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Hosted by Tom Henschel

The Rising Executive


December 2020

After receiving a major promotion, a high-performing leader asks his coach how to build a strong team quickly. Together they explore a variety of ideas from impostor syndrome to self-disclosure.

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December 2020

The Rising Executive

Tom Henschel

Teams at risk

Rafael was two months into running the largest team of his career. He wasn’t certain, but he sensed the CEO was about to pit his new team against another team. If that happened, one team’s business would win out over the other’s. No jobs would be lost, but years of work would suddenly be sidelined.

If he was right – if a competition between teams was coming – Rafael wanted his team to win.

He said, “But it’s hard to get everyone pulling together when a lot of them don’t even know me. Maybe they know my name, but I was in a whole other part of the business.”

“What have you done so far?” I asked.

“With the team? I’m falling back on three of my tried and true tools. I think they’re working. We’ll see.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“The first one I learned a long time ago. An old boss of mine used to say, ‘People don’t know their jobs.’ He meant if people weren’t clear on their roles and responsibilities, it’s my job, as team leader, to clarify it. So I’m talking with people about their jobs.”

“You’re clarifying their roles and responsibilities?”

“Oh, no! I don’t know their jobs. Some groups are working on projects I’ve never heard of before. I just ask a lot of questions!”

“What are you finding out?”

“Most people are pretty clear about their roles and responsibilities. What they don’t always know is how their work connects to the company as a whole. But I’m happy to talk about that. That’s easy for me.”

“Sounds great,” I said.

“The hardest part of these conversations for me? Listening. You know, I’ve always got an opinion about things. But if I’m going to build this team fast, I know I need to hold back. Listen more. Be judgmental less.”

“Strength through listening. There’s something very Zen about that. I love it!”

“You know what I’ve taught myself to do on group Zoom calls?” he asked. “I ask a question, then I put myself on mute. It makes me listen better knowing my mike is off. And you know what else? I think it sends a message to everyone: they can see my mike is off. It says, keep talking, he’s listening.”   

“Nice!” I said. “Is that tool number one? Talk to people about their jobs?”

Feedback with intention

“And listen to the answer, yes,” he said. “Then I give a lot of feedback. That’s my second tool. Lots of feedback. I’m so grateful I learned how to give good feedback. What a difference it makes.”

“When it comes to feedback, what are you particularly good at?” I asked.

He thought for a second, then said, “I’m good at stating my intention. Telling someone, ‘Here’s why I’m telling you this. These are the goals I have in mind for you.’ I think I help make it a positive experience.”   

“Excellent,” I said. “And where are you still growing?”

“Using fewer words. I still put a lot of padding around my feedback. I’m getting better at being more direct, but I’ve got a long way to go.”

“These are great, Rafael. What’s number three?”

“Be a good resource. Listen, I haven’t been in the position long, but it’s pretty clear that there are things I have access to now that I didn’t have before. I want my team to have everything they need. If I can get it for them, I will!”

“So your three tools are clarifying roles and responsibilities, give lots of feedback, and be a resource.”

“Right,” he said.

“Sounds like you’re doing pretty well as the new guy,” I said.   

Executive pressures

“For the most part. But there’s a whole other part of me that can be pretty overwhelmed. You know, I used to spend a lot of time reviewing my direct reports’ work. I’d write lots of notes and give lots of ideas. They loved it. Well, I can’t do anything like that anymore. I just don’t have the time.”

He went on without pause.

“I used to think I got a lot of emails. Ha! I had no idea. And there’s a lot more people I should be talking to. I just can’t get everything done. I don’t feel I’m doing so well in those departments.”

“So what happens?” I asked.

“Most nights I’m back at the computer after dinner.”

“How’s Neal with that?” Neal was his husband.

“Oh, he’s still excited that the promotion happened at all. I think he’d be happy no matter what. At least for now.”

“And what about you? Are you happy about it?”

“Mostly. Not that the new position is easy. But, yes, mostly.”

“And also overwhelmed sometimes,” I said.

“Both, yes. Oh! And then my impostor syndrome shows up sometimes, too!”

“Really? What’s that like these days?”

“Same old, same old. All my demons come out. They tell me all the ways I’m over my head and making a complete fool of myself. But I’m practicing talking back to them. I tell ‘em, ‘Go back where you came from. This is a marathon. We’re barely out of the gate. I’ll call you if I need you. But not now. Bye-bye.’”

Rafael and I had been talking about confidence since our very first conversation. I had heard many variations of his self-talk. He was getting quite good at it.

He asked, “Besides my three tools, are there other things I could do to get folks in shape?”

“Maybe, yes. I like your tools. They’re very job-focused. That’s good. I’m wondering if you might add in some that are people-focused.”

People tools

“Like what?” he asked.

“Communication about yourself. Help them get to know you. Tell them how you operate. Tell them how you like to get your information. How you like to see data. Tell them how to succeed with you.”

“We’re doing a Myers-Briggs exercise next month. Someone from the training group is going to work with us. So the team will know my preferences soon enough.”

“Great! Who pulled the trigger on Myers-Briggs? Was it something you were told to do?”

“Oh, no, I asked for it. I’ve been on other teams that have done it. It’s helpful – for exactly the purpose you said. We get more aware of our preferences so we can be more effective together.” Then he asked, “Aside from communicating about myself, are there other people tools I could try?”

“This may be a variation on the same theme. Be transparent with your leadership. You will know things they don’t. Share what you know. Tell people what it looks like from your altitude. Tell them where you are in your decision-making. Tell them what you’re thinking.”

He nodded as he imagined doing that. “One thing I’m discovering in this role is people want to hear from me. They want to know what I think. That can be hard for me sometimes, but I understand it.”

The executive spotlight

“Hard how?” I asked.

“I’d prefer to not be the center of attention, but this job demands it sometimes. When I feel my fears welling up, making me want to hide, I’ve gotten pretty good at kicking myself in the butt.”

“Like talking to your demons?”

“Different, but, yes, you could say that.”

I asked him, “If you think about my people-focused tools, what else might stop you from communicating about yourself and being transparent with your leadership?”

He considered my question, then said, “If I think my ideas aren’t perfect yet. That might stop me. I’d want more time to work them out or make them presentable. It’d be like showing a dirty room.”

“Oh, god,” I laughed, “we must’ve shared a mother!”

“Then you understand. Who wants to show something before it’s ready, right?”

I said, “You know what I do in situations where I’m speaking off the cuff? Prefacing. I tell people what I’m about to say. I’ll say something like, ‘Let me tell you how I’m thinking about this right now. It might change later, but as of this moment, what I think is – blah.’ Or, ‘At the moment I’ve got two questions about all this…’ Then you just tell them. Don’t spin it. Don’t put padding around it. You’re just reporting the progress of your thinking.”

He considered this. He said, almost to himself, “I’m actually pretty good at knowing my thoughts. I’m just not used to narrating them.”

He went on, still reflective.

“Prefacing might help me change my negative reflex. I’ve been noticing that often my first comment is negative – even when I’m feeling pretty positive about something. I’ll start with something like, ‘The problem with that is…’ or ‘What we’ll have to watch for is…’ It starts things off all wrong. I’m working hard to make the first thing I say be positive. Prefacing might help with that.”

I agreed, delighted, having never connected those two ideas before.

He said, “Am I right? If I narrate my thinking, I could also add in ‘why.’ Why is this important? Why am I thinking about these things?”

“You bet, Rafael. Answering ‘why’ is always a good idea.”

“Like why are all these tools important? Because they’ll make the team better.”

And, I thought, because it gets them flying towards The Look & Sound of Leadership.


Core Concepts:

When coming into a new team:

  • Clarify people’s roles and responsibilities – listen more than tell’
  • Give feedback liberally – tell them why your ideas are important
  • Find out how to be a resource to people – where are the levers?
  • Self-care – new teams can be demanding
  • Tell people how to succeed with you

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