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Leading with Vulnerability

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Leading with Vulnerability

An unexpected bump in the road changed how this remodeler looks at life and leadership

By Jef Forward July 19, 2023
Forward Design Build Remodel team photo.
Photo: Forward Design Build Remodel
This article first appeared in the July/Aug 2023 issue of Pro Remodeler.

I founded my company in 1997, and today we have 38 employees.

In 2018, something happened that changed my outlook on life and leadership. We were growing fast and about to implement a system called The Great Game of Business. We’d put in a lot of work and had a consultant in place.

jef forward
Jef Forward

Then my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and she was my priority. Today, she is in full remission, but as a result of that crossroads, I began to lead with more vulnerability. It’s a big practice for me. Here are three ways that I do that.

Show Who You Are

I’m an emotional person. I used to fight it, but today I’m unafraid to show who I am. When we have a new team member, I’ll tell them, “You might see me tear up or choke on some words. But I’m okay.”

I always felt the need to show that I knew where we were going and had all the answers. But it turned out I didn’t need to be that way.

I’ve found that it has an effect on people, not necessarily in that moment, but two months or so down the line. After they witness me doing it, I start to see them opening up about what’s going on in their lives as well.

Give Permission to Fail

When Monica was diagnosed, I asked the team: “Are we still going to do this initiative? Should we scale back business? I need help and want your opinion.”

They wanted to continue and didn’t want to do less.

And so we created a decision tree that helped them take on more responsibility. But, more importantly, we gave people permission to fail and made sure that they felt safe. Previously, I always felt the need to show that I knew where we were going, and had all the answers. I felt it was my job to make everyone feel like there’s a strong captain of the ship. But that all changed. As it turned out, I didn’t need to be that way. We had the best year we’d had in the company’s history.

Lead by Asking Questions

Another area I changed was I stopped telling people what they should have done differently if something went wrong. Instead, I adopted more of a coaching style. I started asking questions like, “What did you learn from this? How would you handle it differently?” It felt much more grounding for them to say it themselves versus me saying it first.

It also felt important in terms of building up the next group of leaders who will eventually either buy the business from me or start their own companies. With that in mind, I concentrated on giving people the opportunity to do new things. It’s a real privilege to be able to lead my team in this way.


Jef Forward is president of Forward Design Build Remodel in Ann Arbor, Mich. 

Comments (2)

  • Submitted by jerry coussens (not verified) on Fri, 11/17/2023 - 09:39


    Like Jeff I'm emotional, like Jeff I have spoken to groups and teared up and now and then broke down and cried (just ask my RAR group). During my talk in the Dale Carnegie course I told the story of when I went to Korea to pickup my adopted daughter, I broke into tears. Later other participants told me after watching me they told a more heart felt story instead of the superficial one they had planed on.
    My only grip with being emotional is I have a story to tell but cant because I'm sobbbing. Very annoying, but I am what I am and try to get my message across in spite of me. Good article Jeff.

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