MURIEL WILKINS: 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 Anna to protect her confidentiality. She’s been in her current industry for less than 10 years after making a notable career pivot.
ANNA: … that’s have been doing boutique-y work and sort of non-corporate, really small scale, small business scale work. But I’d had a lot of exposure to working with people and other businesses in other industries that were in these pretty large interesting structures. And what I wanted to do is work in a central service and watch a whole lot of people do their jobs and figure out which one I wanted. I started on a temporary contract as an administrator and have sort of worked my way up, and it’s happened really, really quickly. I really found a discipline that I loved and hit my stride. I spend my weekends and evenings listening to podcasts about it, and I’ve been a real duck to water.
MURIEL WILKINS: Anna had a lot of success in this new field relatively quickly, and she’s now serving in an interim position at a senior executive level. That interim role had an initial time period attached to it, a timeframe that has now doubled. And so Anna is faced with an increasingly pressing choice. Is this the right role for me? Should I try to make it permanent?
ANNA: I’m finding it a really tough decision, because I am not usually indecisive about this kind of thing. And I think probably for the first time in my life, I might have a bit of imposter syndrome. I usually feel very confident about what I can and can’t do. If I say I can’t do something, I probably can’t. I am usually very confident about those decisions for myself, and I’m not confident about this one. Really, I don’t know what I think. I don’t know how I want to move forward.
MURIEL WILKINS: Since this is still currently an interim position, Anna feels a sense of pressure of the use the opportunity or lose it variety and is hoping to get more clarity on whether this role truly is the right fit for her. So she’s prepared if and when the company asks her to make a choice. The fact that this feels different, that Anna usually feels confident and decisive got my attention. So let’s start as I ask her, what are the skills and strengths she has that she thinks helped her advance so quickly in her career?
ANNA: I think that a lot of the execution in this function is common sense. A lot of it is about courage and people skills and leadership skills and connection and a collaborative inclination. It’s about problem solving and thinking about people and challenges and change in a way that is a little bit out of the box, but also is, I think, courageous is really the word. I think it’s easy to get bogged down within this discipline and technical problem solving or framework or methodologies and that kind of thing, and I just don’t really do that. I sort of look at what’s in front of us and solve problems with that information and with the people who are involved rather than relying on technical things that you might find in a manual. And I think having as little experience as I have is in some ways an advantage. I’m not inhibited by the way that other people do this. I was talking to my team, and we were batting around a problem that we were having, and I was on one side of the argument, and they were all on the other. And I said, “Well, look. Let’s get to the crux of why we believe what we’re believing here.” And really, they were uncomfortable because the solution that I was pitching was unusual. It was something that none of them had ever seen. And I heard myself say something like, “Guys, this is not your mother’s team. We are doing something new. We are not going to be doing it the way that other people have done it.” And look, I let them overrule me in that conversation. I didn’t slam through my weird idea without anybody else’s support. I didn’t think that was going to be an overall win. But it was really interesting, because even the team that I’ve built, who are innovative and forward-thinking and future-oriented around this industry and what we can be, they’re inhibited sometimes by the way that things have been done. And I think my core advantage and my core skill in the rise that I’ve been able to have has been just to not rest on the laurels of traditional or old habits in the space. I’ve had a lot of luck. I’ve been lucky to be able to be in a good position to seize the opportunities that I’ve had, and I’ve also had a lot of help from people in my network. I’ve had a lot of trust put in me. I’ve been able to talk to people very honestly and get really good support, and people have taken risks to let me come into something that is very unknown and sink or swim.
MURIEL WILKINS: And so, what has been your experience in the interim role?
ANNA: That’s a really hard question to answer. I really enjoy it. I have a lot of fun. Most days of the week, I wake up and feel excited by it. I have had to learn things really fast, and it’s been really cool, because sometimes it can be hard to know when you’re learning. It’s hard to identify that for yourself sometimes. But I’ve had a really steep learning curve in this, and I know that, because I look at programs or things that I’m working on that have been running for a few months, and I go, “If I was starting that now, I would start it differently. I would be starting from a different place in how I tackled that.” So the learning opportunity has been fantastic. I have a good relationship with everybody on the executive team, including my CEO. There are some variation there, of course. There are some who I spend a lot more time with and some who I spend a little bit of time with. But overall, I’ve built really good relationships, and I feel that I have their support for the most part. So look, it’s been good. It’s been challenging. It’s really put me out of my depths a number of times. And the things that are tricky about it are sometimes there are kind of no-win scenarios. Sometimes, you’re going to fall off the ledge one way or another. You’ve just got to pick which way. That’s been a challenge. I’ve never had challenges that I really thought I was going to, thought that there was no really good solution to. I just had to decide which way to fail. That’s been really interesting. It’s a big job. The workload is huge, the hours are huge, the commitment is huge. So there’s that. That’s been a challenge at times. And I think that the level of decision making and gumption and confidence that I’ve had to have has been a bit of a challenge. So look, it’s been really good. It’s been amazing from a learning perspective. I really do enjoy it. It has had an impact on me personally, like I am one of the considerations about whether I pitch myself for this or not is not letting my physical health and fitness deteriorate so much. I’m young, and I don’t want to give up my longevity for a job. That’s a really shortsighted thing. So there are challenges in there, and these are some of the things that are playing in my mind about the decision that I’ve got in front of me. But overall, I’ve had a great time.
MURIEL WILKINS: And what kind of feedback have you received, if any, in terms of how you have performed in the interim role?
ANNA: I have received relatively positive feedback. I had a really nice piece of feedback from the board chair recently, which is a pretty big deal, because I think I am as old as his grandkids. And so I think for him to acknowledge me as a professional is actually quite a big deal. So that was really good. I have a great relationship with my direct manager. We do have some conflicts about stuff. I think mostly positive. I think it’s hard for me to say. I’m finding it hard to gauge that, I think, is part of the problem. So what people are saying to me is positive, but I have context or some knowledge or some questions around that feedback that I’m getting directly. So we have a really high stakes, high performance culture, so there has also been certainly some critical feedback and some suggestions come my way as well from our top senior leadership. That to me, I mean, it’s been in proportion to what I hear others get. I don’t think that’s any worse already. More sort of an indicator of underperformance as it is for anybody else that I talk to pretty regularly. And it’s funny, because I’m hearing myself doubt that feedback as I’m talking, and I’m like, “I’m getting good feedback,” but I’m like, “but I don’t trust it.” And that’s really weird. I don’t know where that’s coming from, but I’m getting good feedback to my faith, but it’s not necessarily making me feel confident.
MURIEL WILKINS: What would make you feel confident?
ANNA: One of the things that I’m finding challenging about this role, I think, is that it’s quite lonely being head of a function, because it’s not appropriate to kind of share and talk to the team the way that I could when I had more peers. I’ve got no one to look to in a functional technical capacity who is more senior than me. I’ve got no one to role model from. And so I think that maybe why I’m finding this a bit harder to get a good gauge is because I’m used to being able to model off somebody, off a clear kind of north star of what good looks like. I don’t have that. And so I think I’m used to making up more of my own mind about my own performance, I think, and I don’t have the same data points that I would usually have to do that maybe.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, maybe.
ANNA: Maybe. I’m not sure.
MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, I’m hearing you speak, and I hear the questions that you have in your mind, and I hear the doubt that you’ve articulated that you have. And I think it would be helpful to just break apart the problem statement or the question that you came with, which is do I put myself forward for the permanent role? Do I want this permanently, or do I not put myself? And actually let me correct that, because do I put myself forward for the permanent role or do I not is a different question than do I want the role? Because some people put themselves forward for a position even if they don’t want it, or some people want a position and don’t put themselves forward. And so let me actually start with that. Do you want it?
ANNA: Yeah, yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: What makes you want the role?
ANNA: I like the difference that I can make being in this seat. It brings me incredible joy and satisfaction to see the grounds that the team have gained and that the company has gained in the spaces that I have some direct influence over. I also really like not really being told what to do by anybody. That’s been quite good. Being kind of the master of your own destiny in a way that you don’t get if you’ve got a sort of a functional kid who’s paying a bit more attention to what you’re doing, I guess. Yeah, it’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s kind of engaging, it’s bursty and kind of full of spark and potential. I find it really energizing to be doing it. The impact that we’re able to have for the company is really satisfying. I get a lot out of that. Yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So there is a motivator there for you around wanting it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right? It is something that you would want. Now the decision is do you go for what you want or do you not, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: So let me ask you this. What would make you go for the role, pitch yourself for it?
ANNA: I would need to trust that I can really do it. It’s such a critical role, and it’s such a cool company. I wouldn’t ever want to sit in a job that I can’t actually do, and I would hate that personally, but also we’re at such an inflection point as a business, I wouldn’t want to be somewhere that somebody else could actually take it further. So that’s a big part of it. I’m not confident that I’m actually doing it the way that it could be done. And I know that’s not a real sentence because there’s 600 things that anybody could do and you only ever get to do 50 of them. So I know nobody’s perfect, but I would hate for the business to be limited by my lack of experience in that position. I’m not comfortable with that. The other piece is about, because I have compensated for a lack of experience by working incredibly hard, by doing the research, doing the checking, working with my network, working with my peers or my mentors to figure out the problem and make sure that there’s not something obvious that I’m missing just because I don’t have the experience or the exposure that somebody with a decade or more of experience would have. So I have put a lot into it. And I did that knowingly, but I did that knowing that I had a short run at it. I was like, “I can burn the candle for that length of time. That’ll be really interesting. Let’s go hard and make the most of it.” And now that gone on and on and on and on and on, and we’re several more months down the road, I’m like, “Okay, well, I’m not going to be able to do that forever. That’s not a sustainable way to do this.” And so I’ve started to claw back a bit of balance, but there’s still a question around that for me. So I need to feel confident that I can do it and do it well for the good of the business and for myself and for my team. And I need to know that it’s in my power to do it in a way that isn’t going to have long-term impacts for me in terms of health, fitness, family, diet, that sort of stuff, because it has come first.
MURIEL WILKINS: Sometimes people come to coaching because they want to figure out where their gaps are or what they need to improve to achieve their long-term goals. Other times, there’s a specific, often time-sensitive problem that they’re looking to solve. Anna is one of those time-sensitive coaching clients because she has a decision to make. Now, one thing that often happens in these situations is the person I’m coaching to some extent is looking for answers from me, but my job isn’t to recommend either or. It’s to help them break down the problem they’re facing and the assumptions they’re making to figure out where the root of the challenge or decision is and what different paths forward might look like. Anna has already started that process of breaking the problem down into smaller pieces by introducing the idea that she both wants to know she’ll be good at the job and if taking the job will be good for her. We’re going to dive deeper now into looking at those two central issues and think about how she might come to a better understanding of fit. So you have broken it down to sort of two key central variables. And I cannot tell you whether you are right for the job. I just can’t. That would be very, very irresponsible and foolish of me. And I also can’t tell you whether it’s going to bring you the balance because I don’t know what type of balance you desire. How I define balance is different, I’m sure, than how you define balance. It might be the same, but I’m not going to presuppose that it’s the same. So I think it’d be worthwhile for us to help you get to a place of being able to make a decision. It’d be helpful to kind of break these apart a little bit more. And so with this piece around, I need to feel confident I can do it well and I can do it well for the sake of the team and the sake of the company rather than somebody else who has more experience than me or who I think could take it further, what would you need to feel confident that you could do this job well?
ANNA: I think it has to come from people who know what they’re talking about and who I trust, I guess. That is a thing. I have received overall positive feedback on it, but maybe I haven’t solicited that in a way that is going to really give me confidence that I’m getting the full picture from people because it’s hard work giving people feedback. I don’t ask that of people lightly. It’s a lot of work. So probably what I could do is set up some conversations to really prep people properly and get that buy-in from them that they’re willing to do it and get some really clear feedback from people. I can’t think of any other real way to do it.
MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, I think there’s two pieces to it. I think there is this external data point that you’re going to seek out, and then there’s also your internal data point, which is what do I believe and what do they believe? And then let me put those two together and does it give me enough of a sense of, yes, I can do this. And so what data do you have so far that makes you believe you can do the role and what data do you have so far that makes you believe you can’t do it?
ANNA: The data I have so far that says I can do it, that I’m still here and I’m still doing it and nobody’s told me to stop doing it, I think if it was a disaster, that would’ve happened. Nobody has done anything to look for a replacement. I mean, my team are really kicking goals this year. We set out with some pretty big ambitions and we’re really going to do all of it. Nothing’s perfect, but we’re really on a good wicket as a group and we’re delivery focused. And really we hit some big ambitions around how we wanted to work together and what we wanted to get done this year. And that’s really worked. I did have a couple of people internally within the team get a bit of a fright I think when I stepped up, and everybody’s come back on the bus. I haven’t had anybody leave that I’m concerned about, which has been really good over this time, out of the team. There’s some sort of organization metrics which we’re meeting. There’s no sort of red flags from a delivery perspective and the things that we do measure as well from a goals and KPIs perspective. There’s nothing going on that really gives me the sense that there’s anything wrong with the way that I’m delivering. Part of my questioning about it also I think is signing up to a permanent gig, which is a different kind of pressure, right? Saying that I can run the ship for a few weeks or months or however long this is going to end up being, years, that’s different to saying, “I will be the right thing into the future. I’m going to have enough to be able to do this into the future, and you can count on me for years to come.”
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I mean, I think there is a difference. I think, I don’t know. I mean, I’m reflecting back on what you’re saying and I feel like I’m asking you what’s the weather? And you’re like, “It’s sunny. It’s sunny,” but I’m like, “Is it going to rain?” You’re like, “No, it doesn’t show rain, but it feels like there might be rain, but the weather forecast is not telling me there’s rain.” Well, yes, there’s always a possibility of rain, but you’re telling me it’s sunny and warm outside. So you’re not getting any data that says you can’t do this role.
MURIEL WILKINS: Maybe what’s happening is more the notion of moving into it permanently and what are the implications of that in terms of what I’m signing up for and the pressure of it, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: So talk a little bit about that. What is it about that that is causing some hesitation on your end?
ANNA: The first thing is I think when I took the role, I had a very clear sort of tactical delivery set of objectives. Then I wrote, like I said, “This is what I’m going to be able to do over this period of time. Is this what you need?” And everyone said, “Yes, yes, yes, CEO,” and we did that. We did that. But tactics, I love tactics. Tactics are ready. It’s about lateral thinking and putting things together and problem solving and flipping it around. Fine. I don’t know that I really actually understand what people mean when they say strategy. I think sometimes people have different definitions of that, and if somebody asked me to put together a function strategy, I wouldn’t necessarily feel very confident in doing that. And it’s hard because I know when things are strategic and when they’re not. I know when somebody’s made a non-strategic decision. Those end up being quite obvious in hindsight. But I don’t know that I understand what that means and what people mean by it. And so taking it on. The other thing is I started to talk a little bit about the company being a really amazing company and it is. It is growing, and we are a purpose-driven company. We’re doing something really cool for the world, and man, we are rocketing in terms of growth. And so that’s people and dollars and infrastructure and geographic footprint. We are on a swing and man, it’s incredible. And so I think nobody knows what the future could be. Nobody knows where we’re headed. There are so many possibilities and the sky’s the limit in some ways. And I get worried, I feel worried that I’m trying to catch up to a role that’s growing exponentially as the company grows. Maybe it is imposter syndrome. I don’t know how to put my hand on my heart and say, “I’m going to be able to do this.”
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, so here’s the thing. First of all, is it imposter syndrome? I don’t know. I’m not going to label it anything. It is whatever it is that you’re facing, right? We get caught up in is it this, is it that? It’s what you’re experiencing, which is can I do this role and can I stand the heat of it? I mean, here’s the thing. There’s two ways you can look at this. You can say, because you said, for example, if you talk about a functional strategy, you don’t know what that actually means and what that actually looks like. So at some point, you talked about early on in your career, you completely pivoted to something different that you had no idea what it was either. And you also talked about when you took the interim role, you invested in learning and came up a pretty steep learning curve to what it sounds like you’ve done pretty well. So I think the question really is not do I think I can do the role permanently. I think the question is, do I believe I can learn what it’s going to take to do the role permanently?
ANNA: Yeah, that’s a good question. And the answer to that is yes, because I really do trust myself to figure things out. I am good at learning on the fly and as we’re doing it, and I do trust myself to learn fast enough.
MURIEL WILKINS: And you’re not learning it from scratch. I mean, you’ve had a pretty good warmup to learn it in terms of being in the interim role. So based on what you just said, it sounds like at least we can check off the box that you have confidence in your ability to ramp up to what the role will expect. I think there’s a question around what are the full expectations of the role? Do they mirror what you have done so far in the interim or is there more to it? And I think that’s what you need to find out by talking to your boss and some of your peers. What do they expect of somebody who sits in this role permanently? Is it the same as what you’ve been doing or is it different?
ANNA: Yeah. Okay.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. So that then you can make an assessment of A; can I learn these things? And then B; very importantly, do I want to learn these things?
ANNA: Yeah. What’s it going to cost?
MURIEL WILKINS: Exactly. Do I want to? Right. So there’s a difference between having confidence in doing the thing, which if you wait for that, you will almost never start anything versus having confidence in our ability to, one; learn how to do the thing, and secondly; put in the effort to do the thing.
ANNA: Yeah. And it’s interesting that I never shy away from putting in the work. I love a challenge. I’m a bit of a… I enjoy that stuff. It’s talked a little bit about some of the personal cost for it and it’s about velocity. It’s about how quickly all of this is going to come to fruition for the company and what that means. And that’s just about how many things to get my head around and get my arms around and how quickly that needs to happen.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. That has implications on then, do you want to do it? I think we need to establish first, can you do it? And if the can you do it is really about, can you learn how to do it? You just answered the question. You said, “Yes, I think I could learn how to do it.” Now we can move to, “Okay, now do you really want to exercise that right to learn how to take on a role like this on a permanent basis in this environment or in this construct.” Okay. And what seems to be concerning you is the impact that it has on your health, your wellbeing, your personal life. Is that what it is?
ANNA: Yeah. And it’s also about, I really believe that you have to… People go up and down. You always have patches that you feel 100% or 90% versus 60%. That’s fine and that’s expected. And to really be really good, to really be a whole and interesting contributor at work, you do have to be a healthy person. You’ve got to have balance that… It’s not just about getting to do the things you want to do in personal life, that’s really important. But that to me is not the only thing. It’s also about being able to do it in a healthy way for myself, but also for the team, for the company. I have burnt out of a career before. I know what that feels like. I know what the impact is to you, and to the people around you, and to the business, and to the commitments that you’ve made. It’s a pretty bad time for everybody if that happens. And so I feel there is a piece to me that’s like, “Yeah, I want to sign off at five o’clock [inaudible 00:29:09].” But the other piece of that is if I don’t think I can do it happily and sustainably and well, I would rather not go through that experience again, for me, but also for my people and for the company.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah.
ANNA: It’s about balance. And I’m trying not to sound like I’m entirely oriented around work because I feel like that’s coming through in this conversation, but part of it is about sustainability for my own good, but for the good of the job and the business as well.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So two things. One is I would offer you to think about the interim experience that you’ve had, as the interim experience. You were starting out. If you move on and take this permanently, you will not be just starting out. That moment has passed. It will not be chapter one all over again. You yourself said, you came up a pretty steep learning curve you’re not going to go right back down the learning curve. As you know with learning curves, they plateau out a little bit or the curve just becomes less steep over time. So you’ve put in that initial time, and my sense is, given the time you’ve put in, you’re at the point where the incline is not going to be as steep. So let’s just, I think, partly to put a timestamp on what you’ve been through and not assume that what you’ve been through is exactly what’s going to be replicated as you take on the more permanent role. So that’s one. I think the second thing is let’s talk about, let’s be a little imaginary here, hypothetical. What would it look like for you to take on a role like this and feel like it’s sustainable? What would need to be in place?
ANNA: I’m not sure. I don’t know. I actually don’t know. I don’t know what would make me feel… because I haven’t deteriorated. I have a little bit, my fitness has, I used to be a better cyclist than I am, but I haven’t deteriorated in terms of energy. I still feel really engaged and really optimistic and really good about my life and my job and all of that stuff. I think it’s physical health. I think it’s committing to looking after my body a bit better. Work is part to blame for that and the other part is just not feeling like it on a Thursday afternoon. But I think it would be about committing to a physical health goal and moving towards that because I just don’t want to let that go.
MURIEL WILKINS: And whose decision is that, whether to let it go or not?
ANNA: It’s mine, obviously. There are things… No, it’s mine. It’s mine. It’s like there are crises, there are fires, there’s a lot of travel involved with this role. But that’s for me to sort out, it’s just about prioritizing.
MURIEL WILKINS: It’s just about prioritizing. And it is yours, it really is. I wish I could say, “Yeah. Damn the role.” But it is about prioritizing and it is about making a decision and a commitment and saying, “Hey, here’s important to me. What’s important to me is my physical health. And one of the ways that I sustain that is by committing to a certain activity that I do as consistently as possible. And I don’t need to be 100% all the time, but let me aim for 80. And so how do I demonstrate that this is a priority for me?” And that’s where we get into the nuts and bolts. When I was in business school a very long time ago, the dean of the business school back then, every day at lunchtime, would go out for a run. Every day, every day. And if you couldn’t get on his calendar, people would say, “Well, you have the choice. You could go running with him at lunchtime.” He said, “I’m more than open than company.” But the run was non-negotiable. It happened every single day when he was in town, lunchtime, we all knew where he was. So as you grow in scope, as you grow in responsibility, things on the outside are not going to come to you and say, “Hey, here’s what’s important. Fit it in.” It really is going to be up to you to decide, “Hey, if this is what I want to do, if this is the commitment that I take on for a role, for a team, for whatever it is, how do I make it work in a way that also works for me?” There’s an and rather than them being mutually exclusive.
ANNA: Yeah. I think as I said, because I hit it like it was a fixed term commitment, and I was like, “Well, I’m going to go into that and give that everything, and then I’ll deal with the carnage on the other side of doing that.” I think over that period, I definitely let things go a bit. And I think it’s about shifting the way I’m thinking about that now. Especially if I’m going to go for broke and see whether I can secure it permanently. So I think I’ve got stuck putting it second or putting everything second really, because that was a short term agreement that I had with myself.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, In a way, you approached the interim as, “This is a short-term sprint, so I’m going to go all out.”
ANNA: It was meant to be.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. It was meant to be, so you did the right thing. You were like, “I’m going to go all out and then I’m going to recover at the end.”
MURIEL WILKINS: And then, oh, lo and behold, the sprint became a marathon.
ANNA: Well, it has. I really did believe it was a sprint, but that was… If you’d asked me at the very beginning of this engagement, “Are you still going to be doing this X months down the road?” I would’ve said, “Absolutely not. The business is going to need something else. Once I’ve done these four things that I’ve said, they’re going to need some heavy hitting capability in this space.” I really did believe it was a sprint and that transition to non sprint. I’m in the middle zone now, we’re in a half-marathon, shall we say. And I think maybe just the looking at it stretching out in front or the potential of that distance continuing to increase. There has to be a point in time where I have to go, “Okay. Well, if you’re still doing this in two years, what does that look like? What’s the…?
MURIEL WILKINS: What it looks like is you don’t approach it as a sprinter anymore. You don’t approach it as a sprint anymore because it’s not a sprint. You approach it as a half-marathon, a marathoner, or whatever you want to call it. You approach it for what it is, a longer term engagement. And so yes, there’s a certain pace, but you now have to adapt your pace and your sustainability. What is the type of sustainability that you want to approach it with and that you need to approach it with? So there’s a bit of a mismatch in what’s happened. You have transposed what your experience has been as an interim and what you thought was be a very short-term interim role, and you have taken that and put it on, “This is what’s going to be required of me in the permanent position.” And we don’t know if that’s true.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And then the other part is, as you said, you said, “I’m going to give it all in and then whatever happens, happens. I’ll be able to deal with it on the other side.” And now the other side looks much further away. So you better deal with it now, right?
ANNA: Yeah, I think so.
MURIEL WILKINS: Deciding whether or not to go after a permanent role that you’ve been doing on a temporary basis has a whole set of challenges that are different than pursuing a job at a new organization. In some ways, Anna is in a great position as she’s already had practice doing the role. She also has a clear set of concerns, one around whether she would be the best fit for the role, or is it too much of a stretch. And the other around what kind of commitment it would require of her. But now I think she reached an important realization that how she approached the role as the interim isn’t necessarily how she needs to approach it as the permanent leader. Thus far, she’s treated it like a sprint, but if the position becomes permanent, she’d have to pace herself differently. So a key piece for Anna to think about while making this decision is not only how she’s experienced the job thus far, but figuring out what conditions would need to be in place to make the role work for her. This can help narrow in on the choices she has and get closer to making a decision. So at this point, I did want to check in with Anna to see how she was feeling, and if she had gained any more clarity on this potentially looming decision. Will she go for the permanent role?
ANNA: I think I should, I think I should, there’s still no guarantee. It’s not only my decision as to how this progresses, but I think I should try.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. All right. And so first of all, congratulations on getting to decision point number one, right? Question number one. How do you feel saying that, by the way?
MURIEL WILKINS: All right.
ANNA: I mean, comfortable is not a word I would use, but it feels… Well, I mean, comfortable. Come on. Who wants to be comfortable? It feels right.
MURIEL WILKINS: It feels right. Okay. So now the question then becomes, now what? What are you thinking in terms of how you put yourself forward or do you have any questions or concerns about that?
ANNA: While I’ve been thinking about this and I have gone back and forward over the last few months, if somebody had said to me, “Do you want it, would you go for it?” I think I’ve been pretty on the fence. And some days it’s yes, some days it’s no, most days it’s somewhere in between. I think the challenge that I have is that every month that goes by, I get better at it. And so the longer I delay a decision, the more likely it is to go in my favor if I do want to pursue the role. And so there’s kind of two competing timelines really where for me, the later I push that conversation, the more likely I’m to have really shown good stuff and be taken seriously as a candidate. The other timeline though is that I think the business are waiting for me to make a move because I went into the interim and said, “I’m going to do these things and I’ve done them,” and I had a really interesting discussion with my manager recently where they said, “Right, so that’s what you said you were going to do and you’ve done it. Now what are you going to do?” We were talking very practically, we were talking from a delivery perspective and a team focused perspective, but I heard a slightly different message there saying, “Are you going to make you move or not,” basically. So I think there’s an expectation they’re waiting to see, I think whether I’m going to push and whether I’m going to ask and whether I’m going to put myself forward assertively or not, because I think it’s going to get to a point where if I haven’t moved, they’re going to go, “Well, that’s not a strong enough signal that she’s interested and ready and willing to go for it.” So it’s about those two timelines kind of coming together and I think that’s going to be soon.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Well, I kind of hear it also, it’s about who’s going to wait it out the longest, right? On the one hand, you’re waiting to prove yourself quote, unquote to be good enough that they will naturally say you should be in the role. And on the other hand, they’re waiting for you to say, “I am good enough. I want the role.”
ANNA: Yeah, I think so.
MURIEL WILKINS: And which one would you rather be in? Because you could play either way.
ANNA: Definitely the second one, the business is not the kind of business where you wait for somebody to hand you something. If you want it, you go for it. So if I want it, and you’ve managed to make me say that out loud, Muriel, so if I want it, then I’ve got to go for it.
MURIEL WILKINS: You’ve got to go for it. Okay. And so what does going for it mean?
ANNA: I think I’m putting an offer on the table. I think I’m saying this is what I want, this is my commitment, let’s talk about it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.
ANNA: I think what I’m doing is prompting a conversation and bringing your decisions to [inaudible 00:42:48].
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. It sounds like you’ve answered your questions.
MURIEL WILKINS: What question still remains for you?
ANNA: No, I think I’ve answered my question. It’s been really interesting. It’s been a really interesting few months and the shift to the permanent role, I think I have the right support from the team. I think the time’s right. I think it’s good timing. I’m not going to learn that much more by going beyond a year. Either way, I’m going to have an interesting conversation with my execs. And so I think that’s right. And the thing is, if the answer is not yet, that’s okay too. Because what that means is that they’re going to have to find someone pretty good to give me a run for my money. Really, I mean, I would be pretty disappointed for somebody to come in who wasn’t really, really knowing what they’re doing. And so what that means is if that happens, I’ll do a different interesting job. There’s plenty to do. I’m certainly staying with the business and learn from someone for a few years. The other thing that held me back, I guess, is I was talking to one of the other exec team recently who’s a bit further on in their career, and I said, “What are you going to do next?” And they said, “I might just start my retirement journey from here.” They were sort of saying, “Well, this is probably the biggest job I’m going to have. This is kind of me. I’m going to do this for as long as I want to do it, and maybe then I’ll go part-time.” They were on the other side, and that was a really tough conversation for me. I was like, “Wow, what do I do next?” This is the job that I thought I would have peak career, I guess. And so I think I’ve also found that a bit intimidating.
MURIEL WILKINS: So I mean, that could be it for you and it could not be. That’s his story. That’s how he wants to write his story. This is really about how you want to write your story, and I would offer you to take it one step at a time. See what happens with this one. They’re either going to say, “Yes, you’ve got the permanent role,” or they’re going to say, “Not yet.” Right? And then you can make a decision from there.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. But you are a different person than your peer, and so whether this is the final chapter or not, who the heck knows?
ANNA: No. I mean, I certainly don’t think so. It’s just weird to have… I’ve usually got something on the horizon and it’s funny not to have that. And I think securing this, if I do manage to do that, it’s a bit of a then what?
MURIEL WILKINS: Then what?
ANNA: I mean, I’m sure I’m not going to have to think about that in the day-to-day. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of other things to be on my mind, but yeah, it did cause me pause when we were talking about it.
MURIEL WILKINS: That might be worth some reflection at some point. What is your bigger vision for yourself over and beyond this role? Where do you want to spend your career energy? What’s the impact that you want to make overall, regardless of where you are? And then asking, is this role if you take it on permanently, is it in service of that or how can it be in service of that? So that’s part of your homework. That’s the macro homework. Okay, let’s talk about the micro homework. So what are you going to do? What are your action steps coming out of this?
ANNA: I need to sit down and go, “Okay, so if this were mine and I knew it was going to be mine for the next 36 months, what am I doing? What do I want to do for the business?” And it’s funny because one of the things I said earlier in this conversation is I don’t know how to write a strategy, and that’s exactly what I would do to write a strategy, isn’t it? Okay. But I just haven’t been doing that. Interesting. Sit down and go write year one, year two, year three in the role so that when my boss and my board will say, “What would that mean?” I have a really clear answer to say, “If you give me this opportunity, this is what I’m going to do with it.” I think that’s the first thing is to get really clear about my pitch. How am I going to pitch myself to help them understand that really they should be giving me this opportunity? And then the next one is just to get that… I mean, I’d probably talk to a few people I trust about that and get some feedback and make sure that that was in touch with the business like we’re big, complicated beast in some ways, and it is really easy to be out of touch sometimes and if you’re not thinking or talking to the right people. So I think checking that with some other functional heads and people outside of the company as well. And then it’s scheduling a meeting, working through the other details. What do I want? What do I want in terms of package? What do I want in terms of commitment from the business [inaudible 00:47:52] resourcing against this work? What am I looking for in return? And then scheduling a meeting, making the case.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, and what’s your timeframe?
ANNA: I would want to be doing it in the next month. I would like to have a decision within the next month on that, I think.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Well, that sounds like a commitment to making a decision if I ever heard one.
ANNA: No, it’s good. I mean, yeah, we’ve got a pass. Which is funny because I feel like I’ve gone round and round and round and round and round on this months. It feels really good actually to have something defined.
MURIEL WILKINS: And sometimes we just have to put a stake in the ground.
ANNA: Yeah, no, it’s good. It’s good to feel like we’ve got a stake. Totally.
MURIEL WILKINS: Good. Good.
MURIEL WILKINS: One word that describes how you feel now versus how you felt at the beginning of the conversation.
ANNA: I think I feel determined. I don’t know whether that is the right word. That was hard to get me one shot at that. It could be the term that it could be I feel a little bit lighter, like sort of having a plan is good, just kind of having something to pursue and I feel excited.
MURIEL WILKINS: Those are all good things.
MURIEL WILKINS: Those are all good things. Terrific. Thank you. Thank you so much.
ANNA: Thank you.
MURIEL WILKINS: When we’re faced with a tough decision in our personal lives or at work, we can often get stuck, ruminating over all the pros and cons about the possible choices we can make. Sometimes the root to clarity comes from really unpacking the uncertainty of it all and recognizing what is at the root of the ambivalence. It’s about undoing the knot of the back and forth with yourself and keeping your values and long-term goals in mind. Remembering those guideposts and breaking the decision down into easy, digestible thoughts goes a long way. And so does doing your homework, taking the time to think through your questions, talking it out, writing down what you want, because even a decision with a deadline, like choosing whether or not to commit to a permanent role, still takes some time. And for those of you wondering, Anna did make her choice. She reached back out later to let us know she is in fact now in this role on a permanent basis. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time…
NEXT EPISODE’S GUEST: What I think has been the harder part actually, is the stakeholder side now that I have to coach individuals and not have direct contact to the stakeholders they’re dealing with. That has been, I guess, the longer learning curve for me. It’s how I’m able to indirectly coach towards those stakeholder relationships that is taking longer for me to be truly effective in.
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 and my newsletter 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 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 podcast. From HBR Presents, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.