Within minutes of walking on stage at the iCONIC conference in Chicago on Tuesday, Marcus Lemonis talked about a low point in his life.
In 1991, after he had just finished eighth grade, he weighed 225 pounds, had a terrible eating disorder, struggled as a result of having been molested five years earlier, and didn't have any friends. He continues to have anxiety about socializing to this day, he said, and his biggest fear "is dying alone."
Today, Lemonis is widely known as the turnaround specialist on CNBC's show The Profit. He is also the CEO of Camping World, a recreational-vehicle business he started in 2002, which has grown to 132 stores, 7,000 employees, and close to $3 billion in revenue.
So why did he openly admit his darkest moment and deepest fear to an audience of hundreds of entrepreneurs? "I'm trying to make a connection with you," Lemonis explained. "I figure if I'm vulnerable, if I tell you everything about myself, you'll somehow create a level of connection with me."
Lemonis's hour-long remarks at the conference, which was presented by Inc. and CNBC, were part therapy session, part motivational speech. He implored audience members to stand up and divulge their biggest fears, too.
"In order to run a successful business or be a successful entrepreneur or employee, you have to be vulnerable and transparent," Lemonis made plain.
Open Up to Employees to Build Rapport
In response to Lemonis's request, one woman entrepreneur in the audience stood up and spoke into a handheld microphone. "Since I own the company, I always act like I know everything," she revealed. "I never admit when I don't know something...because I'm afraid I don't know enough to be this person's boss."
Lemonis's response? "I want the people who work for her to also know she feels that way," he said. "Do you know the loyalty she could increase if her staff knew she was scared of that?"
Lemonis followed by asking the audience questions like a preacher in a dialogue with his congregation.
"You think her staff would respect her more?" he asked. A resounding, "Yes!" echoed through the Chicago Theater.
"[Would they] be surprised?" he followed up. The audience responded: "No!"
"Think she's weak?" The audience responded again: "No!"
Open Up and You'll Win Customers
Lemonis further made his point in an exchange with another member of the audience. A 36-year-old pet-food entrepreneur stood up and told the crowd he was continuing to have unresolved family issues from years earlier.
"I still probably deal with childhood stuff on a nightly basis," he said. "My dad left when I was young."
Lemonis's reaction: "I would buy pet food from you now. I would do business with you now, because I feel like we have a connection."