Leveling Up, or Leadership Lessons From Some Lucky Pitches.
You might not know this about me, but I sing in a sassy barbershop quartet called Lucky Pitches. This is our second year together, and we’re starting to sound really great. In the process of getting ready for our competition this year I’ve been reminded firsthand of the leadership lessons my clients master as they step up to the next level. I coach clients who have just earned a big promotion or stepped up to lead an organization, and many privately share the same sentiment. “I just got everything I ever wanted, and I’m terrified!”
Something really interesting happens when you step up to the next level. You are used to being an absolute bad @$$. You used to do things quickly, efficiently, and effectively and might even be a little bored. Now, all of a sudden, you feel like you suck, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Things take longer. You doubt your instincts. You make mistakes. You start to feel like an imposter, even though a part of you knows that you are in the right place, and have some really important and exciting work to do!
In psychology and parenting, there is this idea of creating a “growth mindset” which means that practice & work leads to accomplishment as opposed to a “fixed mindset” where someone thinks that they are permanently good or bad at something. If you’re used to being good at everything, like many of my clients are, it can be easy to take on a fixed mindset that you’re a person who is good at things. When you get to the level that challenges you, it can be easy to assume that means that you must be bad at things. A key to success at this new level is really taking on that “growth mindset.” (1)
In our quartet, all four singers are fierce leaders in the rest of our lives. We’re used to having high standards, being the best at what we do, and never settling for less. In our first year, we thought that we were singing really well, but we had no idea of what we were doing, and we were crushed when our scores came out. We looked great on stage, and had a clue that our singing didn’t match our look and our confidence when everyone said “I love your hair!” instead of “You sound amazing!” We could have quit then, and might have, because it felt so weird to not be at the top of this new game. It took us a while to sort out what to do next to get to the next level.
We had to get used to not being perfect, or even that good, to be able to tolerate the work it would take to get to the next level.
I’ve thought about what I’ve seen clients learn in this process, and tried to use them myself as our quartet goes through our growing pains. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:
1. Expect change to be uncomfortable.
In the past, being uncomfortable meant that something was not going well, and you needed to fix it. Now that you’re playing at a higher level, everything should feel awkward – it’s all new! In fact, if it doesn’t feel different, hard and uncomfortable, you probably haven’t stepped up that much. Feeling uncomfortable goes from being a bad sign to a good one. In coaching, I work with clients to find a way to reframe that feeling so that it is not paralyzing.
2. Connect with your values and your purpose.
You worked hard to get here for a reason. You might want to create something iconically beautiful. Have ideas about how to really change things for our country. Want to embody the leadership of your community, shatter a glass ceiling and change the way things are done. You have creative plans that you couldn’t implement in the role you left. Getting really clear on why you are here and what you want to accomplish will be a compass for you. Standing grounded in these values will help you determine how you want to show up in this new space and how to be most effective.
3. Take advantage of your honeymoon.
In your old role, you were expected to know a lot and make few mistakes, and you probably were pretty on top of things — thanks to the mistakes you made and lessons you learned the hard way. Now, guess what – no one (except you) expects you to know everything! So get all your dumb questions out of the way now, take risks now. You have a free pass for a few months, use it. You have a chance to be bold now, and you’ll figure out what you want to take into the future.
4. Reevaluate your saboteur voices.
A fascinating thing happens when you level up. We talk a lot in coaching about the voices in your head – which ones serve you, which ones don’t, and how you can choose who is leading. I’ve noticed that many clients who level up have to flip the voices they chose to listen to. The voices that pushed them to get to the top of their field usually say something like “No excuses!” or “Ignore that anxiety, that’s loser talk” or “Strive! Get the Ivy League degree, work for the most prestigious organization.” This internal tough love really did help drive them through the challenging moments that make the difference between being good and getting to great. I like to think about it as the “Brawn” that gets things done when it’s hard to keep going. Now though, the Brawn is getting in the way. In a place where things are new, clients find that these ‘push through!’ voices don’t serve them. Pushing forward blindly in a new terrain leads to blunders, missed opportunities, setting yourself up to fail, or missing the point of having a chance to actually set your direction at a higher level.
In an amazing way, clients find that voices who were saboteurs before – voices that showed up as anxiety, laziness, or hesitation, now bring valuable information. You can think of these voices as “Brain,” though honestly listening to your emotions is a better way to figure out what they are really about. Carefully checking in about what is worrying an anxious voice can make you realize you’re agreeing to unrealistic deadlines, or mindlessly filling someone else’s shoes in this role, instead of doing things your way — a way that will be more effective. Climbing the social ladder got you to this promotion, but now that you’re here, listening to the part of you that really doesn’t want to do something can help you figure out how to wield the decision making power you have now to pick projects and a set a direction for your organization that will break new ground. The part of you that drives through anything and gets it done for you is still there, but you need time to tune into the parts of you that care where you’re going. It’s important to listen to your Brain before you chose to let the Brawn get to work.
This is one of those areas where it’s especially helpful to have a coach supporting you. A coach can be an extra pair of eyes and a partner in designing experiments with you that help you figure out what voices to listen to. It can help to have someone reflect back to you what your reactions are, as you sort out what seems to be constructive or destructive.
5. Above all, it’s time to be gentle with yourself.
Our quartet went through a period of demanding excellence. We were like drill sergeants, calling out anything we saw as not working and demanding that it get right ASAP. As people who excel in other places, we were intellectually on board with accepting nothing less and it was easy to be frustrated or feel bad about how much work there was to do. Guess what impact that had on our sound? We got our notes right, but speaking for myself, my voice got small, wavering, and uncertain. I was spending too much time thinking about what might be wrong to create the big, beautiful, full sound that would actually take us to the next level.
We worked with a vocal coach who pointed out that I had beautiful resonance when I sang out fully, and she just expected that I bring that fullness. This unlocked my sound, and it also meant that we could actually hear what was going on and find other things that would help us get to the next level.
It’s not going to be easy anymore, and you can’t let your high standards create frustration that gets in the way of moving forward. You have to keep working imperfectly long enough to improve, a little more each time, but you also get to learn big lessons from even little mistakes. You get to explore new voices and expand your range, figuring out which ones help you where you are now. Bringing in a voice that appreciates where you are, that helps you take in the content of judgement, but not the stress of if is really hard – but really important.
I love coaching people through this place, and I get so excited for my clients! I have to admit, singing has reminded me that it’s so much harder to be the one actually doing it. Until the singers in a quartet becomes Queens (yes, that’s a thing!), there will be things that we do imperfectly and can be done better. A vocal coach was telling us about her craft recently, and sharing how you can either shut a singer down or open them up, depending on the way you work with them. That felt familiar to me as a coach, but it also reminded me of how true that for my individual clients or us as a quartet. Depending on which voices we chose to listen to, and our tolerance for change and risk, we can unlock our own leadership, our learner’s mind, or we can shut ourselves down with a fixed mindset. Let’s choose open.
Shop Indie Bookstores Carol Dweck is the Stanford psychologist who is known for her work on mindset, she literally wrote the book on it.