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Mona, Joan, and Paul, each chief technology officer at their respective software companies, were chatting over video. This weekly call was part of the coursework assigned to their cohort in a leadership development program.

“I can never get ahead,” Joan bemoaned. “It doesn’t matter how early I get in, nor how late I stay. My work piles up faster than I can get through it. I parcel out as much as I can to my directors. Even so, I can’t keep up.”

“I feel you,” Paul replied. “I feel like I’m always having to prove myself. Never mind that I’ve been leading the engineering team for a year now. I feel like I have to keep bringing the big wins day after day.”

“That’s rough,” said Mona. “I remember being in both your shoes. Feeling like I’m not enough. I started every day full of trepidation, and ended every day in despair. It was a long road getting out of that.”

Joan goggled at Mona. “You? I can’t believe it. You are the calmest, most put-together person I know. I can’t imagine you ever feeling like that.”

“Believe it,” replied Mona. “I can’t tell you how many times I wrote a resignation email, then hit delete rather than send.”

“You said you had a long road getting out of that,” Paul said. “How did you find it, and what kept you going?”

“I found a coach who helped me find my way.”

If you don’t know where you’re going, any next step is fine

“I don’t remember how I found this coach,” Mona continued. “A friend of a friend of a friend, something like that. In our first meeting, before I had even signed up with him, he pointed out that, since I didn’t know where to go or what to do, it didn’t matter where I went or what I did. I could pick a random direction and take a random step.”

Joan shook her head. “That would never work for me. I’m already so far behind. If I don’t move forward with a plan, I will pick the wrong direction and be even more overwhelmed.”

“That’s exactly what I told this coach,” Mona said.

“He must have helped you find a solution,” said Paul. “How did he do that? Maybe it will work for Mona and me as well.”

“He showed me an image of a circus performer spinning plates on sticks. Asked me if that image represented how I felt. It did, exactly. ‘What would happen if you stopped trying to keep them all spinning?’ he asked. ‘Everything will come crashing down.’ ‘How would that feel compared to trying to keep them all spinning? Knowing new plates are continuously being handed to you?’ I decided that wouldn’t feel any worse. ‘So, why not do that?’ he asked.”

Paul looked at Mona in horror. “Just drop everything I’m supposed to be doing? Stop even attempting to get it all done? I’d be fired in an instant.”

“That’s what I told the coach,” Mona agreed. “But, it’s not what happened.”

If a step feels too scary, you always have a smaller step you can take

“You walked into work the next morning, told your team you were dropping everything on your plate, and everyone congratulated you?” Paul asked skeptically.

“No, not at all,” Mona replied. “’So, that step feels too big,” the coach said. ‘How can we make it smaller?’ I came up with something; I don’t remember what. I do remember it still felt too big. We kept iterating, making the step ever smaller. Eventually, I decided to ask my team how they felt I was doing. Was I keeping up? Did I seem overwhelmed? When I had let tasks fall on the floor, how had that impacted them?”

“I could never ask my team that,” Paul said. “That’s about the scariest thing I can imagine.”

“It may not be the right first step for you,” Mona said understandingly. “I’d been part of this executive team for several years. We had been through a lot together. I knew they wouldn’t look down on me. Your situation is different.”

“Yeah, it really is. We’ve had so much churn in the executive suite that I hardly know anybody. But, I see your point. I have a next step that I can take. One small enough to feel safe.”

“So…that means I do, too?” Joan asked, a bit of hope creeping into her voice.

“You do!” Mona agreed. “No matter how tiny of a step we think we’re taking, we always have an even tinier one we can choose.”

If you’d like more certainty in your steps, pause and reflect between them

“How do we find that smaller step?” Joan asked. “I still don’t have any idea how to get ahead.”

“Well, let’s go back to that first point my coach made, way back in my first conversation with him: since you don’t know where to go or what to do, you don’t have any way to decide which direction is best. So, pick a direction at random and take a random step.”

“I guess I could do that,” Joan said hesitatingly. “And, then, I guess I could do it again. And again, and again, and again, in hopes I’ll eventually have an idea what to do.”

“You could,” Mona agreed. “And, you’ll make progress. However, if you’d like more certain progress, evolve your process just a little bit.”

“Evolve it by a tiny step?” Paul asked, quirking a smile.

“Yes, exactly,” Mona said with a laugh.

“More certainty sounds great,” said Joan with emphasis. “What’s the change?”

“Instead of just taking a series of random steps, examine the results of each step. Those results give you information you can use to refine your next step.”

“Ummm…” Joan said, pondering Mona’s words. “Yes. I can do that. And, I have an idea to refine my next step even more: rather than jumping right from examining the results to planning my next step, I can add a pause in between. Take a moment to breathe and reflect.”

“How is that any different from what Mona said?” Paul asked.

“By pausing, I give myself an opportunity to consider other options. Let my intuition suggest alternatives. Let myself check whether taking another step is my best next step, or if maybe I’d be better off going for a walk, or getting some water, or something else before taking that step.”

“I see,” Paul said, nodding his head. “Maybe my best next step is to pursue a different goal for a while. I tend to forget to take care of myself. Adding that pause of reflection may help me remember to do that.”

One tiny step after another will get you everywhere you want to go

“I still have a hard time believing you ever felt as overwhelmed as I do,” Joan told Mona. “And, I’m sure  your journey has involved many more evolutions of this straightforward process. Taking on faith that you did start from where I am, I can imagine myself finding my way to where you are. One tiny step, tiny pause, and tiny decision about my next step at a time.”

“You’re right: my process is more complex now,” Joan agreed. “And, it’s not the only tool in my toolbox now. But, the process you have right now is sufficient to achieve everything you want to achieve.”

“I’d love to feel comfortable being as vulnerable with my executive team as you talked about being with yours,” Paul said to Mona. “I can’t say I see how to get there. I’m not sure what step towards that feels safe enough to take right now.”

“You have one,” Mona assured. “Maybe we dig into that next session?”

“Sounds good to me,” Joan said, as Paul flashed a thumbs-up in agreement.

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