Be More Podcast: Vulnerability in the Workplace with Rand Fishkin

In this episode we’re joined by Rand Fishkin, a co-founder and CEO at SparkToro, to reveal the importance of vulnerability in the workplace.

Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week we’re joined by Rand Fishkin, a Co-Founder & CEO at SparkToro, to reveal the importance of vulnerability in the workplace.

Being vulnerable is no easy feat. Historically, we’ve been lead to believe that it’s a sign of weakness, but that perception is changing. As Rand Fishkin sees it, being comfortable enough in a workplace to be vulnerable, and then taking that next step in actually sharing your vulnerabilities is incredibly brave.

"When people feel safe being vulnerable in a team environment, they don’t have to be individual champions. That [whole] team performs well."

Rand Fishkin

Rand Fishkin has founded multiple successful businesses, and navigated their growth as CEO. Rand has also authored a book, “Lost and Founder,” which is a transparent, personal, and candid story based on his experience as a startup founder.

If you want to learn about what prevents people from being more vulnerable in the workplace, and what we can all do to change this, then tune in, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

Key Takeaways

  • Rand’s Background:
    Rand dropped out of college in 2001 and started working with his mom, Jillian, who was the co-founder of the well-respected software company Moz. In 2018, Rand became the co-founder of another successful software business named SparkToro.

  • The Inspiration Behind the Book: Lost and Founder:
    The book covers Rand’s personal and professional background while also exploring topics such as mental state, emotions at work, and business challenges. Rand wanted to share his story while also bringing these topics more focus in the modern world of work.

  • Rand’s Perspective of Vulnerability as a CEO:
    It can be very difficult for us to share and be vulnerable sometimes, as Rand explains in a personal story from his time as CEO of Moz. In 2012, his wife discovered that she had a brain tumor. Understandably, Rand was severely affected by this, and that personal strife influenced his work negatively. He was transparent with the team about his situation and felt a great deal of support from them. For Rand, vulnerability is a sign of power for people within a company. Senior management should create an environment where team members feel safe and trust each other in a culture that allows them to express their vulnerabilities. That opportunity to share personal difficulties is essential to an inclusive workplace.
  • What’s preventing vulnerability in the workplace?
    Rand states that vulnerability is not a part of our cultural experience. People didn’t grow up in a society that promoted a psychologically-safe environment and encouraged vulnerability. We often treat it as a sign of weakness. But Rand believes that things will change, and people will learn to accept vulnerability more readily.


Patrick Cournoyer: This season has been focused on wellbeing. I have been incredibly impressed with the stories from our guests about how a focus on their individual wellbeing has directly affected their personal and professional lives in meaningful ways. Wellbeing is a common focus point for many people within an organization, but one place that is not regularly prioritized is within the senior management teams specifically with C-level executives, especially with CEOs.

Rand Fishkin has founded multiple successful businesses and has navigated their growth as CEO. Randy has also authored a book titled lost and founder, which is a transparent, personal, and candidly honest story of his experiences. I asked Randy to join the conversation today and discuss personal wellbeing, specifically the concept of vulnerability in the workplace, particularly in the role of CEO.

Rand, thank you for joining the conversation today.

Rand Fishkin: Patrick. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Patrick: Awesome. We’ve got a lot to talk about today. Let’s start out by telling the audience a bit about you and your background.

Rand: Sure. I let’s see, I dropped out of college in 2001 and started working with my mom, Jillian, who was my co-founder at what originally was just a blog and then became a consultancy and then became the software company, Moz. Many folks in the digital marketing space may know Moz is a reasonably successful and venture backed couple hundred people, has done a few acquisitions of other companies in the digital marketing space, and is one of the big SEO software providers.

I was CEO of that company up until 2014, spent a couple of years, a few years after that, then left in 2018 and started a new company SparkToro, which provides audience research software. That has been a very different adventure. It’s not venture-backed. It’s just myself and a co-founder. We’re keeping it very small and lean. We launched our product about a year ago and so far so good.

As you mentioned, I wrote this book Lost and Founder, and that came out in 2018 as well and has been, also a reasonably nice continual seller in the business book world. I think a lot of the things you talk about, vulnerability transparency, trying to build a company culture, trying to get to know yourself better and bring your values to work, try and deal with all of the challenges of scaling a team and company, and management. That’s what the book’s about.

Patrick: Rand, what inspired you to write the book? I’m curious because it’s an amazing book, by the way, your being; you’re very modest about it. It’s a brilliant book and I’m not the only one that thinks. I think that there’s been a lot of reviews on it about being very helpful, as I said, very honest, candid, and quite interesting to hear about your experience in it. What was your inspiration to write it?

RandLost and Founder is essentially an attempt to scale up a bunch of conversations that I almost always had myself having with folks like yourself and other entrepreneurs and founders and people who work in tech, world marketing world, modern business world. Whenever you get together for a coffee or you go out for Tai and have these amazing talks about things that you rarely discuss with anyone in your life, other than, another founder or another person experiencing these, these challenges. Talks about your mental state, emotions and the challenges of building up a team in the– and problems that come from companies growing, and the demands of a capitalist environment that wants growth at all costs. Those sorts of discussions just rarely happen.

I wanted to take the 12 or 15 topics that we always seem to come up with again and turn those into a series of stories and research and analysis, maybe some takeaways and lessons. A lot of the people who’ve reviewed the book basically said, “Hey, hearing the story and the anecdote, knowing that I’m not alone, that made me feel great.” Then some people have the alternative perspective, which is like, “Oh, the stories are okay,” but I really appreciate the research that’s gone into this book and the analysis of, “Hey, this story isn’t just me. Here’s how it affects the broader field.”

Patrick: Those stories are the, one of the aspects of the book that’s so appealing. There’s a few stories in there. One that I would really like to talk to you about today because of this idea of vulnerability. I work with a number of executives at organizations, CEOs, and it’s been interesting over the past 10 years of working with CEOs, seeing how their focus has opened up a bit and the allowance of being a bit more focused on their own individual wellbeing.

Most senior executives are primarily focused on their teams, people, and their own wellbeing, or their focus on their own wellbeing has always been secondary a lot of times, even tertiary. Especially, as a CEO, because not only is a CEO focused on their whole team’s wellbeing there, they’re also focused on their senior leadership team’s wellbeing. They may sometimes come third or fourth from an individual perspective.

The past year and a half has taught us from a people perspective, how important it is to focus on our own individual wellbeing. Leading by example in that area. Beyond that wellbeing is this concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability, I personally believe is strength. It’s a very important strength for any person in an organization, but particularly with the CEO, but not everyone feels that way. A lot of CEOs feel that vulnerability is a significant weakness or showing vulnerability as a significant weakness.

First, let’s start with your perspective on vulnerability from the CEO’s lens because for some people it’s very different how they view their own personal individual vulnerability versus being vulnerable as the leader of an organization.

What is your perspective on vulnerability as a CEO?

Rand: Look, the demands of the CEO role are quite different in a company like SparkToro, where it’s Casey and myself and we run the show and we get to do what we want. Whatever is our passion. If you’re the CEO of Workday, which is a public company, or of Moz, which is a private company, but it’s venture-backed and hopes to someday have an exit, it’s a different story. It’s a really different story. It’s a very different story, depending on who you are in that CEO role. Guys that look like you and me were white dudes, where were the right age, where the right gender, where the right sexuality, where we’re from the right places. We look the part; we get to have a lot more privilege to be whoever we want to be. However, we want to be.

Man, if you’re a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you don’t fit the stereotype of classic CEO fuel will receive a very different experience from being transparent and vulnerable and open with yourself and how you feel and how you treat people, than if people like you and I do it. Look, man, I have a lot of empathy and respect for CEOs who I strongly disagree with. Strongly disagree with how they bring their authentic selves to work or don’t. I still have empathy and respect for the fact that some of that is cultural and societal demands. Some of that is their own level of comfort and their perceived team’s level of comfort.

I can tell you very honestly, from my experiences at Moz being transparent and vulnerable; I thought it was great, right? Like I love to be that person. I want to bring my whole authentic self to work. Do I think that there were team members and executives and parts of the company that lost faith in me and thought that I was not a successful or acceptable leader because of it? Heck, yes. It comes at a price.

Patrick: Let’s talk about that. There’s this moment in the book where you talk about taking this pretty significant leap and showing this really honest vulnerability in front of the whole company. Can you tell us a bit about that experience and what was going on there?

Rand: Experience, which I wrote about was I think almost a universally positive one and for several reasons. This is for folks who haven’t read the book, my wife Geraldine got a brain tumor. I can’t remember exactly the year that it was diagnosed, but I think it was maybe 2011, 2012, somewhere around there. I’ve always been a very transparent person with everything that’s going on in my life. Of course, this is one of the bigger things that’s ever happened.

Brain cancer is super scary, it’s very hard to operate on, five-year survival rates are not great, all this stuff. I was a wreck. I was a mess. I went into work, and I just couldn’t keep it together and do my day-to-day job. I just made an announcement to the whole company, and I was like, “Hey, can we just all get together?” There were only about 40 of us at the time. A really good size in terms of you have personal connections with everybody, you know everybody personally well, you don’t have the tribalism of groups that forms as the company gets bigger or anything like that.

The team all gathers up for five minutes, and I just tell everyone what’s going on and break down a little bit. Right after that, I felt just incredibly supported. The whole team rallied and was like, “Hey, that’s fine. We got this. You don’t have to be CEO for a few weeks if you don’t need to. However long this takes, we’ve got your back so stick with it.” It ended up working out okay. The tumor was a pilocytic astrocytoma, which is a very, very mild form of cancer that barely grows. She got it operated on. The operation was a success. It probably won’t grow back until her 80s or 90s. Anyway, yada, yada.

That felt good and was a great moment of vulnerability and people coming together. It felt like telling a bunch of your friends and having them give you love. That was awesome. That was powerful. The discussions years later that I had around depression or transparency around company performance and layoffs, which happened years later, or around decisions on whatever strategy, or putting people together, or a lot of the disagreements that I had with leadership after I stepped down, that stuff went bad, [chuckles] very, very sideways.

Part of that is scale. As the company got to a couple of 100 people and became a place where not everybody knew everyone else, that certainly was part of it. Also, the culture changes with new leadership and the people we brought onto the team. As you grow, you feel like, “Oh, hey, we need to bring in, not just people that work well with our culture, but people who have done this before and scaled businesses like this. Let’s bring in the pros.” I’m not going to do that again. That’s not for me. Or “Hey, you need to make billions of dollars.” I get it, whatever, but I’m not playing that game.

Patrick: How did that, that moment where you, I’m assuming, maybe I shouldn’t assume this, but I’m assuming that was not planned when you were going through a conversation with your team as far as–

Rand: In fact, Geraldine, my wife, was pissed. She was like, “You are supposed to run stuff like that by me. I don’t want to find out from your employees that you–” [chuckles]

Patrick: I can imagine. I think a key factor here is that, or a key point here is that vulnerability is not always something that is planned or that can be planned or that also can be controlled in a lot of ways. Why vulnerability can be an uncomfortable spot for people, particularly with senior leadership is because a lot of times it is a bit uncontrolled and it’s a bit unplanned.

Rand: People don’t feel safe.

Patrick: Exactly, yes.

Rand: The whole idea of, “I can be vulnerable and not experience negative consequences from that vulnerability,” that is a rare and unique privilege. It is a phenomenal predictor of teams that perform well. All sorts of people have done research on this, but Google is one of the most notable ones where they put out all this data around, what are the best performing teams?

Well, they must have the best engineers. No, they don’t. Well, they must have a high prediction of– They did other things that passed successfully. No, they don’t. All right, what correlates? Psychological safety. Wait, what’s that? [chuckles] When people feel safe being vulnerable in a team environment, they don’t have to be individual champions or amazing. That team performs well, Patrick.

Patrick: That’s right.

Rand: This is truly rare. After I stepped down as CEO, probably within a few months, I no longer felt that psychological safety. It was very easy for me to see how people that I’d worked with probably had never felt it.

Patrick: That’s very thoughtful to say because this concept of psychological safety is so critical and how important it is for people to experience that to feel safe and how quickly that can be taken away or that can be lost. It’s very difficult to regain or to build confidence in that area again. There’s so many organizations right now who are focused on empowering leaders in how to create that type of environment because it’s hard to get, it’s hard to maintain. The hardest part of it all is when you lose it is trying to get it back. A lot of times it’s almost impossible to do so.

Rand: Yes, it feels like it is almost impossible. I’ve reflected on the fact that as a board member, for example, at Moz. I think I was the one creating a not psychologically safe environment for the CEO that followed me. How do you fix that? I had to step down, so I stepped off the board. We put new people on the board and filled my seat technically because it’s technically a proxy board member. This is the only way to do it. You have to have new people who don’t have the baggage of history, who don’t have the weight that comes with broken relationships and broken trust.

When you read the story of Timnit Gebru at Google or something who’s become now infamous for being the AI researcher who was fired, you look at that situation and you go, “There was no way to create psychological safety on that team other than to have Jeff Dean and the whole senior crew just leave.” No. I can’t. I can’t think of a way to repair those types of relationships, especially not in the short term, especially in a professional environment. Once that trust is lost, I don’t think you ever completely get it back.

Patrick: Along those lines, a few minutes ago, we were talking about how organizations are focused right now on empowering leaders to create a safe space, to create a trusting environment, but also to create vulnerability within teams and transparency within teams. What do you think is stopping more leaders from being vulnerable in front of their teams? We’ve talked a bit about this fear of maybe losing some respect, maybe depending on the dynamics of the team, but what do you think are some of the factors that prevent leaders, and we can go beyond leaders, just people being vulnerable in their workspace?

Rand: I don’t know about you, Patrick, or our listeners, for sure. I can tell you that in the environments that I was raised in, family at home, school, friend groups, after-school activities, college, early jobs, et cetera, this was never familiar or talked about or a part of our cultural experience. As a society, I don’t think we had this concept of, we should create psychologically safe environments for people as they grow up, and we should let them be vulnerable, and we should encourage that vulnerability.

I think it’s even less true for men than it is for women. that men are essentially encouraged and told that we are to keep our feelings and our emotions to ourselves. Even as a grown-up, I’m 40 now; I feel like I can be whoever I want to be. Even still, I find myself, well, yes, this part of this movie is emotional and sad. I’m getting choked up inside, but I shouldn’t cry. I can’t let myself be seen because why am I doing that? Because of what? I’m worried that someone will think I’m weak because I watched a Pixar movie? It’s ridiculous. This is how we were raised; this is the environment we were raised in.

If you ask me, what do I think is the biggest contributing factor in stopping leaders and executives and people in the business world, I think it is that we have not grown up in a society, in a culture, and environments that trained us to think in these pathways. It is very difficult to take– The vast majority of American CEOs at larger companies are white dudes over the age of 50. You want to talk about a very difficult-to-change portion of the population. It is hard to get those people to change.

Even when they believe in innovation, cultural change, personal change, self-reflection, hiring, and encouraging their team members to do these kinds of things, that is just a really, really difficult step. What I want to believe, Patrick, is that we’re starting down this path that our generation and the generations to come are starting this conversation and process and that in the future there will be psychologically safe environments as a rule rather than an exception.

It’s something that people will work on and toward, and they won’t just work on it in their teams at their companies, they’ll work on it in schools and with their kids at home, and then the next generation will be easier for them. Then people will feel more comfortable being more vulnerable and transparent and open about how they feel. Then we can have a lot of healthier conversations and we can do our best work. This is what I hope.

Patrick: You have a point around how incentives drive or it has to start somewhere. We’re talking a lot about outcome and the focus at the start.

Rand: A big part of this is just long-term health of an organization. the happiness and productivity of team members who join that organization and can potentially stay with it for a long period of time and have a great experience there, versus the current business climate, which to hear most people join, now, joining many companies over the course of their lives for a few years at a stretch. Sometimes it’s as little as one or two. I think Silicon Valley’s startups have like a less than 13-month average or something like that tenure as opposed to historically–

My dad was at Boeing from the time he was 25 or 26 until he retired 35 years later. That was his whole career boom, one company, he got his pension and he’s done. That’s exceedingly rare. That doesn’t happen. If we can build organizations where, “Hey, Patrick, come join SparkToro. Come work with us. You’re going to be here for 10 years or more. You expect that it’s going to be this extraordinary experience,” versus “I’m going to go work at this company. It’s going to be a little bit of a nightmare. Hopefully, I’ll make enough money to justify the nightmare that I will experience.”

That’s the change. That’s the big picture change that I think creates the incentives for leadership and management, not just to say, “Gosh, I want to build a psychologically safe environment because it is healthy and good, but because my financial incentives are aligned with the outcomes that a psychologically safe environment creates. Now we’re talking about potential real change throughout an organization and throughout hundreds of thousands of organizations.

Patrick: Rand, the episode has gone quickly because I could talk with you for another couple of hours. I do think we need to schedule another conversation specifically around this.

Rand: I will say, Patrick, I think that when conversations like this happen and you get into systemic issues and you get into individual tactical level stuff and you share stories and anecdotes and data. You open people’s minds up to considering all of these varied inputs and to having a little bit more empathy. A CEO who’s listening might have more empathy for themselves and their team and the incentives that they are connected to and for the people who have worked for them and well, I hope that’s the case.

Likewise, I hope someone who’s deeply embedded in an organization and has never even talked to their CEO, can also have empathy for what that experience is like and why those incentives govern their behavior, and how that affects the rest of their organization. I love being able to dissect a big picture and make it transparent. I don’t know if you read my old SEO blog, but the whole thing was like, “Here’s how Google works, and here’s why they do it that way.” I think this is how a lot of people learn: they figure out the big picture and the tactical level, and then they’re like, “Oh, I get it, now it makes sense.” I hope that’s the case.

Patrick: I share that with you because Peakon has been very focused on transparency since day one and understanding the “why” behind things and people are empowered with understanding the “why,” not just “what” or the “how.” I agree with you on that.

Randy, we do have to wrap the conversation up, but first off, thank you for spending some time with me today for sharing your story and your transparency and vulnerability with your story. I very much appreciate that.

I know the audience will love to hear some of the specific viewpoints on some of the reasons why vulnerability is a struggle in the workplace and this concept of a focus on understanding the core reasons and the root causes of that and focus and working on that. The name of the book is Lost and Founder, where can people find the book? I definitely know about Amazon. It’s a great place.

Rand: Definitely on Amazon. Although, if you want it to support someone like IndieBound, yes. You get it from your local bookstore.

Patrick: Excellent.

Rand: I and the whole publishing world would love that.

Patrick: Very good. Excellent. We love to hear that and how can people find your blog? You have a great blog on SparkToro.

Rand: Yes. It’s just; and I put out about a post a week often on marketing topics, but sometimes entrepreneurship and tech and data and all that stuff. Then if you want to hear me rant more about the systemic issues that affect our workplaces, I do that a lot on Twitter where I’m @Randfish.

Patrick: Yes. Everybody will be able to find you. We’ll also link some things to the blog post as well. Rand, thank you for spending time with me today. Thank you for your story. We will, I’m sure, have maybe a future conversation and a future episode.

Rand: I’m very excited to join up, Patrick.

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