Many of my coaching experiences are memorable and provide valuable examples for assessing development. The following scenario reminds me of when we are tested by actions and behaviors that are different than our own. Depending on your mindset, a term referenced from Dr. Carol Dweck in her book of the same title, Mindset1, we can possess a growth mindset, and ask questions to learn and understand. Or we can approach the test with a fixed mindset, pushing back from understanding and deeming the actions as negative or wrong.
As we follow Diane’s journey, we will begin with the day she found herself looking out the window hoping to clear her mind to find new creative ideas to turn her team’s performance around. She pondered, retracing her steps over the last year, trying to dig deep for answers. Unfortunately, for Diane, there seemed to be no measure of personal questioning to bring about helpful strategies to assist with her current dilemma. She decided that maybe a walk outside and a little time in the in the courtyard, could bring about fresh perspectives.
She told me how the feel of the cool breeze and sun light on her face brought her thoughts back to last year. She recalled being so excited to create an inventive presentation for the hiring board. Her presentation and interview earned her the results she hoped for; an offer for a promotion in the organization. Now, a year into the role, she questioned the experiences that got her to this state of mind and the underperformance of her team. So, she continued to look out over the parking lot, blissfully reminiscing to a more resonant time in her career.
As she continued with her story, she told that just a moment later; her bliss was interrupted when she noticed two figures moving from the building. As the individuals came into view, she recognized one of them as the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Sally Johnson, hired just a few months ago. She explained to me that Sally came into the organization with a plan of getting to know people and building relationships across all departments. It was interesting to Diane how Sally seem to be so comfortable meeting with all the employees, at all levels, involving them in the creation of a new organizational vision and gaining input to impact policies. As she detailed Sally’s actions I thought, “Wow, how lucky Diane is to have such a great influencer as a boss”. But soon my thoughts were interrupted by Diane’s next comment, “Oh my” she declared, “What is Sally bringing to our company! There is no need for all the “touchy-feeling, fluffy stuff””.
At this moment in our conversation I was taken aback. Where did this fixed mindset thinking come from? Was the stress of Diane’s current situation causing her to push back from helpful behavioral changes; limiting her ability to embrace a growth mindset for understanding the true value that Sally was bringing to the organization?
I asked Diane, “What makes you define your CEO’s actions as fluffy?” Diane went on to explain that that she feels leadership should stay at the top of the organizational chart. Further stating, “You tell people what to do, and they do it”. She then went on to question Sally’s motives, “What was she up to with this entire unconventional turn-around plan for the company? That’s not how we do it here and I am not sure these new methods can help with our pressing competitive strains and budget tightening proposals?”
As I noticed Diane’s mood changing and frustration showing on her face, I moved to get her back on track to her original story, but making note of her comments as subjects to address later in our conversation. As Diane continued her story, she went on to explain that Sally was walking with the VP of Human Resources, John Thompson. She began to wonder about their conversation. What could they be discussing? A plan to set-up more relationship building activities, cut-backs, growth plans? The voices in Diane’s head had her thoughts reeling. I felt for Diane and empathized with her situation, but I as her coach, she came to me to be challenged. She wanted to get back to that resonate feeling of building strategies to bring continued success to her team and her career.
I knew things were missing from Diane’s story, including the emotion that drove her to share it with me. I had to help Diane share the emotion behind her situation; I asked her, “What stopped you from joining Sally and John on the bench?”I could tell from the look on her face that the question had the impact I was hoping for. Together we were able to determine that Diane had been pushing back from Sally’s requests for her involvement with the new direction, but John had not. Therefore, when she saw them chatting, and seemingly harmonious in their interactions, she felt threatened and vulnerable. After digging a little deeper, it became evident that Diane had fallen into a fixed mindset by being challenged to change her leadership style. She was skeptical and pushed back from allowing others to see her developing new skills.
Over the years I have interacted with a whole host of titled leaders who, when challenged to learn a new behavior for increased success, are unwilling to openly share the journey. They want to appear to others as a leadership wizard, showing up with a big “Ta-Da!” and “Bam!” as if they waved a wand and magically appeared a better version of themselves overnight, but we know it does not work like that. Behavior change takes intentional effort and work. In addition, if we share with others and ask for their help, we can learn behaviors more rapidly. Involving others also creates an opportunity to build team motivation, as well as, leadership trust. It was time for Diane to make a conscience decision about her position in her organization and her personal leadership style. Was she willing to ask for help and allow others to see her on a new leadership journey?
Admittedly Diane was nervous. She had been in her role for just over a year, and pushed back from her CEO’s leadership. “What would people think?” “Won’t they question the new Diane?” Challenging her once again I asked, “What are people thinking of the Diane that exists today?” “Don’t you and your team deserve the best leadership version of yourself?” I assigned Diane the first three chapters of The First 90 Days2, by Michael D. Watkins, a reference right in line with Sally’s playbook and a great resource to help get Diane back to a growth mindset for her leadership. I was hopeful for our next appointment.
When Diane walked in to our next meeting, she had a more positive aura than the last time we met. As I asked her about her assigned chapters, she went on to tell me how the book reminded her of several important factors to leadership success. She noted that there were several concepts reviewed that she was already aware of, and others that were new to how she had led teams in the past.
Our continued conversation brought about the realization that when Diane started her new role a year ago she dove in to the work, without doing any research. In Chapter Two of The First 90 Days book, Watkins discusses a plan for accelerating your learning noting that “if you approach your efforts to get up to speed as an investment process…you will realize returns in the form of actionable insights”. Diane went on further to express that she saw parallels in Sally’s actions to the strategies in the book. I could not resist asking, “You mean that fluffy stuff?” We both laughed and Sally acknowledged that it is not fluffy at all; in fact it is quite the opposite.
I reassured Diane that she had what it took to elevate her leadership and reminded her of the fact that she had a boss who was most likely hoping she would get on board. I could see that Diane was beginning to embrace a new strategy, and gaining the courage it would take to ask for help. As Diane moved into the planning stages I asked her, “How do you think Sally will respond when you ask her for help?” and “What about John?”
Our continued conversation had Diane gaining comfort in the plan for a conversation with her CEO. As she expressed excitement for future opportunities, I asked her again, “What about John?” as I felt she was avoiding the topic and it was one she needed to address. Diane told me how she felt she had let John down, realizing now that she was the one who got caught up in the stress of her job demands and stopped have meetings and lunch with him. “So”, I asked, “What are you going to do?” It was obvious from her next statements that she knew she needed to meet with John. Interestingly she expressed, “This meeting would take more courage than the one with Sally”. I hoped she would decide to schedule both meetings, only time would tell.
Over the following weeks, I garnered from Diane’s emails and text messages that her meetings with both Sally and John had gone well. I was looking forward to our next session to learn more. When Diane walked in this time she not only had an elevated air, but also a big smile on her face. As we moved through our conversation, discussing the results of her challenge to meet with both Sally and John, I continued to feel Diane’s renewed leadership resonance.
This time as Diane told her story, she expressed her emotion openly, articulating the nervousness she felt going into each conversation and her personal pride for not backing out. In addition, she was surprised at first to their quick acceptance to move forward with her renewed strategies that is until she realized they were in sync with the plans that Sally and John had been working on already. She then said, “Wow, I missed out on a year of doing “it” differently”. “Hey, Diane, do me a favor, let’s remember, we cannot change yesterday, but we can impact tomorrow by our actions today”. As I continued to help her celebrate her renewed passion and courageous actions she stated, “Now to engage my team on our journey”. The planning continued.
Just like Diane, anyone can all slip into a fixed mindset when challenged for change. But just like Diane, you can also turn it around. Dr. Dweck reminds us that the most successful leaders possess a growth mindset for approaching challenging situations. They continually look for ways to learn and grow, and are not afraid to ask for help. Remember, asking for help expands our possibilities.
- Carol Dweck, Mindset (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008).
- Michael D. Watkins, The First 90 Days. (Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).
Davi Machen is an owner and consultant of DavIn Consulting. Diane symbolizes the Leadership of Life coaching gained as a client at DavIn. Learn more at davinspire.com.