feel safe to start taking responsibility themselves,” she explained.
Third, a leader will learn to judge what level of honesty is required. “I would not tell staff when we have cash flow issues as I would not want them to feel worried about their job security,” Ackerley said. “The same goes for many situations with customers when things go wrong behind the scenes. If you make sure you always hold strong values of integrity, then usually your conscience knows when the right and wrong times to confidently blag are, and when it is self-serving rather than principles-based.”
It also means curtailing your own emotional responses as a leader when something goes wrong. Acklerley said she has learnt to swallow her initial despair, anger and frustration and listen with empathy before giving a considered and supportive response. She believes that if staff are dealt with understanding and support, mistakes will be reported quickly and not tried to be covered up – this way, everyone learns from the experience.
Finally, Plumb argued it’s important to strike a balance between inspiring confidence and being open about not having all the solutions. “You always need to be able to lay out a clear vision and the boundaries for any solution and if there are any lines that can’t be crossed or elements that have to be taken account of. After that there might be many possible solutions, and actually not specifying what you think the answer is far more likely to generate innovative and different ones.”