When you are in over your head, do this!

Jo Ilfeld Executive Coach | Leadership Skills |

Imagine this scenario: My mom takes me to a spa (thanks Mom!) where there are lots of fitness activities to choose from. I, a very slow but determined jogger, show up to the spa’s trail run for all levels. “I’ll stay towards the back of the pack,” I think, “but what an amazing way to see the Catalina mountains in AZ and get my workout in.”

Now the reality: I arrive, out of breath already, having had trouble getting out of my comfortable fluffy spa bed. At the meeting area are just two ULTRA-FIT and lean guys. Ummm. . .where is that back of the pack for me to join?
“No worries” says my toned, looks like he does ultra marathons, guide, “this trail run is for all levels. You’re in the right place.”

We start by walking to the edge of the spa property. I’m hanging on this far. Then, when we get to path, our guide points out the hiking trails that one can do on their own without needing a guide. “Is this a hint?” I wonder.

We start out jogging and immediately the two guys take off as I trudge along at my molasses pace. I reach them panting already after just 5 minutes.

“Ummm. .. maybe I should just do one of those trails on my own. I’m pretty slow.” I wheeze out when I reach them.

“This trail run is for all levels so you’re in the right place. The first part is a pretty steep uphill challenge but we can stop and wait for you. Dan here can do push-ups while we wait.”
Wait did he say “steep uphill” and “challenge?” I am definitely in the wrong place.
“It’s fine,” Dan, the other spa guest chimes in with a big smile. “You should come.”

With a huge sense of foreboding I agree to continue along. I’m not sure whether this is more ego, selfish desire for a trail run, or sheer hard-headedness. We continue along the trail – Dan and our guide at a probably normal clip; I wouldn’t know as they disappeared from my view so quickly. Each time when they stopped and waited, they took off again as I approached.
They’re getting a rest at every stop, but I, who need it more, never seem to get a break. So I become smarter, and for the rest of the run whenever I see them stopped up ahead, I start walking to join them and give myself a bit of time to rest my poor winded self before continuing my next uphill jog.

I’m honestly not sure at what point we stopped going uphill but as my guide took time to point out some of the Arizona desert beauty, I did have one moment of sheer awe looking at the landscape around me. That’s when he took this awesome photo of always smiling, patient Dan and myself. Our guide and Dan marveled at the landscape in the photo, I obsessed about my belly…

As we started downhill and back towards the resort this is what went through my mind:

“I think I might actually survive this.”
“I’m such a rockstar.”
“All levels – my a$$”

Later, telling this story to one of my best friends over our weekly workout, she told me I had to write it up for my newsletter.
I had to ask myself, “what does my out of shape run have to do with leadership?” Here’s my answer.

Dr. Jo’s Big 3 Lessons From Being In Over Her Head:

  • At the beginning is the worst time to judge whether you can make it through a new challenge.

I’m constantly reading and hearing about the imposter syndrome at work. The truth is that most everyone feels like an imposter facing a new challenge. Whether it’s a big new opportunity, a bigger team to manage or a turnaround situation, there is no 100% guarantee that you’re ready for it, or that you will be a stellar success. The risk we all take when we stretch ourselves is that we might fail. That’s not imposter syndrome. That’s reality! And one we need to learn to live with if we plan to stretch ourselves and grow at work.

  • Despite the pressure, you need to set a pace you can maintain.

Jo Ilfeld Executive Coach | Leadership SkillsIt’s so temping to want to prove yourself in any new challenge. Yes, sometimes a new assignment does mean crazy and non-sustainable work hours. That happens. But the old adage to start as you mean to go on applies here more often than not. If you devote an unreasonable time to a new role, people will keep expecting unreasonable things from you. And when will you feel comfortable to push back? Better to set clear and open boundaries about what you will and won’t do from the beginning. And then keep them. And keep them. Then break them for an important sprint. And then go back to keeping them again. It’s ok if you’re walking when everyone else is running. I got back to the resort at the same time that Dan did.

  • Celebrate the Milestones.

Whether it’s taking an amazing picture of the crest at the top of the hill, bringing cupcakes into work after an important deadline for your team or sneaking out early after that big meeting – make sure you’re picking moments to mark victories along the way. Most leaders I work with have huge victories at work and wake up the next day and set bigger and more ambitious goals, driving their team towards the next BHAG* Don’t be that leader – or even that teammate. Have celebratory lunches/dinners, or even coffee breaks. Find ways to break up the forward driving pursuit of companies into those moments that mark progress and that people actually remember. Trust me – people work harder when they know they can actually feel a sense of accomplishment at the end. Hamster wheels never provide that high. Don’t create one for yourself, or your people, at work!

(*big, hairy audacious goal).

I’m curious to ask you, when is a time you’ve felt a bit underwater or that you bit off more than you could chew? What did you take away from the experience? Would you do it again? I really look forward to reading your answers in the comments below and learning from and together with you!

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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