Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire. 


I am a fan of Sheryl Sandberg, who visited Durham this week.  She takes the time to care for people who cross her path.

And when I first wrote to her nearly a decade ago, she wrote back in the same day not only with encouragement, but also mailed me a gift.

I love the question she asks her audiences: “What would you do if you were not afraid?”

Many would be more vulnerable.  In the first half of my career, I was not vulnerable. As a younger technology executive on male dominated leadership teams, I felt I needed to always be confident, sure and right.  I could never show any weakness and equated vulnerability with weakness.

15 years ago, when I was asked to teach at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, I asked my students on the first day of class what they hoped to learn from my course. One woman raised her hand and said “I would like to learn from your failures.”

Fast forward to the end of the semester and after grades were turned in, online feedback forms were distributed to my students.  I received harsh feedback, “I did not learn from Professor Ueng’s failures. She never shared any.”

Outgoing Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg visits Durham

Sharing failure

Soon after, a women in technology group asked me to keynote a meeting with learning from failures as its theme. I titled my talk “Channeling Fear: Embracing Failure.” What was one of the top three failures I shared?  Not sharing my failures in my UNC teaching!  One woman said afterwards, “It was great having Grace speak so vulnerably about her failures.”

Since then, I have been quite vulnerable in my writing and speaking as well as in personal relationships.  When I started this Leadership and Happiness column on Valentine’s Day, I “came out”  about suffering from severe depression last year. I said that it would be the best Valentine’s present if my sharing could help you or someone close to you.   I immediately heard from many of you about the struggles that you or members of your family have also faced.

Vulnerability is like a magnet, it draws people to you.

Grace Ueng: Failure is a good thing and speaking the future, now

Building trust

Trust is an essential bond for a leader to develop with their team in order to create psychological safety.

Bill Campbell, the legendary coach who mentored top Silicon Valley leaders including Sheryl Sandberg, Steve Jobs, and Eric Schmidt, is famous for building “an envelope of trust.”  In the book, Trillion Dollar Coach, written by his coachees posthumously to commemorate his leadership playbook, they describe that the most important currency in a relationship – friendship, romantic, or business, is trust.  Trust was Bill’s super power.

One academic paper defines trust as “the willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another’s behavior.”

What did trust mean to Bill Campbell, the coach who helped his coachees create trillions of dollars of market value?

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Loyalty.  Bill was one of the only Apple executives to fight to keep Steve Jobs when he was fired in 1985.  Steve never forgot Bill’s loyalty which became the basis of their close friendship and coaching relationship.

Integrity and ability.  Bill was always honest and he expected the same in return.  He also expected you to have the talent, skills, power, and diligence to accomplish what you promised.

Discretion.  Bill would always keep his promise of confidentiality. He would also bring up performance issues only in private, and not embarrass anyone publicly.

In a study conducted by Google on the factors behind high performing teams, psychological safety came out on top.  And that starts with trust.

Bill would only coach the coachable, those who were humble and lifelong learners.

Jonathan Rosenburg, a senior vice president at Google who was coached by Bill said, “A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”

Sharing in such a manner requires trust and vulnerability between the two parties.

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The role of empathy

Just as vulnerability is interlinked with trust, so is having empathy.

I asked a vice president what area she wanted to focus on improving in the coming year.  She mentioned that her boss, the CEO, had recently discussed with the Chair of their board the topic of emotional leadership.  She assumed that being an emotional leader was not a good thing and therefore she had to work on being less emotional.  I actually think emotional leadership is a good thing.

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, the most popular course is Interpersonal Dynamics, also known as “touchy feely”.  Why do you think that is?  I will share more in my next column.


More from Grace

Thumbs up: Empowerment and the three ingredients to be happy at work

From technology marketing leader to starting a new venture: Lessons from an entrepreneurial journey

From depression to gratitude and happiness – how a three-decade journey changed me