female leader, women leading the way featured

Honesty and vulnerability can open doors for women leaders in business

female leader, women leading the way

Rachel Probert, co-owner and chief commercial officer at postgraduate digital education provider Learna, shares how her experiences in the tech industry has shaped her view that leaders who put on false shows of confidence can hold back women from taking the reins themselves.

During difficult times while managing and leading tech industry teams, I’ve learned not to hide how I’m feeling. I’ve worked with people who stand at the front of the room and give this projection that everything is fine, and think that’s a comfort to people –  it’s not. I think people know when their leaders are being honest.

As a leader, I am the conductor of an orchestra. I don’t need to know how to play all the musical instruments, I just need to make sure that everybody is playing when they need to be. I want to surround myself with people who are excellent, who know more than me. But I’ve sometimes witnessed managers who are uncomfortable with people working below them who know more about a subject than they do.

It is this culture of putting on a front,  pretending to know all the answers and being better than everyone else, which I believe is one of the barriers to women taking up leadership roles in businesses. This needs to be addressed by leaders to make sure opportunities are accessible to all.

I’m a big fan of the American professor and lecturer Brené Brown, who talks about leadership and leading from vulnerability, or a place of honesty and integrity. She argues that vulnerability is a sign of strong leadership, and defines vulnerability as taking action when there is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

I learned not to hide how I’m feeling through failures in business practices in the past, like relying too heavily on one large customer, or building a business around one organisation.

When I co-owned iPassExam, a business helping prepare marketing professionals for their Google AdWords examination, everything changed overnight when Google made their exam free. Suddenly, everybody who would have previously  been prepared to pay for our services no longer saw any value in doing so. If they failed the Google exam they could just try it again as many times as they liked for free.

I learned a lot from that experience, including the value in being open and honest about where you stand, so that it’s OK to say that you’re scared or you don’t know what the future holds. It’s OK to talk to your team about being uncertain and there can be a comfort in that for people. For me, that is a fundamental part of my leadership strategy.

I don’t think of leadership in business as taking people by the hand and pretending that everything is OK, perhaps then taking them down a path they’re unsure of, while wrongly under the impression that I have all the answers.

Younger female members of staff can sometimes lack the belief they could one day be in a leadership position because they think they don’t, or won’t, have all the answers. That’s why I believe adopting that real and honest approach to leading a team opens the door for more female leaders in the future.

When I’m advertising a job and I list all the skills I’d like prospective employees to have, there is a distinct difference between the male and female applicants. The males are more likely to apply for that job even though they don’t tick all the boxes, because they are willing to have a go and be honest about what they can and can’t do. But with female applicants, I’ll generally only get ones who can tick 90% of the boxes that I’m looking for.

I’ve also found myself in circles talking to women where they say they won’t apply for a job unless they are sure they can do everything that is desired, instead of understanding that these are things they can learn on the job and that they already have transferable skills for.

As someone who’s lucky enough to be in a leadership role as a female, being able to teach them that leaders don’t always have all the answers, or indeed all of the skills, can help them realise that they too can assume those sorts of positions too.

I have a better understanding of the business than most individuals who work for me, because I’ve worked in it longer. I understand that I have holistic vision or knowledge and that’s where I add value. But if there’s somebody on my team who has very specific expertise, I completely trust them in that field and I want them to feel that they own that space.

If we as leaders are honest about the skills and knowledge that we have, or more open about how vulnerable we might feel because we don’t know something, it’s my opinion that we will have more women stepping up and leading.

About the author

Rachel ProbertRachel Probert is the co-owner and chief commercial officer at digital postgraduate education provider Learna, and has more than 20 years’ experience managing commercial and marketing departments within the tech industry.

In her role at Learna she leads the business’ commercial strategy, forging new commercial partnerships with universities and businesses internationally. Learna recently saw its highest student intake for the second consecutive year with a 130%  increase in admissions for 2021-22 compared to 12 months ago, as well as a 41% increase in turnover

Before Learna, Rachel founded and directed a number of successful businesses in the technology sector, including EdTech, and online education business iPassExam until its sale in 2018.

Always looking for new challenges and adventures, Rachel grew her previous company while travelling around Europe, growing and nurturing a new business in the EdTech field, while raising a family.