I recently watched a Ted Talk by Brene Brown titled The Power of Vulnerability. Brene starts her talk about connection and how it is difficult for individuals to connect due to their fear of disconnection. This fear can result in individuals putting up walls around themselves to prevent others from seeing their true self because they think that if truly seen, others would not like them. However, as Brene says, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” In other words, we must be vulnerable.
As I reflected on this talk about connection and vulnerability along with Austin’s core focus, “To be the most trusted partner for complex and challenging projects,” I thought of how intertwined these ideas are and how we can’t be the most trusted partner if we don’t connect with our clients and other project stakeholders. Being vulnerable is being our true and authentic selves. We cannot connect if we are not first vulnerable.
I never thought that being vulnerable was essential to building trusted partnerships. But when I think of some of the lessons I’ve learned about relationship building over the past 30 years with Austin, vulnerability was indeed a key, if not the primary ingredient.
Vulnerability and people new to their roles. We’ve collaborated with many clients who assign first-time managers to our projects, whose only prior experience with construction may have been a home renovation or perhaps a new home – quite different than a multi-million dollar industrial project. It’s important to build a relationship with client representatives. They should be able to share their fears without judgment and be confident that you will not only get the job done but help them be successful in their new role.
These first-time managers don’t always have the field experience to know that it isn’t if a project hits a roadblock, but when. It is in those moments when excitement is building and tension is high that it is important to have a calming presence in the face of such obstacles.
Our clients place a tremendous amount of trust in us. They want to know we will get to the bottom of an issue and deliver results. Rather than diving right into the muck of the situation, take a deep breath, have everyone take a deep breath. We should reassure the team that we will get through whatever the issue is. Worry will not solve the problem. Instead, talk through the issue, develop a plan, and then work that plan.
Vulnerability and delivering tough news. At another point in my career, I had some particularly bad news to deliver to a client. I knew that it was not going to be a pleasant conversation. I was wringing my hands, trying to figure out how I would go about sharing this information. I knew what I had to do, but I wanted to make it as positive as possible. I called my boss at the time, former Austin President Pat Flanagan. I said, “I don’t know quite how to lay this out. Can you help me think through how to present this?” Pat asked me one question, “Matt, why don’t you use the old truth scam – it works practically every time?” That was the end of the conversation. The message was delivered, and it wasn’t as bad as I had thought because today, I can’t recall what the issue was. But I will never forget the vulnerability lesson I learned that day.
Vulnerability and admitting weakness. Vulnerability is also about owning it. You must be willing to admit what you don’t know or are unsure of. Find answers and create results, not excuses.
Early in my career, I recall interviewing subcontractors to install metal siding on a large rocket manufacturing facility we were constructing. The schedule was extremely aggressive, and the durations that we had allowed for the siding installation were ridiculously short. After four interviews and hearing from everyone that what we were asking was impossible and unachievable, I interviewed Clarence. We talked for a while about what we needed to be done, and Clarence didn’t say much – he just listened. Toward the end of the interview, I asked, “Can you meet the schedule?” I’ll never forget his answer, “It’ll be hard” – not impossible, not unachievable. There was hope. Clarence wasn’t a salesman painting a rosy picture or being negative, claiming it couldn’t be done. He was someone who knew it was a tall order but was willing to work together to figure it out.
We ended up giving his company the work, and they did a fantastic job and met the schedule. I learned a lot from his approach, and it continues to influence me to this day. I learned how to carefully evaluate a situation, admit I might not have all the answers, and share my opinions openly and honestly. I got others to do the same, to work together, as trusted partners.
Around the world, there are a lot of buildings built every day in a very transactional relationship. Many of these projects are successful, but I wonder how the relationships between the stakeholders are? I’ve never thought of myself as a transactional type of person. I much prefer connecting with and building a close relationship with the people I work with. I’m glad that Austin has this as a core focus as well. Every day, as we interact with others, we choose to be vulnerable or not. When we are vulnerable, we open the gateway for others to do the same. Standing in our truth is to be authentic, and authenticity builds trust. Like the foundations we construct, our client relationships need to stand the test of time, pressure, and vulnerability. When they do, we will have a partnership for life.