MURIEL WILKINS: I am Muriel Wilkins, and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR podcast network. I’m a longtime executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who’ve hit a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them, so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease. I typically work with clients over the course of several months. But on this show, we have a one-time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they’re facing. Today’s guest is someone will call Jules to protect her confidentiality. She works in a cross-functional operations role, and has led a number of teams. She didn’t start out in this industry, but she transitioned into it when she made the leap of taking a role that was hugely confidential. She went through the interview process not really knowing what she’d be working on.
JULES: I found my way into this industry by accepting a job, a very secret job. They wouldn’t tell me what it was. But I thought it was exciting, took the job, and then that actually began my management career. So I was given the opportunity to start managing a team and really absolutely loved it. And I really invested a lot in growing my leadership skills. And since then, I’ve really built my identity and my brand around my ability to grow teams, to grow individuals, to make the teams gel really well together, feeling a sense of trust in community, as well as feeling like they have a sense of purpose by connecting their work to the bigger picture.
MURIEL WILKINS: Jules developed a knack for leadership and, in particular, a reputation for leading and growing teams. It’s something she became quite experienced in and passionate about since she took that first job, and has built her career around it. But times change and companies shift. And as a result, she finds herself in a transition moment.
JULES: Our whole department moved to another part of the company, and then my team is currently potentially shrinking. My role is shrinking. However, the leadership has come to me and said, “We recognize you’re an amazing leader. We want to utilize you more. What do you want to do?”
MURIEL WILKINS: Jules has been given what to many people would be the opportunity of a lifetime, to build her dream role from scratch. She’s proven herself as a leader. But in the midst of a lot of changes at the company, she’s looking for a bit of guidance as to where to even begin defining her new role. So there’s clearly a great opportunity for her here. But I start by asking her why she’s also viewing this as a challenge.
JULES: I haven’t been in a situation quite like this where I feel like I actually hold all the cards. I can essentially negotiate for what I want, within reason. There’s budgets and all those things. But I can essentially ask for almost anything and potentially have it. What do I need to be successful in this role? What do I need to ask for and make sure that I’m getting in terms of support systems, resources, things like that, to ensure my success? Because again, I’ve usually been popped into situations where they’re like, “Here’s what you’ve got, work with what you have.” And in this situation, they really, really need me. So I have an opportunity here. How do I write my role to make sure I’m setting up the right boundaries for myself, that I’m not overextending myself in the future? Because I have limited time and energy. I don’t want to be working all hours of the day and night. So how do I make sure I pre-set up those boundaries? And then how do I make sure I ask for the resources that I need to be successful in this role, to have this role be a sustainable role for me and for my team?
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. You mentioned that you haven’t been in a situation before where you’ve held all the cards. How comfortable are you with that?
JULES: I like it. I can’t say it’s not a fun place to be. It’s a little intimidating because I worry that I won’t ask for enough, right? I will not ask for the moon when I really should be, to making sure that I’m successful. I guess that’s my concern is I haven’t been in this position. I haven’t been at this level before too, so this is also kind of a new operating space for me or operating level, and so I just want to make sure that, it’s like you don’t know what you don’t know kind of thing.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So what would keep you from asking for enough? What would keep you from asking for the moon?
JULES: I think mostly not knowing what this role requires. And as I’m saying that, I’m wondering why don’t I ask the leaders who are trying to put me in this role, what it requires? But I’m actually not sure that they know either, because also they made this mess.
MURIEL WILKINS: Well, it’s a place to start, right?
JULES: That’s true. Yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: Rather than assume that they don’t know. I mean, let me ask you this. How could you find out more or make a better assessment of what the role requires?
JULES: My go-to with these situations is always to kind of fall back to my Bible, which is the first 90 days book, in which basically you do a learning tour. You go around and you ask the same question to people who are boots on the ground. You ask it of people who are higher up. And you try to see if there’s alignment of the information that you’re getting and try to understand the problem space really well. That is generally my go-to strategy and something I would like to do. However, I think in this situation it’s a little different, because I haven’t officially made this role yet, or I haven’t been officially put in this role yet. So I can’t go talk to those people yet, otherwise they’ll be like, “Who are you and why are you talking to me?” And so my ability to gain all this information is a little limited before I jump into it. I may have to actually jump before I can have all that information.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So it’s so interesting to me because this feels very familiar to how you actually joined this company under different circumstances. I mean, you shared with me how… I literally did not know this is where we were going to get to, but you have experience in taking a job and not knowing the details of it, and yet jumping in. And so what made you comfortable doing that the first time around?
JULES: Yeah, that’s a really interesting parallel. And I think at the time, what made me comfortable taking that leap was the people. The hiring manager, I really liked. The people were really humble, and wanted to collaborate and build something great together. The shared sense of purpose was definitely there. And then the company, of course, was again, really highly regarded. So I had a good feeling about it. My instincts were saying, “Yeah, this is a good idea. You should go for it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. What are your instincts saying now?
JULES: They are saying something very similar. I would say, yeah, actually this is probably really a case of the heart versus the brain where my heart is like, “This sounds like a really exciting opportunity. You could totally do this. You’d be great at it.” And then my head’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You don’t know this space very well. You don’t have the expertise that those people do, and you’re not sure you have the resources to get it done. And you’re also promising a lot in a very short amount of time.” So it’s a little bit of that conflict, I guess.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And I don’t even know if it’s your head and your heart that are saying two different things or your brain or your heart. I think it’s just two parts of you that are giving you different perspectives. There’s the one that’s saying, “Go, go, go. This is great. This is exciting. We love doing exciting things. We love doing new things. We love transforming organizations.” And then there’s the other one that’s to a certain extent protecting you or trying to protect you, to say, “But wait a minute now, are you sure you want to do this? It might be messy.” And so it’s not about listening to one versus the other. It’s actually about listening to both. The one that is telling you, “Hey, be careful. What are we doing here?” You’ve got to address the questions that it’s asking, in order to make you feel comfortable either moving forward or not moving forward. Knowing what to ask versus not asking. Okay? So as you called it, the brain part or what I’ll call the protecting part of you, what is it that it’s queuing up as red flags?
JULES: I think two really big ones come to mind. One is what I already mentioned, which is limited time and energy. Especially since the pandemic, and I think this is true of a lot of people, I’m very protective now of my time and energy, because burnout is just knocking at the door it seems all the time. And obviously, I want to sustain my career long term. I don’t want to burn out. And then the other piece I think is one that has plagued me pretty much my entire career, which is this idea that I’m not technical enough. However, I’ve led those types of teams ever since I became a manager. And I’ve always got some person or someone questioning my ability, because I don’t have the same kind of background as the people that I lead. And so that has been an insecurity that I have carried with me and tried to deal with over the years. And I think I’m getting a lot better at it by recognizing the value that I do bring. However, that is just a constantly nagging voice where I’m now going into this new situation where this new team is a completely different function than I’ve ever managed. I do not have their expertise. I don’t have their background. I’ve done a little bit of what they do just by the nature of what my job has required over the years. But again, I don’t have the formal training that they do. So there’s that piece that’s kind of nagging me that I’m trying to manage with my usual, trying to recognize what do I bring. But I’d say those are probably the two big things that are holding me back and causing me to really pause. I’m trying to think about this.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, got you. So kudos to you for recognizing what’s holding you back. Because when you can recognize what’s holding you back, then you can address it. It’s no different than, “What’s keeping me from going on a drive? I don’t have gas in my car. Okay. Well, now I know.” Versus, “I don’t know what’s keeping me from going for a drive. Could be I don’t have a car.” Okay, well now you have to get a car. So extremely important to laser in on what you believe the blockers might be. Because if not, it just feels like there’s just a myriad of blockers, like the whole world is blocking you. It’s just blocking. But in reality, what you’ve been able to focus on is here are the two big ones, the ones who take up the most space in my head, in my heart, who are standing in the way. So now we just have to figure out how do you address them so that they don’t take up as much space?
JULES: When you phrase it that way, it makes a lot of sense. Because when you’re saying it feels like everything is in the way, I think that’s kind of where it goes, where you’ve got these looming things, but then you start spiraling. And it’s like all the other little negative things that are holding you back are also starting to echo in your head. So I think that’s a really interesting visual that popped into my head when you said that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, so we’re just going where the money is. Let’s go where the money is. I remember I had a finance professor when I was in business school, and he was like, “When you want to turn around a company, you got to act like you’re a bank robber.” And we were like, “What?” “You got to go where the money is at the bank.” And so, at a company, you got to find what the biggest problem is if you really want to turn it around. Same with individuals. If there’s something holding you back from what it is that you’re trying to move towards, let’s figure out where the money is. What are the big things, what are the biggest leverage points? And so, you’ve identified them. One is, how am I going to deal with this desire that I have to protect my time and not move towards burnout? And then the second is, how am I going to deal with not being technical enough? Which in a way, if we kind of pull back bigger picture, is really a fancier career-oriented way of saying, “Am I good enough for this role? How do I deal with folks feeling like I might not be good enough and me feeling like I’m not good enough?” Okay?
MURIEL WILKINS: I’m going to offer that we start with the second one, this I’m not technical enough. Because you have shared that this is something that you face consistently.
MURIEL WILKINS: You said that when you faced that, you’ve done a pretty good job of focusing on the value that you do bring. So elaborate on that for me a little bit. What’s the process you go through in the past when you have felt like or somebody questioned your technical knowledge? Did they question your technical knowledge? Is that what would happen?
JULES: It’s not even that they questioned my technical knowledge. It was because my background was so different than theirs, that I didn’t even have their technical knowledge to begin with. They would see my resume or see my background and say, “Well, she’s not an engineer. She can’t lead us. She shouldn’t be in this role.” And so, I remember at this secret company, secret job, which again is not the role I’m in now… This is a different company I’m in right now. But that job, there was an individual who came onto the team about a year after I had joined. And I had already become a manager at that point. And he had it out for me. He bullied me. He talked smack to my team about me all the time and to others, my peers, saying, “She doesn’t have the right background for this role. I should be in her position. I should have her team.” He was relentless for months. I did what I could to go through the proper channels. HR, my manager, blah, blah, blah. Nobody was bold enough to take action for a long time. Finally, they did get him out of that organization, but the damage was already done for me. My confidence was completely shot, and I’m actually getting a little emotional thinking about it at the time. It really rocked me to my core because that was my first leadership role. And to have somebody come in and say, “You’re not good enough,” for this thing that I really, really wanted. I’d been wanting to be a manager and a leader for so long at that point, and nobody had given me a shot until that role. And for somebody to come in and do that just really shook me. So, I was really fortunate to have a lot of support during that time from other people, mentors, and friends, and things like that, that got me through it. And the fact that I continued to be asked to take on leadership and management roles and in new companies as well helped me rebuild my confidence. Being able to see myself successful in leading engineering teams and teams where I didn’t necessarily have the background or the expertise, and see those successes be recognized by others also helped me rebuild my confidence. However, I still have that trauma that kind of follows me around. Now, what’s my process? I think meeting a few mentors who really had the language to define what it is that I was good at. I think what I’ve learned is we have a lot of language for what I would call the hard skills. The engineering, the programming, the stuff that is very quantifiable. But we don’t have a lot of language for what we call the soft skills, or what I call actual people and leadership skills. We don’t use a lot of language around those. And that is language like empathy, and listening, and pausing before you act. So things like that. Building community. Those are terms that are not traditionally used to describe leaders. So learning that those were words that I could use to describe myself and the connection that they had to excellent leadership helped me start to define what it was that I brought to the table that was unique and special about me as a leader.
MURIEL WILKINS: At first listen, it might have seemed like JULES had a fairly straightforward career planning issue she wanted to tackle. She’s proven herself, and her leadership team wants to give her the leeway to design her latest role, and to build a job that serves her best skills and contributes most effectively to the organization. And JULES came to our coaching conversation hoping to get that guidance on how to define that role. But what we’re finding out is that what’s holding her back is not the notion of not knowing what she wants. It’s her concern that others will doubt her as that one manager did in the past. As the author Melody Beattie once wrote, “You should not limit your future by your past.” That said, as a coach, it’s very important that I meet my clients where they are. And in JULES’s case, she was still with emotions of being bullied by her manager. Now, I’m not a therapist. So, my job is not to revisit, unpack, and help her or any of my clients heal from what they name as trauma. Instead, I can acknowledge her experience and use it to help her see what choices she has in front of her as she decides how to approach this next role. That’s where we went next in our coaching session. So let me first of all acknowledge what you went through, because that’s not easy. So I don’t want to belittle or dismiss that experience that you had, particularly in your first leadership role, and then exacerbated by the fact that the people who should have helped you and support you did not. Okay? That can make you feel like you are standing alone in those situations. I can now understand when you said your brain says this to you, I went out on a lip and said, “I think that’s the protector part of you.” That protector part of you is very smart. It’s trying to protect you from that happening again. That said, we have no idea if this will happen again. We have absolutely no idea. I wish I could tell you. I wish I had a crystal ball to be able to say, “Oh my gosh, that is going to happen, Jules. Do not take that job, right? Here’s the ask. Demand that that person is fired before you take the job.”
JULES: Yeah, that would be nice.
MURIEL WILKINS: But we have no idea. That’s out of our control. And I also can’t promise, “That’ll never happen again.” That would be so glib for anybody to do. That’s out of your control. What’s in your control is to think through how would you respond the next time, if you walked into this job or any job, quite frankly, and your credibility is questioned.
JULES: Oh, wow. That’s a question I’ve never thought about before. And I think the immediate instinctual response I have is I would fight. I would stand up for myself, and I would stand up for myself on behalf of other women who might be going through this as well. Because if I stand up, maybe that gives somebody else the courage to stand up and do for themselves, and what they’re going through. What does that mean though? What does it mean to stand up for yourself? I think I would try not to get myself in that kind of situation again in the first place. And I know you just said we can’t predict the future, but I think there are a few indicators that I learned from that experience. One is that having a supportive manager who cares about the wellbeing of his or her direct reports is really critical. Someone who’s a champion and a sponsor, who’s not going to let this fly either, I think is pretty critical. Because if you don’t have that air cover, it makes it so much harder to fly it yourself, for yourself. And then the other one is… I think when I say fight, I mean go big. Do all the things I know how to do as a manager. Document everything, record everything within my legal limits. Go to HR at the very beginning, go to my manager, go to anybody through the official channels, and just make a lot of noise. And let them know that this is not acceptable. Because I think when I went through that bullying, I did some of that. But I was also dealing with the questioning myself. “Is he right? Is going to HR the right thing?” I was just sort of dealing with both my own internal struggle and trying to figure out how do I actually work within the system to deal with this.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And so there’s a couple of things there. Okay? Number one is if you haven’t done so already at some point, part of your assignment when we get out of this coaching meeting is to cut yourself some slack for how you responded back then. You are a different person now than you were then. You were a different person the day after, right? The month after. And so, it’s not a, “I should have done this.” Keep in mind I asked you, “What would you do if this happened again?” Not, “What do you think you should have done?” There is no should. You did what you could do. You did what you were at the capacity to do. So give yourself credit for that. And you are still pretty effective at doing your role, so let’s not forget that. Number two is I think a little bit of what happened from what you shared where you said, “Yes, I was trying to respond to the situation. And at the same time, I was wondering if what this person was saying was true about me. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I’m not the right person for the role.” You have to be really careful of letting somebody else’s voice supersede or become your voice. Because the minute that happens, somebody else is running you.
JULES: That is very wise. Yes.
MURIEL WILKINS: So how do you do that? You’ve got to be able to distinguish it. You’ve got to be able to create some space. “That’s that person. I hear what they’re saying. I also know that they have a right to their own opinion, but that’s not my reality.” And if you’re not sure whether you can do the job or whatnot, then you got to go get some other data points. But be very careful of letting another person’s voice dictate anything about your worth for the role or your worth in any type of way. Okay? So, that’s something as you move into any role, to be careful of. Because this was an extreme situation, but it also has been a repeated pattern for you where you feel like, “Oh my gosh, they look at my background.” And then they wonder, “Can she lead? Can she do the job?” So the fact of the matter is you do have a different background, so you can say, “Yep, I do.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t lead. That’s the story part.
JULES: Yeah. It’s funny too, because I have so much evidence now that that is the case, that I can lead. And I’ve even had the same technical people come to me a year later being like, “You’re the best manager I’ve ever had. I didn’t think this would work out, but it was great.” So I have all this evidence. Sometimes I’m just not giving it as much weight.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And that’s your choice, Jules, how much weight you want to give it. How much space. We talked about how much space is this taking up for you. So it doesn’t mean that you forget it and dismiss it and say, “Oh my God, it never happened.” No, it did. But how much space you give it, how much weight you give it. There’s a part of… We all have to acknowledge anything that’s happened, and it can inform us, but it doesn’t necessarily have to dictate what happens next. And so that’s the differentiation for you. Okay?
JULES: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, here’s the thing. What would it look like if every situation you walked into, that’s actually the case? That people are like, “She doesn’t have the same background as us. How the heck is she going to be able to lead me?” What would that look like for you?
JULES: I’ve thought about my response to this. And what I’ve come up with, I think is, I was brought in to do this job, not because I have your expertise. We already have your expertise on this team. It’s you. I was brought in to do the thing that this team doesn’t have and needs right now. Which is help this team gel, helping you guys to build trust with each other, helping you all to gather and collaborate to create a sense of purpose and a roadmap for the team. All of those things I do really, really well. And you all are lacking that right now. You don’t need more people with this kind of expertise. What you need is what I’m bringing to the table.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, great. So you have a response, or at least a perspective of what you would be able to present or what you would be able to share if you were faced with resistance when you first come in. Now what if you walk in and they say, “You have a different background than us, and that’s it. Okay, whatever. Let’s move on.” What would that look like for you?
JULES :Yeah, I guess if it was presented in a neutral way, I would acknowledge that because I actually think that that’s the strength of mine. “Yes, I do have a different background than you, and I hope over time you’ll come to see that that’s something that can help this team out. I bring a diverse set of perspectives and experiences that I think will really be an asset to this team. And I would love to learn more about what you do so that I can figure out how to best help you do your job.”
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, great. And I might suggest that there’s an invitation to learn from each other, because they have just as much to learn from you as you have.
JULES: Right, yes.
MURIEL WILKINS: So that’s scenario number two. Scenario number three is you walk in and the reaction is, “She doesn’t have the same background as us. But man, we are so glad she’s here, because we need somebody with a fresh perspective. We need somebody who can bring this team together.” What does that look like for you? And what’s your response?
JULES: “Let’s get started. Let’s go.”
MURIEL WILKINS: So, you might be wondering, why did I run you through those three scenarios? What we basically walked through is worst case scenario, best case scenario. And what you have just shown is that you have the capacity to deal with each and every one of them. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to deal with it. So the concern shouldn’t be around your inability to deal with what happens. What’s really getting at you is the uncertainty about what’s going to happen.
JULES: Yeah. I think the uncertainty and also the anxiety that the worst case may happen. And that will poke at my soft spot.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I mean, we all have that. But here’s the big leadership skill that you’re building here. You’re ready for it? Dealing with ambiguity.
JULES: JULES? JULES dealing with ambiguity again.
MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, the fact is everything’s uncertain. We don’t really know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next hour. We think we know, right? We think we know based on what’s happened in the past. And so what’s happening with you is you feel very strongly there’s a voice that’s louder than you want it to be that’s telling you, “This is probably going to happen again because it’s happened in the past.” But we don’t know. We don’t know. But what you do know is that if it did happen, you now have a plan of action. You have more capacity than you did the last time around. You actually have a response.
JULES: That’s very helpful. It’s so funny because when you said dealing with ambiguity, that’s also part of what I’ve assumed is part of my brand as well. It’s like I’m great at coming into chaos, managing ambiguity, blah, blah, blah. That’s something I say to people about me, and then yet when I’m faced with this particular piece of ambiguity, I’m like, “No, I can’t deal with it.”
MURIEL WILKINS: Right? Exactly. Well, you can. You just haven’t wanted to. Yes know? You can. You can. So whatever it is that you’re doing out there in dealing with business ambiguity and your team’s ambiguity, it’s easier because there’s some distance. It hasn’t been as close to you, right? It’s out there. Deal with this the same way. If it were out there, how would you deal with it?
MURIEL WILKINS: So, you used the word, your confidence was impacted in a big way in the past by situations where your credibility for the role was questioned. Confidence doesn’t necessarily come from things going our way. Confidence comes from knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll be able to deal with it. So even if things don’t go your way, you have to ask yourself, “Can I still get through it?” You might not like it, you might not want it. It might not be fun. But can you get through it? That’s where confidence comes from.
JULES: Yeah. That is very, very true.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. When I say it that way, how do you assess your confidence then?
JULES: It’s funny. When you said that, I had this recollection of this time I got laid off. Whenever I tell people that story, especially now, there’s so many layoffs going on, that people are like, “What I do?” That people are scared and wanting comfort. And I always tell them, “That was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Not only did I recover from it and get another job, but I tried a totally different industry that I was interested in for a little bit, which was a lot of fun. It led me to the career that I have now, which is a career of leadership where I, again, am really developing myself and love what I do. And so when I think about how do I assess my confidence, it’s exactly what you said. It’s like knowing that I was able to go through adversity, and overcome it, and thrive even after it, or maybe even because of it, is a huge part I think of my personal story, and potentially maybe not as huge of a part of my professional story. Because I wouldn’t say there’s major moments of my career where I’ve failed and overcome it. So maybe the confidence that I feel personally is definitely strong. The confidence that I feel professionally is still being developed. Because again, I don’t think I’ve gone through major failures other than that incident. Generally, it’s been pretty good.
MURIEL WILKINS: Well, let me tell you something. Confidence doesn’t really discriminate, right? We compartmentalize it, right? To say, “Well, I’m confident in this area, but I’m not confident in that area.” Confidence does not discriminate. It is the same secret sauce that you can apply on every single dish. So this notion of I have confidence personally, but professionally I don’t. Again, confidence is this feeling. It’s a feeling that whatever happens, I’ll be able to deal with it.
JULES: Yeah. You asked me how I would assess my confidence. If I really just think about where is the source of my confidence, I guess what comes to mind is I’ve got… This is going to sound a little woo-woo, but I’ve got this warm, glowing ball inside of me that’s my values, the things that I stand for, the people I care about. My personal worth, how I feel about myself. And it’s this thing that generates energy for me. It generates the confidence I think I would say. Sometimes that feeling is very strong, and very clear and crisp. And sometimes that glowing ball is sort of overshadowed. Overshadowed by something else, someone else, something said. Where I can’t draw on that energy, or I forget to draw on that energy and to have that confidence. So maybe I can describe it that way. That’s kind of how I see it for myself.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, no, I love that visual and that you have that for yourself. And I also want to point out one little thing that you said in that. You said, “Sometimes it feels like I can’t draw from it.” And then you move to, “Or I forget to draw from it.” That warm light that you have inside of you, that ball that you have in you that you describe as your confidence, it is always there. The question is, do you always tap into it? And that’s a choice. I can’t sit here and say with the wave of a magic wand, here’s how you do it. You have to tap into it. You have to be able to say, “Okay, can I work through this? Have I worked through other things before that I don’t know? Have I dealt with people who questioned my credibility before and still thrived?” Yes, I have. Okay. Well, I know I have the capacity to deal with it if it happens again. Very different than liking it, right? It’s like my daughter. When she was younger, she hated… Well, she still hates it, getting shots. And she’d be like, “But it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt. I hate it.” And she would cry the whole way to the doctor’s office, and then we’d get there and she’d scream. All until the point where they actually gave her the shot and then she would just get quiet. And then after she’d be like, “Okay, I’m done.” So every time I would say to her, “But you’ve been through this before.” And what she realized is what was causing her the most angst was the anticipation of the shot rather than the shot itself. So I think part of this for you is, am I technical enough? Am I going to be seen as not technical enough? Part of it is being able to tap into the confidence that you do have, rather than thinking you don’t have the confidence. And that’s a choice and a practice, a daily practice. We’ve spent a lot of time in this coaching session going through possible scenarios that JULES might face in her job. This is a really helpful strategy to use when coaching others or yourself when you’re really not quite sure what direction to go in. Play out the different scenarios. Worst case, best case, middle of the road. The point in going through such an exercise is not to nail every detail. It’s to show you that in most cases, regardless of what happens, you’d find your way through it. And that’s where you find your confidence, in the knowing that you can deal with whatever is ahead. As Jules reached that point, we were now ready to go back to her initial question regarding what it is that she wants in her new role, especially in terms of her need to feel supported.
JULES: I’m not sure how to articulate exactly what it is I’m looking for. I can tell you what I’m liking that I’m seeing right now. The particular leader, manager that I would be reporting to in this new role has said to me many times in many different meetings over the past year that he values me. He thinks I’m an excellent leader, that I’m being underutilized right now, and he wants to put my skills to use in all of these other areas of the organization. He’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that I’m happy and successful. He says all the right things. So those are all great things to hear if you’re going into a new role and you want to know if you’re being supported, is knowing that you already have a fan, basically.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, great. So you’re feeling like the intent is there?
JULES: I think some of my hesitation actually comes from I’m not sure if he knows how to support me. He says the right things. And I’ve seen this in other topics and areas around the organization not related to me, but where he has the good intent, he says the right things. And I believe he believes he has good intention, but he can’t back it up with action. So I worry about that a little bit.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, what would you do? What would you do if you had a team member and you were like, “You know what, this is a team member that I really want to support”?
JULES: I think one thing that actually comes to mind is I would actually start out by trying to be really clear about what I can and cannot do. I would try to set the expectations as realistically as possible. And I think maybe that’s where things are in question for me with this new manager is the intention is there, but I think the expectations with me, I want to know really what in reality can he do, versus what does he want to do or would like to do. But realistically, what can he do and what can he not do? Because if he can’t do something for me, I need to know about it because I need to know what I’m getting into or what I’m going to need to compensate for. So when you phrase it that way, what I would do for my own team, I would come in and I would let them know, “I’m here to do this. This is what I’m good at. This is what I’m committed to doing for you. I can’t do this right now for whatever reasons, or this is not what I’m going to be focusing on. This is not going to be my priority right now. I can’t have the resources to do this right now.” I’m just trying to be really realistic with the expectations for the team of me. And I would want the same I think for my managers. I would want him to be real with me. “Tell me for real what you can do and not do.” Because we all watch everything. We want to do everything for our teams, but we can’t always do that.
MURIEL WILKINS: What I’m hearing from you is I just need to get a really good sense of what the expectations will be. What’s possible, what’s not possible, what’s in scope, what’s out of scope, so I can make a realistic assessment as to whether A, it’s something that I want to do. B, what is it going to require of me? C, if I am going to need additional resources, what those might be? I would suggest that you have that conversation with this person. There might be parts he might not know still, right? You’re trying to make an assessment. You’re trying to make a hypothesis, a very well-informed one. And then once you’re in it, I mean, this happens with everything. I dream up my vacations all the time. I imagine, I do all this research. And then I get there and it either surpasses my expectation, is right according to what I expected, or doesn’t quite match up. But no matter how much research I did before, it would’ve never replaced the reality of it when I’m there. So you’re doing as much research as you can, but you also have to understand that once you get there, it might not necessarily be exactly as expected. And that’s okay. Why? Why is that okay?
JULES: Because I’m good at dealing with ambiguity.
MURIEL WILKINS: Exactly. Good for looking back at your notes. Okay. So I think this piece around not technical enough, there’s some inner work which we’ve talked about. You have the capacity to deal with whatever happens. And then there’s the outer work, which is, you need to go and clarify expectations with your manager. You need to see over and beyond your manager, are there other people that you can identify who can be champions for you? And I would say go have the same conversation. Maybe even ask explicitly, “How can you support me in this role? Here’s one of my concerns. I have very different background than the team I’m going to lead. What can you do to help me onboard so that it mitigates, not dismisses, but kind of mitigates a little bit, makes people feel more at ease about me being their leader.” And if they’re like, “I don’t know. What do you want me to do?” “Okay, I want you to introduce me. I want you to come to the meetings and have my back. I want you to be here to bounce things off with me, so that I can differentiate between what we can do. I want you to be able to champion if I decide that we need additional resources. Are you ready to do that?”
JULES: Yeah. I think going and asking how you can support with the specific concern, I think gives them a little something more concrete to really understand how they can help me.
MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right. Okay. So the other part that you had, the other blocker was around you feeling like you have limited time and energy, and being very conscious of boundaries that you want to set to ensure that you’re not being set up to head into burnout. What would make you feel in any job, that you have boundaries, or what are the principles that you want to be able to operate within that make you feel like it will mitigate getting into burnout and honor the time and energy that you do want to give to your job?
JULES: The one that comes to mind immediately is flexibility. I think this is not just with my time necessarily. It is time, but also flexibility in the way that I do things. Nobody likes being micromanaged, but I don’t like being micromanaged. I don’t like somebody looking over my shoulders, not observing, but scrutinizing my process and that sort of thing. I don’t mind people knowing about my process. I just want to feel like I have the freedom to experiment. And then also with the time, I want to feel like if I am tired, if I spent a lot of energy in meetings that morning, I can go take a break. I want to have the freedom to manage my own energy based on how I’m spending it at work and not be stuck on a certain schedule or feel like I’ve got too much in my calendar that I can’t make that space or make that time. The other one is, I think purpose. So feeling like what I’m working on matters. People want it. People see the value of it. I like it. I think that’s a big one. I feel like I’m getting something out of it. And what I enjoy getting out of things is I enjoy learning. I enjoy growing, and I enjoy seeing how what I’m doing is adding to my repertoire or to my toolbox of things that I know how to do as a leader. And then the third one is the people in the community. Because I think that’s a piece of it too. Feeling like I’ve got a community of people who… This would be both my direct team and also the support I’ve built around myself. Feeling like I have that community and I have that support I think is really important. So feeling like my team has my back. If I get overwhelmed or if I get too much on my plate, feeling like they have the capacity and have the ability to take on some of that work. Feeling comfortable delegating basically. For my support team, feeling like they’re in on what’s going on with me. They know what’s up, and I can call them up at any point and be like, “I need your advice. I need to vent.” Whatever it is I need in that moment, feeling like I have that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, great. So what do you feel is in your control to help fulfill all of these areas that you talked about? Flexibility, purpose, learning, community of support, usefulness, not futility.
JULES: I think the community piece, definitely my support community. It’s something I’ve been really trying to build and strengthen over the last six months or so, and I think I’m making some good progress there. So that one, I definitely feel like if I invest time in, it will pay dividends. I think the personal growth one is interesting because I usually have a growth mindset. Not always, but usually. And I’m usually able to extract some wisdom or learning from a situation. I don’t know if I have a lot of control over the flexibility piece. This is probably one that I am concerned about, because right now there’s a lot of fires that need to be fought, or at least that the leadership thinks need to be fought. And so I worry about those getting thrown at me a lot, and not being able to make the space to re-energize, and just being constantly in firefighting mode. I think that’s one that I’m not sure I have control over, other than maybe holding some boundaries. But I don’t even know what that looks like right now.
MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, I think that’s it, right? So what’s your ask? When you said that, I said, “Well, what do you want in terms of flexibility?” If I said to you, “You want to be flexible?” Well, what does that mean to you?
JULES: “I need you to stop throwing fires at me.” I think a little bit of it, it’s not that these fires… It’s not that they don’t need to be fought. But maybe if I had a few questions I could ask him that would help distill or to diffuse the anxiety a little bit and let him really think clearly about, “Does this need to be addressed this moment by me?”
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, that’s a good place to start. Right?
MURIEL WILKINS: But I also think there’s some setting of expectations. We started off this conversation by you saying, “I’m sort of holding all the cards right now so I can ask for things.” Okay, so what if you ask or what you set the expectation? “Look, the way that I manage my calendar is, you might look at it and there’s probably going to be one or two blocks or two or three blocks a week on my calendar. My ask is that those are respected, because it’s when I am able to do heads down work, or when I have my thinking cap on, or where I just need to re-energize from these other things. Now manager, I understand that things pop off and things need to be addressed. So, it’s not that I don’t want to address those things, but I’m just going to ask that if they happen to fall at the same time is when I have this other thing going on, can we really question whether it needs to be done in that moment?” Not whether it needs to be done at all. It’s no different than when I set my out of office email. There are times when I set my out of office, but you know what, you can reach out to me. And then there are other times where I’m like, “Do not reach out to me.” I want you to think two, three times before you send me an email. But that’s setting the expectation. All they can do is either agree to it or not agree to it, and then you take it from there. But the only thing that’s in your control right now is actually setting the boundary and setting the expectation around the boundary, and calibrating with your manager whether that’s a boundary that he can live with. And I would say it’s the same with everything else. I think there’s an expectation setting conversation with this manager that you might be working with to say, “Look, here are the five things that are really important to me in whatever role I take next. And here’s what they would look like in very concrete terms. If I start feeling like I’m not getting anywhere because of what’s happening and decisions aren’t being made, can I come to you so that we can talk through it, and you could be helpful to me in moving it forward? Or you can be real with me and tell me, ‘It is what it is right now. There’s nothing we can do. Channel your energy into a different direction.’” You can have those conversations. They’re all what if conversations
JULES: Have the if conversations.
MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right. But it will be more helpful and more productive for you to have those conversations if you articulate them in concrete terms.
JULES: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point is I need to write those things down. I need to think about those things. What are the concrete things that I need? Yeah, you’re right. I can’t expect him to give me those things if one, I haven’t asked for them. And two, I don’t have examples of what-
MURIEL WILKINS: Well, definitely, if you haven’t asked for them. I mean, he could. If he’s the world’s most ideal manager, he would. He would knock on your door saying-
JULES: Divine what I’m thinking.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yes, exactly. But that’s not happening. Right? So it’s about you empowering yourself to dream up what it is. Put a hypothesis. It doesn’t mean that’s what it’s going to be, right? Hold it lightly. And then going and saying, “Hey, I’m seriously considering this. I’m excited about it. Here are the things that would make me really want to do this. And so I just want to talk about what the possibility is.” And then it’s a discussion.
JULES: I wrote dream it up and ask for it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Because you never know. What do they say with the lottery? You can’t win it if you’re not in it or something like that? Powerball.
JULES: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, all that.
MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right. All of that. All of that. So the same applies here. Okay? So it’s all about the ask. The fact that you’ve outlined what the parameters are is the place to start. It’s like buying a house or going and looking for a house. “I want it to be in this type of neighborhood and I want it to be more in an urban area versus a country area. And I kind of want it to be open space versus closed space.” Okay, that’s great. Then we need to start getting concrete. How many bedrooms, how many bathrooms? What’s the distance between here and the closest store? Do you want a fireplace? Do you not want a fireplace? Do you want a yard? Do you not want a yard? Then we start getting concrete. So you’re sort of at the outer layer of the parameters, and now you just want to put some examples against it and test them out. Test them out. Okay?
JULES: Yeah. And when I was thinking about what resources do I need, I was actually thinking of them not even for myself. It was coaching for my team, coaching for the organization, those kinds of things. And I think this has made me realize I need to also, with equal or even more weight, look at what are my asks for me personally. Basically, to help sustain myself as an individual going through this role. What do I need in terms of support?
MURIEL WILKINS: Yes, what do you need? And ask for those things. Absolutely. Okay? And realize that when you’re doing on a personal level, you are building the capacity to articulate what your team needs and then being able to ask for what your team needs. I do feel like maybe a part of you is like,” I don’t really know what my team’s going to need, so I don’t know what to ask.” Okay. So then what’s the next best thing you can ask for? The next best thing is, “Look, I want to be given an opportunity when I come in and start managing the team to make an assessment of what they need, and to be able to come back to you and say, ‘Here’s my assessment. And I’m going to need some things.’ Are you open to that? Will there be room and space for me to make that assessment, and then talk about what resources we might need?” And let him answer. Okay?
MURIEL WILKINS: So, I would love to hear from you. I know you’ve jotted down a lot of things, but I’d just love to hear from you, what are your biggest two or three key takeaways? Where’s the money at for you today?
JULES: The two big blockers were a big one. But I think even before that, when we went back to the heart and the brain analogy that I used about my heart being excited about this role and my brain saying like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” It’s almost like coming up with a process to address the brain piece of it. Because I think what we did here was we said, “Okay brain, you have legitimate concerns. Let’s break them down one by one and really analyze what’s in your control, what’s out of your control, what do you need, what are you going to ask for.” And I think doing that so that the brain is not the inhibitor or not the one holding me back while I’m trying to go forward, but that it’s being validated and also comforted with data, basically, I think for me is actually a really valuable skill that I would love to exercise more in the future. Because I know these kind of situations are going to come up again. They come up all the time in little ways in life too. It’s like, “You want to go take that vacation?” It’s like, “I don’t know. Yes. But so much work.” Right?
MURIEL WILKINS: Right.
JULES: So, this is a thing with me, I recognize. And I think having the ability to go through it step by step like this is going to help me a lot in being able to move forward with confidence. And with the comfort, knowing that my feelings were validated, my brain feelings were validated, and that we went through each of the feelings and cooked up the situation or the scenario and the answer to that scenario. So yeah, I think actually that for me is the big takeaway from this call.
MURIEL WILKINS: Great. And you can practice that, as you said, every single day. Right? Just literally by being able to notice and saying, “Okay, what is going on?” Just start with that. All right?
JULES: Yeah. Yes. Thank you very much, Muriel. This has been really illuminating and valuable for me. Thank you so much.
MURIEL WILKINS: No, thank you. In some ways, Jules was presented with kind of an ideal scenario, being able to design the job that she wants. But sometimes, what feels like the biggest opportunities can also feel the most overwhelming as this one did for Jules. Her ability to recognize the past experiences and emotions that were causing her angst about her new situation helped her move forward. In a way, Jules needed to approach defining her new role like writing on a whiteboard. She could either write over the messy scribble that’s already on there, or she could wipe the board clean and start from there. She chose the latter. By focusing on what’s in her control, having confidence in her ability to deal with whatever happens moving forward, and being clear about the boundaries and support that she needs to perform at her peak, Jules is now in a much better position to design what she wants her future role to look like, and ask for what she wants. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time…
NEXT EPISODE’S GUEST: This organization was a great fit for me. It leaned on past experience, and a passion of mine with the mission. But it’s just not being heard, and it’s just like I should have seen red flags like, “That’s something I got to watch out for.”
MURIEL WILKINS: Want more of Coaching Real Leaders? Join our community where I host live discussions to unpack the coaching sessions, become a member at coachingrealleaderscommunity.com. You can also find me in my newsletter on LinkedIn @murielwilkins. Thanks to my producer Mary Dooe, sound editor Nick Crnko, music composer Brian Campbell, my assistant Emily Sopha, and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations. And to you, our listeners who share in their journeys. If you’re dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show next season. Apply at coachingrealleaders.com. And of course, if you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe, and leave a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. From HBR Presents, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.
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