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How Do I Prove I’m the Right Person for a Different Leadership Role?

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 John to protect his confidentiality. He works in the marine industry as a boat captain, and it’s something he’s been passionate about for as long as he can remember.

JOHN: I started in boats when I was eight years old. I had my own boat well before I even knew how to drive a car, and it just happened. It was funny because my father was very corporate, and I always said that I would never want an office job. Don’t work on boats, you’ll never have a good living.

Some of it was rebellion, I guess, at first, saying, “I’m going to go into this industry and make it happen.” But at this point it’s all I know. I love it. I mean, it’s really hard to have a bad day when your job is riding around in the water all day. I like it that it’s different every day. I like it that it’s a challenge every day.

It doesn’t matter how capable you are, there’s elements of it that are completely out of anyone’s control. Mother nature for one, even if it’s the same, every day is different.

MURIEL WILKINS: John has moved through different parts of the industry and has proven himself as a leader on the water, but as his professional and personal aspirations have shifted, he’s moved closer to the corporate side and wants to make that transition more permanent.

JOHN: I have been bridging the gap between captain and then working in the operations area of the company, on the corporate side of things. And what I’m trying to get at is moving fully into the operations. I have made a transition that very few people are able to pull off, coming from, let’s say, the working class of the industry into the office job, and that’s where I’m struggling with getting to the next level.

MURIEL WILKINS: John has been successful in making this transition so far in part because of his ability to jump in and help fix problems. He’s become someone a lot of the management team calls on in a pinch, but he’s struggling to make sure that translates into long-term, full-time value and the permanent role. I started the conversation by asking him why he thinks he has become someone that people can call on.

JOHN: Part of it is my personal want for more. Sometimes I just inject myself where I want to go and just say, “Hey, I want to be here so I’m going to tag along and learn and do it to the best of my ability until you think that I’m worthy of being brought along.” So, I did some of that, which was just inserting myself wherever I could.

There’s a split reputation, which is always the guy that gets it done, the guy that you can count on. I think the negative part of that, which is affecting me now with this transition is that I always get it done. There may be some friction there in terms of I’m plowing ahead, because I want to get somewhere, and for me to get where I want to go, the task at hand needs to be done.

I think that that comes from my early experience in the industry, in the career, where it’s tough being a captain because no one else is watching you manage. You’re on the boat, your job is the boss. Everyone understands that there is no negotiation. You can’t go about it like I’m the king. That’s not what I’m saying.

But at the same time, there’s a very clear, “This is what the expectations are and this is what’s going to happen.” So, I bring some of that with me while trying to get into the new space, and I think it’s ruffled a few feathers in the completely corporate world.

MURIEL WILKINS: Alright, so tell me a little bit about this. You’re now wanting more on the corporate side?

JOHN: Yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what is the more, what is it that you’re trying to accomplish? If 12 months from now, we talked and you said, “Mission accomplished,” what would that be? What is it that would be different?

JOHN: That would be the, I guess, creation of a position for me, and the validation that I am there on the operation side of things. Because right now I’m asked to help on the corporate level and then I go in there to maybe straighten something out or just some lessons.

The people that I’m tasked with going to assist, let’s say, once they figure out what’s happening, you’re like, “Who is this guy and why is he helping me?” Because I’m a manager at this level and this is just John, and John’s title is John.


JOHN: The fixer. That’s been difficult and that’s also caused a little, I think, of the reputation of me coming in with, I don’t want to say friction, not yelling and screaming, but there’s a certain amount of I need to prove what I’m doing there every time, because there’s an awful lot of people that don’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing.


So, what I’m hearing is you are being placed in a position to make some changes, fix some things?

JOHN: Yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: And when you’re coming in, the people who are going to be impacted are like, “Why is he here?” Because they don’t know who you are or because you don’t have the title or both?

JOHN: It’s not so much as a, Why is he here? They understand that what I’m there to fix are said issues at hand. It’s not, Why am I there? It’s, Why am I the person that’s there? If that helps delineate it.

MURIEL WILKINS: Why is he the person that’s there? And so, as a result of that, you then feel like you have to prove that you should be the person that’s there, and then what happens?

JOHN: I mean nothing. Then we just get to work about whatever the task at hand is. It’s just a very odd dynamic.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what you would like, and correct me if I’m wrong here, what you would like is you walk in and they’re like, “Oh, it’s John.”

JOHN: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s get on with it.

JOHN: I think there’s a lot of unnecessary explaining every time that needs to happen about experience, qualifications, trust and expectations. I’m at that position where I feel I really need to drive it home or I’m not sure where the future leads with this.

MURIEL WILKINS: Alright. So, if you need to drive it home, who do you need to drive it home with?

JOHN: The people that question while I’m there, there’s never been a problem. After we work together, after there’s some training, it’s all good. After the initial, “This is what we’re doing. You came from the corporate space, I came from more of the industry space. So, we need to talk, we need to combine, and then that’s how we can move forward here to help you.”

Because these people are doing something that is not operations, it’s just a more micro thing. Nobody complains, there’s no issues. But from the complete corporate side, they have their checklist and business degree. No. Formal education other than Maritime College? No.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what have they said to you? What conversations have ensued?

JOHN: And that I think is why I’m also seeking your expertise, is getting those conversations to happen. There has been no conversations that say no, but no one really gets down to the nitty-gritty of the conversation, and I’m trying to nudge that along to make that happen.

That’s where it’s a little difficult because I get sent out to work in the field of different things and then they’re all in the office and then I come back and it’s just, it’s a leave and come back. There’s not a constant relationship there with the people that I feel have a say in me moving up.

MURIEL WILKINS: Alright. So, if you were, let’s imagine that you can get the conversation to the nitty-gritty that you want it to get to. What would that look like?

JOHN: Clearer expectations of the role and/or role being created, I’m not so much worried about compensation and things like that. I mean, obviously that’s part of it, but it’s I’m doing two jobs, completely different. They don’t overlap, and it’s just an odd mix on all sides.

When I flip into the operations role, usually it’s assisting new people coming into the company from a different side of the industry. So, their expectations are unclear and perhaps their knowledge base is not… We’re not on the same level about the same things. I’m trying to figure out how to word it, is that they expect me to do what I do, which is why I get sent to do it. But at the end of the day, there is no sheet that says, “This is what you’re doing.”

MURIEL WILKINS: What do you think is getting in the way of it being on a sheet that says, “This is part of your job description.”?

JOHN: I think that my little position is probably not the highest priority right now. There’s massive changes going on, which I understand that, which is why I’ve tried to be patient with this. But again, going back to watching what’s going on, I feel I need to make it stick.

It’s not a personal problem and it’s not even a business problem, it’s just they don’t come from the industry. They’re learning and the whole thing is so foreign and so unique that I’m not sure that anyone knows how to start and wrap their head around it.

MURIEL WILKINS: Alright. Let’s talk about the supporters that you have, because it sounds like you do have some folks who are very positive on you and support you.

JOHN: Yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: What conversations have you had with them about all this?

JOHN: One I’m very close with. We’ve had conversations. He’s helped me quite a bit in terms of getting here and seeing my desire to get here, as well as the other supporter. They see it. I have a desire to get here. I do what I can. I learn a lot. Anywhere that I can soak up knowledge to better myself and get somewhere, I do.

We spoke earlier in this about, I like the industry, because it’s a different challenge every day. I mean, I’m a person that gets up every day and goes, what’s today’s challenge? Whatever it is, I want one. Even if it’s a little one and I want to get through it and be higher on the other side. So, they both see that.

They’ve helped me a lot. They have to protect themselves as well, so they can only go so far. And I understand that. What I’m trying to get is I just need my foot in the next door just a little bit.

MURIEL WILKINS: And the next door, what is the next door for you?

JOHN: Creating this little operations assistant position and being on the road there.

MURIEL WILKINS: And have you made that specific ask?

JOHN: Yes. I’ve done a couple courses with that. The company has paid for me to do some training. They are doing everything that they can, and we’re just going to the corporate side of things and trying to say, “Listen, here’s everything that we’ve done. Here’s all the education, here’s all the skills, here’s all the history. Let’s create a role here.” And we never get no, but we don’t get yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, you don’t get no, you don’t get yes. You’re in limbo. You have these folks who support you. They also agree with you that a role could be carved out for you. It’s taken to corporate, they take it to corporate or you take it to corporate?

JOHN: They have.

MURIEL WILKINS: They take it to corporate. The response is not a no, it’s not a yes. I feel like we’re doing, what was it, the three bears?

JOHN: Something like that.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s not hot, it’s not cold, whatever. Something like that. So, what is the response?

JOHN: I mean, the reality of it is there is no actual response. There’s another fire maybe with something else that gets attended to and then it gets circled back, and there’s a lot going on and there’s some bigger fires that have been put out. Where I am is, “You’ve put me through this training, I’ve showed my desire to do it. Let’s get there. Let’s make it a priority.”

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what is stopping you from saying exactly what you just said to me to the folks that in corporate? I know you don’t have as much of a deep relationship with them as you do with these other individuals, but what has stopped you from having that direct conversation with them?

JOHN: The fact that we don’t really have a chance to have direct communication unless it’s about an issue at hand. There’s not really room for, shall I say, free speech. It’s, “This is what you’re up to. How are we resolving this? This is what we need you to be up to. Have a good day.”

Trying to get somebody’s ear long enough has been tough, and then when I do, it gets put back down a level to my people and then my people bring it up again and then it’s this cycle that has been going on. Then I’ll do more training. I’ll do more courses. Great.

Then there’s been a lot of turnover at that corporate level. So, that’s also been a little bit of a hindrance, because there’s a learning curve, let’s face it, of a year or so before anybody’s really comfortable in what they’re doing. So, we’ve gone through that with upper management changes.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, you’re saying that if you were to, I’m a tactical type of person, you’re saying if you try to get on the calendar for one of these folks up in corporate and you just, whoever you need to contact to get 30 minutes on their calendar, they wouldn’t take the meeting?

JOHN: They would say, “Well, you have to go through your manager to get to us,” which has been done. Part of the need of trying to prove that I fit in is I really don’t want to step on anybody’s toes and I don’t want to seem too pushy, and I don’t consider myself a timid person to how I’ve got here. But now that I have something that is to me delicate that I really want, I’m almost at the point where I just want to take it real easy. I don’t want to be seen as coming in charging, saying, “Give me, give me.”

MURIEL WILKINS: I understand, and so there’s a part of you want an answer and the part of you who wants the answer is, “Come on already, let’s get to it. Let’s have the conversation. Let’s put it down on paper, let’s make it happen.” And then there’s the other side of you that’s like, “Hey, there’s a lot going on. You don’t want to ruffle any feathers because if you ruffle any feathers, it can end up not being the response that you want.”

I think you need to think about what do you feel most comfortable with doing because you’re seeing the potential impact of both, and neither one is giving you the actual result that you want today. But which one do you feel you could live with the most at this point?

JOHN: I suppose I like to say rip the Bandaid off and just get the answer. I’m at the point of my career where I’d like to make something happen. I’ve now done this transition twice in two different careers. So, I know that if I push too hard for the answer with what’s happening with the industry right now, I don’t think I’ll be out of a job at all. But I don’t know what the job will be. So, I didn’t answer your question. That was the same answer as I’m afraid to know the answer, but I want it tomorrow.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, I mean, that’s the trade-off. I can’t give you an answer around that, but that’s the trade-off. The trade-off is do you push hard today for an answer knowing that it might not be the answer that you want, or do you let it play out? Also knowing that it might not be the answer you want. It could be. It could not be. I mean, so at the end of the day, there’s uncertainty here.

When John and I started the coaching session, his challenge seemed relatively straightforward. He was looking to find a permanent position in a different kind of role at his organization than what he’d previously done. He wanted to know how to face the headwinds.

But just because a problem is straightforward doesn’t make it simple, because in the case of a promotion or job change, it isn’t always just about you and the work you put in. It’s also about the preconceived notions or past experiences you bring with you and the preconceived notions others have about you.

I wanted to get some basic ground covered with John first, why he wanted this job, what he had done in similar roles so far, and perhaps most importantly, what if anything, he had concretely done to get this new permanent role created. And as I started getting those details, we started to scratch the surface of something deeper, why he felt it was time in his career for this kind of move.

We’ll dive into this more as the session goes on, but first I wanted to help him think about similar experiences he’s had in the past when he faced uncertainties. When you’ve had to make these types of choices before where it’s go now or wait and let it play out, how have you made those decisions?

JOHN: Always pushed, always gone now, and that comes back to the conversation we’ve had a little earlier, is I think one reputation that is detracting a little bit is being a hard charger. And I think that every company needs the people that get it done, but then we also get labeled as not team players, I guess.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, do you think that’s detracting from you getting the answer or?

JOHN: I think that’s my biggest detractor for the whole thing, because I don’t think that the people that are probably not on my team, I mean, when I say they’re not on my team, no one has said no. There’s never been any issue. But we all work in companies, we all know conversations happen.

I think that’s the conversation that I’ve been trying so hard to prove because I’ve taken all the courses, I’ve done all this thing, done schoolwork, and that’s where we are is I’m just trying really hard to show I understand what your concerns are, folks. I’ve heard them and look at me playing nice.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I hear you around the trying hard to make it happen. And part of what I really appreciated around when I asked you what do you love about your career or even getting into this space, getting into working in maritime, as you said, “I love the fact that every day I wake up and it’s a challenge and I’m dealing with things like Mother Nature that are out of your control.” So, what I’m hearing is there’s a lot here that’s out of your control.

JOHN: Yes, and where it is it’s coming from a confidence of the things that I deal with out of my control from the maritime space I know how to deal with and the sales side of the company. Those are things that when I started doing this, I was just faking it until I made it with my direct supervisor, and he gave me as much knowledge as he could.

But let’s face it, and as I said to you, this is a little outside of the normal wheelhouse because I don’t have a business education, and I’m getting deeply into the business side of the company, and there’s definitely times at the conference table where I feel like I’m in elementary school, don’t let the teacher call on me.

Go home, do all my research, learn it, and I have, and know enough to talk the talk, but I don’t want to be seen through. I don’t feel like I’m faking it. I don’t feel like I don’t belong at all, and no one has ever said that, but certainly I am aware of areas I could learn in.

MURIEL WILKINS: You’re a learner and that’s okay. I think the question is do they feel is the expectation that you need to know more on the business side in order to have an official title in that capacity? But I think there’s a couple of things here, because on the one hand, there are things that are happening at the macro level. They are out of your control. That’s happening whether you’re there or you’re not there. It’s the Mother Nature of your company right now.

Then there are the things that are within your control, which I’m hearing as what are the capabilities that I need to build up as somebody credible in this role, just in terms of background and knowledge? How do I make sure that my behavior is aligned with being seen as a team player and a collaborator? And if that’s the expectation, one that doesn’t alienate folks.

And then what is also in your control, the third piece that’s in your control, is how hard do I push for clarity of this role given everything going on? So, those are the three things that I hear. The number one around the gaining the knowledge, it sounds like you’re working on. You’re taking classes, you’re going home and doing the research, etc., check done. You’re working on that.

There’s the second piece around what are you doing relative to this potential reputation that you said you have that is also possibly contributing to being a detractor from you getting the role that you want. So, on the behavioral side, meaning how you deal with people and showing up more as a team player, more collaborator, what are you doing on that end?

JOHN: This sounds so cliche, but engage your brain before speaking, thinking hard about how my view of the situation from the industry side and then putting on top of it the corporate side and what the company and the restructuring is trying to get and saying, how can I meld the two thoughts for pertinent information only?

No one has ever said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” But I think people have said, “Well, that doesn’t matter.” And to me, getting bogged down in the micro comes across sometimes as not a team player, because we’re not talking about the micro at the operations level. We are to some extent, but it’s a more general idea.

So that’s one thing I’ve been working on is not trying to bog down in details that are not necessarily need to be at the table. If I have a solution trying to, “How can we do this? What about this?” And not trying to be like, “Well, I don’t know what people don’t see.” And I know that that’s a weak point of mine.

I fully admit it, and that’s why this transition, I do feel a little on eggshells. So, certainly been trying there, emailing everyone that should be emailed, not going around people. I mean, all the basic stuff that we do, it’s been a learning curve there, but just trying really hard to think about how can we involve people to all come to solution that we need to at all levels.

I’ve always of the mind when I was just a captain, everybody needs to be on board with what’s happening, may not agree with it, but everybody needs to know what’s going on. And I think that there was a part of me when I first got into this role and was learning it that just didn’t involve the people that didn’t want to play along, whether they could contribute or not. In that particular instance, everyone needs to be involved, so that’s been a little bit of a curve there.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, that’s been a focus for you, and you’re working that piece of it. So, that means category number two, let me make sure I’m being a team player, is work in progress, but you’re not ignoring it and you’re working towards it.

JOHN: And as of recent, there’s never been a comment about that. There certainly was much earlier on in this process, which is why I’m very sensitive to that, but there’s been no problems there. It’s just something that I know that I need to work extra hard on, and it’s also bogging me down at the same time, because I feel that I focus almost too much on that to where I lose a little bit of myself in the let’s make a plan and get after it.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, may I suggest in that area that you’re not necessarily losing a bit of yourself. You’re using one of the muscles that you have less, well…countering that with another muscle that you’re building.

JOHN: I suppose. I get that. I get it. I completely understand that.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, look, I think you’re sort of saying, “Hey, in order for me to have X, Y, Z position, I need to be able to do it in a more collaborative way or including more people.”

JOHN: Yes, yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: Does that mean that you’re losing a part of yourself? No, because that “get it done” piece of you is still there. It’s not like you’re kicking it to the curb and saying, “Never, ever show up again.” You’re just saying, “In this particular situation, that’s not what’s going to help me get to my goal.” So, which one is it? Is it that you just want to keep doing things the way you have been doing them or do you want to do things that are going to get you closer to your goal?

JOHN: I have learned that getting it done on Wednesday sometimes is better than getting it done on Tuesday if everyone agrees.

MURIEL WILKINS: Exactly, and that’s the situation, I mean, I think that’s the issue with this whole, “What’s next? What’s the role? Let’s make it clear.” Having the answer today, it sounds like, would make you a heck of a lot more comfortable because it provides you with the security that you know it’s your role and you can, as you said, show up and have that credibility, etc.

But I don’t have clarity around how it would benefit everyone else, the decision makers, how would it benefit them to have clarity on your role today? How would that benefit them in any way?

JOHN: I feel that it would benefit them because they then know that they have a person in that role which they can utilize without the added layer of, “Oh, John has that ability, send him.”

MURIEL WILKINS: But they already have you in the role?

JOHN: Well, they do, but the people that support me, I feel, always remind the folks that necessarily don’t, “Send John.” So, I feel like if the role is there, then everyone’s in agreement that it’s been earned, which I’ve tried to do to the best of my ability at a point in my career where I feel it’s a pivotal time to make the move.

But trying to figure out how to word this here. If I’m in the position that’s been created with rules and regulations and expectations, then that’s my role and I can be utilized in it.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, here’s the thing. I think that this is an exercise in getting people to see things the way that you’re seeing it. What’s unclear to me is, as I mentioned before, do they see the benefit of having that level of expectation? Because guess what? Regardless of whether they’ve given you the title or not, minus that little extra step of, “Send John,” you’re doing it, you’re fulfilling the role.

JOHN: Well, right, and I think also what would benefit them is, and this goes back to the start of the conversation, when I go and the people that I’m working with don’t necessarily understand my role, because there is no role. There’s a lot of back and forth that has to go back up to them that tells the person, “Yes, we’ve decided that John is the guy for this.” I feel that could be a little benefit to them, because there’s an awful lot of time wasted.

MURIEL WILKINS: I understand that. I think I’m asking is that a real pain point for them? Does it matter? Because if it doesn’t matter, there’s not going to be any urgency to make that decision today.

JOHN: I don’t think it’s a pain point, they just have to deal with it. I mean, every time I get sent somewhere, there’s probably two days worth of emails that go back and forth about it before I can implement anything, so if they’re fine with that.

MURIEL WILKINS: What would create the sense of urgency that would make them come to a decision of whether there should be clarity or not or whether you have the role or not on Tuesday versus Wednesday, as you put it?

JOHN: I don’t know, to be honest with you. A lot of people are filling roles that are gray area, and I feel that that’s bogging down the entire process, because I think there’s probably a lot of people in my position. I think there’s a lot of gray area, all the way up and down, and it’s just bogging down a lot of things.

MURIEL WILKINS: Alright, so let’s go back to the choices. The choices, do you push today or do you wait it out, keep doing what you’re doing, even though there’s some discomfort with it, keep doing what you’re doing, and wait it out til there’s a little less uncertainty organizationally, and then you make your move. We’ve been talking a lot about what it looks like if you push today. What would it mean to you if you waited it out?

JOHN: I mean, the self-satisfaction of knowing that I made it would be nice, but that’s not really not a factor in company. But just knowing that everything I’ve done and tried to accomplish and have been able to accomplish for someone who really on paper probably shouldn’t have been able to get there, that would be good. I will continue to do what I do because that’s just who I am. I will always do what I am expecting to do to the best of my ability, but with a little bit of a push along the way, I’m sure.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean I feel like either way, you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing, it sounds like.

JOHN: But with all the uncertainty and everything, I don’t want to keep doing what I’m doing until there’s no opportunity to do it anymore, is where I’m at. I don’t feel that if I don’t secure this position, there’s no upward mobility. If this doesn’t happen, I will be at this level for the foreseeable future.

MURIEL WILKINS: Got it. What I wanted to double click on is whether you are going through some of the basics of what it means to try to secure a position. From what I’m hearing from you, it sounds like you are. I think the question is how much pressure can you put on the people who do support you to get some clarity?

If you don’t have access to that upper management, which is what you’re telling me is that you don’t have access to them, then somebody else needs to be speaking on your behalf. So, are they putting the type of pressure that you think is warranted?

JOHN: Well, I think there’s a certain kind of apathy for it. “Well, it doesn’t matter, John, because we’re going to get you there and then there’s going to be a change and a restructure and a new person, and you’re still going to be doing what you’re doing and we’re going to have to relearn the system.”

So, they have put the pressure on, and some of that is also to your point about when do I need the answer. I supposed at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. If I got the answer tomorrow, then things could change the next day, and all it is, is a different business card, really.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, you want an answer, which I get. I’m not trying to dismiss that. You’re not sure if you’re going to get the answer that you want, whether that’s today or tomorrow. You don’t know if you’re going to get any answer at all, because that’s what’s been happening. I’m a little curious around what’s the consequence of you not getting an answer? If you never get an answer, what are you going to do?

JOHN: I would keep doing this right now and perhaps start to pursue other opportunities, but the problem with that is getting to this particular transition level would be extremely difficult if I was to start over. I don’t know that that would be warranted, and I don’t want to make that move.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, there’s a bit of a, man, this is what’s coming up for me. My mom, when she was alive, one of her favorite things to do is she’d go to church. But then after church, she would go to the casino and play the slots.

JOHN: Sounds like my kind of Sunday.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I used to be like, “Mom,” I would just wait for her outside, it’s not my thing. And I used to be like, “How long are you staying?” She’s like, “Well, if I leave now, I’m either leaving with nothing because I haven’t lost, I’ve netted out zero, or I’m leaving with whatever – the $25,” that she had won at that point. “But if I stay, maybe there’s the possibility that I’m going to get more. And so, what do I do?”

And I’m not comparing your career literally to playing the slots. It’s not that unpredictable, but there’s a bit of hedging that you’re doing. And in those situations, there’s really no right answer. It’s not that black and white. There’s more of which one do I feel provides me with what I want the most at this point?

Maybe you then give yourself a deadline or a milestone and say, “If I don’t have an answer, if I don’t have clarity by X period of time, then I have to make a decision then. Do I start looking elsewhere, knowing that I wouldn’t be starting at the level that I’m at now? I’d be starting a little bit over again, or do I continue to stay?” It’s always a trade-off.

I think right now, because there isn’t clarity, you’re not getting that clarity from above. Only you can answer for yourself which one feels the most right for you at this moment.

JOHN: This is why I buy scratch-off tickets. You just know then and there, scratch the ticket. You’re right, and if the industry wasn’t in such flux, the whole industry, I don’t think there’d be as much pressure to try to nail this down. Industry-wide, not company-wide at this point. That’s just an added pressure at this point.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, again, I think you’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and I hear you around wanting to nail it down and you wisely said, “Even if I nail it down, doesn’t mean that it’s going to be nailed down tomorrow.” So, if we pull back bigger picture, I think what you’re looking for is some sense of stability and security in the larger context of a lot of flux and change.

Where you’re looking, you’re looking for this job clarity piece that anchor, but it’s saying, “I ain’t it. I’m not the anchor right now.” So, to me, John, there’s a little bit of are there other areas that you could look for that gives you some form of stability while you wait for the clarification of expectations?

Or it’s not even wait, because I don’t think you’re being passive. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you were being passive, but while you continue to do the work to get clarity, so that’s a question to you. What do you think you can anchor in to give you the wherewithal to continue to do the work that you have been doing to get clarity?

JOHN: I mean, in the company, I always make a point now of the people that, I don’t want to say doubters, but that needed clarification of why I was there in the first place. Once we get past that, I always make it a point to reach out and keep good relationships. Almost, they’re not enemies, but keep your enemies closer kind of thing.

That has served me well because being able to convert people, and convert’s the wrong word, I make it like it’s an us-versus-them thing. It wasn’t. No one’s against me, but some of the doubters I have definitely been able to nudge in my favor. So, that gives me a lot of purpose in terms of just keep doing what I’m doing, prove it, show it.

Something good has to come of that, is the way that I feel about it. But then I’m also seeing, not necessarily in this world. We all have uncertainty, but trying to get into the corporate space is a little more certainty than just in this industry than one level down.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, I get it, and I wish I could tell you, “Here’s the 1, 2, 3 that’s going to get you a 100% guaranteed corporate security.” But heck, corporate security is not, there is no such thing. It might be more secure than the world that you were in before, for sure, relatively in terms of job security maybe, or just however you want to define security. But there is no guarantee.

JOHN: I always feel like if I got to the next point, if for whatever reason that didn’t work out, at least getting to that point would give you a leg up on starting higher or elsewhere.

MURIEL WILKINS: Great. So, let’s keep that, and that’s one story. Alright, that’s one trajectory that you could be in. If you get there, it’ll give you a leg up. That’s a possibility. That’s the potential book that you’ll write. There might also be, because this is the future, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

Even if you take all these steps that you’re taking, the other story might be, “Hey, John, you did all these things. You checked all the boxes, and because of all this gray area, because of things being so in flux, it didn’t work out that way. You didn’t get that role that you had been eyeing.” So, how do you finish that story?

JOHN: How do I finish that story?

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s up to you. Does it necessarily mean you don’t have a leg up? I mean, that’s one way to end it. But is there a way of ending that story where you still can pursue whatever goals you have?

JOHN: I mean, if you just keep going along, if I just keep going along my merry way here, doing what I’ve been doing, and don’t get there, I mean, it’s still the same thing at the end of the day, I suppose.

MURIEL WILKINS: I know it might not be the book that you want to write.

JOHN: It’s not even about the title in terms of having “the title.” It’s about the recognition for the efforts, where I’m trying to go and the ability to say, “Here we are,” respected seat at the table.

MURIEL WILKINS: Before we can really start crafting an action plan. We have to really understand what the goal is and what might be holding someone back from that goal. And more importantly, what is and isn’t in our control.

In this conversation, we headed down the path of what if a bit to really face his uncertainty, even embrace it, because as much as John wants to reach his goal, the reality is that like the weather, we can’t always control what our boss or our industry or our economy is doing.

Taking a step back and getting perspective can actually help us gain confidence. We can’t predict the future, but we can control what’s in our control in the present. With that in mind, let’s see where John wants to take it from here.

So, do the efforts mean anything if you don’t get the seat at the table?

JOHN: Yes, because if it wasn’t for the efforts, I wouldn’t even have the chance. This chance does not exist elsewhere in the world. If we really zoom in right now to how I’ve come up and what I’m doing, making the transition, commercial, commercial corporate, recreational, recreational corporate, not a lot of that. It’s not a big industry. So, the efforts do mean something. I mean, there’s enough people that have seen it happen that getting here is almost just as good as finishing here.

MURIEL WILKINS: But it would be nice to also get the seat at the table.

JOHN: But I don’t want to be finished here.

MURIEL WILKINS: I understand, and so I think though what we’re doing is opening the aperture to say, the end all is not getting the seat at the table. It would be nice. I want that for you. You want that for you, and recognize that it may happen, it may not happen. Or even third, it may not happen on your time, because that time piece is the part that’s not in your control.

So, then knowing all of that, it is a decision around do I push for it to try to make it happen right now, knowing that it doesn’t look like people are really willing to make that decision? Or do I continue to put in the effort, continue to have the conversations, continue to express my interest in this, continue to try to get closer to whoever the decision makers are, continue to try to schedule time with them?

No matter how many times they say, “Talk to your manager, talk to your manager.” Bring the managers along with me, schedule time for all of us to sit and talk until I get to a point where I’m like, you know what? The effort’s not worth it to me anymore, which maybe you’ll never get to.

JOHN: It goes back to the challenge we talked about. I got to probably where I am faster than most at an age younger than most. Every time I’ve always gone from more, I’ve gotten more. And now that I can’t have it, it’s not that I can’t have it, it just hasn’t happened.

MURIEL WILKINS: It just hasn’t happened on your time. That’s, I think, what the… And for somebody who is, “Let’s just get it done now.”

JOHN: Yesterday, actually. Yesterday would be great.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yesterday. That can be hard, but sometimes just because you want to get something done, as you said before, if nobody else is wanting to get it done, unless you can create a reason for them to get it done now, that’s why I was asking, what creates the urgency for them?

JOHN: I wrote that down. That’s sitting with me about coming up with how does this benefit you reasons.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, I think you have to meet them where they are. You are proposing a change, and in order to get a change through, you have to frame it from a place of how is the change going to benefit these other folks who are decision makers? Not only are you proposing a change, you’re proposing it as an urgent change.

And urgent meaning, “Hey, out of all this stuff that’s happening right now, I would like this for you to be paying attention to this,” which means it needs to be higher on the priority list. Well, how do you make things higher on the priority list? You have to give them a reason for it to be important to them.

JOHN: Yeah, a 100%. Because the way I’ve been looking at it, which you’ve given me the light to today is, “You brought me over here, you let me do this role, so you guys must see something.” I’ve been looking at it too much that way of, “You let me do it,” I need to change my way of thinking about it a little bit to, “What can I do for you?” Instead of, “Look, what I’ve done for you.”


JOHN: I don’t know. It made sense to me.

MURIEL WILKINS: Absolutely. I think that your success has been around people calling you in. You’ve been in demand. When I asked you like, “Oh, well, why are you the guy who gets called in?” You were like, “Oh, just because I get it done, so I get the phone call, I get the phone call.” But now you’re the one having to make the phone call. Nobody’s calling, not nobody. You know what I’m saying.

JOHN: I know what you mean.

MURIEL WILKINS: They’re not calling,

JOHN: And I’m just a results person. So, the whole, in my mind, “Look what I’ve done,” equals, “What can I do for you?” But that’s not necessarily the case. You need to differentiate that.

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s not necessarily the case exactly. So, I think that’s your homework, and I don’t know these folks, so I can’t tell you, “Oh, let me lay out for you what’s important to them.”

I will tell you that when you’re operating at a more senior level, and you are operating or leading or managing or restructuring or a change in the company, framing any opportunity to them in a way where they understand what would be lost if you weren’t the one in that role, from the perspective that they sit at, how do you make the restructuring easier for them? How do you make the issues that they’re dealing with?

So, that’s the homework you need to have. What’s keeping them up at night? And how does you being in this particular role help them get a little more sleep? That’s the question.

JOHN: Yes, it is.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so, do you have a sense of how you might be able to get a little bit more information as to how to answer that question?

JOHN: Yeah. Again, I think if I talk to my direct supervisor, we could break out a little more what I take off his plate. So, what he’s able to do more and get that up to them.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yes. So, without knowing the details, something you might want to look into is, how do you create a proposal for your role. And maybe you provide different options. Here are the three different options of how John can play a role. But show how it fits with this new plan that they’ve articulated and how it will help make that plan succeed.

I think there’s a little bit of making sure that this conversation that you’re having about your career internally and your role is not separate, divorced from what’s happening, bigger picture. Because then it feels like just an aside rather than being critical to what’s happening overall, continuing to put it down, for you to put it down on paper and then use the people, your manager, etc., to try to get it to the folks more senior. Better yet, if there could be a meeting where it’s all of you together, it would give you a chance to present, to pitch yourself.

JOHN: We obviously have many meetings when we’re all together. It’s just always the agenda. So, I need, as you’re saying, put myself on the agenda.

MURIEL WILKINS: You need to put yourself on the agenda. You need to put yourself on the agenda. I mean, to me, the big thing, as you said, “I’m doing great work.” Your mindset has been, “I’m doing great work. They should want me to be in this.”

And that’s what’s worked for you in the past, you’ve been in demand, and now it’s like, “I need to kind of advocate for myself. I need to present it, and all I can do is put the best effort forward to present myself, hoping, how do I increase the chances that they notice and they say yes, but knowing that that’s not a guarantee. “And if it’s not a guarantee, then here’s what I know what I’m going to do.”

JOHN: Exactly.

MURIEL WILKINS: I would love to hear how you’re feeling now versus at the beginning of our conversation and where you’ve gained clarity.

JOHN: Definitely gained clarity in how to present it to the upper management and corporate about what can I do for you? How can me doing that for you affect the big picture, and focus less on, “This is what I have been doing, this is how I’ve been doing it,” which is why I’m allowed a seat at the table in the first place.

That’s been my mindset, which has been, I’ve gotten here based on my merits, and I’m here, but what are we doing? So, now I need to bring it to, I’m here. If I stay here, this is how I can help. You’ve allowed me here because of these reasons, and it’s because of these reasons that I can continue to do these things for you,” and to push and to not be afraid to do a little proposal. I got to the point of where I wanted to be, and then I got gun shy about it going south.

MURIEL WILKINS: And either way, you’ll be able to handle it, because you’ve handled it before, and it turned out pretty good because look at where you are now.

JOHN: Thank you, and again, thanks for taking me. I appreciate it.

MURIEL WILKINS: No matter what the issue, when I coach a client, my goal is not to lead anyone down one path or another. It’s really about guiding them to see and define the trade-offs they face. In John’s case, it’s weighing the trade-offs of whether he should keep pushing for the role he wants or wait it out a bit longer, and then help them start working through where each path might lead, and discerning whether either direction gets them closer to where they really want to go.

An important takeaway for John, and many others striving for their next role, is also to step out of what you want a bit and really think about how your ask might be made more relevant for the decision makers above them, that can help you start building a different kind of action plan and take new steps to get you closer to your goal than you’ve been before.

That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time…

NEXT EPISODE’S GUEST: I start my new job in a few days, and as I look ahead, I am asking myself the question, how do you stay out of burnout this time?

MURIEL WILKINS: I have a really important ask of you. If you love the coaching conversations on Coaching Real Leaders, it would mean the world to me if you could head over to Apple Spotify or wherever you listen to subscribe to the show and leave a five star review. And of course, if you think others would learn from these episodes, please share it with them.

If you want more of Coaching Real Leaders, join my community where I host live discussions to unpack every episode and answer your questions, become a member at You can also connect with me on LinkedIn at Muriel Wilkins. Thanks to my producer Mary Dooe; sound editor, Nick Crnko; music composer, Brian Campbell; my assistant, Emily Sofa; and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations and to you, our listeners who share in their journeys.

If you are dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show. Apply at from HBR Podcast Network, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.

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