MURIEL WILKINS: Hi, I’m 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 we’ll call Benjamin to protect his confidentiality. He’s been mission driven for a long time and has a real interest in helping people.
BENJAMIN: Really, it was in college, I would see a lot of pictures up of different humanitarian aid things internationally, and it would actually… I would almost get stomach pain just thinking about the need out there in the world, people, especially without access to resources or that were struggling. Finally, I literally quit school to go and jump in, just kind of didn’t look back, and eventually I had to go back to school. But it was just kind of just a passion thing for people out there that were struggling.
MURIEL WILKINS: Benjamin has spent the bulk of his career so far working internationally with humanitarian-focused organizations. He moved his way up to middle management and recently landed his first senior leadership role at a nonprofit.
BENJAMIN: But I was itching to get back to really helping people in a direct way. I heard about this nonprofit up here where I am now mainly helping people in recovery, and I just fell in love with the mission and then the founder. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was a huge step up for me because I was kind of like middle management with very little kind of impact in the overall organization, and lo and behold, there’s a medium size, but growing nonprofit bringing me on as the executive director supposedly taking over for the founder. And so, I love the mission. I love the model. And so, those are the things I jumped in. I said, “let’s do this.” But yeah, a lot has just gone really downhill.
MURIEL WILKINS: Benjamin reached out because while he’s excited about his new role and has all this passion for the job and the people it serves, he’s running into some trouble dealing with the founder of the organization. So, I started by asking him to share a bit more about how things have gone downhill for him.
BENJAMIN: The founder of the organization that brought me on, she was going to move on after a while. When I got in, she just really encouraging. We had one employee, and it’s funny because the founder told me that this employee was taking advantage of the organization, not showing up to work, not supporting her role. But then when I would step in, the founder would then change her mind. So there’s that part, and then just the micromanaging of the founder. There’s just some real hardcore really adding complexity to the issue. I came in, like I told you, with this full steam ahead. They weren’t quantifying goals. They weren’t even looking at outcomes, outputs, anything. And I was like, well, let’s do this. Let’s quantify stuff. Let’s set up goals. But she would come in afterwards and then question that in front of all the employees behind my back, and then the employees just wouldn’t know what to do. And I went to the board finally.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, there is a board?
BENJAMIN: There is a board. I went to the board.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.
BENJAMIN: I had been trying so hard. I’ve been trying so hard to be direct. And I remembered one of your podcasts, Muriel, you talked about there was somebody that they were struggling because they kept leaving an organization every time they didn’t feel valued or they didn’t feel like it was novel. I was like, I don’t want to be that person. You talked about being resilient. And I’m like, I’m not going to be that person that is not resilient. I did every, like direct conversations. Finally, I went to the board and their response was, we know. And so now I’m just like, things are just so complex. There’s just this cycle with this founder. I just don’t feel like it’s about the mission anymore. I feel like it’s more about the founder trying to keep the organization the same, not impact more people, and I’m looking to move elsewhere. But it just breaks my heart and I feel like maybe a failure, and I don’t want this to happen again. Now I’m like, job applications everywhere. How do I stop this sort of thing from happening? Is there something wrong with me?
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So there’s a lot there, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: And so, I first want to acknowledge what it sounds like is a pretty challenging situation that you find yourself in. You moved to join an organization that seemed like one where you were very aligned with the mission and then you joined, and it’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz. You pull back the curtain and it’s oh-
MURIEL WILKINS: … not quite what I thought it would be. Right?
MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think there’s that element. And then there’s the other element that at least in my experience, coaching people who have stepped in and worked with founders, sometimes it can be tricky if those relationships aren’t sort of explicitly, consciously constructed or contracted from the get-go. Really tricky in any situation, and it has to be carefully transitioned. So, I just want to acknowledge just from a baseline standpoint, this isn’t sort of, oh, what do you mean? You’re just dealing with management 101 issues. Okay?
MURIEL WILKINS: I want to calibrate. It’s not like I just want to calibrate that you walked into what you thought was a 5K race, and instead you’re running a marathon. Okay? That actually happened to a friend of mine.
BENJAMIN: Oh my gosh.
MURIEL WILKINS: We both went to a race. I was doing the half-marathon. She was doing the 5K, but then she took the wrong turn. She missed a turn and ended up running a whole half-marathon-
BENJAMIN: Oh my gosh.
MURIEL WILKINS: … But she did it. But at-
MURIEL WILKINS: … Some point she figured out that’s what she was doing. And I think for you, I’m bringing this up because I want you to ground in the reality of it. The reality of it is it’s not a sort of baseline regular management 101 type of thing. Okay? And then the other thing you mentioned is around resilience, and is this a reflection of whether you have the resilience to deal with something like this? There’s a thin line between resilience and just being plain old stubborn. So we want to make sure you’re operating on the right side of things. Okay?
BENJAMIN: That’s great.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So what is it that you want to have happen? What would make you feel like you have some form of positive outcomes for you coming out of this conversation?
BENJAMIN: Man, I just want to learn from this and then come into something else. Maybe be able to find, I would just love a healthy team, how to look for a better fit. Because like you noted, 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 it. You feel like you should have seen red flags, like oh, that’s something I got to watch out for, or I need to nip this in the bud. I guess the question is how do you look for a better situation?
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I get it. And you mentioned before the feeling a little bit of, well, I don’t know if it’s a little bit, of failure, and how do you keep this from happening? Which inherent in the question of how do you keep this from happening, I hear an assumption in there that you could have kept this from happening.
MURIEL WILKINS: And I don’t know. Could you have kept this from happening?
BENJAMIN: That’s a hard question. I mean, obviously I’ve learned if there is a founder involved to be very cautious, if not insistent, that they maybe step away for a time. But it just didn’t seem like this was going to be a problem at the beginning because we were so in sync, it seemed. And plus that would’ve been probably seemed inappropriate and offensive at the time to be like, I’ll come in, but you need to leave, or something like that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.
BENJAMIN: So, I don’t know.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, you don’t. Exactly. You don’t know. You don’t know. I mean, Benjamin, what’s amazing to me here is you have spent your whole career working with people in the most vulnerable of situations. And if any of those folks came to you and said, “Hey, I should have kept this from happening. I should have kept myself from falling into this situation of poverty or finding myself homeless,” what would you say to them?
BENJAMIN: That is such a great question. Well, I would tell them that yesterday is yesterday, that we didn’t all have a fair shake and that there’s a big opportunity for them to use this in their story moving forward actually as a story of overcoming great challenges, that it can inspire many people like them.
MURIEL WILKINS: Great. So, a story of overcoming challenges. Now here’s the thing. I’m hearing your side of it. Okay. I don’t have the founder in front of me to be able to say, okay, what’s the deal? What did Benjamin do? Not do? So, I am fully cognizant that there are many, many sides to every situation. And again, I’m not saying there’s a right or a wrong side. I’m saying there are many sides. And so the situation you find yourself in is co-created. It’s like the weather. When we wake up one day and what we’re experiencing now on the West coast and they have all this cold weather and snow and all this stuff, and you’re like, what happened? Well, it’s a combination of factors that just happen to all meet at that particular time that were a long time in the making. Okay?
MURIEL WILKINS: And so, yes, you brought your piece of the weather, she brought hers, both of which were a long time in the making, and now you’re in this situation. Okay? So I’m not absolving anyone from their part of it. Everybody has a part of it. Could you have asked other questions that maybe would’ve given you a clue? Could you have done some other due diligence on this person that maybe could have given you a clue? Could you have not taken that job? Yeah. There’s a lot of could’ve, would’ve, but you didn’t, and you’re here. And so, I think just like you said, you would say to some of the folks that you work with, what is your story going to be? What is the story that you want to write in terms of overcoming this challenge moving forward? So, when I ask you that, what is the story you want to write?
BENJAMIN: Well, one thing I’ve learned is not to idealize how an organization should work, kind of seeing that organizations have a little bit of family in them, especially if they’ve been standing a while. There’s like some baked in relational things that are pretty complex, and I think that I came to this with a framework that didn’t allow for that. So, I would love to learn from that in the future to be able to not come in so much like a wrecking ball of let’s do this. We’re all on the same page. Let’s go out there. Let’s measure the impact. And I would love for that to be a lesson that I could learn to go in and be more of a student of not just how it works, but relationally how things are.
MURIEL WILKINS: Well, let’s sort of use this situation as a laboratory for that. What do you think you could have done that would’ve made you more of a student early on to understand not just how the organization works in terms of its delivery model, but also relationally how it operates? What could you have done that’s different than what you did do?
BENJAMIN: Yeah. I think one of the things I could have done is, and this is one I’m seeing from a lot of executive directors, is you get put in and it’s all on you. It’s like you’re a catch-all for all of the to-do lists. And so a lot of times I see we just jump in and I just jumped in and it was about me and my performance, transforming the organization and moving along the calendar. And a lot of that is the board. And even the founder herself was telling me, we need to do this and this and this, but to be able to stop for a second and not be such an individual performer, not be so focused on what I bring in and having really nice board reports. Instead, being like, well, let’s hold on a second, and not just getting to know people on a relational to have a relationship with me-
BENJAMIN: Not just getting to know people on a relational to have a relationship with me, but also examining how they interact with each other and just kind of get a feeling. I would love to learn that skill to see how they mesh together so I can respect it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Well, I love that you used the word student. And so when you think about what makes an effective student, what is it that enables somebody to be an effective student? What skills are they using?
BENJAMIN: Wow, that’s great. I think there has to be a sense of humility. There’s something to learn because you’re actually trying to learn and you’re trying to study and listen and just have a sense of anticipation that there is something to be learned, and that’s kind of the opposite of the individual performer like I’m going to get these numbers and I’m going to blow the socks of the board. The board even criticized me. They said, “There’s nothing in your board report that’s vulnerable. Where’s the section of how you’re struggling?” I’m like, I didn’t think I was supposed to tell you guys where I was struggling.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, I mean, look, I think you hit the nail in the head. It’s actually a balance. If you think about someone being an effective student, I have kids who are in school, and well, what does it mean? They do need to do the work? It’s not like you have homework, so it’s not like, oh, no work. You have to do the work which it sounds like you were great at that. You jumped right in to do the work. But then there’s this piece of you’re also there to learn something. As you said, there’s an anticipation to learn, which means that I actually believe I have something to learn. If you don’t believe you have something to learn, you have left the station of being a student a long time ago. And how do you learn? You learn by doing, and you learn also by listening and by asking questions. So, to your charge for yourself around how can I come in as a leader and both deliver and be a student so that I can pick up on the relational aspects and the delivery aspects… I don’t know. You tell me. How much time did you spend listening and asking questions when you first came on board?
BENJAMIN: You know, it was from a different perspective. It was more like how can I personally form a relationship with people rather than how these things worked. And I came in with a bias because I came in and they hadn’t been very effective in a lot of areas, so I’m realizing that I assumed that they kind of weren’t as good at their job or something, you know what I mean? I assumed that there were some inherent problems. And so now that you’re talking, it’s helping me see that I automatically assumed that it wasn’t going to be helpful to study their relationships or how they were doing things because obviously they weren’t doing it really, really well, and so let’s just move forward.
MURIEL WILKINS: A big part of what happens in coaching is self-reflection. You get an increased sense of self-awareness, which is critical before anyone can move to action. While Benjamin was eager to get some tips on how to deal with the issues he’s facing, it was important that he see what his contribution has been to the situation. His ability and willingness to take a hard look at his own behaviors, set the stage for a more a productive coaching session. He finds himself in a situation that many people face at one time or another throughout their career, the experience of taking a job, feeling like it’s the perfect fit and having things go a different way. Benjamin came into the role with a lot of expectations, looking to show that he could do a great job in this leadership position and move the organization in a certain direction. His frustration at things not going the way he had envisioned is understandable, but it’s also holding him hostage. By turning the focus on what he can do differently moving forward, it would allow him to regain some of his footing. Let’s jump back in as I ask BENJAMIN how he can leverage his past experiences to strengthen how he approaches his leadership today, especially as it pertains to his team. To me, what’s coming up as you’re talking Benjamin is like, I think that there’s such a comparison to the direct impact work that you’ve done as a humanitarian. And you mentioned that you’ve worked with people in recovery. And so when you work with people in recovery or you work with people in, again, very vulnerable situations, survival situation from a humanitarian standpoint, what is the mindset that you go in with in order to really be able to support them?
BENJAMIN: That is a great comparison because you definitely would not go in thinking, well, obviously what you’ve done in the past hasn’t worked so we’re just going to plow through your recovery. And I personally don’t have that perspective about someone in recovery. I have the utmost respect for their bravery, and it’s a cycle. It’s not always linear, their progress. But I even come to that since with my own employees or the people I worked with. It was not respectful of the efforts they had in the past, so that is really a great insight.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, if you came in, let’s say it’s day one here or day one at your next place, and you approach it from what seems to be a pretty authentic leadership approach that you have, you’ve just applied it in one area and not so much in another, what would be the difference in terms of how you approach your employees?
BENJAMIN: Well, I would be curious about their own goals and their own frustrations and their own, what’s worked well for them in the past, what’s not working so well? I would just be more of a student of how they felt in the organization, how their relationships were, and yeah, to build that community and not be so hyper focused on performance and on things that seem impressive on a balance sheet or on a P&L.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Again, it is a balance. Yes, you want to do all that and at some point you need to deliver as well. Okay. And I’m curious, what is it that you feel, because you mentioned it a few times, this you were very driven to perform to show the value. What is it that drove you to lean on that side of it more, that bias that you said, versus the let me also learn and meet folks where they are?
BENJAMIN: To be honest, a lot of it was just that this was, like I said, one of the biggest leadership roles I’ve had. And I did have people even in my own family that were doubtful that I could handle such a large role overseeing so many things, and then even just showing kind of like an ROI for my wife and my kids. I moved them. It’s funny. I just really needed it to work and I really needed to be able to show something for it, and now it’s not working, but. But it’s like, I just wanted to prove that I could do it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, you wanted to prove that you could do it, which I don’t think if we go back to the beginning of our conversation, proving that you could do this doesn’t sound to me that was the mission you were drawn to, and yet that’s what you made your mission.
BENJAMIN: So true.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So, I think there’s this question here around moving forward, being really clear about what your mission is and then staying aligned to that. And by the way, look, sometimes your mission is going to be I need to prove that I can do this. I need to prove to myself that I can present something or run a race or whatever it is. Okay, fine. Then align your actions with that. But when there’s dissonance when you’re saying, “Hey, here’s the mission I’m here to serve,” but really there’s this whole other mission that you’re serving, things don’t add up.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, I can definitely see that. It definitely started with a narrative of it’s kind of like that hero’s journey versus what the real mission that drew me out here was which was to help people. And I can see how those can distract one from the other, and so I don’t want to go into another place like a wrecking ball with it all being about what I can accomplish.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, you’re still at your current organization, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So I think there’s a bit of like for the time that you have there, how can you make it work for you? Because have you decided definitely, definitely you’re leaving?
BENJAMIN: I’m maybe 70% on leaving, but I’m not a hundred percent, no.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, okay. And I’m neither here nor there. It’s whatever you want at this point in terms of what that looks like. But for the time being for today, you’re there until you get to a hundred percent that you’re leaving or you get to a hundred percent that you’re staying, that decision will come one day. So my question to you is while you’re there, what would it look like for you to lead in a way that is fully aligned to the mission that you originally came with in spite of this founder that you’re dealing with?
BENJAMIN: Well, it would make it less about how frustrated I am and make sense now why I’m just completely frustrated about not being able to achieve goals. Because in my heart it has been about me achieving goals, and it would be more about how do I learn from the people I work with about how it’s going for them. Just really focus on the mission while still trying to get help somehow and accomplishing these goals that have gotten very, very complex.
MURIEL WILKINS: And so, at a tactical level, at a concrete level, what would that look like for you tomorrow if you went in with that mindset?
BENJAMIN: Well, it would look like spending time with the people I work with beyond the founder and beyond the program director, and just, I know this isn’t concrete, but falling in love again with what we get to do, and just really focusing on the mission standpoint of how we’re doing, spending more time with the people that we serve, probably bringing that mindset going forward.
MURIEL WILKINS: And Benjamin, that doesn’t mean that you need to be in denial around the reality of the founder. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. This is not like, oh, just use positive thinking and think about the good stuff and forget the bad stuff. That’s not what this is at all. This is about finding your anchor during the storm. You are there right now. And so why are you there right now? What is going to be your purpose during this very difficult time? What is going to hold you there in a way that doesn’t suck you up in this feeling of frustration that you’ve had? Where can you find your calm? Because it’s clear you have found the frustration, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think our… we’re at a place of, where do you find your calm? Where do you find the part that’s going to continue to drive you? It’s almost like coming back to home base. What’s your home base?
BENJAMIN: That’s so good.
MURIEL WILKINS: And it sounds like it’s something that’s been a common thread for you your whole profession, which is helping people. And now it’s not just helping people in terms of the folks that you serve, but also helping people within your organization, your employees, your teams, et cetera, wherever you might be able to.
BENJAMIN: That’s great, yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: Again, not ignoring the founder piece, but I think it’s important to get some grounding and everything else before addressing the founder piece because that’s already consumed a lot of your energy.
BENJAMIN: Yes. No, I think that would be life giving to reconnect with the mission and also if I am supposed to go somewhere else, that I would be able to have that singularity of purpose of mind of mission and just focus on that. Because I’m sure that even though this is a unique situation with the founder, there are frustrations everywhere and no organization is free of that, and there’s always a limit to what we can do.
MURIEL WILKINS: That is a truth. That is a truth. You’re absolutely right. There are going to be challenges everywhere. That’s life and that is organizational life. Okay? The challenges are not going to disappear. The question is how you respond to them. Now, will some challenges be more exacerbated than others? Absolutely. And it sounds like you have found yourself in one that’s like deeply exacerbated. But you have a choice. You have a choice to deal with it, learn from it, stick with it, or you have a choice to go. You know? What my sense is your frustration as it relates to the founder, which I think now we need to hone in on, has been that you haven’t been able to change the way the founder behaves.
MURIEL WILKINS: But inherent in that is an assumption that you can change the way the founder behaves.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, and it’s funny you mention that because one of my board members, she’s amazing. She has always given me leadership books to listen to, audiobooks, and when I bring these issues to her, and even in a group setting with other board members, she just says, “Oh, you’ll figure it out.” All these leadership books are like, “How do you best change someone’s behavior, change someone’s mind?” Or it’s almost like how do you wear a certain color that causes them to… And I’m like, “Look, I’m looking for support here and I’m not looking for how to manipulate them. I’m trying to raise this red flag, help.” And they’re just like, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, Benjamin, that’s why there is so many of those books. It’s like how do you lose 50 pounds in three days? Everybody buys that book and multiple copies because it never works. I mean, here’s the thing, can you truly change the other? No, you cannot. You can influence the other, there’s no guarantee. Change assumes that you can actually completely change them. Very, very hard to do because it’s out of your control. The one thing that’s in your control is you. And so what’s in your control in this situation vis-à-vis the founder?
BENJAMIN: I just try to be honest. I can share, I can talk. It does feel kind of like a waste of time. She is not very confrontational, so she shuts down and makes it like, “Oh, I didn’t mean that.” And I’ve even showed her the conversation, and I’m like, “But that’s exactly what you said.” And she’ll come in and change, make just some HR decision or something.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. But what’s interesting here though, Benjamin, is if we take it back a couple of steps, okay, is at what point, if any, did you and the founder contract around what is your role and what is her role? What are the decision rights? What are the things that you’re accountable for and that she’s accountable for? What are the things that you need her approval on and don’t need her approval on, that she needs to weigh in on or doesn’t need to weigh in on? At what point did that conversation or series of conversations happen?
BENJAMIN: That’s a great question. So yeah, we have had those conversations many times. So we’ve written it out, we’ve talked about it, and then she’ll jump in. And so then when I confront her about it, she gets defensive. And it’s even gotten to the point sometimes, it’s almost like clockwork, where I’m like, “I think we should go to the board and we can ask for a just renewed job description for me.” And all of a sudden, “Oh no, I should just step back.” She doesn’t want to go to the board with it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I mean, look, I think in the same way that this was a big leap for you in the way that you perceived it, of going from middle management to now the leader, as executive director, this is a big leap for her, as having been the founder and executive director for I don’t know how long, and now having to change roles. So again, she’s not here with us, I’m not coaching her, but my sense is probably she reverts back to what she knows versus fully stepping into whatever it is, her new role is solely as founder. So I can understand why that can be a challenge. What’s unclear is does she have the commitment, the self-commitment and wherewithal to let go of some of the things that previously were hers? And only time will tell, only time will tell. Again, she’s not here with us. So given that, the question becomes for you, what are you willing to be okay with and for how long?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, that really is the question. I’ve actually done a lot of counseling for people and there’s something we always go back to, which is hope. And I really had a lot of hope. I’ve realized that I can keep going until it feels like the wheels will fall off. But I ask myself, “Do I want to? Do I want to do that?”
MURIEL WILKINS: And I think that’s the key question here. I think the question right now is, what is it that you want? Okay? Not, “How do I wish other people would act?” What is it that you want? And there is no magical answer. I don’t have a right or wrong answer to offer you, I don’t have this manual that I can look at and say, “Hey, Benjamin, you know what? Give it three more days and if it doesn’t get any better, you need to go.” Or, “Benjamin, you know what? I think you should stick around for another three months because there’s a lot of growth here.” It really all depends on what is it that you want. In order to decide what to do, you have to define what it is that you want, and it has to be grounded in the reality of what’s happening. I’m all for hope and keeping hope alive, but your decision needs to be grounded in the reality of what’s happening. So far in this coaching session, we’ve gotten a really clear sense of the problem and the struggles that Benjamin is facing. A common theme for him, as well as many of my other coaching clients, is that we can’t really control what other people do. It’s important that Benjamin defines what he wants and to keep that in mind as he takes action. That could be deciding that his wellbeing is important above all else and so the job just isn’t for him, or it could be that he wants to stick with it for X number of years to learn all he can. Whatever that motivation is, it’s important to define it to help him move forward. Let’s dive back in, as Benjamin walks through articulating what he wants and how he might get there.
BENJAMIN: It’s interesting that you talk about what I want. In my religious background, there’s this concept of calling which has always come up. It’s almost like, I don’t know, read the tea leaves or something. And this is one of the first times in my life I’m like, “It really is solely based on what I want.” And so isn’t that weird that that would be a hard question to answer? And I don’t expect you to tell me what I want, Muriel, don’t worry about that. But how do you figure out what you want?
MURIEL WILKINS: Right, right. I mean, look, I’m still trying to figure out what I want. That’s a day-to-day decision for me. But you said, “Isn’t it weird?” I don’t think there’s anything weird about it, it just is. And I think based on what you just said, where you tend to operate more around my understanding of a calling, which is you are called to do something, it’s a response to something, something out there.
MURIEL WILKINS: And I think this question of “what do I want” is still a calling. It’s just a response to your own self.
BENJAMIN: Wow, yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: Rather than something out there, it’s a response to something in you rather than something out there. So the model is not any different, it’s just where the calling is coming from.
BENJAMIN: Wow, that’s really good.
MURIEL WILKINS: And so, I think you’re at a place right now of discerning what is your own calling.
BENJAMIN: Mm-hmm, that’s good. That’ll be new for me.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, it’s what we call intuition. Listening to your gut, okay? And at some point, I mean, I’m not a hugely religious person, but I know enough. At some point, where the magic really happens, is when the inner calling matches the external calling.
BENJAMIN: That’s good, yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: One is not better than the other. And I think we’re also getting rid of this myth that career progression and career advancement is linear. It’s not, that’s not how growth happens. Advancement and growth are not the same thing. And so I think what you’re going through right now is a period of growth. It just tends to be a period of growth that is more of a zigzag and maybe some backsliding rather than, Oh, I got here and I conquered it all and I did it, and that’s just going to move me to the next step. Instead, it’s saying, Oh, what it’s highlighting are things that are not yet learned. The question for you is, is this place, what we talked about, being a student, being able to ask questions, being able to listen, being able to meet the board, the employees, everybody where they are, being able to stay anchored in the mission. Those are all learning opportunities. I think the question is, is this organization, given what’s happening with the founder, at what point does it become a place where it’s not productive for learning for you, productive for growth for you? You have to make that determination. Everybody has different thresholds.
BENJAMIN: Yeah. And another aspect being at what point does my learning or trying to learn how to deal with it the best for the organization in terms of meeting its needs?
MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right, that’s absolutely right. I mean, that’s very wise of you, Benjamin, because when faced with a challenge and that challenge is not met in the most effective way, something gives, either the individual, the leader facing the challenge or the organization. And at the worst extent, both get compromised, both face negative consequences. So I think to bring it back to the founder situation, because I’m clearly not giving you any type of direct answer, but a lot of questions, I think the thing I would be curious about is what do you feel is in your control vis-à-vis the founder for the time that remains while you’re at this organization? Let’s assume you’re there for another six months to a year. What is in your control vis-à-vis your relationship with the founder?
BENJAMIN: Yeah. I think that, in reality, what I can do is input some of that learning because it’s apparent to me that she’s not really cognizant or not maybe she shouldn’t really realize how it affects the mission when we compromise on some of these things. I can be that, maybe a lifeline for her, try to just kindly be understanding towards her, like you mentioned, the fact that this is new for her. At the same time, I just really need to do an assessment of, there’s obviously some things I need to learn, there’s some things that aren’t working, and is the organization going to limp along while I try to figure these out or learn these things? Or do I need to help them put someone else in place and just allow the founder to continue being the founder until they’re really ready for an executive director. Because if really she’s not ready to move on, the board’s not ready to have that happen, I don’t think that I should be getting an executive director’s salary there when they already basically have an executive director that’s got a very clear vision.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, yeah. And so that’s an assessment that you have to make. That’s a very mature assessment, to be able to say, “Hey, I know you want me here, I don’t think you guys are ready for me. So, let’s figure out how we take it from here.”
BENJAMIN: Yeah, set it up for success, because I really do love the mission, I love the organization so much.
MURIEL WILKINS: And you mentioned around helping her meet the mission, helping the founder meet the mission. Do you sense that the two of you have alignment on the mission? Is she as passionate about the mission as you are?
BENJAMIN: She’s definitely passionate. There are some different nuances that end up being big things. And so there is a difference. She’s just kind of like, Hey, let’s keep things like they are, and everyone’s just fine. And I’m more like, All these people are coming in with real problems and let’s help them get to where they want to go.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, so I mean, that sounds like it’s not necessarily a difference in mission, but more like a difference in strategy. How do you implement the mission, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: And this is a learning for you both where you are, but also wherever you go in the future. Yeah, if you’re going to lead an organization and you have a board to report to, you have a founder that it sounds like you are reporting to the founder to a certain extent, there has to be alignment around the strategy.
BENJAMIN: You’re right, we’re divided on strategy, but that’s a problem. And now that you mention it, it’s like that’s something I hadn’t considered. I was thinking of the vision, long-term vision. We like the general notion of helping people, but the strategies are completely different.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. And so here’s the thing though, you might have…
BENJAMIN: … completely different.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. And so here’s the thing though, you might have an articulation of the vision and there’s an agreement there, so it’s the vision. Then when you get into, okay, how are we actually going to execute on that vision, which is the strategy. And so, this lack of alignment in strategy is what’s then trickling down to differences in approach. So part of it is you can spend your time in the muckety-muck of you and the founder have very different styles, and we’re going to argue about whether we should be using this font or that font in a report. You’ve got bigger issues here.
BENJAMIN: That’s so true.
MURIEL WILKINS: It’s just that the difference in, “Should we use this font or that font,” is easier to grasp, but you’ve got way bigger issues as the leader.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. You guys are arguing over the breadcrumbs on the floor versus what kind of nutrition do we even want to be having, like what does the meal need to look like.
BENJAMIN: That is really good insight because yeah, now that you mention it, that is the wall that we’ve been hitting. As I look at it, whenever we have some sort of clash or something, it is strategic. I think that we’re on different pages. I think that there’s the vision, and we both believe in the model, but there is this question of what is our strategy to get people where they need to go, and that’s where the conflict comes in. But there’s a false alignment, there’s a false consensus. You know what I mean?
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. There is no alignment because it sounds like the word that you all are actually focused on is “agreement.” Agreement and alignment are two different things.
MURIEL WILKINS: Consensus and agreement are two different things. Alignment and consensus is, Even if this is not my top choice in terms of how we do things, I can live with it. I understand it and I can live with it, and I’m going to commit to following through on it.” Agreement is, This is it. This is my choice. This is what I’m doing.” Maybe the place now is, as you as the leader, is to reframe it to alignment. How can we get alignment around this? How do we align? It’s like when you drive a car, you can feel when your wheels are out of alignment. The car still drives, but they’re out of alignment. So it’s how do we just get everybody moving in the right direction? You have to have some conversation around what would a strategy look like that we could all be comfortable with, okay with, even if it’s not our first choice in strategy.
BENJAMIN: That’s really good. Yeah, I can see that, because I think that that is kind of immature thinking that we’ve been all dealing with, an organization is that we all have to be in complete agreement. When in reality, in order to even function as a whole as an organization, we actually need to be in alignment, and we’re not always going to agree but we need to align on a strategy.
MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right, that’s right. And that is the role of an executive director. That is the role of any leader, and again, exacerbated by the pieces around the founder. But I’m going to tell you, regardless of style, personality style, if the executive director and the founder and the board and then the employees are not aligned around strategy, it’s going to be a challenge either way. But there’s a difference between pushing for it, Benjamin, and aligning people. Again, going back to the example of a car. I can’t push my wheel into alignment. The little that I know about car mechanics, I don’t think I can literally push … At least I don’t have the strength to do it, and it probably wouldn’t work out for the best in the long-run. But there’s a process that needs to go through, whether the wheels are balanced, they’re tweaked one at a time. Somebody who’s an expert in doing that does it. They make sure they’re … So, it’s much more nuanced. There’s no pushing here, there’s no pushing of an agenda. Again, I’m talking semantics but it’s the intention of alignment, which is are we all facing the right direction? The same direction, not even the right direction, are we all facing the same direction? Are we all going at the same pace? Are we checking each other as we’re going? And you’re the one who is trying to orchestrate that, but the place to start is to reframe it, and I think to even gauge whether there’s an appetite to do that.
BENJAMIN: Gotcha. Yeah, I love that. I love that. So, it’s not pushing, it’s not just, “Hey, we do …” That’s aligned. And I think that goes back to what you counseled me earlier of learning, coming in learning first. I should have been able to … Well, you say should have. We say something up here, “We should not should on ourselves.” But it’s like, I should’ve been able to tell that there were differences in strategy and I should’ve had the wherewithal, but of course, it was my first time in a role like this, to be like, “Is there a strategic plan, and what’s the process and how much of a role does the executive director play in that?”
MURIEL WILKINS: Right, right. I mean, no, there is no should as you said, because you didn’t know. You didn’t know, you didn’t know. Now you know. So, to your question earlier on, “How do I keep this from happening the next time,” because it’s happened, so why think about how you could have kept it happening this time, but the next time it’s not even a guarantee that you keep it from happening. You just now have a better sense of what questions to ask and what to look for that is going to support the role that you want to play in that organization.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. We’ve covered quite a bit, and I know we went over and beyond the founder, and that’s purposeful. I think you have a life over and beyond the founder at this org. Not to say you should ignore the founder, don’t ignore the founder. And there’s life beyond the founder in terms of what your job is there. So I would just love to hear from you, A, what’s different for you now relative to when we first started our coaching session? And then B, what are your top one or two takeaways coming out of this discussion?
BENJAMIN: Yeah, I think what’s different for me now is … Man, there’s so much. I think the alignment versus agreement thing, being much more concerned with just coming into it with a picture of what the strategy is or to be a student. I want to be a student. A student of relationship, I want to be a student of strategy, and also just that whole process of strategic planning. And then not to push things but to frame things and look for alignment, rather than trying to maybe force things. And then just treating employees like I would treat the people that we help. Treating people in the organization with a sense of empathy and understanding their relationships and how they interweave to best set them up for success, rather than just focusing on my own performance and being that individual performer and that super boss or whatever. My mission is not to prove that I can do it, my mission is to help others, and that’s what I set out to do.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Beautiful, beautiful. I mean, I think if you could write that down and look at that every day, it’ll help you get through until you know what’s next for you.
BENJAMIN: That’s great.
MURIEL WILKINS: All right. Thank you, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN: Thank you, Muriel.
MURIEL WILKINS: What we know about leadership is that there is always, always going to be complexity. You’re never really just facing one issue at once. In Benjamin’s case, he came to the coaching session really wanting to tackle the issue he was having with the founder of the company, how he could avoid a similar situation in the future, which is a fine place to start and a good goal to have. But as we know, we can’t always fully know all the variables around a new role or the people we’ll be working with until we’re in it. And when we see things more clearly, the best thing we can do is try to understand why things are the way they are. Not to change the past, but rather to inform how to move forward. For Benjamin, there are a few things he can focus on going forward that apply in a lot of other leadership situations. One, it’s about remembering his mission and why he’s there. Two, it’s about narrowing down that mission to the specific purpose or reasons why he might stay in this job and for how long. There is something to gain from the situation, even if it doesn’t last much longer. And to that end, he can use this as an opportunity to flex skills that he’ll need at any organization. How to find strategic alignment, how to set a course, and how to influence but not control how others act on the company’s goals. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time…
NEXT EPISODE’S GUEST: There are some goals that we have as a team that cannot be accomplished in a single year. They’re going to take years of effort and work. They’re also going to take multiple collaborators. Our team cannot do it alone, so we’re relying on so many partnerships and collaborations.
MURIEL WILKINS: Want more of this episode? Join the Coaching Real Leaders Community, where I host live discussions to unpack the coaching sessions you hear on this show. Become a member at coachingrealleaderscommunity.com. You can also find more from me on LinkedIn at Muriel Wilkins. 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 are dealing with a leadership challenge I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show. Apply 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 and review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. From the HBR Podcast Network, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.
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