Neil Vogel | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Neil Vogel

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The Mistake:

Before I got here to, my partner and I started the Webby Awards. As a younger person, I cared way too much about whether people liked me or if they thought I was cool. That gets you into very specific situations, particularly when dealing with people and their performance.

Early on, when we were building the business, we had a really good team of people. Then we brought in a very senior person who I liked very much as a person, and who I was concerned wouldn’t like me. But that person was toxic for the organization. That person had bad personality traits, wanted credit for everything, would tell me something very different than what they would tell someone else and was very disrespectful to employees.

Because that person reported to me, I didn’t see all this, and I should have. I had to have known it was going on based on the things I'd seen, and it just went unaddressed. We let that person hang around for too long without my trying to correct bad behaviors or remove that person from the organization, and it was my fault entirely.

It affected the overall performance of the team for probably a year and a half. I was so concerned with not being liked that I didn't deal with it as I should have. It's a little bit like Michael Scott on "The Office" — that's the perfect example of how everything can go wrong if all you care about is people liking you.

Eventually, I got pushed to a point where I decided I didn't care anymore. It was the most freeing thing to ever happen. I have been a completely different manager since then. It wasn't one specific thing, I just realized, "Wait. This is my company. I don't want it to be this way." And I addressed it. We had to get this person out of the organization.

There is a great power in honesty.

The Lesson:

I had to consciously force myself to be honest with people, even when it was uncomfortable, and do it repeatedly, almost like building up a muscle. Now I don’t even think about it. No one can be mad at you for telling the truth — not brutal honesty, in a hurt-your-feelings way, but honesty about expectations. Everyone wants you to be honest and direct. As long as you treat people with respect, they don't want things sugarcoated. 

There is a great power in honesty. If you aren't being honest and telling people what you think is going on, you lose a lot of power as a leader. You lose your mojo. I'm really honest now, as much as I possibly can be. I can be a little blunt and probably a little too challenging. But it is a lot better place to be than not saying what you believe. It allows you to put out into the world what you think is going on, which frees others to put out what they think is going on, and then you get to a better place.

Follow Neil Vogel on Twitter at @neilvogel.

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