MURIEL WILKINS: HBR Presents. Hi, it’s Muriel. There’s a brief mention of suicide near the beginning of this episode. If you or anyone is having thoughts of suicide, please call the 24-hour National Suicide Lifeline. The number in the U.S. is 1-800-273-8255. 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 Mick to protect his confidentiality. He’s had a substantial career in the military, working in special operations and having deployed a number of times. He’s also pretty clear about what fuels his purpose.
MICK: Well, I had a pretty unstable childhood and a lot of that came with the challenges of bullying. I saw some pretty violent acts towards people that I cared about pretty early on, and I think I just kind of developed this desire to protect people and this desire to kind of foresee other people’s needs and then to try to meet them there. It’s giving back. You have this pain in your past, and it stirs up a lot of emotions, and I believe that those emotions can be used as fuel. I feel like I’m a very emotional guy as it is, and so whenever I see those things stirring up, I try to find a way to direct them into a way that is going to be healthy for the people around me and ultimately, what I know to be good for me as well.
MURIEL WILKINS: Mick didn’t get to this place of self-awareness easily. He was recently promoted to a leadership role, but has also been through hard personal situations along the way.
MICK: The thing about my job, I guess, that has changed over the last few years, on my last deployment, my brother committed suicide, and then I kind of came home to a very messy life. So, I really kind of found a passion for wellness and behavioral health advocacy really, and trying to break the stigma of that in the military. So, I’ve really been kind of focused on that for the last few years, and I would say that it’s those two things that kind of work in sync, right? That it’s the desire to do a hard job and to do it in a community that you love and that you care about, and then the driving passion is to take care of people. Whether that’s a hurt guy on the battlefield or a guy that’s struggling with talking to his wife at night.
MURIEL WILKINS: Mick came to me wondering what kind of steps he should be taking as he winds down his military career. Let’s jump in now, as I ask him more about why he was interested in a coaching session.
MICK: So, I feel like I’m at this really interesting place in my career where I feel like as an enlisted guy, it’s not that you’re chasing rank – it’s that you’re chasing the next job that you think will bring more satisfaction and all of that. I feel like I’ve found that job. The tricky part now, I’ve got five more years until I’m able to retire out of the military, and that’s my expectation is to retire. Whenever I look at moving in that direction, what I’m realizing is I spent 15 years to basically get to where I’m at and now I’m going to get a few years to really enjoy it, and then I’m going to be off to the races on a new thing. I guess one of the challenges that I’m facing right now is that I have a level of access, influence and ultimately opportunities for success that I’ve never had before. I’m trying to find a way to synchronize those opportunities and to be very selective about which ones to choose in order to transition out of the military. I feel like I have ideas for how I want to do that, but I feel like I’m really wrestling with how to say no to people whenever they feel like they have a need that I can fill, but that I don’t feel like aligns with those goals. Then I’m having a hard time, I guess, kind of – to be completely honest allowing that to not affect my self-esteem. One of the challenges is that it’s very easy to give too much because you know deep down that you can, but that you’re always, I mean, I’m far more sensitive to it now, but I’m realizing that my family’s going to take a hit and my personal time’s going to take a hit. All of those things take a hit whenever I take more onto my plate than it’s required, even though it looks like another feather in your cap in regards to how well you’re doing. I’m trying to find a way to have a better filter so that I can be brilliant on the basics and then also not overwhelm myself.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, what I’m hearing is being at this place where you now see your exit on the horizon.
MICK: Just terrifying.
MURIEL WILKINS: It’s like, I don’t know I have spent many, many, many, too many hours that I can ever count driving up the New Jersey turnpike, I95 or anything on I95. It’s when you finally start seeing signs for your exit and you’re like, “oh my gosh, it’s 80 miles away.”
MICK: We’re almost there.
MURIEL WILKINS: Oh, 70, 60, 50, right? You’re almost there. So that’s kind of where you are.
MURIEL WILKINS: You’re wanting to make sure that the decisions that you make today will ease you off that exit ramp in a way that you actually get to the destination that you’re trying to go to.
MICK: Yes. Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it.
MURIEL WILKINS: Is that right? All right. While at the same time, not sacrificing yourself in the process.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, let me ask you this. Do you have a sense of what your exit looks like and what happens after the five years?
MICK: A sense is probably a good way to put it. It’s a general direction. I love coaching. I love that kind of a relationship where you can speak to someone and they are looking to listen. That’s been, honestly, the most rewarding part of being in the military for me has been the personal relationships where I get to invest in people. So, I want to be able to continue to do that, although I don’t really know exactly what that looks like yet.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, one of the things that I’m going to encourage you to do is to sort of lift out of the specifics of what life after the military will look like in terms of, what am I doing on a day to day basis? I think before zooming into that, it would be helpful to zoom out and to start defining what does success look like after this five year exit? because it sounds like those are the things that are important to you to define it more broadly than what your professional role is.
MICK: That makes a lot of sense.
MURIEL WILKINS: All right. So, we can start there because I think if we can understand a little bit better start painting the picture of what success looks like, then we can work backwards to determine what are the decisions that you can make today that increase the chances that you’ll actually get to that image of success that you have. And because you mentioned that part of it is you don’t want your self-esteem to be affected because it sounds like in the career that you’ve been in, productivity and being able to crank a lot out and being able to handle a lot. So, let’s talk about that. If you think about five years from now, six years from now, what are the conditions of success for you?
MICK: I think it would look like investing in people in that sort of mentorship role. I would want to have more of that. I would want to be able to have essentially autonomy of my time. I want to have the ability to work when I want to work, and what that really is, is that is really me being able to maximize my family as a priority. Honestly, I enjoy public speaking. I enjoy being able to, I guess, inspire. That’s the real thing that I like to think that I at least have an inkling of potential in, and I would enjoy to be something in regards to that, to have a voice that people want to listen to. Ultimately, honestly, and here’s the one that I’ve just realized over the last few days is that I want to be able to provide opportunities for other veterans specifically, but then also for people in service, not service industry, that’s not really the best way to put it, but law enforcement, EMS, the people that are basically public servants in a very challenging role to be able to provide opportunities for them.
MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. All right. So, let me play back this picture that you’ve drawn. Having a voice, inspiring others, investing in people as a mentor, having autonomy of time and flexibility, maximizing your family time, providing opportunities for other public servants who really work in hard, challenging, difficult roles, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: All of those things can be expressed in a number of different ways. In all of that, you also mentioned, “Oh, maybe I’ll be a public speaker.” The public speaker piece is an expression of all of that. Potentially being a coach is an expression of that. You could do that by becoming a teacher. Heck, you can do that just by, not just not trying to belittle it, but you can do that by being a father.
MICK: Yeah. That’s a good point.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, this notion of start with what is the impact that you’re trying to make, what is this sense of how you want to express yourself and all the experiences that you’ve had, start with that and what it would look like, and then you can then determine what form does it actually take. So, how does that land with you?
MICK: Very well. I think that feels very affirmational in regards to why I felt frustrated in this a lot, because it feels like you’re trying to define something too rigidly, even though I feel like innately I know what I’m hoping to express, but then every time I try to build a structure to fit it doesn’t ever work because I don’t have enough details and I’m not close enough to it realistic. So now, I think the start with impact, I’ve never thought about it directly from that sort of a perspective.
MURIEL WILKINS: Look, you’ve been in a career where I think, my understanding – correct me if I’m wrong – is there’s a pretty rigid structure in terms of career path and roles that you take, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: You don’t go into the military and say, “I’m going to create my role.” I mean, maybe you can, but for the most part, it’s like, no, there’s sort of a step ladder, step function way of advancing, and these are the roles that you take and this is the title and the title doesn’t change and all of this, right?
MICK: Yeah. Yes.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, this is probably the first time from a career standpoint that there is no clear definition. You’re not being told what you need to do next.
MICK: Yes. I agree completely. So, in my childhood, I think we moved 24 times before I turned 18. So, it was very, very unstable in regards to geographical location. So, I know for me, that is one of the things that I really yearned for whenever I got a career is that I was like, hey, I don’t mind working hard, but I don’t want to move my family. The thing that I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older and older is wow, it’s more than just I don’t want to move my family. It’s I want to have a clear expectation. I want to be able to look and see stability, and I think that’s why the military honestly works so well for me is because it is a rigid structure and I know where I fit. This is the first time that I’m kind of growing past what the military has provided. One of the fascinating things about special operations specifically is that you develop a very keen sense of the importance of people and the importance of a network. I have to say I’ve seen my network really explode over the last, I would even say couple years, and so being able to develop these relationships of people that share similar values and have had similar experiences and then being able to transition and not only draw from their experience pool, but also to be able to kind of connect the pieces. So, I think that the network, the ability to look at risk and be okay with it and then honestly, to develop comprehensive plans, that’s a big thing that we do. I feel skilled in it, but the challenge is whenever those factors continue to change and that’s where I yearn for stability and structure and I’m like, “Why can’t I build this?”
MURIEL WILKINS: Right, right. It’s like, “oh, I want flexibility and autonomy and openness, and being able to do all these things and I want structure.” I say it laughingly, but it’s – and, and it’s a constant balance of the two is what you’re trying to do is how do I optimize all the opportunities as you’ve put it, and at the same time, make sure there’s some stability. So, even understanding what does stability mean for you right now, and what does opportunity mean for you right now will then help you determine what are the boundaries that you need put in place so that you can optimize both.
MICK: It’s funny, right? So, one of the things I like about my job that I don’t really feel like I’ve had up until this point in my career, I took this job about a year ago, is that I know what almost every single day will look like. There’s something deeply innately satisfying about that to be able to look at the next few weeks and be like, I like that. That’s something that I’d see with stability. What I do within those hours at work, I want to be new and exciting. I want to innovate. I want to grapple with challenging issues, but I want to know when I’m clocking out.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, I hear that as it’s stability, I hear it also as predictability.
MICK: That’s a great way to put that.
MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s pause here. Mick came to me with some broader questions about where he might want to go to after his career in the military is over, but he’s challenged with how to figure out what he wants and how to pursue it given all the competing demands on his time and energy. He’s realized that he has to figure out what to say yes to and what to say no to even when there are lots of exciting opportunities coming his way. He’s also realizing that predictability and stability are important to him and their lies the tension. He’s moving towards something new and different, and yet he wants to have some stability and predictability. So, to move him forward, I invite him to reframe the question he’s been asking himself. Instead of focusing on what do I say yes or no to, I ask him to reframe it to how do I harness the opportunities that are coming my way in a predictable way and in a way that gives me disability I’m yearning for? Let’s dive back in as he explores that question.
MICK: Yeah. Some opportunities are very clear and specific. It’s like, “Hey can you come support this training exercise,” and that’s like a week long, and I know exactly when I’m going to be there. I know exactly what I’m going to do. Then there are other things, like working groups are a great example where we’ll take a complex problem and then a bunch of people will hop on a call and try to talk about it. Those things can be far more nebulous. You could spend just an hour on the call or you could spend 10 hours preparing products for the call and then have to revise that and change that afterwards. Honestly, I think I’ve probably not done the best job and really clearly defining what those more nebulous tasks are actually requiring of me, and then that starts to encroach on my ability to not have to work quote/unquote, “overtime.” Obviously, that doesn’t exist in the military, but in order to kind of put myself into a position where, because I said yes to something, I’m not going to let it fail, but at the same time, it’s going to require far more effort than potentially I’d planned. Those things, I feel like, just suck the life out of me where it’s like the second that I look at the clock and I’m like, “I’m going to be late to getting home,” and expectations are starting to get infringed upon with my family, then that’s where I get frustrated because I feel like I’m taking from them while giving to an organization that obviously I love, but that isn’t my family. I think I struggle with defining the amount of work that I need to put into projects in order to see them succeed, and honestly, I don’t even know if I’ve ever really thought about that up until this conversation.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. In a sense, you’re saying yes without really knowing what you’re saying yes to when you take on these projects. So, with that in mind, what do you think you could be doing when these requests come your way? Which it sounds like there’s a lot of them that do. You’re in demand, MICK. So, when you’re in demand, what do you think you could do when the next call comes? “Hey, can you sit on this taskforce, or can you work this group? Can you talk to this person? Can you lead this project?” What could you do that would help you be able to determine whether or not this aligns with the expectations you have of yourself, of having a bit more of a predictable schedule, some stability, and being able to focus on the things that you want to focus on?
MICK: I think of two things. One, I could be more upfront in my conversation with them and say, okay, now this is what it looks like to me. Is this what it looks like to you? I think that’s rarely a part of that conversation. I think I can definitely do that. I think the second thing is I wrestle with time management at work whenever it comes to blocking off chunks of time for specific projects, and that’s kind of the issue of being the guy in the corner office is that people are always knocking. I think that’s been a part where it’s almost like I don’t know how much time I have to spend, because I’m not really structuring it that well, and so whenever somebody asks for something, I’m like, “Oh, sure, I’ve got the time.” I’m not realizing like, “oh yeah, there’s six things that I didn’t write into my schedule that I should have, or that were nebulous in themselves and don’t really have an easy way to schedule without me just being intentional about it.” I think it really is probably a lot of that. It’s me actually knowing how much of that currency I have to spend, because very regularly I don’t have a solid grasp on that.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, doing the work to get more of a solid grasp is where you’re at, right?
MURIEL WILKINS: Aligning around expectations is what you’re talking about. What might be helpful for you here is to also be able to discern between when a request is being made of you and when it’s a demand. Let me explain the difference, or do you know the difference – let me ask you – between a request and a demand?
MICK: I would dare to think that I do. I was thinking a request I can basically say no to and a demand is, yeah, it’s going to happen whether I like it or not.
MURIEL WILKINS: Exactly. Exactly. A request, there’s three possible answers. It’s yes, no, or maybe – let’s talk about it this is how we can make it work, right? The demand is it’s non-negotiable, this is what it is. My sense is that particularly as you’ve risen up in your career and the level at which you’re at now, you’re probably receiving way more requests now than you are demands.
MICK: I would agree completely, and honestly, I think in the past I mostly received demands. So, it’s almost a habit of saying yes, more than it is say a conscious thought process of, oh, maybe I don’t have to do this.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. Exactly. So, it’s really, how should we put it, exercising your ear, to, A, discern is it a request or a demand, and if it’s a request, then how do I respond? So, that if you do say, yes, it’s aligned with the conditions that you need to make it work for you, and it’s aligned with the conditions that they need to make it work for them. I think the second thing that you’re bringing up is, “But, you know, even when I take things on, I’m actually not really quite sure if I have room to do it.” Which becomes the capacity question.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, you sort of have to proactively look at, well, how much capacity do I actually have? How much can I take on, and be on top of that. It’s no different, you talked about moving a number of times as you were younger. Similarly, I moved a lot as well. To this day I still think about, okay, let me look at my suitcase. How much room is there exactly? Let me not over-pack it because the room is the room is the room. Your capacity is your capacity and you can try to push it to its limit, but at some point there is going to be a limit.
MICK: Yeah. I think that’s the part that is so challenging for me is that I’m this voice and advocate for wellness, and in telling people about, “Hey, like this is what a healthy life balance should look like.” Then the one area that I consistently kind of overwhelm my capacity is in work, whenever I feel like I’m trying to give to other people. I mean, just like it’s very easy to look at rigid tasks, like, “hey, I’ve really got to write this evaluation. Okay, well, that’s going to take X amount of time.” What you can’t plan for is the fact that one of your sailors just started having an issue with his wife or just wanted to fight one of the other guys or whatever. Then it’s like, okay, well then that time gets encroached upon by something that is urgent. So, it’s almost like programming flexibility, is also something that I really wrestle with because I think I can keep this within capacity, but then if any random thing happens, then all of a sudden the whole system gets kind of thrown off. I don’t feel like I’m good at planning for that.
MURIEL WILKINS: So, here’s the thing, you plan for the things that you can control. You leave space for the things that you can’t. So, what you know is that some of these things are going to jump off, as you just said. There will be fires. It’s almost like every day when I drive my kids to school, we pass by a firehouse and on almost any given day, there’s a couple of the firefighters sitting in front, if the weather’s good, they’re sitting in front of the firehouse. To any person, they might think they’re not doing anything. I see it differently. They’ve planned for the potential that there will be a fire, and so, they’ve created capacity by having a couple of people actually being able to just sit in front of the firehouse waiting. They’ve created the capacity for what they know will happen. What they don’t know is when it’s going to happen, but there’s always somebody on standby. So, I use that to say to you, what is your standby time that allows space for you to be able to physically, mentally and emotionally respond to these emergencies that pop off in your realm, in your work?
MICK: So, I instituted two-hour lunches almost as soon as I showed up. I think that I look at those two hour lunches like that, where either a lot of times I’ll go for a run or whatever during lunch, but then that’s also my extra time for doing counselings or for correcting someone or those sorts of issues, or even just a good time just to walk around the building and chat with folks. So, I have created that, and I feel like that’s worked pretty well. I think the other challenge that I’ve faced recently is that I’ve traveled quite a bit. I would say out the last seven or eight weeks, I’ve traveled for about four of it. Then the challenge that I get is that whenever I start traveling or I’m doing something else, then you kind of accrue all of this extra work that’s not getting done, and then you’re coming back. Then all of a sudden I’m using that extra space that I created to try to catch up, and then that’s getting in the way of other things. It just feels like the mountain of tasks just continues to build. Honestly, I think that’s been the most recent stressor that I’ve been dealing with.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So, here’s the thing. You plan for predictability as much as you can, and you accept the fact that it’s not always going to be predictable and that those moments when things like travel happens or an emergency happens, or whatever it is that kind of takes you away from your regular cadence of activity, that those things are temporary. I liken it to sounds like you run from what you said, right?
MICK: I do. Yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: I don’t know if you’ve ever done any long distance running like marathons or, or anything like that.
MICK: I’m trying to do a 100-miler this year. We’ll see if actually comes through.
MURIEL WILKINS: Oh my god, okay. Here I am saying a meager marathon and you’re doing a hundred miler. So, I mean, look, the hundred-miler that you’re going to do is a one-time thing.
MURIEL WILKINS: But the predictability is the training that you do leading up to the hundred-miler.
MURIEL WILKINS: But that a hundred miler will be a one-time thing that you do. It’s going to happen. It’s going to start and it’s going to end, and then you’ll go back to whatever it is that you were doing. You are holding that at the same time as the predictability of the day in, day out training. The reason I’m bringing this up, Mick, is that things are going to happen. You can’t even necessarily schedule for them to happen, even though you do these two-hour lunches to have the spaciousness. It’s more knowing and having confidence that when something comes up such as travel, having the confidence that when you come back, you will be able to catch up and you will make the space to catch up and you will plan for that.
MICK: Honestly, one of the things that’s funny about having to have confidence is that most people would say that I am an extremely confident person, and I think that’s a part of just what comes with the job. That’s how you can embrace risk – is by being like, “well, I’m super confident in what I bring to the table.” I think what’s hard, especially in a new role, is feeling like you’re not as confident as you have been in the past, and so, it’s like you say that and in my head, I’m like, “you’re absolutely right,” and then there’s a part of me that’s saying, “Why aren’t you confident? You should be confident. How dare you not be confident?” You know what I mean?
MURIEL WILKINS: Well, why should you be? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know if you should be, but why is that such a “should” in your head that you should be when it’s something completely new to you?
MICK: I think it’s one of the challenges that we face. I don’t want to go as dramatic as to say that it’s a fallacy, but it’s this, you kind of robe yourself with invincibility in a way in order to do dangerous things where you just say I’m as trained as I possibly can be and whenever I jump out of this airplane, there are only so many things I can control, and then you accept it. There’s a level of acceptance where you just say, yes, I might die doing this and then you accept it and then you move. There’s something about that that it becomes this mindset that permeates everything in life. It’s hard for me to acknowledge that I have aspects of transitioning out of the military that are scary to me because I am so used to being the brave one. I’m so used to exemplifying that to the guys that work for me, to embracing that with the work that you do and the processes that you go through. So, to be in a place to where I actually feel like I am being vulnerable and recognizing that in an area of my performance is really hard. It’s super easy for me to be vulnerable about my personal past and being empathetic, and it’s hard to do that in the area of performance because it feels so like you must be a performer, you must do this effectively. There is no other option. I think that that rigidity, honestly, I think it’s pretty stifling in a way to where you’re just willing to be real with who you are and maybe the things that you’re not so good at.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. What’s coming up for me is, how would you define what “performing” – and I’m using quotations – what that is now versus what it was before?
MICK: I think what’s so hard about it is that what it used to be before, it was very straightforward. It was you need to be able to shoot a gun really well. You need to never be scared. You need to be extremely strong. You need to be smart and reflexive to the needs of the team and doing all those things, and obviously I was far from perfect in executing any of those. I would dare to say that I was good enough. So whenever I look at performance now, you spend your whole time not really being a leader in my field. You influence it a lot, but you are very rarely, truly responsible for the development of other people. It’s almost like being a specialist. You have your area of expertise and you do that thing well. The challenge is that essentially whenever you become a chief in our community, you take on that role where I went from having really a handful of people that worked for me, but they kind of worked in different places and I didn’t really see them a lot, so it wasn’t like that day to day engagement, to becoming a chief, within a couple months taking this new job, and now I have 25 direct reports, half of which I see on a day to day basis. It’s this whole new kind of realm. It’s a realm I’m passionate about, so I feel like I’ve been able to garner a measure of success in it, and I feel like I’ve been able to do a decent job and build some pretty strong relationships, but at the same time, it’s like I don’t have those same rigid tasks. I used to know,” hey, if I can bench press this much and run this fast, then that was success. If I can pass this shooting qualification, then that is success.” Then you show up and it’s like, okay, cool. What does success look like in mentorship? I think that’s strong relationships. I think that’s people being willing to talk to me about their problems, and all of a sudden, it becomes far more nebulous. The military has metrics for everything, but a lot of those metrics have a hard time accurately calculating buy-in or comfortability and communication, those kinds of things. We have like, oh, everyone’s vaccinated, good job, but we don’t have, are your people satisfied? Are you using your people well? Those are the challenges that I now feel responsible for, that whenever we have issues in that people look to me and say, “Okay, Chief, show us how to fix this.” I kind of sit back and then I make my phone calls and I reach out to my mentors and I try to go through it, but there’s not really an operator’s manual like there used to be.
MURIEL WILKINS: No, there’s not.
MICK: All of a sudden, I’m just grappling with – I’m going to do the things that I feel like are my strengths, but I’m also keenly aware that I have a lot of weaknesses, and I think that’s one of those underlying kind of uncertainties. I would even dare to say that they are fears, is that my strengths would be good enough, but my weaknesses essentially would be the things where I fail people. I think that’s the scary thing for me is that I feel like I really care about people and I believe in being an advocate for people. There’s part of me that is very, very afraid that I will fail someone, like a young sailor who is essentially vulnerable and that I won’t protect him from that effectively. So, yeah, I think I just said a lot, but yeah, that’s generally where my brain goes when it comes to performance is how do I, not the organization, how do I define my success in a way that is still good for the organization, but is also good for me?
MURIEL WILKINS: At this point in the coaching conversation, I had us both pause to take a breath because there’s a lot he had just unpacked. Sometimes you need that moment of pause to digest it all. MICK came in wanting to figure out what’s next on his career path and how to manage his time accordingly, but what he uncovered is that underlying it all is his discomfort in shifting from having concrete tasks that he’s responsible for with measurable outcomes, to the more nebulous work of leading particularly when it comes to his people. Like many who move into leadership roles, he’s looking for something to grasp onto that will make him feel like he’s being successful. But for Mick, I had a sense there was something a little deeper at play that was causing this discomfort for him. Let’s dive back in as I test out my hypothesis with him. So, first of all, there is no operator manual, as you said, and I’m sorry, I don’t have it either. What that means is huge opportunity for you to define it, for you to define what those metrics are, what it means to have a team that you feel you’ve done good by. So, that’s one. I think the second thing is you talk a lot about, or you’ve mentioned a few times and used the word protecting your people. Again, I don’t have full, full knowledge of being in the military and being deployed, particularly in hardship areas, but I would imagine that what it means to protect someone in those environments really is a life or death situation. So, you’re applying that in your current environment and holding this metric of protection, and I’m curious around your efforts to protect your people versus your efforts to protect your people as a way of protecting yourself from failing.
MICK: Ooh, that one hits pretty hard. I think that’s actually a very interesting way to put it because once again, I think you measure yourself off of performance so rigidly in a career that has very rigid guidelines for performance. Then I’ve transitioned to a place where it’s far more nebulous, and now I think that there is a very real aspect of that, that if I fail someone that not only will I fail that person, but that I will fail and it will be known by others. That feels like a blow to my pride. That feels like me taking a hit to that confidence that I prize so highly. That’s a complex one right there.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I mean, there’s a bit of a paradox here, Mick, because on the one hand based on our conversation so far, I see you as this advocate and champion of others. You used words like, “I want to inspire them,” and when you think about inspiring somebody, it’s about moving them forward. You think about the root word of the word “inspire…” it’s in spirit, like you want to kind of move them forward into something that might not be secure. It’s like, let’s go.
MURIEL WILKINS: Then the paradox to me is the approach that you take, or the posture that you also take is I want to protect them, which protecting is very constricting. It’s actually fear-based. It closes off. It says, “let’s just move within this little area, because if we go there, what might happen?” To me, I think you are at a place of there’s a shift around what is the leadership belief that you want to hold as you move forward into this next stage where it’s off of the battlefield, and as you put it, where you’re sitting now, and then more importantly as you move into this exit stage. Are you leading from a place of fear which can then create kind of a protective type of approach, or are you leading from a place of dare I say, and this is not meant to be religious in any way, but from a place of faith, because when you think about what faith is, it’s the belief in the unknown.
MICK: Yeah. So, it’s funny because I feel like there’s almost, like, a dichotomy going on right there, and I can see it in my relationships. So, one of the other very unique things about where I work is that we have people that are fully qualified, who take a couple of years of extremely hard training, and then they’re able to do this job. Then I have other people that we call candidates who are trying to become that thing. I can see the different perspectives on both sides because with the candidates, kind of my personal quote is serve excellently, suffer well. So, whenever they’re like, “Hey, I’m intimidated by doing this. I’m afraid of doing that,” and I tell them there are only so many opportunities you have to actually suffer well, and this can be one of them if you choose to take it. I believe that. I believe in the growth that can come from that. Then on the flip side the guys who are fully qualified, I feel like a lot of what I spend my time doing is trying to teach them how to protect themselves from all the mistakes that I made. I can definitely see how both of those things are important, but at the same time, how there seems to be almost, like, a friction in regards to being able to consistently do that effectively. I was challenged earlier this week by having to discipline a guy that I looked at and he had gone through some personal issues fairly recently, but then there was a very clear metric of performance that he did not meet. Basically I had to sit him down and give him a hard talking to, and in my head, I saw myself and I was like, “Man, did I coddle this guy because of the personal stuff I knew he was going through? Is that what led to this?” Now I have to be the guy dropping a hammer to be like, “Hey man, if you want to be here, you need to prove it to me.” I got to say, I feel like both of those drives feel very natural and just like they’re just in me. I feel like I’m grappling with how to express those effectively.
MURIEL WILKINS: I think it’s also not only how do you express those effectively, but how do you do that at scale? Because you now have a much larger organization that you’re dealing with. When you feel that friction, when you feel that tension, what I would suggest to you is that it might be a signal that the way you’re defining your role is not quite necessarily what’s needed, or what’s best going to serve the organization or your people or whoever it is you’re dealing with. So, what does that mean? I think it’s really interesting that over the course of a conversation, you have interchangeably used the words being a mentor, or gone back and forth between, “I’m a mentor, that’s who I am,” and “I think I want to coach, but not an executive coach,” cetera. I think it’s really interesting because I think that what you have done for a very long time is mentor others, and mentoring others is about taking your own personal experiences, which you have an amazing story and experience that you bring to the table. Using your experience and what you’ve done well, where you’ve “failed”, in quotation marks, to guide others. So, that’s one, and I think you’ve done that extraordinarily well. Then there’s being a coach as a manager. Let’s not even talk about coaching the way I do it, but a coach is a manager. As a coach, as a manager, what you’re doing is creating the conditions and holding the space so that your people can learn what it is that it’s going to take for them to be able to succeed. So, it’s not about your story. It’s not about, “This is what worked for me. This is what I did therefore,” or “This is how it happened to me, and now I’m concerned that’s what’s going to happen to you.” It’s about being able to see the person for where they are, and then being able to say, “Okay, this is where you are. Where do you want to go? What choices do you have in front of you? Let me help you figure out what the different paths are that you can take, what the different decisions are that you can make, the different strategies you can take. Let me show you the different ways of doing something, but ultimately the responsibility lies with you.” So there’s a bit of, I think, as you scale in leadership, being responsible for coaching your people, but not feeling so responsible to the outcome that it then moves you into this protective mechanism.
MICK: Ooh, this is the first time in this conversation where I’ve actually felt uncomfortable. So, thank you for that. I mean, I think you’re right. I think that’s what makes that so hard. I think that in my early career, I felt very vulnerable. I ran into some significant issues right after I finished our very hard training pipeline. Then I had leaders that I felt were not as protective as they should be, and a big part of that was my naivety of youth and not understanding the organization, not understanding the values that they were trying to instill in me, but it left a very indelible mark on the way that I wanted to make people feel. I think that’s one of the challenges that I think that I might face is that I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m very in tune with my emotions, and I think the challenge with that is that that’s not really the military way. That’s not a normal and really popular approach in many ways, and so I know that sometimes I wonder if I feel too much and it kind of triggers that protective instinct to where I want to be able to shield someone from that suffering that is actually a healthy part of growth. I guess I’m struggling with how to establish I guess, a definition or a boundary in regards to that and what that would look like. I don’t know if that’s me trying to be more introspective about when I’m feeling emotionally triggered by something, or if maybe there’s more of a generalized rule for the road.
MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. I don’t think there’s a generalized rule for the road.
MURIEL WILKINS: I do think that what you’ve hit on is how do I establish a boundary? The boundary is really not for the other. The boundary is not, let me place a boundary so that my team members don’t have any more problems or don’t come to me with problems. I’m only going to make, like, one office hour a week. Therefore, if it doesn’t fit in that office hour, I won’t get any more of these things that I have to deal with. The boundary is really not on the other. The boundary is on yourself and how much do you actually need to give to feel like you’re supporting them?
MICK: I think the easy answer is everything. That’s the hard thing. That is one of the greatest things about the military and also one of the hardest things about the military is that there is a feeling of as, as Jocko Willink likes to put it, “extreme ownership,” that the best leaders engage their people in a holistic perspective, and you can see that become a very toxic sort of approach that is stifling and overwhelming and inappropriate, but you also see that with really great leaders where they genuinely care about the lives, the entire lives of their people. I think that that’s the challenge, is that whenever you are a people person, like myself, you want to be engaged in those things. You want to have a pulse on those things, because I know how that’s going to affect their work, and I also know that’s going to affect how I put them in positions of stress. Sometimes I think that I’m too sensitive in that. That I see something going on and I say, “Oh man, let’s stop everything to try to deal with this thing, even though, one, it’s not my specialty and two, it’s realistically probably something that’ll buff out if I just allowed them the space and the time and the empowerment with resources to deal with it on their own.” It’s like being a helicopter parent. I feel like that’s what I’m doing in some of these situations where I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got you,” and it’s like, “Man, let that little bird fly.”
MURIEL WILKINS: Right, right. Exactly. It’s not a one or the other, actually. It’s trying to be all those things and situationally figuring out what does this particular situation need from me at this time? Does it require me to helicopter or does it require me to take a step back and let them fly? The way you make that decision is because you are so vested in terms of the growth of your people, what is going to best serve them in their growth, which might not necessarily be what best serves them in the short term and also may not what necessarily be what serves you in the short term of your desire to help relieve the sufferer.
MICK: I think in kind of a subtle way, when I look at people, there’s part of me that maybe catastrophizes where they’re at almost as, like, a protective mechanism so that I’m not shocked and surprised again, even though I know, realistically, there’s only so much that you can do for that. I know the equation, but it’s still, like, this emotional underpinning that if I fail at this thing, that not only could it be bad, it could be terrible. Honestly, I mean, realistically, that’s what we do in the military. Every plan that we make is based off of the worst possible outcome, and then we plan for that and we train for that, and then most of the time it doesn’t happen.
MURIEL WILKINS: What I’m suggesting is that as you lead to think about are there other ways you can lead over and beyond the protective approach that you’ve taken so far. That is one approach. It’s not to get rid of it. It’s not to get rid of it. It’s more so that it has worked for you because of the culture that you’ve been in, because that tends to be the predominant way of doing things, and now that you’re leading at the scale that you’re at now, as well as when you move forward, post your military career, there are other approaches that can amplify your objective, which is to inspire, motivate, grow people. What’s clear to me is you are somebody that is driven by purpose. So if you could start thinking about what are other ways that you can lead that support this overarching purpose of growing your people over and beyond leading by protection, what would that look like? We could do that right now. If I had to say, hey, you have multiple muscles, leadership muscles, one of them is leading by protecting, fill in the blank, what are other ways that you could lead by?
MICK: Challenging. That’s the first one that comes to my mind is giving guys challenges to overcome. That’s the biggest one. Actually, that is absolutely the biggest one. I feel like that’s always what made me feel like I thrived was overcoming some sort of thing.
MURIEL WILKINS: What would that require of you to be able to lead in that way? How would it look different in terms of how you approach things than the way you do now?
MICK: I think I would have to more clearly articulate goals. I think one of the easy ways of leading by protection is that sometimes it’s kind of hard to see what right looks like, but it’s really easy to see what wrong looks like. So, protecting is preventing what’s wrong. Whereas, looking at what right looks like – well, I mean, there’s all kinds of metrics that you can formulate for that, but I think that that’s what I would see the challenging is: “Hey, I believe that you’re weak in this area,” whether that’s physical fitness or medical knowledge or whatever, or even more of the softer skills that guys don’t really appreciate early in their careers, like public speaking or networking, and then drawing those guys into those situations that would allow. That would take more time and more intention from me. Although I know that I could do it. I know that could do it well, but it’s almost like having one perspective that is overarching, that protective side, and then being intentional about shifting that to the other, the challenging approach, that actually determines in my mind how I spend my time during my day. Which honestly… I mean, going back to the whole purpose thing – I mean, I can see how that would also be more consistently fulfilling because whenever you’re trying to always protect, honestly, you’re always looking for somebody to fight. You’re always looking for somebody to step out of line so that you can go in and fix a problem. I don’t think that’s really the most healthy long term strategy.
MURIEL WILKINS: Right. So, we’ve talked about things at a number of levels, and I know you came in with the question of almost like, “what do I say yes to, and what do I say no to,” right?
MURIEL WILKINS: I’m going to be honest with you, what I thought we were going to get to was like, “oh, well, what’s on your plate? What should you be saying yes to? What should you be saying no to?” I think where we’ve landed is what you need to be saying yes to are other approaches to leading and other paths to achieving this vision of success that you have for yourself in terms of the impact that you want to have on your people. What you need to say no to is only being kind of a one-note in terms of the way that you can make that impact.
MICK: I think one of the things that I wrestle with is that at the 15-year mark in the military, you’ve done a lot. A lot of the guys that work for me are far more junior, usually about a decade at least at a minimum my junior. So, I think I look back at my story and the greatest challenges were all the personal ones. Like, what does it look like to try to figure out if you’re going to get a divorce or not? What does it look like to have people close to you pass away? It’s almost like I take that my perspective of being a seasoned guy, and then I apply it to someone that not only doesn’t even know what those stressors are at that point, it’s almost like presenting people with things that they should be afraid of. It’s like, ah, that only goes so far.
MURIEL WILKINS: Look, here’s the thing. I’m going to share something. I love to work out and it’s an outlet for me. I enjoy it. Unlike a lot of people who see it as a chore, I find a lot of passion. I remember I used to spend a lot of time trying to convince my friends that they should do the same and I would list all the reasons. Probably one of the wisest people in my life, and the person who challenges me probably the most of my life, i.e., my husband, once said to me, “Did it ever occur to you that they might just not want to do it? That, like, all that passion that you have, keep it for yourself. You do it.” I was like, “Why? Why? Why is that the case?” So, I’m joking about it, but here’s the thing, your work is your work. As you said, your work is your work. Your experience is your experience. Does it inform you in terms of how you are with your people? Absolutely, but you’ve got to let their work be their work, their path be their path. What you can do is stand right next to them as they go through it, as they go through their challenges. You can guide, you can coach, you can mentor, and it’s still their work, their challenge, their path to go through. That’s the difference. That actually is a huge distinction between being the doer and being the leader. In your case, usually when we’re talking about this, we’re talking about like delegating tasks. Like, oh, you need to stop doing the task. You need to sort of lift up. In your case, the task is around them being able to get through these challenges. So, you’ve got to lift from being a doer in terms of almost like doing the emotional work for them –
MICK: Oh man, yeah.
MURIEL WILKINS: – of the challenges and more being a leader around that.
MICK: Man, I’m going to write that down. “Don’t do the emotional work.”
MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think we can bring this to a close, but I’d love to hear in the simplest way possible for you what your key takeaways are and what you’re leaving the conversation with.
MICK: I would say that it is a need to move from a fear-based mentality to a more faith-based because that really aligns with the direction that we’re trying to take this, to go from that protective approach to a more challenging approach, and then also aligning my future vision, the one that I’m driving towards in five years and then recognizing that with that vision in mind, I can then make those tactical level decisions and be more consistent with them in order to actually reach that vision well. Honestly, I think that’s really how I would sum all this up.
MURIEL WILKINS: All right. Very good.
MICK: Thanks, Muriel. I cannot express to you how valuable this time has been for me. I really appreciate
MURIEL WILKINS: Good. Good. I’m really glad, really glad. When Mick reached out for coaching, he wanted to work through what he does next after his military career. But as we got into the coaching session, he realized that the real work starts now before he even takes that next step. His work is not just tactical in terms of what practical steps he needs to take. It’s also an inside job of realigning, his perspective and approach to better support the purpose that he has of helping others. My coaching conversation with Mick went deeper than most clients on this show. Why? Because my job is to meet my clients where they are and help them see what paths they can take to move forward from there. But let me be clear, coaching is not therapy, and while Mick, like many of my clients, brought a whole lifetime of experiences to the coaching, some of them traumatic, it’s not my role to dig into those experiences and help my clients make sense of them, and in some cases heal from them. Rather, my work is to help Mick see where he is now and where he wants to be in the future, and make the bridge between the two with as much ease as possible. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders, and that’s a wrap on this season as well. We’re taking a break over the summer and I’ll be back with more episodes this fall. In the meantime, stay in touch by joining me and many others at my Coaching Real Leaders, community, where I host live discussions to unpack the coaching sessions you hear on this show. You can join at coachingrealleaderscommunity.com. You can also find me in my newsletter on LinkedIn @MurielWilkins. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe; sound editor, Nate 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 next season. Apply at coachingrealleaders.com. Of course, if you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcast. From HBR Presents, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, may you be well.