MURIEL WILKINS: I’m Muriel Wilkins and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR Presents 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 Kirsty to maintain her confidentiality. She’s had a number of phases in her career as a human resources professional. Recently she’s taken on a new role as vice president for global human resources at a large company. Kirsty takes a very outcomes driven approach to her leadership.
KIRSTY: I see as my primary responsibilities proactively highlighting the risks, highlighting the opportunities and holding the mirror up to leadership to say, this is how what you’re doing, how you’re leading is landing in the organization. I do think that sometimes because I’m not seeing the change in leaders that I would expect that sometimes I take on that responsibility to actually see change come out of it where I like to see change. I like to see something happen as a result of the effort. I like execution. I like seeing the outcomes of all of the work.
MURIEL WILKINS: While Kirsty’s past successes are what have led her to land this VP position, she’s feeling unsure about whether she’s being effective in her leadership role.
KIRSTY: I’m at that point of being sure of myself, right? So how am I living up to this next level? Because what got you here won’t keep you here, right? I have that playing in my head. Then trying to figure out this business. It’s moving so fast.
MURIEL WILKINS: So I start by asking her to reflect on her career this far. To tell me her career story as though it were chapters in a book.
KIRSTY: I would say the first chapter is really, I’ll call it consulting. That’s where I really got excited about my career as a junior consultant coming in and doing work around global human resource solutions and getting an opportunity to see human resources delivered in such a different way. It was a really refreshing step away from the more traditional work streams that you hear about around human resources. It was just a very different paradigm shift for me I would say. In that chapter, I would title it enlightenment if I could, right? Because it was opening this door that I knew nothing about. It just created all kinds of opportunities for me. What it did was expose me to the conversation that leaders have and equipped me with the language to use with those leaders. That’s the professional piece. The personal piece of enlightenment that came during that time was my husband and I meeting. We got married and a year later we were expecting triplets. There was just a lot that I learned about myself during that time. It had to do with not being afraid. Then I would say the second chapter, I would title it navigating the terrain. It became things changing so fast and with the children growing so fast. That having that moment where I say, am I energized by this work? Can I do both? That was a really rough period because there were times where the balance was off. It just became clear to me that I am the type of person that gets energy from what I do. That was the point where I had to learn a bit about how I can get fulfilled in different ways. I would say my third chapter is called enjoying the view. After being in that space learning about myself and then professionally, it put me at the place where the kids hit a certain point where I stepped back and said, I think I’m ready to climb the ladder now. For me, I felt like I was at that point where it all converges into something powerful, right? You’ve had these experiences where you’ve developed different skill sets and with that has come a comfort level, right? So you’re ready for the next level. That’s what led me to apply for a director level role in the company where I am now. Then my career took off where I was promoted a couple of levels and that’s where I am now.
MURIEL WILKINS: So in that capacity, what are you responsible for?
KIRSTY: I’m responsible for certain businesses within the company. That includes a couple of different business areas. The last part is strategy portfolio and operations. It’s a big role because typically a vice president, a global human resource business leader has one business group, one very large business group. That’s typically with 3,000 people in it. It really is like having your small little boutique HR company. The thing about my role which makes it a bit more complicated is having five of those leaders. How do you navigate that, right? Everybody’s different. You influence leaders differently. Some of their goals and objectives conflict yet they don’t see it. You can find yourself in a space of having to work harder than you should to influence leaders, to get them to execute and move things along. So there’s this operating at pace that doesn’t seem to happen. I think it conflicts with my personal, I don’t know, drive to operate at a certain pace. I feel like maybe I’m not as adequate at doing what I do.
MURIEL WILKINS: Got it. Yeah. It’s funny because as you were talking about how typically somebody in your role has one business but you ended up with five and I’m like, well, there seems to be a pattern with multiples.
KIRSTY: Yes. [inaudible 00:07:28] I even picked up for-
MURIEL WILKINS: For you, right. Not a coincidence that when you talked about that chapter in your life, you called it navigating the terrain and it sounds like that’s what you’re doing now.
MURIEL WILKINS: So I don’t know. My hunch tells me you’re probably more well equipped than you think you are but we’ll figure that out as we go. Before we dive into what’s challenging for you now and what are the key questions that are top of mind for you, what do you think has contributed to your progression over the past four or five years?
KIRSTY: I would say I get things done. I make it happen. Systemic thinking. I do try to figure out upfront who are those key stakeholders that need to be involved, notified, briefed on things. I would say trust and credibility because I never make promises that I can’t deliver on. I also tend to deliver earlier than expected.
MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s bring it to the here and now. Share with me a little bit around what is the challenge that you’re facing. What’s the key question that you’re trying to answer that’ll be helpful for you?
KIRSTY: Yeah. I think for me sometimes I wonder am I being as effective as I can? What I mean by that, am I bringing my VP voice in the room? Am I comfortable with my power? Because there are moments where I just hold back and I wonder what that’s about. I do also get the sense that those above me that have promoted me to this level are waiting to see that VP presence show up.
MURIEL WILKINS: So talk to me. Share with me a little bit around those moments where you felt like you’ve held back. What did that look like?
KIRSTY: It would be with a leader, right? I don’t question them as much as I should, right? Where they state their view and I may make a comment to say, that’s interesting and let me think about that and come back to them instead of saying in the moment, highly unlikely this would work. Being really there to challenge them in a respectful way but to challenge them. Now the interesting thing is, after working with a leader for a certain amount of time, I do get to that place but it takes me longer than I should at this point in my career.
MURIEL WILKINS: So I’m just curious around the where do you think it should be and how soon do you think you should able to get comfortable or challenge those leaders? What’s your metric there?
KIRSTY: My metric is within 30 days of working with them. I feel like I should be able to get there particularly given that my knowledge of the rest of the organization. But within 30 days of working with them, I should have that enough, I don’t know, information, enough comfort to be able to push back.
MURIEL WILKINS: So what’s happening as a result of you not pushing back in that timeframe?
KIRSTY: It creates this space where they’re not sure about what I think and how I truly view things. In an instance, a leader did ask me, what do you think about this particular person on my team? I said to them I don’t know. I haven’t worked with them enough. [inaudible 00:11:17] to see more of them in order to form an opinion. That sat with me in a way where I thought should I know this sooner? Is there something I’m missing here where I need to be moving faster, accelerating these relationships?
MURIEL WILKINS: As a result of not pushing back or accelerating your ability to do that, to assert your voice because that’s what I’m hearing, you’re really hoping to be at a place where you can assert your point of view and perspective and really advise as you did when you were a consultant, advise in a much sooner way than you’re doing now. If that does not happen, what will happen? What’s the end all impact of you not doing that?
KIRSTY: Then it starts to question my capability. Does she really understand what’s happening? That’s my fear. I’m not sure if that’s the reality but that’s my fear.
MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s pause here. KIRSTY is extraordinarily self-reflective and has a high level of awareness of what she’s experiencing in her new role. While she’s worried that she’s not asserting herself in the way she thinks she should, that’s not really her concern. The thing she’s really worried about is that she won’t come across as credible to other executives.
MURIEL WILKINS: At this point in our conversation, it’s important that KIRSTY gains clarity on what is really worrying her so that she can solve for that versus just what is happening at the surface. I continue to follow her line of thinking and dig for the so what. What if the executives question her credibility, then what?
KIRSTY: I don’t know if it’s a bit of a knock for my ego because I’ve been moving at such a quick pace and I’ve felt energized and excited by the work. Maybe it makes me feel less than adequate and starts to chip away at my confidence.
MURIEL WILKINS: I want to understand in those moments, like that example that you gave around the executive who asked you, what do you think about this person on my team? You said, I’m not sure. I haven’t worked with them well enough. Give me some time. What made you say that? What made you not share your perspective right then and there?
KIRSTY: I do feel that particularly at my level, things that you say can create a halo effect for people. I’m just very mindful of making that mistake of mislabeling someone. I feel like it’s a bit of a super power that you’re given in this space where you really can impact the trajectory of someone’s career. I tend to hold back a bit until I have more data.
MURIEL WILKINS: So on your end, it’s if you did not have the right data or if you mislabeled, how do you think that would have imp… What would’ve been the impact of that?
KIRSTY: That leader questioning or having a totally different view than me and questioning, well, does she really know the people on my team because what she [inaudible 00:14:38] is not how I see that person or that leader using that information to make talent decisions.
MURIEL WILKINS: So what I’m hearing you say is two risks. One is that they use information in a way that then has an impact on others and there’s a risk that then it’s misused-
MURIEL WILKINS: …because it’s not the full data. But I also heard you say that if they disagree with you, then they would question your credibility which interestingly enough is also the reason why you said, if you don’t speak up, right? They might question your credibility. There’s this sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t position that you’ve put yourself in around if I speak up, they might not think I’m credible and if I don’t speak up, they might not think I’m credible.
MURIEL WILKINS: There’s this one aspect of credibility and capability that we want to look at because it sounds to me like it has come up from a place of you actually believing in your capability. What is different now than what it has been for the past number of years where you’ve progressed quite well?
KIRSTY: It’s the level that I’m at. This vice president level. I think it gets to this is a new space for me. Do I belong in this room? Is there something additional expected of me at this level that I’m not giving and I just don’t know what it is?
MURIEL WILKINS: Have you been in similar situations before where you are in a completely new space that has additional responsibilities of scope and you’re not quite sure if you’re doing it right?
KIRSTY: Yes. I would say even starting out as a consultant, I didn’t even know that world existed before I sat down with the [inaudible 00:16:53] cracked his head and had a conversation with him. I would say personally, the children. I totally knew I never babysat any children growing up. I didn’t know how to feed a baby, right? Totally new space for me. Uncharted territory.
MURIEL WILKINS: So this is good news and bad news, right? The good news is, it might not look like the exact same terrain but you have navigated similar terrain. The bad news is you’ve done it before. As a coach, I love to hear that because I’m like, okay, well then let’s figure out what has worked for you in the past to help you build your confidence in being able to navigate this terrain. I think it’s important we do that first before we get into the blocking and tackling of what can you actually do as a VP. So tell me, if you think back in those situations where it was new, it was complicated, scope was big, it seemed overwhelming, what enabled you to successfully ramp up and get through it?
KIRSTY: I broke it down into little pieces. Where do I start? What’s the most important piece? Solving it bit by bit. So not letting the situation feel as big as it was but just taking it step by step. The other thing I’ve done is, I’ve operated with this level of openness and excitement. Say instead of recognizing that it’s new and different and letting that dictate my feelings, me saying let me embrace this. Let me learn all that I can about this.
MURIEL WILKINS: So to what extent have you taken both of those attributes, right? Your ability to break things down. Then attribute number two which is you’ve approached it with a sense of openness and excitement rather than, oh my God, this is new and different, right? So if those were the two wings that you navigated those terrains with, to what extent have you used both of those wings in this particular situation at your new level as a VP?
KIRSTY: I don’t know that I have used them. I’ve been more frozen by the experience because maybe it feels bigger than what it really is. I probably could do more of both.
MURIEL WILKINS: Maybe there’s a bit here around as you work with those other executives around breaking what their agendas are down into smaller manageable pieces so you can then prioritize where is it that you can add value. Then this piece around approaching it with openness and excitement. If you were to take that perspective on rather than the perspective of being frozen by the experience, what would that look like? What would the difference be?
KIRSTY: The difference would be the confidence. I think that’s where it will show up. The confidence that I have in myself and the skillsets that I know I have and that I deserve to be at this level. When I look at my career path, that’s the direct impact to the confidence.
MURIEL WILKINS: I think what you’re touching on Kirsty is you being able to hold that you’re relatively new in the role and you have a perspective that you can bring to the table. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.
MURIEL WILKINS: I applaud you for being able to recognize that when you are in that tension, you tend to freeze because you don’t know which way to go. Do I stay with the I’m new, so I don’t say anything or do I really leverage the confidence that I know I’ve had in the past and speak. Freezing is not a viable option.
MURIEL WILKINS: Choosing one or the other is also not a viable option because it means you’re either pulling back completely or you’re pushing forward in a way that may have a negative impact on the organization. So what choice do we have but then to hold the end. How can I continue to be a learner and at the same time offer perspective. You can do that by messaging, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: So if we were to go back to that example that you gave around the executive who asked you what do you think about this team member? You were to have that conversation again but in a way where you held the end, I’m a learner and I have a perspective, how would you show up this time around?
KIRSTY: I would say, this is my perception of working with them so far. I’d list out what my perception is. I’d give a couple of examples. I’d also say, but let me caveat that with the fact that I don’t know them well. I still want to get to know them more either to prove, further confirm my perceptions or shift my perception.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So you can caveat it, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: What else would’ve given you more of an inner sense of confidence in responding not only that but also quite frankly approach the other executive at the same level that they’re at?
KIRSTY: Yeah. What gives me that level of confidence is knowing what I’m walking into. If we knew that I was going to take him on and his business and I had that opportunity to learn about his style, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what’s important to him and I didn’t have any of that with him.
MURIEL WILKINS: In lieu of having that because I mean this isn’t the last time that you won’t have all that background information, right? In lieu of having that, what strategies or approach do you think you can take to give you more context?
KIRSTY: I could connect with others who know this person, right? Who’s worked with this person. Those are ways that I can get more context.
MURIEL WILKINS: By now Kirsty has faced the root of the issue for her. Does she belong in the room? It’s clear that question has impacted her confidence. As a result, she unintentionally sees no other option when facing executives but to not voice her perspective and not assert herself. So the question becomes, how does she turn this around? It starts by KIRSTY recognizing that she does have other choices in how to approach her interactions. Only when she can see what her other options are will she be able to bring her voice into the room with more confidence. Your ability to bring your voice into the room. I’m not even going to call it your VP voice because I think it’s actually your voice. It just happens to be in a VP [inaudible 00:24:47], right? So you’ve always had that voice but it’s now bringing it into this particular room or your ability as you said, to use your power. Your power really lies in your capacity to see the choices in front of you of how to deal with that particular situation. You feel powerless when you feel like you don’t have options. In that moment, what you probably experienced is, I don’t want to say anything. I can’t say anything. My only option is to not say anything because any other option will potentially put me at risk of not being incredible and showing up as though I don’t know what I’m talking about or somebody doing something reckless with my information. So my only option is to not say anything. What I would encourage you to do is, when you think about yourself, how do I use my power? It’s to be able to say, okay, actually let me see the situation for what it is. Not bigger than what it is. Just for what it is and what options do I have right now. I can share information. I can caveat it. I can ask for context. I can mitigate risk, right? So my guess is this is showing up in a couple of different areas around this how can I accelerate the use of my voice?
KIRSTY: I would say amongst my peers. So I’m at this level with individuals who have been vice presidents in this company for probably over 20 years. There is a way of operating at that level. Then you have a couple who are relatively new to the level coming in with probably different experiences because we’ve worked different places and different viewpoints. I believe that my leaders are waiting for me to show up as a leader in that space, right? A leader of leaders. They’re waiting for me to show up that way amongst my peers who have been at this level for a while. I find myself in that same space of holding back exactly some of the items that we’ve talked about before.
MURIEL WILKINS: Do you have a sense for those stakeholders? What their expectations are in terms of what it means for you to step up?
KIRSTY: I haven’t asked that question.
MURIEL WILKINS: Because on the one hand, I think it’s great that you feel an inner sense of I feel like I don’t have a voice, right? We’ve dug into why that is but you’re also doing this within a system. It’s helpful to also understand what does the system see as success. You don’t have to do that in a way that is… I mean a lot of times you’re like, that’s feedback. I don’t think is a feedback exercise. I think this is a… Because you’ve now been in the role how long? Six months.
KIRSTY: About six to nine months. Probably not [inaudible 00:28:12].
MURIEL WILKINS: Six to nine months. Perfect opportunity to do a onboarding pulse check listening to.
KIRSTY: I love that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Identify who these key stakeholders are. Sit down with them. Say, now I’ve been in the role six to nine months. What’s working well? What’s not working well? More importantly, what are your expectations moving forward? What do you need from the role? Not from you, from the role. What does success look like 12 to 18 months from now? Get a sense of what the expectations are. Not so that then you can cater to every single expectation. But what that will enable you to do is take that information back and now be able to sit down and do exactly use one of the wings that has been your superpower in past jobs when you’ve had to navigate terrain. Be able to sit back and say, okay, now I can break this down into manageable chunks and I can prioritize. Because I get the sense that right now what’s happened is, it’s this vast ocean and you’re just like, try to find your way, you’re soaring. You’re like, it’s big. That’s all I know. It’s big. You’re swooping in here and there and making impact. Now is the time to reign it in and quite frankly, to set your own agenda but you don’t want to do that in a vacuum. You want to do that being informed by what the expectations of your stakeholder in the business are.
KIRSTY: Yes. You’ve tapped directly into how I’m feeling. What you just described is exactly what’s happening. It’s a big ocean and I’m diving into certain pieces but… That leaves me with a sense of feeling out of control. That feeling feeds into this question in my mind around, do I belong here?
MURIEL WILKINS: So it’s a vicious cycle. When you feel out of control, what you’ve done in the past is you’ve taken a step back. You’ve prioritized. You’ve figured out what needs to get done. You’ve lasered in on the things that are most important. The things that you want to accelerate or identifying what are the most critical aspects of your role. Because right now, do you have an agenda for what your role is? Do you have a sense of what your priorities are and how much it resonates with the rest of the organization?
KIRSTY: I guess that interesting part is when I start to look at it across the different businesses, is where it varies. That adds to the complexity.
MURIEL WILKINS: If you can imagine the T formation. You have gotten the breadth of strategically, here are the three or four areas that I’m going to be focused on. Here is the framework at a high level. But what seems to be where there’s opportunity for you is the depth in each of the businesses and even more so than the businesses, each of the individuals, right? I would encourage you now to start thinking about what does it look like for you to now go deep? You’ve done the breadth. How do you go deep to ramp up on your knowledge and your perspective? Because once you have a point of view, then you can have actually start articulating it.
KIRSTY: That begins to create this confidence and comfort and understanding where I need to hone in with each of these businesses. So [inaudible 00:32:21] been a very thoughtful, intentional way.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yes. Absolutely. Look, I think it’s great to build the confidence. I’m going to suggest that you don’t hold onto the confidence so tightly that when it goes, you’re like, oh my God, I’m starting all over again because you’re not. Many of us are confidence chasers.
KIRSTY: I love that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Like the tornado chasers. We’re confidence chasers. I mean, confidence is great. Believe me. Yes, I want everybody to be confident. It’s also a feeling, right? It’s how you’re experiencing that moment. Where I would like to see you is whether you’re feeling confident or not confident, you’re going to deal with the moment. Whether you’re feeling confident or not confident, do you see the choices? You have to know what your choice are which we’ve talked about. It’s the different ways of communicating. You have to see the choices in terms of the horizontal and the depth. The depth being the business and then the individual leaders that you’re dealing with.
KIRSTY: I love that. The power and the confidence is just the feeling but really defining what power is. That resonates with me so deeply. Because what I thought coming into the discussion was around confidence and using my voice is really more around, do I even understand what the power is and where it lies and how to leverage that and use that. It’s very insightful.
MURIEL WILKINS: I feel like we have covered a lot.
MURIEL WILKINS: I’d love to hear, one, what your takeaways are. Then two, what you’re going to do differently tomorrow.
KIRSTY: Yeah. I would say I have a few takeaways. Where do I even start? One is understanding all of the capabilities, skillsets, power, confidence that I do have from my life experiences and how they compare to work. So with me being hesitant to tackle certain issues or not having that confidence to tackle certain issues. The realization that I’ve done it before in my life and being able to carry that over. That’s one thing. I think the other takeaway is my wings, right? Of breaking it down into pieces and the other wing of approaching the way I approach things with the level of openness. That was just very insightful and resonated with me. Then the other pieces of course around power and what power is. It’s seeing the choices in front of you and seeing all the options. That in fact would give me confidence to show up and differently being able to articulate my views and also being comfortable enough to be very directive around how someone uses information that I give them. I love the T factor analogy. The breadth and the depth of helping me get more focused. For me, those are the takeaways. What I will do differently starting tomorrow, even tonight even, is journal my perceptions and really think about each of the businesses and be prepared to have some questions for those leaders when I meet with them again.
MURIEL WILKINS: One last question for you. Do you have… What are your sounding boards internally? Who do you go to, to just run things by and get a sense of what’s happening?
KIRSTY: There’s definitely a couple of individuals that I trust. I have to say hand on heart, I have not been leveraging them as much as I could. They’ve been at this level for a while in this organization.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I think you need to have your internal board of advisors. Because in addition to this image that I have of you seeing the whole ocean, I get this image that you’re flying on your own and it doesn’t sound like you are. One of the things that’s very helpful… I mean, there’s the cliche of it gets lonelier as you rise up the ladder and it’s true. But it doesn’t have to be. The difference is that we have to ask for the support. Couple with people who are sounding boards. Set up regular conversations with them. Will then enable you to kick the tires around some of your perspective as well as learn more about what it means to operate at this level in this particular organization.
KIRSTY: Yeah. I know exactly who those individuals are. Capturing their [inaudible 00:38:11] now.
MURIEL WILKINS: That’s great. I think we have landed the plane.
KIRSTY: Yes. This has been amazing. This experience has been absolutely amazing. You’ve unlocked so many things for me. I really appreciate it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Well, you’ve unlocked them. I just play back what you said. Thank you. Kirsty is not alone in experiencing a crisis of confidence when starting a more senior role. It can happen to anyone and make you question if you even belong at this new level. That’s why Kirsty’s ability to be honest with herself about the root of her uncertainty enabled her to then move to action in a way that reflects that she’s both a learner and a contributor. It is at this intersection where her voice truly lies. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders and for season two of the show. I’d love to hear what your favorite episode was this season and what you learned from it. If you’re dealing with a leadership challenge, please reach out. You can apply to be a guest on the show at coachingrealleaders.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn or on Twitter @MurielMWilkins or on Instagram @CoachMurielWilkins. Thanks to my producer Mary Dooe, music composer Brian Campbell and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations and to you our listeners who shared in their journeys. Of course, if you love the show and learnt from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe, leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Muriel Wilkins.