A Note from Hank: Sage’s experience coaching over 100,000 women entrepreneurs shows in her new book that explains why the ability to express vulnerability is a key strength for women in business. In particular, women seeking to build businesses can leverage this gift to win faithful followers, and attract loyal, paying clients.
Ladies, have you ever felt like you have to hide the very quality that makes you a caring, sensitive individual – your vulnerability – in order to succeed?
If so, you are not alone. Even the most powerful women often believe they can’t express certain emotions and aspects of their personality on the job for fear of being perceived as weak, ineffective or wishy-washy.
Not true. As a CEO and a coach of women entrepreneurs, I can firmly attest that the ability to express vulnerability is a key strength for women. In particular, women seeking to build businesses can leverage this gift to win faithful followers, and attract loyal, paying clients.
The world is hungry for more vulnerability, for leaders who’ve stopped claiming to be perfect, who don’t wear a mask and who own up to their own imperfect humanness. When you allow yourself to display your vulnerable side – especially as it relates to the product or service you are offering – people will tune in and pay attention because you’ve been there, too. You know how they feel.
No one wants to talk candidly about their divorce with someone who has never been through a separation. Nor does anyone want to open their heart about their struggle with obesity with someone who has never despaired over trying to shed excess weight. But when you do have this experience, people seeking your advice and help with similar issues will be touched at a visceral level and inclined, naturally, to open up and to trust you. What better starting point is there for connecting with new prospective clients than trust?
Take my friend and client Susan Peirce Thompson, for example. To say that Susan has been on a painful journey with food would be an understatement. Susan was overweight as a teenager and obese in her 20s. In adolescence, she used drugs like crystal meth and crack cocaine to manage her eating and weight. When she hit bottom on drugs at the age of 20 and got clean and sober, her food addiction exploded in full force. She was diagnosed with binge eating disorder at the age of 23 and spent nearly every spare moment bingeing, recovering from bingeing or throwing her heart into some new attempt to lose weight.
She spent decades struggling with her weight, swinging from her ideal size 4 to a size 24. When she was lost in that battle with food, little did Susan know that her business journey was beginning, and would culminate in her discovering the secret to losing her own weight. This discovery led Susan to earn a Ph.D. in brain and cognitive sciences, become a tenured psychology professor and ultimately, mentor hundreds of thousands of people around the world to free themselves from food issues. Ultimately, she founded a business that grew to become wildly successful: Bright Line Eating, LLC.
Susan’s struggles and subsequent transformation allowed her to understand what women and men in similar situations would need to heal and to experience transformations themselves, and her decision to share her story — to be vulnerable — has drawn clients to her. To date, Susan has helped 15,000-plus people lose weight and keep it off, built a successful company and a tribe reaching 450,000 followers.
But the ability to express vulnerability is only part of the equation. To leverage it, something else must be demonstrated simultaneously:
In Susan’s case, having struggled with the same problems her audience faces and come out on the better side of things enabled her connect with them viscerally. She’s the living proof they are looking for. But she also has authoritative answers to their questions. Her Ph.D. in brain and cognitive science and experience mentoring people one-on-one — in small numbers at first but growing numbers over time — lend her the credibility she needs to convert connections into faithful clients.
Hence this formula for success I encourage women entrepreneurs to take to heart:
Credibility + Vulnerability = A Brilliant and Effective Marketing Message
When you combine your vulnerability with your credibility, you become solid in your leadership and create an energetic field around you that invites the right clients to come in, take off their shoes, let down their guard, and stay for a while.
But there’s a potential catch: When sharing about the humanness of your imperfect journey, you may be tempted to let all barriers come tumbling down, to get raw, gritty and lengthy about what you share – whether in your marketing materials, on your website or in conversations. You may then wind up focusing more on your own story than on your prospective clients’ needs. Keep in mind that when you open up about your vulnerability and challenges to your audience with the objective of business development, it’s about them, not about you.
Whether talking about a health crisis you’ve been through or a painful divorce you’ve moved on from, share your challenges with the goal of providing hope, healing, inspiration, and solutions. Once you’ve shared the broad brushstrokes of your story, you can accomplish this by asking your audience what life transition they’ve lived through that’s made them who they are today.
This process takes practice, and you’re not alone in working on it. Moreover, this form of authenticity looks different for every woman entrepreneur. If this article is leaving you wanting more, I devised this entrepreneurial leadership assessment which will help you explore what kind of leadership comes naturally to you, and how you can leverage that to strengthen your chances of marketing brilliance.
Over time, you’ll become skilled at striking the right balance between being open and honest and showcasing credibility. Business growth will follow.