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Student Experience

Vulnerability as Your Key to Inclusive Leadership

Wisconsin MBA students are letting down their guard and translating diversity and inclusion lessons into better relationships and better business

By Paul Smirl

July 31, 2018

Wisconsin MBA students engage in an open classroom discussion.

If asked to list the most important attributes of successful business leaders, “vulnerable” might not make your top 20. A quick thesaurus search shows why: vulnerability is synonymous with susceptibility and defenselessness. It means open to attack or damage and capable of being wounded. Business leaders don’t traditionally want to show their wounds.

In the ever-changing, diverse workplaces of today however, vulnerability can be key to business success. It empowers people to open up, communicate clearly, and bring their full selves to their jobs. Being a vulnerable leader means connecting with employees on a deep level and building trusting relationships.

To Binnu Palta Hill, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, vulnerability is at the core of good diversity and inclusion practices and essential to business.

“You have to exhibit vulnerability to engage your team members to strive and create an inclusive environment,” says Palta Hill, “The business world is no longer static. There’s a need to shift from a performer mindset to a learner mindset, and sometimes that means not having all of the answers. Being open to learning what you don’t know and engaging with new perspectives makes you and your organization a lot stronger.”

Being vulnerable, learning inclusive behaviors

In the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs at the Wisconsin School of Business, inclusive thinking is embedded in the curriculum with aims of building flexible leaders who feel comfortable openly expressing their ideas, engaging with difference—and being vulnerable.

In addition to Palta Hill working with every cohort of students on diversity and inclusion workshops, faculty integrate lessons that challenge traditional business norms and get students to let down their guard to think about bias, authenticity, and workplace culture. For the programs’ student body made up of working professionals, this means students applying new insights directly to their careers.

“You always pick up something different, a new insight from someone’s lived life and their perspective, or a specific tip or technique that you can use to ensure that your team in your real job feels supported,” says IT supervisor Abrianna Barca (MBA ’18).

Wisconsin’s MBA curriculum focuses on delivering tangible skills in communication, team-building, and organizational behavior. Students dig into research on decision-making, transformational leadership, and the role of race and gender in disciplines like strategy, marketing, and new product development—all of which prepare them to lead successful organizations.

You have to exhibit vulnerability to engage your team members to strive and create an inclusive environment. The business world is no longer static. There’s a need to shift from a performer mindset to a learner mindset, and sometimes that means not having all of the answers.

-Binnu Palta Hill, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion

For Joe Loehnis (MBA ’18), the executive director of the youth golf-education nonprofit The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin, lessons from the Wisconsin Evening MBA Program’s diversity and inclusion curriculum helped him dramatically accelerate his ability to build, advocate for, and lead with an inclusive lens in his job, improving and evolving his organization’s staff in the process.

He was able to better relate to the diverse backgrounds of the kids he worked with, build a diverse board of directors, and use the knowledge and experiences of the people around him to create a stronger organization.

Loehnis embodied the learner mindset that Palta Hill referenced, to listen to others, empathize, and turn what he didn’t know into a strength.

Brad Krueger (MBA ’16), a risk management leader and owner of Seattle-based startup Rainy Day Resilience LLC, exhibited another side of vulnerability while attending the Wisconsin Executive MBA Program.

“If you’re holding back,” says Krueger, “you’ll never develop those close personal relationships that are necessary for success. As they say, business is based on relationships, which is why it’s so important to be comfortable in your own skin.”

One class period during a discussion about workplace inclusivity, Krueger came out to the class as gay. “I raised my hand and seized the moment to further educate my peers and make it real. This turned into a win-win as it helped my peers see a different perspective firsthand and enabled me to bring my whole self to class every day.”

Building high-performing organizations

Being a vulnerable leader who is comfortable in your own skin and supportive of others in theirs means having a more creative and successful team. Academic research shows that diverse and inclusive organizations repeatedly outperform their homogeneous counterparts. These organizations are more innovative, have better employee retention and satisfaction, and are more agile during economically turbulent times.

But getting people to think about diversity and inclusion as more than boxes to check can be difficult, and business education plays a critical role in demonstrating the value of leadership attributes like vulnerability.

In the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs, professionals are presented with an honest forum to ask questions and think about work and relationships in a new way, while benefiting from the opportunity to examine the psychology and neuroscience behind the heavy topics they discuss.

“With our society increasingly becoming siloed by social media, the university setting may be some people’s only ‘safe’ opportunity to be exposed to diverse perspectives. The face-to-face and collaborative nature of the MBA program makes it an ideal environment to learn about diverse perspectives and backgrounds,” says Krueger.

Palta Hill adds, “There’s a great responsibility to respond to the changing world and equip working professionals with the skills to be the leaders of now and the future. And with our MBA students and faculty, there’s a great exchange happening.”