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Nicki Sprinz: Why it’s vital to show vulnerability to achieve authentic leadership

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Nicki Sprinz is the MD of ustwo – London, Lisbon and Tokyo studios. Her accolades include eradicating the company’s gender pay gap during her tenure, plus co-founding Ada’s List – a global community for women in tech. A more recent achievement, however, is her first-person piece for online platform, Medium, laying bare her struggles as a pregnant leader battling with the lasting impacts of a neurological illness.  

EW editor, Cherry Casey caught up with Nicki to find out what led to her decision to lay bare her experience, and why vulnerability and authenticity is crucial for today’s leaders.

 

‘Calling people by the wrong name or muddling up my words is something I’ve always experienced when overtired. But during my first pregnancy in 2013, I became acutely aware that people in my team were either correcting me, or nervously laughing about my slip-ups, more often.

I mentioned this during a check-up and was referred to a neurologist, who ascertained that it was a result of my contracting viral encephalitis at 13, which paralysed the left-hand side of my body. While I had made a 95% recovery, the impact of the 5% that didn’t recover really came to the fore during pregnancy, which makes sense – the recent study at Duke University revealed that pregnant women consistently reach the closest to the limit of human endurance.

I’m now pregnant for the second time and again, I’m constantly creating what I call ‘word salads’ – I find my brain struggling to find the right word for the concept I’m trying to articulate, or I’ll call someone the completely wrong name, despite being aware of what their actual name is. It’s as if my brain’s Filofax has stalled. It can be very stressful, particularly in the context of client meetings, where the stakes are higher.

In those situations, I’m representing our business and our teams, and it fuels a huge sense of pressure, and ultimately failure; there’s that inner fear, saying, ‘What will happen if I get egg on my face?’

I decided to write the Medium piece…

Because I wanted to role model being a pregnant woman leader and show that it’s possible to be a leader and vulnerable. I’ve been blown away by the response – people were thanking me for showing you can be vulnerable and a woman, and the rawness of the story was also commented on. 

It’s had a positive impact at work too. I didn’t want to make a formal announcement about my neurological challenges, but I did want people to understand why it was happening. By putting the piece online, word travelled, and I was able to send it to individual colleagues if, for instance, they’d had to correct me on someone’s name. We do a lot of our communication over Slack here and I was very touched to be sent a lot of heart-eye and hug emojis.

Understanding vulnerability has been a big part of my leadership journey …

When I first took a leadership role at ustwo in 2016, I remember thinking, ‘Surely competence is the most important attribute a leader can have?’ But I researched and studies showed that while competence is important in leadership, vulnerability ultimately matters far more. I found it fascinating but also quite a struggle – I’m a fairly private person, so being my authentic self with the work-life boundaries I felt I wanted, while also being vulnerable is something I’ve had to work on. One of ustwo’s founders, Mills, has always role-modelled a very honest and vulnerable style of leadership. It’s been inspiring to watch – and I think if you’re all in, and really believe in the thing you’re doing, it becomes easier to let go of any concerns around privacy and boundaries.

For me, it’s vulnerability and authenticity together that helps you foster connections with people you work with every day. It helps you build trust. It enables people to know each other on a personal, human level, so we can talk genuinely when something’s gone wrong (personally or professionally), or genuinely empathise with someone who is supporting a family member with terminal illness or is having a hard time with their emotional and mental wellbeing. All of those situations need a human connection – we’re all fallible human beings, whether you’re just starting out or are the CEO of a Fortune 500.

A lot of people are talking about…

Brené Brown’s Netflix show, The Call to Courage, where she talks a lot about how you can develop vulnerability as a leader. I think it’s great that this inspirational framework for people exists. I wasn’t exposed to that at school, it was all, ‘You have to break through the glass ceiling and this is how’. We definitely shied away from the notion of shame, or vulnerability. And when I started my career in media, there were less women in senior positions, so I was taught not to cry at work, plus there was a lot of language around not making your ‘femaleness’ part of the day-to-day dialogue.

Now I think we’re understanding more that vulnerability is a strength. Look at Jacinda Arden – she has shown that inspiring, warm, stately leadership doesn’t have to be all male bravado and physical displays of strength, and she is the most extraordinary female leader of our time.

And to be successful in business you need to earn trust in the workplace and truly connect on a human level; you won’t do either without vulnerability – so show yours with pride.