Man In Empty Office

By Julie Benezet:

The Dilemma

The executive arrived on time for his coaching session, a sixteen-ounce cup of coffee in hand. He motored over to the window, stared down the street, then turned and lowered himself into the guest chair. So far, everything was typical of our sessions, including his opening remark.

“Um, wow, where to begin, . . .”

“Anywhere,” I said, familiar with this pattern. “What’s top of mind, however small?” The goal was to get the conversation rolling.

“Okay. So, our new owners showed up earlier this week for an inspection tour. They’ve been here a few times now. Why I don’t know. They don’t seem to have learned anything. Whenever we try to show them our latest designs, they look bored and ask, ‘Will it be a billion-dollar game?’ Well, without building, testing, and launching it, how will we ever know? Maybe if they spent time supporting our development work, we could release it to the market and find out.”

He continued in this vein for most of the session. Finally, with five minutes to go, he stopped and became silent. Turning his eyes back toward the window, he sighed deeply and said in a low, slow voice. “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

The Doorknob Moment

In the therapy world, his final remark is called the “doorknob moment.” Clients will spend most of their 50-minute hour talking about anything except what’s really bothering them. Then, as they are about to leave, they curl their hand around the doorknob and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m thinking of killing myself.” An exaggeration, one hopes, but it demonstrates how hard it is to admit their pain.

In executive coaching, the dynamic is the same. What needs to be said is frightening. When it involves someone’s leadership role, however, another dimension is added.

To say out loud you don’t want to be there feels like heresy. Your job is to lead the pack and build the business. Without your dedication to the leadership role, the team flails, and failure is just a matter of time. That’s an upsetting prospect. It’s tough on the team and on your career.

And yet it happens.

The Subtext

When leaders fall out of love with what they are doing, beneath the surface runs a loud subtext.

“How can I call myself a leader and have all these negative feelings? I’ve worked years to get here, been a team player, faithfully carried out the company mission and delivered the goods, even when I wasn’t totally convinced the goods were that great. That’s why I make the big bucks. I guess. Isn’t that the deal?”

Well, maybe. The real deal is whether they are living in their emotional home, the place that houses their values, sense of purpose, and dreams for the future.

The Search for Home

When a leader no longer feels at home in their role, it’s time to revisit what is expected of them and whether they want to fulfill those expectations. Before charting a course of action to redefine your role, consider the following three critical attributes of leadership success:

Keep the Idea Channel Unclogged. The leadership journey requires plunging into multiple avenues of the unknown in search of fresh ideas and new approaches to old ideas. To maintain an open idea channel, leaders must keep it unclogged by fears that could obscure opportunities. When testing new ground, fear is not only normal, but important. However, if the fear arrests the process of pursuing new ideas, it’s important to pinpoint why. There may be a larger institutional issue or a personal problem at work.

Know What You Believe. Unclogging the channel means facing what you truly believe. Those beliefs might not be obvious, especially if a leader has spent their career satisfying the agendas of others. It does not mean successful leaders are conformists, but, rather, compromises are made along the way to meet company goals that might not always align perfectly with what the executive wants.

However, as a leader gains experience and finds their own voice, the misalignment might grow until it reaches a tipping point where frustration with the direction of the business outweighs their willingness to support it.

For example, a leader who is working to build a leadership bench might find themself thwarted by a senior executive’s steadfast refusal to distribute authority down through the ranks. As a result, the future leaders in whom the leader has invested considerable energy to develop see the senior leadership roadblock and either disengage or leave.

Feeling out of sync with one’s role can also surface if a leader decides, after years of ignoring their feelings, that they can no longer abide the money obsession and soullessness they perceive in their industry.

Maintain a Positive Growth Curve. Leadership offers a lifetime of discovery. Successful executives dive in to learn all they can and give it their best. However, priorities change, personalities evolve, and companies transform. In the demanding life of advancing the business and careers of their company, it is easy for the leader to lose track of their own career. Therefore, it behooves the leader to stop and study their situation. Are they growing in their career and, if not, why not?

If you have reached the “I don’t think I can do this anymore” moment in one or more of these leadership attributes, it’s time to have a serious conversation with yourself about making a change.

Moving Forward

How do you hold that conversation? Here are three steps:

  1. Check your alignment. Alignment between you and the company is as important to you as a leader as it is for your organization. If the two don’t coincide, neither of you benefits. Discovering misalignment is painful, especially if you realize you’re devoting your energy to something that seems unlikely of success or no longer excites you. The business direction might work for the company, but it no longer works for you. Forcing yourself to admit the problem will start the engine of change.
  2. Do your homework. Using resources such as journaling, conversations with trusted associates, family, or friends, or working with a coach or mentor, figure out the source of your disconnection. That will allow you to determine whether the problem is a mismatch between you and your company or a more personal issue that the company cannot cure.

If, for example, the current product offerings don’t inspire you, what prevents you from saying so? Is it because you haven’t gotten around to it, or is there a cultural bias against expressing dissenting opinions? A cultural issue points to a company problem. If you experience discomfort with conflict to the extent you go to great lengths to avoid it, that is a personal matter. Knowing whether it is a company or personal issue will inform what direction to take your action plan.

  1. Build an action plan. Deciding what you want to do depends on whether you want to remain in your current organization or move somewhere else. If you like your company but find your role limiting, it’s time to have a frank discussion with senior leadership about moving to a different slot. Be prepared to outline what you’ve achieved in the company and what you want to do in a future role.

If no position exists that meets your requirements, propose a new one that will benefit you and the organization. The process most likely will take more than one conversation, but it raises the likelihood of a positive result. If you are unable to agree on a new position, shift your attention to researching opportunities outside the company.

If you like what you do but are exasperated with a company culture of conflict avoidance, consider championing an assessment of its culture with the goal of converting it into a more open, idea making environment. If senior leadership reacts negatively to your idea, take it as is a warning sign that changing the culture might be seen as a threat. This likely is the case when a senior executive hangs onto decision-making authority for fear of losing power, despite the negative impact on emerging leaders. If that is happening in your company, you will need to decide whether you can live with it.

When conflict avoidance is a challenge for you, work on it with outside help. No organization can solve a personal issue. Your discomfort with conflict could stem from family of origin issues or negative experiences in or outside your work. Gaining insight into your conflict avoidance will help build skills to deal with adversity and advance initiatives. You also will be better positioned to decide whether your current role is a fit for you, and if not, what to do about it.

Self-Knowledge is Power

Being honest with oneself is not easy. However, it is the only way to peel back the layers to get to the bottom of your discomfort. Then you will know what problem to solve. The search for knowledge empowers those who seek it, even when the road to finding it might raise scary or painful realities. Facing them takes courage, but it could swing open a door to move up, or on, to happier horizons.


©2023, Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

By Julie Benezet

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