How Do I Get Results Without Feeling Burned Out?

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m Muriel Wilkins, and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR podcast network. I’m a longtime executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who’ve hit a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump, by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease. I typically work with clients over the course of several months, but on this show, we have a one-time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they’re facing. Today’s guest is someone we’ll call Ben to protect his confidentiality. He has a background in a number of industries, and is now in a role where he manages a large manufacturing team.

BEN: It’s demanding. I get up before five in the morning, I put in, on average about 11 hours a day. I’ve got a 45- to 50-minute drive there and back each day. And so, it’s a lot, and I guess that’s one of the reasons that I stepped away from a previous employer.

MURIEL WILKINS: Ben cares deeply about doing right by the organization and the team, but reached out because he’s struggling with whether he can make the impact he wants in his company without working as much as he does.

BEN: Many of the things that I took for granted of having in place at my previous employer, they don’t have. And so, the structure that they have has worked for them for a long time, and I think they’re realizing that these are growing pains, right? We’ve got to get better, and we’ve got to get more standard and we’ve got to get more predictable, but they really don’t have that structure in place. So, that’s one of the challenges is, I know how to do those things. How do I do that without it consuming me, and me finding myself in the place where I’m working 11- or 12-hour days and then coming home and feeling like I need to do another hour or two of email to keep up with the rest of the flow?

MURIEL WILKINS: Ben is trying to find a way to balance having an impact, being a good leader and protecting his own time and getting enough rest. I wanted to know more about what’s driving his overwhelm at work, so that’s where we started. And just a quick note that due to technical difficulties during this coaching session, which we all experience from time to time, I’ll sound a bit different in this conversation than you might be used to. Let’s dive in.

BEN: I had one leader tell me this, and it made a lot of sense. I was like, “Man, I can’t keep up. There’s a constant stream of need.” And he looked at me and he said, “People just want you. They want your time. They want your attention.” I think I’m pretty good leader, and I think I develop people pretty well. And so, when you do that, when you help somebody, when you teach somebody, when you give them the ability to do something they couldn’t do before, it’s natural for them to come back to you. If you have answers, it’s natural for them to come back to you.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yes. So, there’s a supply and demand issue when it comes to you?

BEN: I think so.

MURIEL WILKINS: Which makes you very valuable, right?

BEN: Yeah, but it’s draining.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s draining. Well, I mean, I didn’t say it’s not draining. I said it makes you very valuable. Okay, all right. So, what does success look like to you? What would you like to see differently?

BEN: That’s a good question. I think if I could get to the point where I could average 10 hours a day, and I think I will get there. This is a place that doesn’t have a lot of stuff written down. It’s a lot of tribal knowledge, and we do a lot of different things for a lot of different customers. So, you’re not making the same thing every day, over and over and over again. So, my phrase is, :you have to eat the right box of cereal to get the secret decoder ring to learn how to do this thing.” And then you got to eat another box of cereal to get the secret decoder ring to learn how to do this other thing over here. And it might be several months between you seeing those things again. And so, people have told me continually, “Be patient, don’t get frustrated.”

One of the leaders told me a good mark of success is that in six months you should have some inkling of how we run our business, and what you may be able to do to contribute. Now I think I’m beating that, I’m beating that expectation. I’m probably doing more or learning faster than what they thought, but it’s weird for me to walk out onto a manufacturing floor and not know where everything is, or to really have to ask a lot of people where this is, and to not see the flow of material and have those things be intuitive.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I’m going to come back to this, but I want to go back to this question of, how are you defining success? So, one of them is if you could average 10 hours a day instead of the 11 that you’re averaging now?

BEN: If I could average 10 hours a day and get home and still have something left in the tank so that I wasn’t exhausted when I got home and didn’t feel the need to go and check this email, or answer that, or do this to prep for the next day’s meeting. I think some of that will come with time. I realize I’m probably pretty low on the learning curve right now, but I’m also very cognizant of getting sucked into the vortex of things that keep you there 11 hours a day or 12 hours a day.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right, so I’m going to try to raise your expectations a little bit, but we’re going to start with just chopping off one hour, and I think we might be able to do that. And then feeling this feeling of not feeling as exhausted as you do, or feeling like you have to be on when you get home. So, part of what you’re attributing, and correct me if I’m wrong, but what I’m hearing you say is part of what you’re attributing to how you’re feeling in this new role is because of the learning curve. Okay, you’re only a couple of months in, and so in your former role where you had more tenure, did you feel differently in terms of the amount of work that you were putting in?

BEN: I think I did feel a little differently. Boy, how do I? Ask that question for me one more time, and let me listen and make sure I got it.

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m just trying to compare the situation you’re in now where you have a learning curve, a steeper learning curve, you have some things, you’re getting traction because you’re new to the company, versus situations where the learning curve wasn’t there, you already knew the place. Did you feel like less drained then, and less exhausted than you do now?

BEN: I’m going to answer that a little bit differently. I felt a lot more productive. I knew answers to questions. I knew who to delegate things to. I knew enough to delegate them, and to be able to know if they were on track. I hate dumping things. I like to understand them enough so that I can explain what the expectation is to whoever I’m delegating it to. Those are the pieces that really, it’s hard for me to delegate right now because I don’t understand. So, everything is new and everything is learning. In the past, I could make decisions very quickly. I could analyze things very quickly. I could come to a conclusion very quickly. Today, it takes me a lot longer to do that, so I feel more drained. I feel less accomplished, because I feel like it takes me a lot more energy to get not as much done.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, so let me just check myself and make sure that I’m hearing you. When you feel like you are not able to “be productive” by making decisions, knowing what needs to be done, delegating, it saps energy from you, and therefore makes you feel even though you might be putting in the same amount of hours, makes you feel more drained.

BEN: I’m going to add one thing to that. It causes me to put in more hours to overcome that.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, got you. So, let me ask you a question. What is your definition of productivity?

BEN: Getting things done.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so, what are you getting done right now?

BEN: I’m learning. I think I am establishing a good foundation. I am establishing good relationships. Those are probably the top things that come to mind.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so, why does that not… I’m trying to understand why that doesn’t fit in your definition of getting things done. Let’s just pull back for, you told me you had kids, I believe, I don’t know how old they are, but I’m presuming at some point or another they went to school?

BEN: They did. Yep.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, there was many a time where you set them off at a certain time, and then they came back after three o’clock. What were they doing during that time for all those years?

BEN: They were learning.

MURIEL WILKINS: Were they getting anything done, or were those all very unproductive years?

BEN: They were productive.


BEN: But all right, so I do know one of the problems that I have, I am generally patient with other people. I’m not patient with myself. I know one big thing that I still have not overcome. Very early in my childhood, my mom looked at me and said, “Look, it’s not right, but it’s the way it is. You’re Black and people are often going to judge you on the color of your skin before you get the opportunity to show them what you’re capable of. So, in many cases, in order for you to be considered equal, you’re going to have to be two steps ahead.” That is so ingrained in me, it’s not even funny. So, I don’t feel good unless I feel like I’m two steps ahead.

Perfect example: we had a meeting last week with people that report directly to me and some people that report directly to my boss. It’s a new meeting. We just started it. I probably spent, I’m going to guess a solid four hours looking at data, and having conversations and prepping and being ready, because I hate leading a meeting that I don’t feel like I’m ahead of the people. I got to be in front of them to lead them. Ironically, I checked with my boss right beforehand. I said, “Hey, here’s what I’m thinking.” And I ran through a couple of things.

At the end of the meeting, he sent me an email and he said, “This was probably one of the best efficiency meetings we’ve ever had.” So, I consider it a success and I go through that a lot. But man, the time that I put in to do that, it’s like… Okay, yeah, I know I can move the needle. I can chalk up some wins, I can help people grow. I can get some things done. But at the end of the day and at the end of the month, and at the end of the quarter, and at the end of the year, there’s got to be something left.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yes. Right. Because there is such a thing as the law of diminishing returns. And look, I will never speak against what one’s mama has said, I just won’t – not mine or not anybody else’s. And I understand. I don’t want to dismiss what she taught you back then, and what you have shared has been ingrained with you, which I’m sure has served you very well.

BEN: That’s the other piece. It has served me very well.

MURIEL WILKINS: In what ways?

BEN: I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad performance review. My goal is to always be the best that has done the job that I’m doing. And I’m not saying that in a braggadocious way. There’s always somebody bigger, faster, stronger, and the generation coming up behind is faster. I look at how my kids do things, they do them so much faster than what I did. But it has led to a really good track record.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I’m almost imagining you, Ben – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term in sports, “personal best” or “personal record.” By you sort of saying you’ve always got to be two steps ahead, I’m almost imagining that you’re hitting a personal record every day, and then the next day you wake up and you’re like prepping yourself to be it. And so, the stakes just keep getting higher and higher, and higher and higher. And I guess my question to you is, how high is high enough? When does best stop?

BEN: I don’t know how to answer that. I honestly don’t. Part of me wants to say it would stop when I retire, or it would stop when I say I’ve had enough of the rat race and I am going to go. My wife laughs at me sometimes. I say, “I might try to do this for a couple more years,” and then I could see myself working on an assembly line somewhere where I can put my headphones in, and put my widgets together and punch the clock at the end of the day and come home and I don’t have to worry about all of this stuff that I’m worrying about now.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Let’s just run with that because I want you to take that scenario and assume that what your operating script has been, which is, “I need to stay two steps ahead in order to be successful.” Let’s assume you keep that as your M.O. and go work that widget. Please share with me how you think you would be doing that job, even though you punch out. Just humor me for a bit. How do you think you would end up doing?

BEN: I’m going to say that on an assembly line, it is very different. I don’t have to develop people, I don’t have to sit in meetings. I don’t have to have all the answers. There’s so much that doesn’t come with a role like that. If my job is to take this screw and put it in this widget and I’m to do that eight hours a day, there’s a part of me that says, “Yeah, I think I could do that because I don’t have to do this.”

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think your situation would change.

BEN: Oh, absolutely.

MURIEL WILKINS: And your activities would change, but your relationship to the activities would not have changed. Which my guess, I don’t know. I would love to see that future because I might be totally off. But my guess would be that you would still be looking to see, how can you run that assembly line, or take your role of the assembly line way better than everybody else is doing.

BEN: I probably would.


BEN: I probably would.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. I think it’s that delta that is causing, it’s what you said earlier when you said, “People are expecting to learn certain things six months, and I’m away ahead of the game.” Well, who’s asking you to put yourself way ahead of the game?

BEN: Me. It’s probably a bad excuse, but it’s in my wiring. It’s an interesting comment.

MURIEL WILKINS: Look, I think that just because something is a part of you does not mean it’s all of you. And so, that part of you might have been what’s been running you.

BEN: Oh, it has been.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I think right now, you have a choice. You can let it keep running you or you can say, “You know what? I’m exhausted. I feel like I’m burned out. I’ve tried different situations to be in, and I keep running into the same thing where I’m trying to beat my PR every day. I come home drained as a result. I’m thinking maybe when I retire things will change.” But who knows, right? Muriel saying, who knows? I have a feeling the wife is saying, “Okay. Yep. Let’s see.” So, you have a choice. If that’s not working for you, how else can you be thinking about how you approach work?

BEN: I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that if I, and I don’t want to paint the perspective that I am perfect, because I am far from. I think I am, some people would call me slow. I like to call it deliberate. I hate doing things two and three times. I hate having to ask the same question two and three times. But part of me says that if I quit pushing myself the way I’m pushing myself, then I will be settling. My girls would hate to hear this. I would be settling, and I would be like everybody else. The reason that I say it that way is I tell my girls, “I hold you to a higher standard.” And sometimes they look at me and they go, “I just want to be a regular person, dad.”

MURIEL WILKINS: And what does that mean to you?

BEN: Not doing your best, not giving your best. And I can’t not do that. I shouldn’t use absolutes like that. I shouldn’t say I can’t not do that. What I should say is striving for that has helped me achieve the successes that I’ve achieved.


BEN: So, that formula works for me.

MURIEL WILKINS: It sure has. And striving for that has hoped to achieve that success, by working 11 hours a day and coming home and feeling exhausted.

BEN: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: When Ben started the conversation, he was focused on feeling a bit overworked, but also thought that some of the issue was related to the fact that he was still relatively new at his job, that he needed more time to understand everything and learn the way things worked, and that things would get better with time. So, we started with a concrete needle he could move, however small, cutting down on an hour of work of time a day and trying to get that time back for himself. I was also interested to hear the example he brought up of changing course in going back to what he sees as a cut-and-dry individual contributor role.

One where he didn’t have to always go the extra mile. When he said sometimes he wished for a less intense job, I challenged him to really think it through. Sometimes, we think changing our job will solve all of our issues when in reality we carry the same patterns into the new role. Now that we’re getting a little deeper into what really drives Ben, I wanted to return to his stated goal of finding a way to improve the job and his work-life balance a bit, while still decreasing his workload and start working through how that might really happen for him.

When I asked you how would you define success in the future, you said, “Oh, maybe I could work on an average 10 hours a day instead of 11 hours a day, and maybe when I got home I wouldn’t need to be on as much.” Great. No judgment. That is the way you’re now defining best. So, if the script of, “I need to stay two steps ahead of everyone in order to succeed, and that means that I need to work 11 hours a day,” etc. What does the script need to be in order to now achieve what I’m now defining as success? Which is, I work an average of 10 hours a day and I don’t feel as exhausted. And I understand, I understand fully. What I’m sensing is a little bit of reticence to letting go of the mantra that has gotten you to where you are today. I understand.

And in reality, you don’t have to let it go with me. We’re just exploring. I promise you, it’s right there. After we finish this coaching meeting, if you want, you can pick it right back up and we’ll live our merry lives, right?

BEN: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: But you will be working 11 hours a day, I promise you that. That’s the only thing I know. So, all I’m asking is, let’s imagine that you don’t pick it back up and that now you’re like, “I’m going to work average 10 hours a day and when I come home, I’m going to have dinner with my wife. I’m not going to check email. I might check it for 20 minutes max every night, and that’s it.” What would you need to tell yourself in order to be able to do that?

BEN: Can I say there are days that I would like to find the person that invented email and I would like to shoot them in their pinky toe? Because in order to do that, one of the things that I need to do is, I need to block time and be unavailable where I sit and stay focused on doing nothing but email for X number of whatever’s a day. And that’s one of the things that makes me feel like I’m losing, is if I end up with more emails in my inbox at the end of the day than I had at the beginning of the day, then I feel like I’ve lost. And that happens daily.

MURIEL WILKINS: And who made that rule up?

BEN: Me. I did.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, Ben, let me tell you something. The game that you have set up and the rules, the rules that you’ve implemented, have you set them up in any way that you can win?

BEN: Yes.


BEN: I believe that I have. And in my heart of hearts, I believe that if I were to do nothing different, six months from now, it would be hard, but I would be better than I am at it today. I guess the question is, is that really how I want to be living six months from now, right? Six months from now, it might be 10 and a half hours a day and still coming home and doing something. You know what I mean? I don’t know how to put edges around that, but…

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m going to tell you what I think would happen six months from now. I think you would be a little bit more comfortable with it. I think you’d be more comfortable with the fatigue that you feel now.

BEN: That’s a fair point.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s like I had a hip injury, and I remember going to the doctor and the doctor basically said, “Stop running.” And I was like, “What?” He was like, “Stop. Just stop running.” I was like, “Okay,” I hurt that bad. So, I stopped running about a month and a half later. All my running friends were like, “Well, how do you feel? How do you feel?” And I’m like, “I feel great.” And they said, “Oh great, you can start running again.” I said, “No, no, no. The reason I feel great is because I stopped running.” So, I start running again, the pain’s going to come back, but I didn’t even how bad I felt until I stopped running. The source of the pain wasn’t there anymore. And so, what I’m saying is you get comfortable. It’s not that the source of the pain goes away, it’s that you get comfortable with it. It becomes normalized.

BEN: One of the things that I always tell my team is it doesn’t get any easier, but you get smarter or better. It’s kind of the same thing, right? You get more comfortable with it. It’s not any easier. You just know how to handle it with more of a smile than a grimace or a frown.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right, and I think the question is, is this something that you want to be comfortable with? You came into this conversation saying, “I want to be able to figure out how to do my job without feeling so drained.” And so, is it that you want to change what is the source of you feeling drained? Which, from what we’ve talked about is really this whole notion of you literally trying to beat yourself every day, and being two steps ahead of yourself, of what you were yesterday. Or are you going to say, “Nope, I don’t want to be comfortable with that level of energy draining, and therefore I need to change or not have that be my source.” And the source is the expectations that you have set on yourself.

BEN: How do you do that?

MURIEL WILKINS: How do you do it?

BEN: How do you become comfortable with not striving as hard? How do you become comfortable with not trying to beat your previous personal best? How do you become comfortable with not necessarily achieving the best?

MURIEL WILKINS: Well, how do you become comfortable with anything?

BEN: You keep doing it.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. Practice, but you don’t practice something by looking at it over there. I can’t practice running by just looking at the treadmill. I’ve got to get on there and run. One of my favorite running coaches said, “How do you get faster running? Well, you’ve got to run faster.” You’ve got to practice running faster to get faster.

BEN: Do you do it by getting better, or do you do it by letting go?

MURIEL WILKINS: Well, tell me what doing it by letting go looks like? Because I already understand what you mean by getting better. What does “doing it by letting go” mean?

BEN: Part of me says it comes down to not caring as much. And I want to be careful how I say that, because I have one daughter who’s a competitive athlete and she cares. And when she doesn’t do well, tears can be involved, and I want her to care, but I don’t want her to wreck herself in caring. It can’t be the end all, be all. This is not good, because you’re making me eat my words.

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m just listening, Ben.

BEN: Right? You got to care, but you can’t care too much. And maybe, how do you find that line in the sand that you dial the right way? I don’t know if I’m saying that the right way.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, when you think about your daughter, what’s the line? When do you know that she’s cared too much? When she?

BEN: When she breaks down and starts to cry.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what does that represent to you?

BEN: I should have been able to do it, but I didn’t.

MURIEL WILKINS: And therefore?

BEN: She’s probably attaching more value to it than she should.

MURIEL WILKINS: Value about what?

BEN: Herself.

MURIEL WILKINS: Bingo. Right. So, do you see the parallel here?

BEN: I’m starting to. I just…

MURIEL WILKINS: If I may, you asked a really profound question, which is… Well, you asked two profound questions. They just keep coming. The first is, how do you do this? Is it about being better, or is it about letting go? And what came up for me is, well, what if, and we don’t have to answer this right now, but what if being better is letting go? Why do they need to be mutually exclusive? And then you ask, “Well, maybe it’s about not caring,” but you want to be careful because really about not caring too much. And when we explored that in the frame of your daughter, you said, “Well, I think too much is when she starts making it about who she is.” It’s a reflection of how attached she is to who she is, and the value that she has as a person, her worth. Her worth. So, let me just offer something to you that there’s a difference between caring for something and being attached to something. You can care for something objectively. You see it, you hold it at arm’s length and you care for it. Attached is you’re attached to it. It is a part of you. There’s a difference between not caring for something and not being attached to something. I think that’s the fine line, and when it comes to your work, is you can care about your work, but the minute the work defines all of your worth is the one thing that you’re pinning your value on, and the only thing you’re pinning your value on, then you’re so attached to it that it’s very hard to change. As you said, the success script that has gotten you to where you are.

BEN: That’s a very slippery slope.


BEN: Oh man, a couple of things coming to mind. One is because sometimes we, let me draw an analogy. I don’t work out enough. I would love to work out three to four times a week. When I do work out, when I force myself to get out early enough and I can get home, I have an app that I use and I know how I am, I can’t come in the house and come upstairs and speak to everybody. I come in the house, I change my clothes in the basement and I work out, and I don’t think about it. I just go do it. So, I just show up. If I show up, I’m going to do what it is that I’m supposed to do and then I’m good. It’s so ingrained that if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it. Am I making any sense?

MURIEL WILKINS: No, it makes sense. I think what I hear you saying is, what you’re questioning is, if it’s so ingrained, can I even change it?

BEN: Yeah. How do you not be so attached yet still care? I care. I don’t don’t want this to be, there’s a proverb that says, “What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul.” Right? I like this role because one of the things that I said I wanted to do was, I’m not trying to put my mark on the world. I don’t need to see my name in lights. I don’t want headlines. I’m good. Just let me show up, do my piece. I want to help raise up the next generation of leaders. That’s where I really care. I don’t want this to define me. I don’t want this to determine my value. I probably have spent too much time letting my role determine my value, but I don’t know how to make that switch. I don’t know how to un-attach and still care.

MURIEL WILKINS: I mean, Ben, I wish I could tell you, “Here’s the one, two, three, go do it.” And it’s going to happen overnight.

BEN: But you’re Muriel. You’re supposed to be able to do these magical things.

MURIEL WILKINS: We’re human. We’re human. We all get attached. I mean, this is the human condition. We all get attached. We get attached to our kids, we get attached to our houses, we get attached to our cars, we get attached to things. We attach to our thoughts. What you said your mama taught you, you have been attached to it. So much so that you haven’t even been aware how attached you’ve been to it. And so, there’s a process of first becoming aware, “Oh my gosh, yes, I define myself by this work,” or by the car that I drive, or by the friends that I have or by where I went to school, or the type of job that I have. Until you realize, “Oh, well wait, is that all that is me?” I can still care about those things, but do they define my value? It’s a question that only you can answer. And if the answer is yes, great, then keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re like, “No, actually I also define my value by me being able to come home and give myself some rest, I also define my value by me being able to come home and being worthy of getting a workout in. I also define my value by me coming home and having dinner with my wife.” Okay, great. That’s your choice. So, then, what is it going to take for you to start operating in that way? And what it’s not going to take, the only thing I can tell you is what it’s not going to take is you telling yourself that on the work front, you need to be two steps ahead all the time. The two don’t match up. The math is not mathing.

BEN: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: At this point in the coaching conversation, we’ve accomplished a couple of important things. First of all, Ben talked through more detail about what drives him, why he feels the need to always go the extra mile. We also got more perspective on his goals for the future and motivation, the better situation he envisions for himself down the road. In the course of this discussion, I think Ben is also starting to realize some things he hasn’t necessarily reflected on before in terms of the assumptions he makes and the patterns he sticks to, which is a really important part of coaching.

Becoming aware of how you are currently doing things, why you’re doing them that way, and thinking through what you could be doing differently moving forward, so that it opens up other options. Ben initially set his goals, were around working fewer hours, but we’ve broadened that out for a more well-rounded schedule that he’s hoping for. He also has goals around training the next generation of leaders. In short, he wants a change that’s simple, but not easy. With this new framing, it’s time to start thinking about tangible ways Ben could start flexing his different muscles. How he can, in his words, show up in a way that makes sense at his job, meeting his goals inside the workplace and at home.

Okay, so what would be the difference for you tomorrow, if you went into the workplace and instead of, “I’ve got to be two steps ahead in everything, including my email, I’m going to beat this email today, I got to be two steps ahead.” Instead of letting that be your mantra. What if tomorrow, just tomorrow, and Ben, I know I’m just going to preempt it and say, maybe not even for the full day. What if just for the first three hours of the day tomorrow your mantra was, “I’m going to show up. It’s not about being two steps ahead or two steps behind. I’m going to show up because when I show up, I know that what I have to give is good enough.” What difference do you think that would make in the first three hours of your day tomorrow?

BEN: I’m probably making this more complex than what it needs to be, because the thoughts that popped into my mind were, I won’t have any problems showing up. That won’t be an issue. I think what I have to do is ease up on, and put more value on learning than I do on being able to make decisions that others either aren’t making or aren’t capable of making, and I have to ease up on myself in terms of adding tangible, visible value in that interaction, in that meeting, at that point in time. Does that make sense?

MURIEL WILKINS: It makes a lot of sense. And the word that you’re using a lot of is that you would need to ease up. Okay, and easing up requires you to do what?

BEN: I don’t know that I know how to answer that. Well, maybe I should say it this way. Easing up probably means just stop trying so hard, and just be. One of the things that has been helpful for me. I’ve done it for years. I try to close my office door or go into a conference room once a week and do what I call a mind sweep and a weekly review. So, I get all of the stuff out of my head in terms of making sure I know what projects I’m committed to, and are things moving the way I need them to move? And when I started to do that, at this new company, one of the things that I started writing was, what two or three things were top of mind for me before I started that review? And one of the things that I wrote was, “If I just show up and be Ben, I will add value to what I do.”

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Can you write that down, Ben?

BEN: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And can you read it back to me?

BEN: If I just show up and be Ben, I’ll add value to what I do.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And so, what that doesn’t say is, “If I run two steps ahead of BEN.”

BEN: You’re right.

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s how I’m going to beat Ben and be better than Ben, and show to everybody else that I’m worthy and I’m supposed to be here. And again, we’re not knocking that because it has helped you tremendously. We’re going to thank your mama for teaching you that. I’m just looking at where you’re today and how it’s playing out for you today. And as much as it’s helped you, it’s not helping you in terms of having the life that you said you want to have, which is to feel less drained, to operate with more ease, and to be able to leave work an hour earlier than you’re leaving now, and come home and not be on your email as long as you’ve been. What you’ve articulated is, if you show up and be you, which is an accumulation of years of experience, you’re not brand spanking new like you were when you got that advice way back then.

BEN: Yeah, that’s true.

MURIEL WILKINS: You’re bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience, you’ve been in demand. So, if you bring that, you’re saying, “I think I can do something with that. I think it’ll still move the needle.”

BEN: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, your homework is to put that on your whiteboard, that saying, that mantra on your whiteboard.

BEN: You would laugh at some of the things that are on there now, because almost everything that’s on there now is a verb with an expectation. To do this and shorten this, and to improve that, and to get through this faster or to do this better, as opposed to just show up and add value to what you do.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah, I mean, look at that. What if you just showed up and things got better? Sometimes my son cooks, and he’s actually pretty good. He’s real good, but sometimes he gets into, “Let me just add a little bit more to this dish. A little bit.” And I’m like, “Stop. It’s good.” Sometimes you don’t need to add extra spice and extra this, and extra that to make it better. It’s good as is.

BEN: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And here’s the thing, is that the case for you? I don’t know, but you haven’t tried it.

BEN: I think if I go back to your point about diminishing returns, one of the things that acts negatively in that is, when people don’t recognize the value of the extra things that you did, and then you’re like, “Oh, well, I could have just done X instead the X plus Y, and you would’ve been happy with that.”

MURIEL WILKINS: Right. And let me ask you this, Ben, who is rewarding you for cleaning out your email box every day?

BEN: Nobody, but I’m not doing that. I know what you mean. I know what you mean.


BEN: Yeah, but it does make me feel better. It makes me feel more current. I think one of the things that scares me, and I did have a bad experience with this once, a long time ago. There’s so many emails, I’m so worried about missing something that is critical.

MURIEL WILKINS: Understood. And so, I’m not knocking the email. I’m just going to say, you can’t clear out the inbox of everything in your life, right?

BEN: Yeah, that’s fair. That’s fair.

MURIEL WILKINS: You’ve got to pick and choose. You can’t get a PR on every single sport. There’s not enough time and there’s not enough energy. So, you’ve got to pick.

BEN: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: What are you going to really go full throttle on, and what are the things where it’s like, it’s good enough?

BEN: I think the first that comes to mind is, I need to get out onto our shop floor earlier, so that I’m not feeling guilty if I don’t get out there until 4:30 or five o’clock, because then that means I’m not going to leave until six. I just need to honor my calendar.

MURIEL WILKINS: I love that. Right? You’re going to honor your calendar by showing up when you’re supposed to show up. Again, this really ties back to, “I’m just going to show up as BEN,” look at your calendar. You’re going to show up when you said you’re going to show up. You’re not going to do any extra extra, and you’re not going to do any less. Okay? All right. How are you feeling now versus where we started the discussion?

BEN: Actually, I feel better just with that last statement. If I can honor my calendar, the challenges, how do I find time to catch up on my emails and critical things in the morning? I watch my boss do that. He’s a master at being in meetings and cleaning up on email, but knowing exactly how and when and where to tune in when he’s needed. I think that’ll come in time with me, but I’m not there yet. I am still learning names and numbers, and how we do what we do, so I have to have both ears. He can listen with one.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think right now you ought to focus on the learning, because that is being productive.

BEN: Okay. That’s probably the next thing that I need to do, is to stop minimizing the learning, and not feeling like learning is productive, or feeling like learning is not productive.

MURIEL WILKINS: Not productive. Exactly. I think because you are so focused on your activity and what you’re doing, I would encourage you to look at your calendar and rework your calendar from a place of, how does it reflect the fact that you are still learning, and that the goal is not to clean out your inbox on all of the things? And so, if you need time to be able to catch up, put that in your calendar and honor it. So, it’s not, “If I honor my calendar,” honor your calendar. That’s a decision. You don’t start when you’re ready. You start when you make the decision.

BEN: Okay.


BEN: Got it.

MURIEL WILKINS: What are you walking away with, Ben?

BEN: Ease up. Show up. Value learning, and control my calendar a little bit more, if I had to boil it down to those actions.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right. Well, why don’t we try with those, right?

BEN: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: Why don’t you try to practice those for a bit and see what happens.

BEN: Okay.


BEN: Thank you. I’m going to try to follow the recipe.

MURIEL WILKINS: And then you can add your own stuff in, if you need to.

BEN: Thank you.

MURIEL WILKINS: A lot of leaders struggle with time management. They get to where they are by working hard, long hours, and doing everything they can for everyone around them. Then they struggle with how much work is enough, and what it means for the rest of their life. Trying to put boundaries on your calendar can seem like a simple solution, but it’s harder than it looks without taking a step back to think about what the goal really is, and why you’ve done things a certain way until now. With Ben, we zeroed in on a specific goal. We worked through why that was important to him. We solidified what he feels like his purpose and his job is, and then we got down to the more granular level about how he can take small steps to start moving in the direction he wants. As I said in the episode, you don’t start when you’re ready. You start when you make the decision. And that’s true for all leaders, facing any challenging situation. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time.

NEXT EPISODE’S GUEST: Where I am is not what’s going to get me to the next level, and I feel like the stars could align again, for me to continue to add value and expand my influence, and grow to the next role. I don’t know that I’m positioning myself well for that opportunity.

MURIEL WILKINS: Want more of Coaching Real Leaders? Join our community where I host live discussions to unpack the coaching sessions. Become a member at You can also find me in my newsletter on LinkedIn at Muriel Wilkins. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe; sound editor, Nick Crnko; music composer, Brian Campbell; my assistant, Emily Sopha, and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations, and to you, our listeners who share in their journeys. If you are dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you, and possibly have you on the show next season. Apply at And of course, if you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe and leave a review on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. From HBR Presents, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.

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