February 20, 2024


You are Your Only Limit

How Do I Move Forward from a Career Setback?

38 min read

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 Jeff to protect his confidentiality. Jeff started his career path working in various business roles, but would leave the jobs after some time.

JEFF: I felt like I was reaching a point of stagnating, and also, I was going through the motions a bit. There was a situation where I was passed over for promotion and taking over the team. Looking up the chain, I didn’t really see much upside for me, so I just felt like I needed to do something to make a change, because I think I’ve had tendency maybe to just stay in places for too long.

MURIEL WILKINS: He then went on to get his MBA, and used that to transition his career into a new industry.

JEFF: I was sort of interested in the more dynamic nature of the industry. The industry that I was previously in was much more mature, so things were much more steady state. I was sort of also interested generally just the general interest in the field. So one of the reasons why I went to pursue my MBA was to try to facilitate that transition a little bit easier, and so I kind of zeroed down on a couple of potential industries that I wanted to pursue. Part of it was also just wanting to leave, to just move away from what I was doing in the past. So that’s how I kind of landed there.

MURIEL WILKINS: Jeff reached out, because while things were going well for him in the organization he joined, he has recently felt some setbacks in his career. But before getting into that, I wanted to hear more about why he chose this particular role.

JEFF: It was probably one of my short lists of top companies I wanted to work for. But I think what really sealed the deal for me was the manager that I would be working for and the org leader. I really felt like just culturally, it felt really aligned and it felt like I could fit in, and they recognized the strengths that I brought to the table. So that was a big draw for me. When I met with the team, I felt really comfortable much more so than in the past.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right. So what’s your experience been so far?

JEFF: The first couple years were good. I felt like I transitioned successfully and I did well. The work was interesting. Still stressful for me, but I felt like it was mostly positive. I did end up getting promoted on a slightly quicker timeline than typical, and eventually built a team of five to oversee our footprint of investments globally. But in the past year, I feel like things have sort of shifted the other direction. I think a number of factors kind of played into it. I think one, I was actually starting to feel quite burned out, because I was really pushing for the promo and to try to get more scope and responsibility. And then I think there was some circumstantial things that came into play as well. So a lot of my folks above in my chain took different roles. So my direct manager, who was a big sponsor and supporter for me, took another role. My skip level took another role, and then the org leader retired. So there was a lot of new leadership coming in. And personally, my dad was going through a recurrence of his cancer, so we were working through that. So, it was a challenging time for me. So, I began to see both my performance decline, but I felt unsuccessful both in asking for and receiving the support that I needed through this time, but also building trust with the new leadership that I had. So slowly my team began to be reduced. I lost part of my team. They hired some additional managers in the space, began taking away some of my analysts. My scope was sort of divvied up. And then at the start of this year, they took the rest of my team away, and then I was converted back to an individual contributor. And that was the point where I felt like the last straw for me had kind of broke, and I felt like I hit sort of a low point in this arc in my career and really had to look at the situation and reassess, was just unexpectedly given the news that my team was going to be taken away and I was going to be converted to an IC. And I took the rest of the day off. I went to a separate room, a house. I sat on the bench and looked out the window, and I just started crying because I just felt all of emotion from just having invested so much and tried to push through. And it just felt like a relationship kind of gone sour. And so that kind of prompted me to really think about just reassessing everything. Did I have the right priorities in my life and relative to my work? Did I overinvest in this path that didn’t necessarily lead to the outcome that I wanted? And then whether or not this was a place for me or even the career path for me. I also feel like a little bit of a deja vu. Not deja vu, but I felt some similar feelings where I hit walls in the past and it made me think about, I don’t know if I navigate my career that well. And I felt like maybe some of that played into my lack of success in the past year. That’s kind of where I was at, and I felt like at that point, where it’d be helpful to get some coaching, and some feedback, and process through, and how to proceed next.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. All right. Thank you for that context and bringing me up to speed as to where you are now. So what I’m hearing from you is a couple of things. One is feeling like you’re in this pattern of hitting a wall in your career, and that’s leading you to kind of reassess, is there possibly a different way to go about navigating your career? I’m also very much hearing from you and also sensing this notion of being at a low point. So we want to determine, what do we mean by low point and where do we go from here? Right?

JEFF: Mm-hmm.

MURIEL WILKINS: And then that there has been a lot circumstantially that has changed. Your leadership changed, sponsor that was supporting you, changed. Your role has changed. Whether that’s a result of that or a result of other things we don’t know, but we’ll try to work into that. And you’ve also had a lot, it sounds like some pretty significant things going on personally with your dad being sick. So, I just want to acknowledge that there are a lot of questions in there. And the reality of it is, it’s not simple. And so that’s the place that we’re starting from. We’re not starting with an easy, simple math problem. Which means, that we’re not going to try to approach it as though it’s an easy, simple math problem, and just think that all we have to do is do two plus two and then get the answer on the other side. It’s probably more… Excuse my lack of math aptitude, but it’s probably more advanced calculus. Or even worse for me, trigonometry, advanced trigonometry. I never understood why we had to study that, but here we are. Okay? All right. So you’ve propped up the questions that are swirling through your head, that you’re sitting with. What would make you feel like you are at a different point than you are now? You self-assessed that you feel you’re at a low point. What would make you feel that you’re further along? Whatever that means.

JEFF: I don’t know. I think internally, I think feeling like I have some clarity about where I’m headed. I think right now, I feel quite directionless, but also just having some sense of congruence with what I’m doing, with who I am. Because I don’t know if I feel that my path that I’ve been on these 15 plus years is really aligned to myself. I don’t know, it’s just hard. It’s hard for me to differentiate what are things that are just part of all paths have pros and cons and challenges that come with it, versus what is something that’s really cutting against the grain for me. Having had the setback has forced me to think about that a bit. Is it just a trial for me to work through or is this a signal for me to maybe pursue a different path? I think I would feel much more positive if I had better sense of that. Because definitely, I want to lean into being authentic to myself and having intention with where I’m headed, and I’m not sure, so not having some clarity around that. I took the things that happened as a vote of no confidence from the new leadership. If it had been something different where I had kept my team or maybe I took a slightly different scope but still had similar types of responsibilities, I think I would’ve felt much more like I’m moving along the path that I thought I was headed. So yeah, I don’t know if that answered your question or not.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Whatever you say answers my question. Okay. Let’s get a little tactical here, because I’m curious about certain things. So, first of all, let me just say, you said one of the things you’re trying to figure out is given this wall that you feel you’ve hit from a career standpoint, is it a signal that you should just keep on working through it, or is it a signal that you should move on, or move forward? What I would ask you in this moment right now because you’re still in the role, so you haven’t made a decision, is what would it look like if it were both? If it were, It’s a signal that I need to work through this and that I need to figure out how to move forward.

JEFF: That makes sense to me. I think it’s been a couple months since this happened, and I have been trying to work through it and my relationship with some of my… Because I’ve had more conversations with them, and at some points it hit a really low point in our relationship where we’re both very frustrated with each other. It has since sort of improved. But I feel like there are learnings for me just even going through this and trying to work through it. I do see merits, practically as well. There were points where I was just ready to submit my two weeks notice without much of a plan, but I’ve been talked off by folks that I trust. But yeah, I do think there’s things for me to learn through this. And because I don’t know exactly how I want to proceed yet next, it does seem that there’s some prudence to kind of work through both. One piece of feedback that I’ve received was, I’m looking for clarity before taking action, but sometimes you have to take some action to get clarity. And I feel like I’m trying to just work through both, I suppose.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Okay. So I’m just going to hold that. You don’t sound totally convinced, but I think that you’re in a position where really, I mean, what other option do you have right now but to look at both, right? Because you’re still there, you haven’t made a decision, and you’re in the state of ambivalence. And so when you’re in a state of ambivalence, you are where you are. I do think you’re in this situation, when you think about should I work through it, you’re sort of exemplifying wherever you go, there you are. Meaning you’ve switched jobs a couple of times. And it hasn’t been the same circumstance, but you’ve described each time similarly in terms of hitting a wall. Hitting a wall, feeling burned out, feeling like you need to move away from something. And there’s a difference between moving away from something, and moving towards something. And I’m sensing that’s a bit of the shift that would help break this pattern that you’ve been in. You already know what it feels like to move away from something. Bad culture or a culture that doesn’t feel right to you, a workload that’s too much for you, lack of interest in the content. Now, difference in scope, different in circumstances. So what I’m not hearing so much is, what will you be moving towards? And so we’ll need to get some clarity on that. Okay? But in the meantime, there is this question of, what lessons can you learn? Which you came to. And kudos to you, you’ve recognized you keep hitting this wall. So what is it that I am doing that’s contributing to this? And notice I didn’t say, “What is it that I’m doing wrong?” It’s more, “What am I doing that’s contributing?” Not causing, but contributing potentially to this outcome that I keep having. And I think that’s where we can start exploring before we move to what’s next, how do I align, how do I have congruency? And all of that. If not, just a relationship as the statistics say, right? You move on from the relationship and guess what? You end up in the same predicament most times in the next one because you just go in the same shape and form and expectations, yet expecting different results. And then wherever you go, there you are. Okay? In terms of lessons learned. One of the things you said is you feel like the most recent actions in terms of your scope being decreased and you being returned into an individual contributor role, you took that as a vote of no confidence from the new leadership team. Team. So that’s your assessment. All right? Have you asked for any clarity or evidence that led to that decision around your scope being decreased, that either supports or doesn’t support this hypothesis you have that it’s a vote of no confidence?

JEFF: I have had a number of conversations about it, because it was kind of a gradual process where they can’t bring in new folks, and then moving part of my team under them. I’ve seen signals both ways. So, on one hand, it was more about maybe the scope was too large for one person or that I was overwhelmed. So that would be a signal maybe slightly different than a vote of confidence perhaps. But I have also had conversations particularly kind of more recently in the last couple months where I think there were some questions about my performance. More in the recent months. So, I agreed to some, but not necessarily everything. So, I think I feel like my sense is, and I know I bring my own sort of lens to it, but my sense is that they didn’t think I was ready for the scope or the team that they were envisioning as they were growing. I think initially when the new leads were coming in, they recognized a lack of resources in this space. And that has sort of shifted a little bit to adding folks at a similar level as me, and then spreading out the resources. So, it’s hard to say because I’ve asked them more specifically for feedback and how things are going from their perspective. But I think mostly, I’ve just given answers not necessarily about me, but reading between the lines. And recent conversations suggest that’s at least partly, I think there’s questions around if I’m capable already.

MURIEL WILKINS: It can be hard to face setbacks. But Jeff was able to get very candid with me, and even more importantly, with himself here, which is important if he wants to learn from the situation. And while the temptation is to either blame ourselves or others for our circumstances, it’s critical that we hold a both and perspective to really understand what’s at play. In Jeff’s case, I don’t have the opportunity to talk to the people who work with him to get a fuller sense of what’s going on as I would with coaching clients I work with over the course of several months. So, I don’t really have a sense of how he’s perceived by others or the broader organizational context. It’s hard to say whether his career is being impacted solely as a reflection of his performance or whether it’s a reflection of the organizational changes. And it would be irresponsible for me as a coach to speculate one way or the other. What I did want to introduce to Jeff though, was that it could be both. It’s important to look at any career situation contextually so that he can then start to see what is or isn’t in his control. Let’s jump back in as we start to work through this reframe. You said, “I see this as a vote of no confidence from leadership.” And I would tweak this a little bit to say, what if you looked at it from the perspective of, I see this as a vote of no confidence from leadership, given where the organization is at this time, and where it needs to go in the foreseeable future. And so if you look at it from that perspective, what does it change, if anything, for you?

JEFF: I think it takes some of the heaviness off, or some of the pressure off. And it helps maybe zoom out a little bit. So, focus is not just on me, but also what’s going on in the organization. Thinking about it, I think it is probably a combination of both factors. It’s not necessarily all about a result of what I’ve done or not done.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So, I think that’s important to understand. Again, I’m not absolving like you, and we’re going to get to what could you have done. But I think it’s important to look at it from a broader picture, from a context standpoint. That whatever it is that you did or did not do, combined with what was happening contextually, did not lead up to the outcome. I know we talked a little bit about math earlier. In this particular case, the math is not mapping. The combination of you plus the organizational context did not equal what Jeff had in mind as success and what he had planned out his next career move was going to be. That’s all it is. Okay?

JEFF: Mm-hmm.

MURIEL WILKINS: All the other factors that you have into it, how you feel about it, and a disappointment, and it’s a low point, understandably so. But I think there’s part of it that you can own, and then there’s another part of it that is just not necessarily in your control. So, let’s focus on the stuff that you can own. And so the stuff you can own, we can look back and do a little bit of hindsight 2020. Let’s play that game. Okay? If you look back at this particular situation, what if anything do you think you could have done that would’ve led to a different outcome? And correct me if I’m wrong. I’m assuming for you, the positive outcome would’ve been you retained a role where you had your team, and even potentially your team would’ve expanded. Is that right?

JEFF: I think so, yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what do you think you could have done differently that would have led to that outcome?

JEFF: I think there are probably two things that I wish maybe could have been done better. I think the first is I wasn’t clear in myself, and I think that maybe translated to the ask being less clear to the leadership. I did need additional support at the time, a lot of stuff that was going on. So, I think if I would’ve done it over, I would’ve been much more direct and clear about what I could or could not do during this season of my life, and probably would’ve asked to take on a slightly different scope, or at least temporarily maybe even reducing my scope temporarily, or asking for additional support. Part of my frustration I think was I was trying to ask for it, but I wasn’t really getting what I needed. There were a lot of new people coming in. They were sort of also relying on me for legacy knowledge in this space. And so, I don’t think I was successful asking for what I needed during that season. The second thing I think I probably would’ve put more focus on is actually spending more of my bandwidth building relationship with the new leads. I think I was really focused on trying to keep the ship afloat through the change, and also with what’s going on with myself. I didn’t prioritize spending time with our new org leader as much, and trying to build the relationship and the trust more intentionally. So they formed their opinions over time or impressions over time in the absence of that. So those are probably two things I would’ve done differently, or hopefully I wish I had done maybe a little bit better.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think these are big critical lessons learned, Jeff, right? One is I need to ask for what I need. I need to ask for support, when I need it, not before it’s too late. And new leadership comes in, I need to gain their trust. And that means spending time with them to build relationship. Those two are just critical, even when not in crisis mode. If what you had come with today is, Hey, I just want some tips on how to lead and manage my career effectively, those would be in there. So, they’re just good career management, hygiene. So one of the things I want you to take away is no matter where you are, no matter where you go, this aspect of being clear around, what is it that I can do? What is it that I can’t do? If there are things I can’t do, do I have the capacity to ask for support? Or is it just something that needs to be delegated? Or is it something that just isn’t going to get done? But being in question around that rather than assuming you have to do it all is key.

And then secondly, always looking around and saying, “Who are the key stakeholders?” And if the seats on the deck have moved around, honor those who have left, maintain the relationship with those who are not in the leadership seat anymore or the sponsor seat anymore. But now, it’s time to cultivate relationship with the new folks. So, whether in crisis mode or whether it’s peace time, and everything’s stable and there are no changes happening, this is just a good MO to have. Would it have guaranteed that your scope didn’t change?

JEFF: No, I don’t think so.

MURIEL WILKINS: No. Nothing that we do guarantees an outcome. So, I think the question is not necessarily, “What could I have done differently?” The question is, “What’s the best effort that I can put in that moves me closer to the outcome that I would like, understanding that there are other things that are going to weigh in? But I’m going to put my best effort in.” And so my best effort is to ask for support. My best effort is to not just be heads down on getting the work done, but also lift my head up, and intentionally, strategically cultivate the relationships that I need to cultivate. So that when I reach this point, the point that you’re at, Jeff, you can look back and say, “You know what? This isn’t the outcome that I wanted, and I tried my best.” And that’s going forward too. Right? You try your best and then you see what happens. So, I think you’re walking away at least from this situation, if and when you walk away, armed with some things that you can put into action. Now it’s on you. If you don’t put them into action, your sort of know where that road can lead to. In your past roles, not this most recent one, but the other past, if you had applied these two lessons, do you think it would’ve made any difference for you?

JEFF: I think it would have. I feel like I’ve inconsistently done these things through my career, and it was less limiting when I was more junior. But obviously as I began to grow more scope and responsibilities, it’s become much more limiting or much more of the obvious critical thing for me. So, I do think it would’ve made a difference in terms of my progression in some of my past roles. One thing that I’m learning, I had a discussion with my new manager. And this wasn’t a comment directed towards me, but we were talking about something else, about playing the game. Don’t be upset if you don’t play the game. And I don’t really like the notion of playing a game, but I do think there’s some truth to it. There’s things that you need to do or should do. And I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it in the past very intentionally about that. I was very much focused on doing good work, being a good business partner, those type of things. But the spoken and unspoken rules of engagement to progress your career, I’ve not thought about as much. Not intentionally not thinking about it, but that’s not something I’ve been given guidance or taught in the past. I never really thought about it. But I feel like that was a big part of what was missing and the things that I could control mean. When I joined, I think there were a lot of things circumstantially to my benefit, a strong manager that sponsored me. We were in a growing period of the company, and then things changed. What I’m trying to take away from the experiences, how did I be more intentional about that piece? And as you mentioned, I have to take this in normal times and crisis times wherever I go. I’m also sort of wondering if I want to play the game. The rules have changed a little bit, right? With a leadership structure, it’s like, do I still want to be a part of this, or is this something that I have to set in other roles going into the future?

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, Jeff, look. I love the fact that you were like, “Hey, I can acknowledge that I didn’t do these things because I didn’t really know.” It’s not something that you had gotten guidance on before. You didn’t need to before because circumstances were in place that it wasn’t necessary. It’s kind of a great codependent relationship, where you don’t even have to learn these areas because somebody else is taking care of it. They’re making it okay that you don’t have to do these things. And then circumstance changes. And what it reveals… Which is not a bad thing. I mean, if you take it from a perspective of you want to learn, what it reveals are the areas that you still have to grow in. They were there all along. It’s just that this situation revealed them more than other situations you’ve been in. And then the other previous jobs, the route you took, instead of saying, “Hey, I need to learn these.” You were like, “You know what? I’m out. I’m going to move on to the next.” And then guess what? The lessons were still there to be learned, but it took some time. So now you realize, Oh shoot, I never really learned these skills. It’s a matter of learning them. And then the second question becomes, which is what you just raised, But do I want to? Do I want to do this? Do I want to have to cultivate relationships with new leadership, and get them to trust me, and have to gain credibility with them and manage a huge scope that I continuously have to look at? Do I need to ask for resources and navigate asking for resources? And the answer is no, you don’t have to. However, if you want to lead at a certain level, that is part of leading. And so, it’s not a judgment of good or bad, or you have to, you have not. What’s interesting to me is that these two areas that you have talked about, like being heads down, focusing on doing good work, being a good business partner, and not as much focused or deprioritizing the relationship building that may need to happen with other stakeholders, or the resource allocation or reallocation. What you have leaned more into is more of an individual contributor posture. And then, you were actually put into an individual contributor role. So there is a bit of, how you positioned yourself is aligned with where you ended up.

JEFF: Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s actually really helpful to hear. My approach and my posture or actions, I think it aligns to this characteristic of an IC. Part of it I think is trying to make that shift also from IC to leadership, or more managing. And I think obviously, it’s much more familiar to me in my past roles, and my zone of comfort is there. And so part of it’s trying to shift a little bit and pick up a different set of skills as I seek to progress in the more leadership positions,

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s right. So again, it’s with no judgment am I saying that. Because you could say, “You know what? Yeah, you’re right. Being an IC is actually what I like.” Going to your second question, which is what is most aligned and congruent with who I am? You might say, “You know what? I don’t want to spend my time doing that. That’s not what energizes me. That’s not what I see as my career. I don’t want to be responsible or have the burnout implications of managing at a larger scope.” And that’s fine. That’s your personal decision. Or you could say, “You know what? I do want the larger scope. I do want to be a manager. That’s aligned with where I see my career going for whatever reason.” And therefore, rather than looking at it as playing the game, it’s how do I operate on that court? What are the skills that I need to have to operate on that field? It’s no different than… One of my kids played competitive tennis. And it was like when you played regional, you only needed to know how to do these things. But when you went to nationals, it was a whole different ball field. But you have to decide, do you want that? Because if you want that, then your training looks different. The skills you learn are amplified, the mental game is different. But you can’t have it both ways. It boils down to, what is it that you want? Which is very different than what is it that I don’t want, which is what you’ve been doing, right? You’ve been walking away from challenges like, I don’t want that. Let me just fall into the next one. Okay?

JEFF: Mm-hmm.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think now that you’re at a crossroads of what is it that you want, that decision doesn’t need to be permanent. But if you have clarity around what it is that you want, then we can determine, okay, well what are some of the things that you need to learn, which I think you’ve already identified. And there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be easy to learn them, but that’s completely up to you. And so as I say all that, this question of what is it that you want, how does that land with you?

JEFF: I think what you said resonates with me a lot. I think it makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m in the moment now, but I feel like I don’t know if… It’s what I thought I wanted over the last four or five years. That’s been my pursuit. And I’m kind of at the point where I’m kind of taking a step back. It’s like, Is this really what I want? I don’t know. I think I still do. I don’t know if I’m naturally good at those things that we had talked about as key for leading an org, building influence, and those type of things. And that’s where I’m struggling a little bit with just personally, just trying to think through, I don’t know if those come that naturally for me. But on the other hand, the problems that I get to solve at those levels are very interesting to me. There’s a strong desire for me to scale sort of my impact in a positive way. And I can’t necessarily do that as much as an IC. And so those are what I’m trying to weigh, and I have this desire in this hand, and then needing to develop the skills, and really learn what I need to develop. So I think this experience has taught me things, like the gaps that I’ve had.

MURIEL WILKINS: I understand. I understand fully, okay? First of all, not all leadership skills are going to come naturally to you. I have yet to meet somebody where everything just comes naturally to them. People will look like it does, but they practice. They work on it. Okay? I think the question is, are you coachable in them? Can you learn them enough? But we’ll go back to your ability to learn them has to be supported because you want to, because it leads to an outcome that you would like to go after. We’ve touched on some really important points in this session with Jeff so far. Because he was able to admit that he was concerned about what was happening at his job, we were able to work through what he currently thinks and feels about his situation and how he might reframe that. Jeff wanted to explore what skills he needs to be able to sustain his career progression. And while skills are important in the area that most people feel they need to lean into, it’s not only critical to identify them. It’s also vital that you ask yourself whether you truly are committed to working on them. Without the motivation to do so, it can make your situation even more difficult than need be. So, with Jeff, I was curious about why he even wanted to further develop his leadership skills and lean into his desire to be a leader. The reality of it is you find the content and the impact that you can make at the leadership level very appealing. It’s what attracts you. You look at that and you’re like, “That’s the type of impact I want to make. That’s the type of work I want to be doing.” But then there’s a part of you that’s like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to do the other stuff.” The other stuff that’s part of it. That’s not reality, that’s fantasy. I wish I could tell you, “You don’t have to do it.” And maybe you can find a company or you can start your own company where that’s the case. But in terms of where you are now, that formula doesn’t work here. And for the most part, there’s always going to be elements of what you do that don’t come naturally to you, that are a little bit more uncomfortable, that you have to learn, that are not your favorite thing to do. The question becomes, is it worth it? Is it worth it? It’s like that basketball player. I think it’s Michael Jordan I think, or LeBron James, or Kobe Bryant. I don’t know. One of them. You’ll probably correct me. The one who would be out shooting all night, past midnight, over and over and over and over again, while the teammates were off doing whatever they were doing, over and beyond. Because that was the one area or part of their game that they needed to hone in on. And I can’t answer, nobody can answer that for you, Jeff. You have to say, “Is it worth it?” Is the learning these skills and practicing these skills, even though they feel against the grain to you right now, even though they feel uncomfortable right now, is it worth it to you? But as long as you stay in the, “I want this, but I wish I didn’t have to do that,” all you’re doing is resisting the reality of things, and that’s keeping you at your low point. I’m not in any ways pushing you to answer the question now, but I think these are the questions that you need to sit with.

JEFF: Yeah, I think that that’s helpful. I don’t know if I know the answer for me. I think the answer is yes, but I think it takes some reflection. Because I feel like processing it. Yeah, the question if it’s worth it, when I think back about the different roles and companies I’ve taken, I feel like was motivated by things over really reflecting on what’s authentic for me. My first role was, it was really about I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So the company that gave me the highest offer, and it sounded like the most prestigious, went there. And it wasn’t for me. So I don’t know, maybe I’m just rambling and processing aloud.

MURIEL WILKINS: I process out loud clearly.

JEFF: Yeah, I’m an internal processor. So, the way you phrased the question, I think is a helpful thing to think about. What is it that I am seeking after, and is this still worth it for me?

MURIEL WILKINS: I think in you thinking through that question, you’ve mentioned the words authentic to you a few times. Let me just offer something here. There’s a difference between a skill coming naturally to you, or not feeling uncomfortable, or not being hard, and you being authentic to you. People get those confused. They think being authentic just means everything that I’m doing feels easy to me. Being authentic to you means being true to you, whatever true to you means at this moment. At that moment, when you took that job earlier on, and it was because it paid good money and it was a good role, you were being true to yourself. You wanted good money and you wanted to work for a brand name company. That’s what was true to you then. But maybe your truth is different now, and I think that’s what you need to determine. Not so much what are the skills. Those are important, but I would start with, what feels true to me now? What feels aligned with what’s important to me right now? On the inside, not just on the outside. The outside needs to be a reflection of what’s important to you on the inside. And I think what you’ve been operating with is, yes, there are certain things that are important to you on the outside. Good paying job, prestige, whatever. All the things that we can get entrapped by. And now it’s like, “But is it really aligned with what’s important to me on the inside?” But I haven’t yet heard from you what’s important to you internally. What moves you? What energizes you? What is purposeful for you? What gives meaning? And I think that’s where the tension is. So that’s where the authenticity is going to come. The authenticity is going to come when what you deem important to you in terms of values and what provides meaning is aligned with what you’re doing on the outside. In terms of job, role, organization. And even when you are activating some of the skills or learning some of the skills that you deem don’t come to you naturally, like building relationship with senior level leaders, it’s okay that they don’t come naturally to you. It’s okay that they’re hard, because they are in service of something that you give meaning to, something that’s important to you. If what’s important to you is… I’m just going to make something up. If what’s important to you at this point in time is, I want to be able to have… you were talking about your dad, right? Let’s say it’s, I want to be able to have time with my dad. Okay, so you asking for support is in service of that. You saying, “I’m going to have a role with more of an individual contributor scope. I’m going to take a managerial job, but at a different organization that’s not as larger scope,” is in service of that. I’m making that up, but I’m just trying to amplify what the link looks like.

JEFF: Yeah, this resonates me with me a lot. I like the thought of separating the skills from being authentic. So I think I’ve always held this internal belief that because certain things felt like I was pushing against the grain a little bit, maybe this is not the path for me. So it’s actually helpful for me to reframe how I think about authenticity, which is more in line with inner values, or my values and my priorities. Because I’m very introverted by nature. And so I think one of the challenges when I first entered the workforce, I was very uncomfortable in presentations and those types of things. So I think I always question whether those were paths for me. And I kind of just stuck with it by virtue of defaulting to grit and hard work. But it’s helpful to think of it that way. I mean, these are skills that I’ve gradually developed over time. I’m not still the most charismatic person you’ll ever meet. But yeah, I think it’s helpful to think of it that way.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I think it’s just that it comes down to what do you want to honor the most, right? Even if you said, for example, “Hey, I’m introverted and I want to honor that. I actually cherished that about myself.” I mean, the book Quiet was phenomenal in terms of unleashing the power of those who tend to be a bit more quieter or who are introverts. If you want to fully embrace that, that’s fine. Let that be the starting point. But then it’s like, okay, so what does that mean in terms of what I want to do, rrather than the other way around. And I also want to be a realist. I could sit here and say, “My most fundamental value is that I want to win.” And then I decide the way I want to express that is to be a professional basketball player. Well, it doesn’t matter how much I practice, to be honest. I will be able to play up to a certain level, but at some point I have to say yes, even though I might excel, I have relative to those who can reach the WNBA or the NBA, I have limitations, maybe my height, or just my dexterity, or my mobility, or my age what or whatnot. And okay, I get that, but I’m still fulfilling my purpose up until a certain level. So, you also want to be realistic. And there’s a thin line between when are you leading and living according to what you see as your purpose and what brings you meaning versus just chasing, because that’s what you’re used to doing. So it’s just an inversion. When you can sit with these questions and ask yourself, Okay, what is important to me? What do I value? And if these are the things I value, what are the skills that I want to learn? And do I want to learn them? Is it worth it to me” Then the next question becomes, Is this the place where I can do it? And is this the place where I want to do it? Right? It’s both a can and a want. Because it might be that you say, “You know what, Muriel?” You might call me up a couple weeks from now, a couple months from now and say, “You know what? I want to go full throttle in learning, get out of my comfort zone and cultivating these senior leadership. I’m going to try to do it. The question is, can I do it here?” I don’t know. Do you still have access to those leaders? Are you positioned in a place where you can do it? And if you can, great. Yeah, why not try to learn it? If not, then it may be time to find opportunities where you get another at bat around that. So, I think part of it, Jeff, is sometimes we tend not to look at… Going back to your metaphor around relationships, we tend to not look at relationships, even work ones, as places that give us an opportunity to learn. We go there to succeed. And another aspect of it is there are also places to learn. And maybe one of the metrics you can use is, is this not only a place where I can succeed, but does this place have the right conditions to allow me to learn the things that I want to learn, and that I need to learn? Which is very different, that every time a lesson learned comes up to say, “Time to go.”

JEFF: Yeah, these are good questions, I think, for me to ponder. I think just my intuitive sense as we’re talking is that, you described it as sort of chasing versus being driven by your purpose. I do think there’s some of the chasing piece that I’m trying to shed, but I do think this is a path I still want to pursue. There are definitely things about, as I’m kind of thinking about, not just the needs I’m not good at, but I think there’s definitely things, I think, that I really enjoyed about building and leading a team. Particularly around building team culture with psychological safety, and then bring different perspectives as an introvert, or in the way that I think about things. That is part of why I kind of want to progress in leadership is build these more positive cultures on teams. The question of, can I do it here, and where can I learn here, I think is a good one. I think there’s still an opportunity. I think I still have touch points and access to the senior leaders, and there is an opportunity here, so that’s something for me to think about. I don’t know if I still want want to be here, because I’ve also been here for some time, so it might be a good chance for me to go to a place where I can also learn different things as well.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Thinking about it from that perspective, whether you go or you stay, how are you going to approach it, is much more proactive than reactive. The reactive is, “I’m just trying to get away from the situation.” The proactive is, “What’s the situation that I’m trying to now create given what’s already happened?” Okay? So it’s an acceptance of where you are now, as hard as it might have been. It’s an acceptance of it. That’s the reality of it. Doesn’t mean being passive. Being passive is doing nothing. Active acceptance is saying, “Okay, it is what it is. I see it for what it is, now how do I want to move forward?” And you have options versus defaulting. So, let’s try to recap a little bit. I feel like where we’ve gotten to rather than a to-do list for you of, “Here are the three steps you can take.” I think your to-do list is probably some questions that you need to sit with further and to work through further, and that’s okay, right? That just means that there’s more opening that needs to happen for you. And so, I just would love to hear two things. The first is, how do you feel now at the end of our conversation versus when we first got started? And secondly, if you had to sit with two or three questions over the next couple of weeks, and we assume that you and I were meeting in a couple of weeks, and I let you choose which questions you wanted to work on, what would those be? So let’s start with the first one. How are you feeling now versus when we first started this coaching session?

JEFF: I feel good. I feel more positive. I feel like I have a broadened perspective on my situation. You’ve brought some things that I haven’t thought about and that perspective before, which I find helpful. So yeah, I feel good. I feel kind of motivated to take the next steps. On the two to three questions, I think for me, the first question is… And I think I have a good sense of it, but I think whether my values and priorities today that would reflect being authentic to where I’m at now, and kind of thinking through what those would be. And then I think the second question would be, am I able to do those things in my current role and current place? And then my third question would be, if not, what would the other options look like?

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s great. That’s great, Jeff, because I think your default has been to go straight to number three.

JEFF: That’s true.

MURIEL WILKINS: What’s next? Rather than peeling back and asking some other questions to help inform where you go next, if anywhere. So answer those questions, email me, send me your responses. I’m being serious. I would love to see where you net out. Okay?

JEFF: Yeah, that’d be great.

MURIEL WILKINS: That’ll be my little accountability for you.

JEFF: Thank you. Thank you for that. Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: No, thank you. Thank you so much. When Jeff came to the coaching conversation, he was facing a bit of a harsh reality, that he had worked hard in an industry that excited him, had had some success, and recently had been feeling like he was backsliding. While these setbacks can be discouraging, there are also opportunities ripe for learning. The most effective path to leadership is not linear. It’s often a series of zigzags with lessons learned at each inflection point, but only if you take a moment to think it through and do the work, rather than just move on to the next gig. In Jeff’s case, he used this moment in his career to take stock of himself, what he wanted, and what he needed to do to move forward to align his career with his core values, and what’s most important to him, something everyone would benefit from doing from time to time. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders, and that’s a wrap on season five. We’ll be back with more episodes in the fall. In the meantime, if you want more of Coaching Real Leaders, join our 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 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’re dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show next season. Apply at coachingrealleaders.com. And of course, if you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe, and leave a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. From the HBR Podcast Network, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.

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