How much candor is too much?

A week ago I spoke to the MIT Sloan Executive MBA classes of 2012 and 2013 about being a CEO. As you can imagine within an EMBA class — made up of professionals with an average age of 40 – many of the students are entrepreneurs, or are considering whether to develop into a CEO/GM/entrepreneur so my experience could be helpful, or at least interesting to them.

I find that in a setting like this story telling is the most interesting way to communicate. I’m not teaching, I’m simply sharing experience. And I try to be light hearted so that it doesn’t get boring. But sometimes I do wonder if I am too candid. My talk centered around huge challenges and how I dealt with them. I started with one of my worst low points when my confidence was in the tank and described the abyss. As I posted before this happens to everyone at times and as a CEO you must not let on, not quit and find a healthy way to cope.

Then I shared three really tough experiences:
– becoming a CEO, finding out I was clueless and struggling to work out what really mattered in this new, amorphous job

– switching industry from EDA (software for semiconductor design) to the Information industry and going back to first principles (customers) to figure out how to develop the strategy

– having my market melt down on me not once, not twice but three times (April 2000, Sept 2001, Sept 2008) and figuring out how to change and survive each time.

I truly believe people learn much more from mistakes than from successes and so sharing my mistakes, with plenty of self-effacing humor, exposes that everyone is haunted by the same thoughts of failure. Finding ways to deal with the problems and thrive is what you need in 99% of companies. Some are right place, right time but most morph their strategy several times before they get it right.

The feedback from this talk was a first for me. My audience was probably 70% male, 30% female and at the end of the talk and Q&A both men and women came up to chat with me and ask me more questions. The feedback was positive (whew!) but about my candor. Specifically one student voiced that most speakers come in and talk about all the great things that happened and what they did, not all the things that went wrong and the mistakes they made. But how much candor is too much?

This talk was not taped but if it had been could it hurt me if pieces were take out of context?

Candor is amusing, it’s compelling and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable but it is usually unforgettable because it is pointed and rare. Cindy Gallop is an extremely brave example speaking on makelovenotporn.com and the pornification of our culture – and people listening to her are uncomfortable but they will never forget what she said. Candor is also often simple – like Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech. Nora Denzel in her Top 10 Career Tips makes fun of herself and women as a group in a charming, funny way.

Candor is also self-indulgent. For me, it’s easy to laugh at myself. It takes more work for me to be serious.

I am serious in front of customers when talking about our technology and how we can help them. I am serious when speaking about the changes impacting the information industry. I am serious when working with investors of the private or public companies I work with. With my employees I strive for serious transparency.

But me and my experience? It’s hard to be serious about that!

And that leads to the question. As a female CEO, where there are not very many of us, do I hurt women when I am candid and share my mistakes and challenges more than a male CEO would? Do I help the student but confirm that women are less serious about their careers and themselves than men?

I take everything seriously in business. But when I am talking with peers – as I consider the students at the Sloan MIT EMBA program to be – I try to be candid and share in a way that will help them see the “man behind the curtain” to demystify the leadership role.

After all, the only way to walk on water is to know where the rocks are – and that takes mistakes and learning.