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7 phrases leaders should use more often to show vulnerability and build trust with their team



AmEx leadership lessons
As a leader, recognize that your tone can shift the energy in the room.

  • The tone and attitude of leaders can influence the psychological safety in their workplace.
  • Speaking honestly and openly can help you build a high-performing, engaged, and inclusive team.
  • Use phrases like 'I appreciate you' and 'I'm sorry' more often to build trust within your team.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

As a leader, your energy has a profound impact on your team. The way you show up in meetings and 1:1s, and even the tone in your emails can influence psychological safety in your workplace – for better or for worse. That's why I often remind myself that words matter when it comes to building a high-performing, engaged, and inclusive team.

In an effort to be more intentional about the tone I'm setting every day, I've discovered these seven phrases help convey gratitude, vulnerability, and trust.

Read more: DEI professionals can make upwards of $200,000 a year. Experts reveal what it takes to land the job.

1. I appreciate you because …

Gratitude is a powerful tool; consider that more than 40% of Americans said they'd put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often. Importantly, though, is that gratitude works best when it's specific. Don't just thank people for their contributions. Tell them one thing you especially appreciated about how they ran that meeting, collaborated on that project, or shared that update. Doing so makes people feel seen, and who doesn't love that?

2. What do you see that I don't see?

My company now has a quarterly team meeting where people in our organization tell me about data I'm missing, perspectives I should be paying more attention to, or early warning signs of an issue we should spend more time on. These are some of my favorite meetings of the year, because I learn something new every time, and it's a subtle reminder that leaders don't have all the answers, but that we need, and value, our teams' perspectives.

3. Welcome to the team

Being new is hard. Imposter syndrome is at an all-time high, and so proactively welcoming new employees is critical. I try to make it a point to see, notice, and welcome new people in our organization and learn a little bit about what makes them tick. Inclusion and belonging start on day one, so taking a few minutes to make an active effort helps people feel confident they made the right choice joining your team.

4. I've got you

My company starts our leadership meetings with a few structured prompts, and one of the questions is, "Who will you ask for help when you need it?" The person you choose then responds with "I've got you." It's just three words, but it normalizes both relying on the support of others and being ready to give it. That's why this simple phrase helps build a culture of trust.

5. Tell me more

We all know that active listening is a critical skill in leadership. But if you're like me, a fast talker and quick reactor, then it's probably not always your first instinct. When I feel myself speeding up, I try to ask people to tell me more about their idea, challenge, or observation. Not only do they feel heard, but I can actually give better advice as a result.

6. I'm sorry

Vulnerability is arguably one of the most important traits of a great leader. The easiest way to practice it is to admit when you've made a mistake. For example, I recently derailed a meeting because I wasn't as prepared as I could've been, and it resulted in my getting frustrated. Later that day, I apologized to the team and we moved forward. Remember that you're a human being; it's not only OK to admit when you're wrong, but it also goes a long way with your team in building trust.

7. I'm signing off

Now that workplaces are reopening after the pandemic, many companies are trying to figure out how to effectively address burnout. One of the most meaningful actions we can take as leaders is to set the tone at the top that it's not only OK to take a break but that it's encouraged. Leave loudly by telling your team you're signing off or using a Slack emoji to show that you're offline. These seemingly small signals go a long way in promoting healthy work-life integration.

The most important thing we can do as leaders is recognize that our tone can shift the energy in the room (or Zoom). That doesn't mean you need to be a cheerleader every day – you're only human, after all – but it should serve as a reminder that your words carry weight. So when possible, choose them intentionally.

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Critical Skills for Tomorrow’s Leaders: 7 Tips to Prepare the Next Generation



Future generations will face unprecedented challenges stemming from climate change, globalization, and fast-paced technological innovation. The coronavirus pandemic and its resulting economic slowdown have given us a glimpse of what’s to come if we fail to act. We are tasked with the duty of preparing resilient, dynamic, and sharp leaders who can achieve the impossible. 

Leadership demands a well-rounded skill set that encourages, inspires, and empowers the masses to take the initiative and seize opportunities. Leaders are changemakers who identify problems and formulate solutions to create productive environments for others to succeed. 

Here are some crucial skills that define leadership mindsets in today’s world: 

  • Strategic negotiation 
  • Communication and coordination
  • Accountability and discipline 
  • Self-development 
  • Growth-focused mindset 
  • Agility and improvisation
  • Strategic thinking and implementation
  • Work ethics 
  • Civic-mindedness and team development 
  • Optimism and innovation 

How can we help future generations develop these skills and emerge as dynamic and savvy leaders? Keep reading to explore seven strategies to cultivate resilient and influential leaders. 

1. Prioritizing Education & Learning 

Education and academic advancement are the cornerstones of personal and professional development. Leaders are critical thinkers with a well-rounded skill set stemming from academic excellence, analytical reasoning, and cognitive strength. The road to leadership actualization is a path of continual learning. The learning process never ends because leaders must stay on top of innovations and inventions, inspiring their teams with their dedication. 

Leaders are grounded in learning experiences that help them develop financial, interpersonal, and communicational skills. Their education isn’t limited to their academic fields. Instead, they are constantly exploring disciplines that make them savvy conversationalists and thinkers. Aspiring leaders are advised to pursue online short courses for leaders to develop a growth-focused mindset. 

The e-learning infrastructure has made the pursuit of education incredibly flexible and convenient. Aspirants no longer have to pay hefty fees or carve out time to attend classes in person. Online courses and certifications allow young professionals to combine their work and learning without overwhelming efforts. 

2. Internships & Volunteering 

After completing their education, students and young professionals who enter the workforce often struggle to fit in and set goals. In contrast, students who prioritize internships and volunteer programs alongside their education have more experience and exposure. Their exposure to real-world scenarios and workplace challenges allows them to set and achieve pragmatic goals. 

Leaders begin early and focus on building experience and expertise. They actively seize opportunities to learn, discover, acquire skills and refine their talents. Signing up for internships and volunteer programs is an excellent trick to cultivate leadership abilities. 

3. Building Mentorship Relations 

It’s crucial to find mentors at school, work, and social environments to cultivate a leadership mindset. Mentors hone and refine our skills, encouraging us to surpass our challenges and emerge victorious in chasing our goals. They show us the path to achieve personal and professional growth, allowing us to learn from their examples. 

A mentor could be anyone –a parent, a teacher, college professor, manager, or executive leader. Mentors are great listeners and excellent teachers, and they hold us accountable for our work ethic and discipline. 

4. Reading Literature & Gaining Knowledge  

We’ve all seen book lists recommended by savvy world leaders, such as Barack Obama, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates. Students and young professionals peruse books recommended by leaders to cultivate skills and enjoy similar success. Reading is an incredibly healthy habit that expands the narrow confines of our mind, allowing us to think big. 

It’s crucial to set reading goals and complete at least 12 books each year. Many aspirants set ambitious goals, aiming to read around 50-100 books a year. It’s wise to set realistic goals and try to read as much as you can. 

5. Seizing Opportunities

Leaders are known for taking the initiative to seize opportunities with their will and dedication to succeed. They understand the value of capturing opportunities and taking initiatives to challenge the status quo. They often fill up their plates with overwhelming tasks and bend over backward to deliver results. Aspiring leaders must actively seize opportunities and ask their superiors for more responsibility. 

Undoubtedly, to thrive in today’s dynamic landscape, keeping a watchful eye on lucrative opportunities is imperative to continued success. 

6. Mindset Makeover 

Leadership demands a mindset makeover that compels you to believe in your ability to achieve your goals. Leaders have a ‘can do’ mindset, and they never say no to challenges and obstacles. Instead, they jump headfirst into challenges, diffusing obstacles with their resilience and critical thinking abilities. 

A mindset makeover is essential to instill confidence and muster the dedication and discipline it takes to emerge as a leader. One cannot mold into a leader in a day. It takes years of learning, dedication, commitment, and accountability to achieve one’s goals. 

7. Venture Outside Your Comfort Zone 

Leaders do not have a comfort zone. They are constantly challenging themselves with insurmountable odds, building their resilience and sharpening their skills. Leaders live for the thrill of the challenge. With every new obstacle, they surpass their abilities to solve problems and deal with conflicts. 

It doesn’t take much to venture outside your comfort zone. A long and exhausting trek deep into the mountains will challenge you physically and mentally. Taking up more responsibilities and increasing your workload will help you build discipline and resilience. Venturing outside your comfort zone will help you cultivate patience, discipline, and steadfastness. 


Building leadership skills is a continual journey of learning, self-development, and improvement. Leaders don’t stop to marvel at their success. Instead, they keep setting bigger goals and achieving them with strategic planning and tactful implementation. They actively seize opportunities to learn, grow and improve.

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Lessons on Resilience for Small and Midsize Businesses



The Covid-19 crisis exposed stark differences in the fortunes of different small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Well-capitalized startups have weathered the storm better than cash-poor community businesses; manufacturers of PPE equipment have experienced unprecedented demand while hospitality venues have been shuttered; and digitally enabled retailers have been able to shift delivery and customer services online, pivoting into entirely new business models. While the overall shock to SMBs has been serious, some have survived, and even thrived. It’s not too late for others to adopt the practices that made those SMBs successful in such a tumultuous environment.

In April, the OECD estimated that, across 32 countries, 70 to 80% of SMBs had experienced a drop in revenue of between 30 and 50%. Larger businesses have been slightly less hard-hit as a group, but the pandemic amplified a divergence between leading companies and the rest. In the U.S., the revenue of companies in the top decile by economic profit was flat between the third quarters of 2019 and 2020, while revenue for other companies declined by 11%.

Many of the actions taken by the most effective large companies are mirrored (albeit on a smaller scale) by higher-performing SMBs. Leading firms in both size categories had the financial resilience, organizational capabilities, and strategic focus to continue to invest and adapt throughout the crisis. Most notably, they accelerated digitization, including automation and shifts to online channels and remote or hybrid work; reorganized and reskilled for operational efficiency; and became more agile, increasing the pace of both product and business model innovation.

Such transformations could potentially produce a period of rapid economic progress once the crisis abates. Recent McKinsey Global Institute research found that productivity growth could be accelerated by 1% annually until 2024 in the U.S. and six large European economies. However, this upside can only be captured if demand growth is robust; the productivity-enhancing actions that leading firms take are replicated across the rest of the business population; and governments, companies, and individuals alike invest in their skills (in particular, skills for the future).

Whether due to future waves of the pandemic or other forces, there is likely to be some further economic turbulence ahead. Here are a few lessons leaders of small to medium-sized businesses can take from companies that have been successful during the crisis.

Deeper digital capability

The world of business has, of course, been moving online for a while. Pre-pandemic, more than 80% of SMBs in the U.S. and Europe had a company website, and more than two-thirds had some employees working via mobile devices, according to European Commission data and a 2019 survey by the National Small Business Association. Social distancing, lockdowns, and remote delivery during the pandemic catapulted many businesses much deeper into digital: Cloud-based solutions, video communications, and online sales have become commonplace.

The businesses that have leveraged digital the most are those that already had digital experience. One survey found that SMBs that had previously adopted software tools were nearly 30% more likely to have implemented new technology since the crisis began. These organizations already had the confidence and capability to go through the often challenging implementation journey. In particular, they had learned that digitization is not a magic wand — it’s powerful only when integrated with people and processes.

Consider Blue Bay Travel, an award-winning travel agency based in Stoke-On-Trent, England. By 2019, just a year after upgrading its digital and data infrastructure, the company’s sales had increased by 71%. While technology — in this case, a state-of-the-art reporting suite — was integral to its success, so were two other ingredients: a restructuring of its marketing organization and an entirely new set of skills to analyze and interpret data.

With the external push of the Covid-19 crisis, now is the ideal time for SMBs to regroup and identify the areas where digital technology could further boost their business. Basic as it sounds, it’s likely to set them apart from competition. Indeed, in an Enterprise Research Centre survey conducted in September and November 2020, most SMBs in the UK said they weren’t planning to make further technology investments in the near term. This is in stark contrast to our survey of executives from larger companies, where 75% reported that they would further accelerate technology investment in the next five years.

Balancing remote and real life

Working from home and interacting virtually with customers has been a mixed blessing for businesses. While plenty of research suggests that both practices can drive productivity gains on average, the results very much depend on the individual circumstances. For example, remote employees’ ability to work efficiently is determined not just by the appropriate space, tools, and environment, but also by the effectiveness and flexibility of work scheduling.

In principle, SMBs have an advantage here: With fewer layers between leadership and frontline workers and fewer corporate policies, it should be possible for managers to find tailored approaches for their teams. Indeed, 44% of SMBs in the UK that have some flexible working practices expect to increase this activity over the next 12 months. This, in turn, is likely to significantly increase engagement and satisfaction and subsequently business performance; up to 30% of office workers say that they would consider leaving their current job if not given the opportunity to work from home at least some of the time.

Online organic skincare school Formula Botanica has experienced these challenges and opportunities firsthand. Its business model has employees working in far-flung locations from Brazil to Slovakia. As the company has grown, it has had to work hard to maintain levels of energy and motivation among people working alone at home. In addition to recruiting people who are passionate about the business and its values, the company has put in place some basic but effective people practices to stay connected.

Each staff member has a line manager who holds regular one-on-ones with employees. More importantly, there’s a culture of “checking in” to make sure employees are okay. The company operates a day-to-day channel on Slack, where everyone says good morning and farewell on their working days. This means that even if employees’ working hours overlap with others’ only slightly, they end up chatting and sharing pictures and birthday messages and connecting on a personal level.

Since Formula Botanica’s staff is primarily made up of working mothers, the company has also made flexibility a priority. Employees choose the hours they want to work, helping them feel in control of their work-life balance. And whenever someone needs more flexibility, even on short notice, management has an open door for those conversations. These ways of working have proven instrumental in maintaining high performance throughout the crisis. But they also confer a significant longer-term advantage: staff satisfaction, loyalty, and productivity.

Skills transitions and recruiting

SMBs have traditionally faced more challenges than large businesses in attracting the best and most diverse talent. This can be a drag on management capability, innovation, and growth. For example, research has found that a higher workforce share of science and engineering graduates is associated with more new-to-market products and greater external cooperation. Similarly, businesses with highly diverse leadership are 70% likelier to report that the firm captured a new market than their less-diverse counterparts.

Yet, by implementing the flexibility advantages described — and often a purpose-driven ethos — smaller companies need not be shy about competing for talent against larger enterprises. This is the recent experience of Lux Afrique, a luxury concierge business. Despite scarcity of IT staff in general, the company managed to attract top performers to support its digital transformation by making flexibility a core part of its employee value proposition. Many organizations remain vague about their post-pandemic remote work setup. In contrast, at Lux Afrique, remote work is fully integrated into the day-to-day experience. For example, all work is managed via a platform called, which allows everyone — remote or not — to see what’s happening, schedule their work efficiently, and even automate repetitive tasks.

Of course, it’s not enough to recruit talented people: They also need training and development and attractive career paths. Smaller businesses have historically been less predisposed to focus on these practices, but as the experience of global luggage delivery service Send My Bag shows, people development brings real rewards. The company has three-year progression plans for staff that outline the levels they can work up to and the subsequent pay increases they’ll see. The approach has been so successful that only one person has left the organization in the past two years.

Finally, with the demands of the workplace continuing to shift, businesses of all sizes are likely to face skills shortages. Rather than just looking outside to recruit new people, many SMBs would benefit from upskilling their existing staff — McKinsey research finds that the benefits could outweigh the costs in three-quarters of cases. Jessica Keir, the Operations Director of Newcastle-based car finance broker Refused Car Finance, agrees: “Providing staff members with a training budget and allocated time to step away from their daily workload to learn something new does not only boost the feeling of value within your staff, but it also impacts profits. When our employees feel supported, they work more efficiently and to a higher standard, which all contributes to the success of our business.”

Agility and innovation

Agility has been key to success, or even survival, during the pandemic. But stability and resilience were the hallmarks of high-performing businesses in the previous major upheaval: the global financial crisis of 2008. How can small and medium-sized businesses achieve both?

If the past is any guide to the future, the answer is two-fold. First, plot your post-pandemic course with potential future crises in mind. Even if the volatility caused by Covid-19 caught you off guard, don’t let that happen the next time a shock arrives. For example, find an operating model that will allow you to quickly scale the business down and up again, or build optionality into your business plan to make such flexing feasible. And, if you don’t already have one in place, articulate and embed a purpose and values that can outlast a crisis.

In March 2020, and in each subsequent lockdown, up to 95% of Dunsters Farm’s customers — schools, restaurants, and catering facilities — closed overnight. To survive, it built an online food delivery business serving customers at home. As the UK emerges from Covid-19 restrictions, the company plans to continue its consumer business, with a specialized gift delivery service. In both its B2C and B2B offerings, it’s now better positioned to cater to customers who increasingly prefer locally sourced produce.

Second, expand the organization’s innovation capacity. Amid what economists call “creative destruction,” this really is a business’s only source of long-term advantage. In our survey, more than 60% of SMBs said that they were planning to increase the rate of product and business model innovation post-pandemic.

For SMBs, external collaborations are particularly important for building an innovation advantage. Staying close to customers’ experiences, engaging with suppliers, empowering staff, and joining local business networks are all powerful sources of new, practical ideas, as well as support. The participant feedback from Be the Business’ programs is clear: SMBs draw the most inspiration — and performance improvements — by interacting with and learning from their peers.

Despite unprecedented challenges, many SMBs around the world have shown remarkable resilience and capacity to reinvent themselves. Now is the time to take inspiration from businesses that have thrived and to build resilience for the future. SMBs that heed the lessons from this crisis are well positioned to weather the next one.

Note: All case studies quoted in this article are based on small or medium-sized businesses (SMBs) working with Be the Business, a charity based in the UK that enables SMB performance improvements through advocacy, mentoring, education, networks, and advice. One of the authors sits on the Be the Business Board of Trustees.


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Growing a Business

Don’t Let Employees Pick Their WFH Days



It’s clear that as the U.S. economy reopens after Covid precautions that many organizations will be pursuing a hybrid future in which employees work from the office some days and at home on other days. While some managers may be inclined to let employees choose their schedule, the author recommends not pursuing this approach for two reasons. First, is the challenge in managing a hybrid team, which can generate an office in-group and a home out-group. The second concern is the risk to diversity. Current surveys show that younger women with children at home are most likely to want to work from home permanently. The author’s previous research found that WFH employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to their office colleagues. The best solution is for managers to decide which days their team should WFH and which days everyone should be in the office.

As U.S. states and the federal government start to roll back Covid-19 restrictions, and companies and workers start to firm up their office return plans, one point is becoming clear: The future of working from home (WFH) is hybrid. In research with my colleagues Jose Maria Barrero and Steven J. Davis, as well as discussions with hundreds of managers across different industries, I’m finding that about 70% of firms, from tiny companies to massive multinationals like Google, Citi, and HSBC, plan to move to some form of hybrid working.

But another question is controversial: How much choice should workers have in the matter?

On the one hand, many managers are passionate that their employees should determine their own schedule. We’ve been surveying more than 30,000 Americans monthly since May 2020 and our research data shows that post-pandemic, 32% of employees say they never want to return to working in the office. These are often employees with young kids, who live in the suburbs, for whom the commute is painful and home can be rather pleasant. At the other extreme, 21% tell us they never want to spend another day working from home. These are often young single employees or empty nesters in city center apartments.

Given such radically different views it seems natural to let them choose. One manager told me “I treat my team like adults. They get to decide when and where they work, as long as they get their jobs done.

But others raises two concerns — concerns, which after talking to hundreds of organizations over the last year, have led me to change my advice from supporting to being against employees’ choosing their own WFH days.

One concern is managing a hybrid team, where some people are at home and others are at the office. I hear endless anxiety about this generating an office in-group and a home out-group. For example, employees at home can see glances or whispering in the office conference room but can’t tell exactly what is going on. Even when firms try to avoid this by requiring office employees to take video calls from their desks, home employees have told me that they can still feel excluded. They know after the meeting ends the folks in the office may chat in the corridor or go grab a coffee together.

The second concern is the risk to diversity. It turns out that who wants to work from home after the pandemic is not random. In our research we find, for example, that among college graduates with young children women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men.

This is worrying given the evidence that working from home while your colleagues are in the office can be highly damaging to your career. In a 2014 study I ran in China in a large multinational we randomized 250 volunteers into a group that worked remotely for four days a week and another group that remained in the office full time. We found that WFH employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to their office colleagues. This huge WFH promotion penalty chimes with comments I’ve heard over the years from managers. They often confided that home-based employees in their teams get passed over on promotions because they are out of touch with the office.

Adding this up you can see how allowing employees to choose their WFH schedules could contribute to a diversity crisis. Single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, who choose to WFH for several days each week are held back. This would be both a diversity loss and a legal time bomb for companies.

So I have changed my mind and started advising firms that managers should decide which days their team should WFH. For example, if the manager picks WFH on Wednesday and Friday, everyone would come in on the other days. The only exceptions should be new hires, who should come in for an extra office day each week for their first year in order to bond with other new recruits.

Of course, firms that want to efficiently use their office space will need to centrally manage which teams come in on which days. Otherwise, the building will be empty on Monday and Friday — when everyone wants to WFH — and overcrowded mid-week. To encourage coordination, companies should also make sure that teams that often work together have at least two days of overlap in the office.

The pandemic has started a revolution in how we work, and our research shows this can make firms more productive and employees happier. But like all revolutions this is difficult to navigate, and firms need leadership from the top to ensure their work force remains diverse and truly inclusive.


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