Harvard Business review

How Do I Stop Being Defensive?

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 “Denise” to protect her confidentiality. She’s recently been promoted to vice president at a large insurance company. She worked her way up in the industry from an entry level position into leadership and has really embraced this role. But it’s happened at a time when there’s also been a lot of change.

DENISE: For a long time, I had been a very small, incubated startup, boots to the ground type of organization, so you sort of had to do everything. I ran the innovation team and I also ran to make sure I had coffee in the office. I also made sure … It was like a lot of everything, right? Fast forward, a lot of shifting that’s happening, and so I was sort of the historian of the group, but we have all these new people that have joined the team and they’re very passionate about what they bring.

MURIEL WILKINS: After a lot of work in many successes growing her division with her team, there was a merger, and now she’s the legacy person on the new team she works with day in and out. She feels constantly questioned and defensive about the way things work and about the culture she helped build.

DENISE: So, I’m navigating through the growing pains and the change at the same time. I don’t want to come off defensive to my peers. I don’t want to be and I always joke about this at the office. I’m like, I feel like I’m that mouse on, who moved my cheese? I feel like I’m that mouse and I’m like, Nope, things are changing. Absolutely not. I embrace change. In fact, I mean, that’s why I love being in innovation because I embrace change. I just think it’s coming in, and I feel like I’m always defending what we built for the organization.

MURIEL WILKINS: Denise is wondering how to navigate her new leadership role and how to adapt to a whole new team, while at the same time, figuring out what to keep from the past and what to let go of so she can be effective in her new environment. I started our conversation by asking a bit more about her current situation.

DENISE: I currently am a vice president within my organization. I was recently promoted, almost six years ago. I came on to another company as a startup. When I came into that organization, I was very … I had a lot of experience in the industry, and so I came in to start something fresh and brand new. For the last five and a half years, close to six, I had been part of that initial team to get things on get things on board, trying to get structure put in place. One of the things that was important to us was that we not do anything like we’ve done in the past. So, it’s a very old industry, and so we said, okay. I was part of that initial team, right? So, I was on the ground floor. Throughout the years, I had been given additional responsibilities. There were positions that came up and I thought, yep, I can be in this space. Funny enough, this role was presented when I was going to leave to another company. I said, “Hey, look, guys, I’m leaving.” We had just been purchased by the company I’m working for now. They were like, “What do you mean your lead? No, you can’t.” So, we continued on through that process. I went back and forth and literally made a decision on the last day to say, “Okay, I’ll stay.” The only kicker was, my boss, I don’t think he wanted me in that role. I think he was forced into giving me that role, but I always had that underneath like, I don’t think he was completely convinced that this is where he wanted me to be. Fast forward, I’m in the role. We don’t announce it to months later. In that process, he also hired like eight other vice presidents. He hired all these smart, powerful people coming in and just churning things around. It was so uncomfortable for me because we needed the help, if we were going to continue to grow as an organization, we needed the help. Now we have this team of people that I should be excited to say, great, we can share their well. But it turned. I mean, authentically, I can tell you that I started feeling like I had to defend everything I did.

MURIEL WILKINS: Got it. All this change happened very recently in terms of the new people coming on board, etc.

DENISE: I started feeling … It’s overwhelming. So, you have the small with a little bit of people, you bring eight new personalities into a group with no real onboarding. You start questioning whether or not you still add value, you start questioning what you did. We knew why we did it at the time, but now everyone’s like, “Well, why are you doing this? And what’s happening here.” That started the questioning and the defending, and that was my initial reaction. I would feel like I was looking from the outside in like, who is this person defending? This is it not me. I want to embrace change. I want to fight it though.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. You want to embrace change, but you’ve been working in an industry that hasn’t really changed in a hundred years, right?

DENISE: Exactly.

MURIEL WILKINS: Which, by the way, fun fact, I worked in insurance.

DENISE: No way.

MURIEL WILKINS: That was like my initial career. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about how you’re experiencing these new people coming in, and you used a few words around feeling overwhelmed, feeling defensive. Give me a little bit, sort of color in terms of, what is happening there? If I were flying on the wall, how are you showing up?

DENISE: I feel that I am very quiet, which is unusual for me. That has been historically my mechanism of processing. So, I’ll just sit back because I don’t want to sound defensive. So, my mind is saying, don’t sound defensive, write down what they said. Don’t try to defend it. Of course, I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m like, stop, this is not right. This is what we’re doing. It’s culturally different. No one that was hired in looks like me. How I’m showing up at these meetings is don’t be a statistic, don’t do things that they would expect you to do. Process it, like look for positive intent. All of this chatter is happening in my brain why they’re saying things that I feel are not correct.

DENISE: They’re looking at it differently, but I don’t want to seem like I want to keep things the same way, because I don’t. I think change needs to happen. I want them to be more mindful on how they’re showing up. I feel like they’re super forceful, their ideas are it, like no one should question it, and my thing is, you don’t have enough street cred to come into a new you place and start driving these changes. I’m struggling with their approach, but all this chatter in my brain doesn’t allow me to focus on contribute to this meeting. You know differently. I feel like I shrink when I’m in that room, which is very uncomfortable for me.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what would it look like for you not to shrink?

DENISE: For me not to shrink would be them asking more questions versus forcing their opinions on. Also, on my side, is me contributing more, to say, yep, that’s a great idea, for example. Here are some things that we did in the past, this is some of the failure points, and these are some of the things that we learned from that we thought we could do differently, or we didn’t have the resources so I can feel more transparent. Part of it is I don’t feel that safety, that psychological safety and that space to say, “I know that you’ve done this before, we tried it, it didn’t work. Or maybe we didn’t have enough people to make it work correctly. I don’t feel I can be vulnerable with this team because I also started feeling like they don’t feel like I be in this space.

MURIEL WILKINS: What are you defending?

DENISE: I’m defending what we built. So, we did something different, and we were super proud of it, and so they’re coming in saying all of this stuff is broken, but we were still competitors to you. You all have been around for 50, 60 years in this space and we were two years in and we were taking customers from you. It’s just that feeling of, we did something good. We’re not at ground zero. We want to be able to build from the space. I’m hesitant to do it because I can hear myself, are you being defensive? Are you trying to prove a point? Will they ever listen to it? Because in their minds they’re saying, “I’m I came here to fix something, so you can’t tell me anything different.”

MURIEL WILKINS: When they are trying to sort of come in and fix something and you get defensive, how does it make you feel?

DENISE: It makes me feel sad, it makes me feel upset. I feel embarrassed. Like, oh, why did we think of that? Especially when there are ideas of like, hey, why aren’t you pulling this in? You start questioning. I start feeling that little sense of insecurity in the sense of I don’t belong here because I should have known that four years ago to do that. Things like that.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And is that true?

DENISE: Sometimes I think it is. I think it was a product of, at least my environment, we had a very lean staff, and so some things we just didn’t focus on. We just didn’t focus on those things. When I say it, it feels like an excuse. For me, as a professional, I don’t like to feel that people make excuses like, oh, it was because the office was hot and that’s why I couldn’t finish my work. Those excuses, I’ve always been a very excuses or results. You can’t have both, right? Which one is it? I kept using that inner dialogue for me and saying, I’m making an excuse of why I didn’t do it, so I’m not even going to say. I’m not even going to explain myself because I feel that I’m making an excuse. It’s this feeling that I get in my heart that I’m like, ugh, I under delivered.

MURIEL WILKINS: And if you under deliver then how does that make you feel?

DENISE: It makes me feel like I failed. I’ve always been a project manager. I’ve been in that career space for a very long time, and so it’s a very results oriented type of career. So, when you’re not seeing things pan out, you question how you could have done something differently.

MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s take a pause here. It’s a big challenge to be promoted to a higher leadership level, and it’s a big challenge to deal with a merger and be the only legacy person left. But there are also some underlying issues that I’ll want to learn more about, why Denise feels the need to hold back, why she’s worried about failure, and how she thinks about what she can control versus what she can’t. Let’s dive back in.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think we’ve gotten to sort of the core of what you’re feeling in terms of this, did I fail or showing up and being perceived as having failed. If we take it outside of this situation have you felt like that in any other situations?

DENISE: Oh God. Yes. Exercising, my weight goals, and everything in-between, my past relationships. I mean, I look at, which part of it was my fault? Where did I fail? What could I have done differently? It’s always this constant state of improvement, which I find that can get off balance. I’m always evaluating things and saying, okay, what’s my joint accountability in what just happens? What’s my part in all of it? And how could I have done that better? That inner dialogue, it just spins per weeks as I try to evaluate, what could I have done differently? I replay conversations that I’ve had. I look at, now that we all have to be on Zoom, I’m like, did I have the attitude face? Was I doing the stunk eye? Did they see me roll my eyes because I think I missed it? Those are the other areas where I feel like I felt that way.

MURIEL WILKINS: This feeling of, did I fail or feeling like you failed, ultimately, where does that get you?

DENISE: For me, I feel that, by replaying that reel in my head that I will do something better the next time, like I would do things better next time. When we’re in a group meeting, for example, one of the constant feedbacks I would get early on in my career was that you are not shy about talking, but you may shut other people down in the room. Your presence, without you even realizing it, may be sensed by others as bulldozing, and I actually got that feedback. They’re like, “I just feel like you bulldozed the meeting and you don’t allow this to speak and you’re not listening.” I’m like, “Okay, let me …” I replay it in my head. I try to pull it all together for myself and I try to do better the next time. When I feel myself feeling, feeling those feelings in my heart and that sense that I’m like, I’m frustrated. I’m like, watch your tone, take a deep breath. I try to do those things because of the feedback I received before.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. It sounds like it’s something you have faced before in terms of, it’s a familiar feeling, right? The familiar feeling is sending you this message of almost like red alert, red alert, red alert. You failed.

DENISE: Defend, defend, defend.

MURIEL WILKINS: Then defend, defend, defend, but no, you failed, failed, failed, defend, defend, defend, but no, you failed, failed, failed. I’m getting tired saying it. But I guess I want to understand, have you been told that you have failed?

DENISE: No.

MURIEL WILKINS: Ever, ever, ever, ever, ever?

DENISE: Every.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, your interpretation of what’s happening is that you failed.

DENISE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MURIEL WILKINS: Failing means what in your mind? What is your definition of failure?

DENISE: Missing the mark. Not, and I hate to say this, because as I’m talking through it, I guess that’s why the coaching works, is that feeling that you weren’t perfect. That feeling that, and it was controllable. It’s controllable, my weight loss journey, to me, it’s controllable. I decide what I wanna put in my mouth. I decide how much I wanna exercise. When I communicate that, someone feels, listen, you did this, you did X, Y, Z, it’s controllable. That I bulldoze it, it’s controllable.

MURIEL WILKINS: And yet you didn’t do it is what you feel like. Yeah, and it makes you feel like you weren’t perfect. Where did this expectation about being perfect, where does that come from?

DENISE: Oh, definitely my parents. Definitely my parents. My dad, not so much, because my dad was really good about saying, you can essentially do anything. You can learn anything. In his mind, there was nothing you couldn’t learn. His drive to you can do anything, I think created some insecurity for her. For her, growing up, we had to be perfect. We always had to look a certain way when we go outside, when we went to our family’s house, we … If you’re hungry, you can eat, but don’t eat too much because I don’t want them to think that we are not feeding you guys. It was like this constant thing throughout the years that you have this level of expectation. I think the first time I felt like, I screwed up big time. Only great things came out of it, but at that time, I felt like I made this mistake that I could not fix.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I want you to recognize that it’s in those moments, when you’re feeling like, I did something that I now can’t go back and fix, that you interpret as a failure, and then it leads you to, well, how do I make sure I stay safe within that failure? I defend what I did. I want you to hold onto that. I find it really interesting that you when you talked about your dad, you said he felt like there’s nothing you can’t learn. Doesn’t sound like he said, you can’t fail. I’ve heard this quote, I don’t know who brought it up. I don’t know who created this quote, but I will tell you one of my favorite Peloton instructor always says it, so I’m just going to say that Jess Sims made this quote up. It’s that, “FAIL stands for first attempt in learning.”

DENISE: I love it.

MURIEL WILKINS: Whereas, where I think you are coming from is defining failure as not meeting expectations, and therefore, if I don’t meet expectations, it means I’m not perfect, and being not perfect means, and I’m gonna ask you if this is correct, means I’m not good enough.

DENISE: Because that was me. I’m like, am I in the right role? Should I not be here? Those questions are coming up every day.

MURIEL WILKINS: Every day. So, you are in a very familiar situation. This isn’t like the first time that you are facing this. It feels like it’s the first time and it feels overwhelming, but the fact that the matter is you’ve been through it before, it looks very familiar. You’re responding in the very same way where there external expectations that are placed on you and you feel like, if I don’t meet those, then it means that I have failed and that I’m not good enough. I’m going to ask you a question. Do you think you’re good enough for this role?

DENISE: Right now, today, I would say, no. I feel that there’s so much for me to learn, but everybody has become a VP for the first time at some place. So, it’s a first for someone in this role. I came into this role having experience and knowledge in the industry and being creative and driving what we have, what we see today, what was sold to this company, but I also think that so much I don’t know, and I think that makes me feel that I’m not good enough for it because I feel that I’m not at the same level with the women that I’m working with are in. So, I’m comparing. I go back and forth in saying, but they’ve also done this for longer than I have. They’ve so done this at this level for longer than I have. I feel like, am I giving myself an excuse as to why I’m not at that same level or should I be giving myself a break because I just started at this level?

MURIEL WILKINS: How does like that back-and-forth conversation you’re having feel to you?

DENISE: Exhausting.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.

DENISE: It’s exhausting,

MURIEL WILKINS: Exhausting. I gather you don’t really have the time to be exhausted. I mean, you’re in the role, other people are gonna be different than you, they always are. Whether it’s experience, look, gender, age, whatever, we’re all individual humans, we all have differences. And you’re feeling like you’re not good enough for the role today because you have a lot to learn. Does having a lot to mean that you’re not good enough for a role?

DENISE: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. I never saw it that way. I feel like you have to come in. One of the things I would always say is behave in the role you wanna be in. I’ve always been a high performer in any of the roles that I’ve ever worked in throughout my career. I guess this is probably the most challenging, and not feeling like I’m still a high performer is uncomfortable.

MURIEL WILKINS: You know what? From what you share, you’ve been very uncomfortable situations in the past. I mean, I’m not trying to make light of it, but it’s like, okay, so here we go again. Life is not meant to be comfortable all the time.

DENISE: Yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: And leadership is not comfortable.

DENISE: It isn’t.

MURIEL WILKINS: The issue is when we exacerbate the discomfort. So, it’s really about, how do you navigate leadership that is uncomfortable with as much ease as possible? So, where we have to start with is the way in which you’re even just thinking about your situation. I feel almost like you’ve taken what could be a pretty simple recipe. I’m a big fan of the just like four step recipes, 30 minutes or less. Then you’ve added on like all these additional components, that then, when you see all the additional components, you’re like, “Ah, I don’t know if I could ever do this. What’s going on? It’s become more overwhelming and more than what I expected and I don’t think I can live up.” Then it puts you in this spiral. I think the first thing is, what expectations are you placing on yourself that are grounded in reality rather than the narrative that you have used, what sounds like, for a very, very long time. What do you think it means to be successful in your role today?

DENISE: Being able to successfully lead the team, have a team that feels that they are in a safe environment, that we can talk about our challenges, seeing the team grow. Seeing the leaders within the team grow and the individual contributors, seeing them being able to feel that they’re on a team, that they can share their ideas and we can continue to innovate and continue to make an impact to the program. That is what I identify as being successful in this role for me.

MURIEL WILKINS: To what extent do you feel what you are working on? Like, when you look the things that fill up your calendar and where you’re focusing your energy, is it in support of the things that you listed around what you feel would make you successful today?

DENISE: I would say maybe 30 percent, the rest is just noise. Within the last two weeks, I’ve been purposely looking at my calendar and saying, how am I contributing in these meetings to kind of get myself in a good head space. Yeah, a lot of it is just things that are transactional, but I think my focus has been around, I need to be at these meetings so I can defend what we did. I know they’re going to say things and I need defend.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yep.

DENISE: I need to be there.

MURIEL WILKINS: Don’t worry. I didn’t forget about that word, defend. We needed to get through a couple of other things first before we got there. One is, I want you to start thinking about a lot of your expectations, it sounds like, around what would make you measure up, are based on what you’re thinking others would expect from you. When I asked you, what do you expect from yourself? That’s what I’m trying to get at, is like, well, what do you expect from you? Because what others expect from you, yes, it’s important. But there’s a difference between what they think is worthy and what you define as your internal worth. Whenever I hear somebody say, I’m not good enough, it’s their own self-reflection around their worth and their value for that role, that position, where they’re sitting at the table, wherever it might be. If you can’t get ahold of that, and I asked you, do you believe you’re good enough for the role? And you said, I think you said, not today. If you can’t believe you’re good enough for the role, then why should anybody else believe you’re good enough for the role? I mean, every and then, you’ll find other people who, it sounds like your prior boss, will champion you and see more in you than you might see in yourself, but it sounds to me like when they made you that offer back, then you didn’t have any doubt. It’s when you got into the situation and you realized not everybody else is behaving with me in the same way. So, it must mean somehow I’m wrong.

DENISE: That’s exactly it.

MURIEL WILKINS: You can’t swing like that. Either you believe you’re good enough for the role or you don’t believe you’re good enough for the role. Let’s even just take the word, role, out of it. Either you believe you’re good enough or you don’t believe you’re good enough. Which one is it? But the exhaustion comes from going back and forth, hour to hour, meeting to meeting, day-to-day. One day I’m good enough. One day I’m not. One day I am, one day I’m not. It is exhausting. I’m not trying to make light of it. At some point, the part you can control is deciding, no matter what happens, whether I deliver on this meeting or whether I wore the right clothes when I was a kid, am I good enough? And that’s your starting point.

MURIEL WILKINS: What Denise is experiencing is pretty common for a lot of managers. They say they want to focus on the team, but get caught up in a lot of noise, and in her case, the belief that she’s not good enough. It’s helpful to have people realize that they’ve tackled hard challenges before and can do it again. But for Denise, to fully believe that she could do this role, we need to face her feelings of defensiveness head on. So, I was curious, what exactly is she defending?

DENISE: I feel that I’m defending the work that was done, that brought them to our organization, right? We built something within the last five or six years that was actually ended up being sold to a company. And they’re coming in as if everything is broken and they’re there to save the day. We have an internal joke for those that have been there, like the Christopher Columbus analogy where, oh, I’ve discovered it all. It’s like, no, we made a conscious decision not to do that. I always feel like I have to ground them as to why we did what we did when they’re making a lot of these remarks around whether something’s done right, should it have been done? Is it the right thing? Or I can’t believe we don’t have this already. Then they’re comparing to where they came from, which has done this for X amount of years, that’s what I’m defending. I feel like my blood, sweat and tears are tied to that work that they’re saying is basically nothing.

MURIEL WILKINS: Are you defending the work or are you defending you?

DENISE: I feel like I’m defending the work. I mean, I certainly wasn’t the only one that got us to this place. I mean, we had a team of people, but when I’m in that room and I’m the only one, I’m the only historian in that group, I feel like I’m defending that team that said, “No, we spent a lot of time making this to what you see today, which was attractive enough to be bought.”

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what makes you, who labeled you, who gave you, tasked you, ordained you as the historian?

DENISE: I self-nominated myself.

MURIEL WILKINS: You appointed yourself. You self-nominated yourself. All right. And the Oscar goes to?

DENISE: Yours truly because I am going to make sure that there’s justice.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Interesting. Okay. It sounds like, in you self-nominating yourself to be the chief historian officer in these meetings, that you see your role as holding the and, right? Like let’s make sure we understand and acknowledge what has happened in the past so that it can inform what we do in the future.

DENISE: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah?

DENISE: Yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: The part that seems to be missing for you is it doesn’t feel like anyone wants to acknowledge the past. And you interpret them, not wanting to acknowledge the past, we’ve already touched on this, but you interpret it as, because they don’t think it was good, and therefore it means that we failed.

DENISE: Well when you say like that, Muriel, it makes all the sense in the world.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, I’m just throwing it out there.

DENISE: You nailed it. That’s it. That is it. That is it.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.

DENISE: That is absolutely it. It’s because they miss it. That’s how I feel. That’s how I interpret it. They dismiss the past, that they don’t give homage to those people that made it to what it is. That, for me, feels … It’s sad to me because I know how much work was put into it.

MURIEL WILKINS: What does that then stop you from doing, because you’re not getting the acknowledgement, what does that then stop you from doing?

DENISE: It stops me from focusing on, first of all, what I should be focusing on. So, it stops me from working on getting grounded on my team. Because I have two new areas that I didn’t have before, so getting grounded on those areas, because I want to be at these meetings that they’re at to make sure that they are considering the past. I felt like I’ve created this … I’m chasing to make sure that everybody knows that, hey, we did this in the past and I know that, even if there’s other people that have been there in the past, there’s certain people that I know they won’t say anything. They’re just like, think what you want, it is what it is, let’s keep moving forward. If we get the same barriers, then we’ll say, okay, now let’s change gears, where I’m like, no, no, no, tell them all the stuff we did. So, it takes me away from my work, from what I should be doing.

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m not a huge, huge, I’m going to be vulnerable here, I don’t know a ton about like sports. I mean, I’m sort of a spectator. I watch stuff, but I know that in sports, you have a defensive strategy and you have an offensive strategy. It’s helpful, when you’re com heating, it’s helpful to be able to play both. So, you’ve articulated what your defensive strategy is. What does it look like when you have an offensive strategy?

DENISE: I have no idea. When I think about that question, I’m going to put myself in the space that I’m most comfortable with. I have of my oldest team that I’ve had since the beginning. When I’m with them, I am asking more questions of them than they are of me, and that’s where I feel the most effective. Because I’m not focusing on me telling them what to do or what they need to watch out for. I feel like I’m asking them questions so they can come with new ideas or arrive at the same place. Let’s say if I’m at or make me see something differently. That’s when I feel my ultimate best, is being able to be inquisitive, be curious with wanting to really understand how they see things. That to me is my not being on defense. It’s me just being able to share with them. I don’t even hardly share with what I think in the beginning. Most times, I just let them arrive and I ask questions to have them arrive to that place, and that’s where I feel that I’m playing offense.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. All right. Got it. How does that translate to your current situation with your peers now when you’re in these meetings?

DENISE: I think what I can do differently right now is ask them questions to make sure that they’ve covered all their bases that touch on the history of how, whatever they’re working on, is where it is.

MURIEL WILKINS: When you are articulated role as historian, you made it quite clear, it was to acknowledge what we’ve done, which is the past, so that it could inform the future. My question to you, in the way that you’ve described what you’ve done in terms of explaining and what you could do in terms of asking the questions so that they can acknowledge the past, that sort of takes care of one half of the equation. I’m curious, what do you think you could do to do the other half of the equation, which is to push the conversations more towards the future?

DENISE: The only way I can think of it is just asking questions, to push the conversation towards … With asking questions to understand where they’re trying to take the organization. What do they think it’s going to … How do you think this is going to position us in the market? For example. Asking questions like that, I think, would be less exhausting. I need to turn off in my mind, as we’re having this conversation, turning off this burden I’ve placed on myself to be the historian and just focus on, well, where do you want to take this? And where do you think it’s going to take us? And how is it different in the market? Like I would do with the team that I’ve had for the longest, because they can also teach me things that I had not thought of, or we had not brought in for whatever reason, but they can have a better mouse trap that we had not thought of. I think that is a definite change that I can make.

MURIEL WILKINS: You did give yourself the esteemed role of the historian, and if you were to rename what your role could be that you think would allow you to both leverage the past, but also be future oriented with the changes that are happening and with this team, what role do you think you would self-nominate yourself for?

DENISE: The collaborator.

MURIEL WILKINS: The collaborator. The collaborator. Okay. What would a collaborator Oscar worthy?

DENISE: It’s How the collaborator influences and being able to lift these other people that I’ve come into a space, which is brand new for them to say, I’m going to help you get your ideas into this organization. I’m going to help you drive what you’re trying to do, and I’m going to advocate for you, and I’m going to help you get there because of my experience of me being that historian. But the questions I ask, the things I provide, the support I provide is going to help you elevate your ideas.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think this is your assignment. And I don’t know. I never really know how these things are going to turn out, but what I would encourage you to do is make a commitment that for the next couple of meetings that you have, the next week, the next two weeks, make a commitment that you’re going to walk in as the collaborator, and prepare for the meetings as the collaborator. Ask yourself, what does that look like when I’m in the meetings? What questions am I asking? It doesn’t mean you forget the past, just how do I use the past to help collaborate with these folks? I also think it’s important to understand that what you have to offer falls on a continuum. Is there a possibility, where instead of just playing the role that you have in the past, which is in that beginning of that continuum, just the explaining, you expanded, as you just said, to asking the questions, which leverages a strength of yours, but that you expanded even more to, well, what’s your point of view? What do you think we should be doing?

DENISE: That would absolutely be me. I’m replaying some of the meetings I’ve been in recently and thought, wow, that approach, that meeting would’ve been completely different. And instead, we spent a lot of time explaining and digging into the why we did it and we really made no progress.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think what we’re looking here for is for you to tap into several leadership muscles rather than just one. What’s your reaction to that?

DENISE: I think it’s great. I had never thought of it that way, and so I had two speeds. Either I’m defending or I’m silent, or I’m processing.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, this is so important and you probably hear me say it on every coaching meeting that I have, but the minute we attach ourselves so strongly to one role, one identity, it automatically can create without us even knowing this fear of who am I without that role. So, it does push us into this like, let me defend it, because it’s the only thing that shows that I’m worthy. This notion of, am I relevant? Am I value? Am I worthy? You find it from your ability to realize you are many things. You are not just, just, and I’m quoting, “just the historian.” You are so much more than that. I think a part of this is recognizing in yourself when you’re in those moments where … You mentioned your heart gets tight, like you feel your body like …

DENISE: Physically, I feel things happening.

MURIEL WILKINS: Physically, you feel it. That is your body telling you, hello, Denise. What are you doing? You’re about to go in that place that does not allow you to put your best foot forward. So, listen to it. And you have a choice in that moment. I can constrict to this little box that I’ve put myself in as the historian. Or I can be expansive and say, I have many different gears that I can shift to in this given situation right now. I don’t know about yesterday, I don’t know about tomorrow, but in this given situation, I have range. I have range. I believe and understand that I can add value along that whole continuum. You get what I’m saying?

DENISE: Absolutely. I think I wanted to also make sure and point out, I didn’t want to believe my own BS. I’m also like, I like to check myself to say, are you the only one that thinks you’re fabulous or is everyone like, are we on the same page here? Are we on the same level? It’s amazing because again, I don’t want to think too much of myself. I like being a learning leader, and I’m really proud of that, that I want to learn more, I want to learn how to do things differently. Things change. But this here, it was so spot on, and you also helped make connections.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, good. Good. If you’re gonna check your BS, check all of it. Don’t just check yourself against the like, am I fabulous? Check yourself around the like, okay, am I holding myself back here? Don’t be selective about the BS.

DENISE: That could be a t-shirt, Muriel. That could be a t-shirt. Don’t be selective about your BS.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s interesting, because a lot of time in my coaching, I hear many people on the other side, peers who are complaining that they wish someone could stop talking about what they’ve done in the past. This is the flip side. They’re act really three aspects of leadership Denise wants to activate here. She is the historian, she has the institutional knowledge, and that’s a strength, but she also identified a desire to be a collaborator. Finally, she can work more on her ability to be strategic and visionary, to set direction. What this situation calls her to do is to work on all three of those aspects of the leadership at once and not tie herself so deeply to the role she self-nominated her way into. It means shifting from a defense position to one where she leans into helping the organization move forward. This will require her to be more expansive in her leadership approach, something that it looks like she is ready to do.

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. 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 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 coachingrealleaders.com. And you can find me on LinkedIn, on Twitter @MurielMWilkins, or on Instagram @coachmurielwilkins. If you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward, share it with your friends, subscribe, leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Muriel Wilkins.

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