Can Revealing A Weakness Be A Strategic Strength?

This post was originally written by my associate Craig Collins of Orion International and is graciously reprinted with his permission.


A few months ago, Andrew Mason stepped down as CEO of Groupon*. Mason was one of the founders of the company and took it public on the NASDAQ exchange in 2011. The letter he wrote to announce his departure received a great deal of attention. Take a moment to read it, and you will see why.

People of Groupon,

After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why… you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable. 

You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance. The board is aligned behind the strategy we’ve shared over the last few months, and I’ve never seen you working together more effectively as a global company – it’s time to give Groupon a relief valve from the public noise.

For those who are concerned about me, please don’t be – I love Groupon, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve created. I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. If Groupon was Battletoads, it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the company this far with all of you. I’ll now take some time to decompress (FYI I’m looking for a good fat camp to lose my Groupon 40, if anyone has a suggestion), and then maybe I’ll figure out how to channel this experience into something productive.

If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!

I will miss you terribly.

Love,
Andrew

Your first response might be “Well, this is very moving, and I could see how this might work in a dot-com start-up. But this approach would never work in my organization’s culture.” If that is your reaction, then I encourage you to challenge it. It’s true that some of the words and phrases might not be appropriate, yet the approach illustrates what authenticity in leadership is all about. The way you express your thinking might be different (the situation, too, I hope!), but the underlying principles are universal. Here are some of the principles which are reflected in Mason’s letter:

“The Buck Stops Here”: Model accountability – It’s easier to hold others accountable than to hold ourselves accountable. Yet the most powerful way to hold others accountable is to model accountability. We fear that acknowledging some performance gap in public will undermine our image or authority. In fact, it is just the opposite. The willingness to admit shortcomings is the sign of a strong leader. Trying to deflect or excuse a shortcoming is seen by others as either political maneuvering or lack of self-confidence. Neither inspires loyalty.

Humour plus humility: Don’t take yourself too seriously – Research shows that power and perspective-taking are inversely correlated. In other words, as you move up in the organizational hierarchy, you tend to become more absorbed by your own perspective and less aware of the perspectives of others. Self-deprecating humour is a wonderful way to counteract this tendency. The most admired leaders are those who wear their power lightly.

Talk about setbacks as well as successes – Do you remember the Robocop in the Terminator movies? The organizational equivalent is the not-quite-human Roboleader. As Roboleaders tell their stories, they go from success to success in careers which contain no failures or disappointments. By withholding parts of the real story, they give us reason to be suspicious of what they do share as well as their motives for doing so. When leaders share their doubts, their fears, and the darker moments in their journeys with us, they become more human and more deserving of our trust and energy.

Let people know how much you care about the work you do and the people with whom you do it – After all, if you don’t care deeply about your work and the people around you, what is the point of doing that work in the first place? And if you do care, what’s wrong with saying so? We all look for evidence that what we do in life matters, and we want to be valued. Leaders who openly meet these needs are the ones for whom we do more than is asked and who create experiences that we cherish for the rest of our lives.

Do you think the employees of Groupon are in any doubt about how much they and their work mean to Andrew Mason?

How can you apply one or more of these principles (in your own way and in your own words) in your leadership role during the next week?

Craig Collins can be reached at craig.collins@orion-intl.com.

__________

Fired Groupon CEO’s refreshingly blunt memo to employees, Washington Post, March 1, 2013

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