In Over His Head
Today I’m talking with author and executive coach, Scott Eblin, co-founder and president of the Eblin Group. Thursday, I’m reviewing his fascinating book, “The Next Level: What Insiders Know about Executive Success.”
I’m also delighted Scott will be “in the house” Thursday, Jan. 20 to share his insights and respond to your comments and questions. In addition, we’re giving away 15 signed copies of his book.
Leadership Freak (LF): Scott, thanks for taking a minute to chat. Let’s jump right in. Can you tell me about a tipping point in your career, an event or experience that made a significant difference in your work-life?
Scott Eblin (SE): Dan, thanks for the opportunity to tell part of my story. A major tipping point in my life occurred when I was recruited to be V.P. of H.R. for Columbia Gas Transmission. It was a major opportunity with a Fortune 500 company. On my first day, I walked into the lobby and saw something I’ll never forget. Beside the elevators was a placard titled, “Our Change Agents.” It was covered with the names and pictures of leaders within the organization. Right in the middle was my picture!
All plans of slipping in under the radar went out the door. When I arrived at my new office, the voice mail was full and my calendar was pre-booked for two months. Frankly, I was in over my head.
LF: Did others know?
SE: It didn’t take long for the CEO to realize the situation. Fortunately she didn’t fire me. She made sure I got coaching from herself and others.
LF: You were fortunate. It sounds like a nurturing environment.
SE: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. My boss had an uncanny ability to know when I needed pats on the back and kicks in the pants.
LF: How did your experience with Columbia impact you?
SE: Really, it’s the reason I do what I do today. I realize there are many executives that feel in over their heads. That’s who I want to help.
LF: Your story reminds me that the fires we go through form us. Rather than running, we should find support that enables us to grow into our opportunities.
If you haven’t been in over your head, you haven’t done much. Rather than running from the fire, I suggest you find people like Scott Eblin who can teach you how to drop and roll and then get up again.
Why don’t you share a bit of your story? Tell us about a time when you felt in over your head and what you did. Your story may help others.
I will share my story when I was Asst manager in the bank. Bank advertised vacancy for HRD manager through external competition. Since I had post graduate degree in public personnel management, I was eligible to apply for the position. This is the case of year 2003-04 and there were 16 positions vacant. I wrote competition and in final result only 05 candidates competed exam. We are happy and sure that against 15 position there are only 05 candidates who have passed written exam. But it was so surprising and shocking to hear the final result after interview that I was not selected. I inquired to many superiors telephonically but could not find responsive answer. This position was for the same organization where I was working. Some of my well wisher asked me to write to chairman and other key people. Some told me that nothing is going to happen so do not try. That time, I decided to change my self, as I analyzed that I can not change the system but I can very well change myself. I worked with my plan and I am satisfied with my decision taken. So, I could change myself, my horizon, focus and vision. I believe when we surrender to circumstances, then we compromise or prone to compromise in future. Bu when we change ourself through timely and right decision, then we really live life honorably, honestly will full of rigor and credence. I do not know about others but this philosophy I believe in.
I also believe whether power and position is given or created. And when I analyze, I find that sooner or later, one should always try to create position that is real rather than boasting on acquired position or power
Quite interesting and a brave decision to stick to your career goals. Yet, you could have tried to learn the facts on your rejection. Seeking a clarification at times may help the top management to learn on the mismatch/gaps in process system. One needs a courage to fight the truth and not run away accepting an indirect defeat.
Dear Dr. Mrunal Asher,
Thank you for encouraging my decision. I agree that I should have drilled down to the facts that could have provided clear picture. In fact, I sought informal clarification and reason for the cause but the responses were not favorable and people advised me to avoid it. They advised me that being in the system, it would be more difficult to survive.
I never thought that avoiding truth is indirect defeat. It really shakes me up. I am serious to think on such matters in future. When the person has decided to take decision, I think he should face the truth and put his points across.
I’m thankful for my interview with Scott. I have a sense of his skill and kindness. In particular, his openness about the challenges he faced at Columbia and his feelings about being in over his head impress me.
I am drawn to people that share how they worked through frailty and fire.
Thanks to Scott for being a person that lifts others with his story.
I’m regularly in over my head (which at my height is not difficult). Getting in front of a Board of Directors was my turning point. I did all the wrong stuff, including not responding to action points because I thought they where not important (and boy did I get hammered for that – and felt incredibly humbled and small as a result). Fortunately i learnt quickly, probably more from a Board in 12 meetings than most of my previous managers over several years. Also I had to carry the belief that they put me in the role so i should never question that they think i can do the job. what they were rightly questioning was whether I was going to do the job! They were patient and the Chairman was very encouraging. it was a great way to grow, and grow up. Many years later i still remain in contact with the Chairperson (and trust that he sees that his patience in me was rewarded). I continue to promote many of the values i saw come from his leadership.
Seeing the sign, then seeing your name in the middle reminds me of an often-helpful growth principle. Sometimes we need to, as someone once said, “fake it till we make it.” It’s like “acting as if” before we arrive.
When Scott saw his name on the plaque, it seemed to set the stage for his growth. Sometimes we need to “put our name on the plaque” to keep the vision out in front of us.
Looking forward to continuing the conversation with you and Scott, Dan. Thanks to both of you for investing in the lives of others.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is a Spanish class I took in college. I was minoring in Spanish, and was doing fine – until I ended up in a class with all native speakers (except me). The teacher taught in Spanish, the textbook was in Spanish, and most of the class dialogue was conducted in Spanish. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of Spanish grammar and spelling would probably be highly amused looking at my final written exam. I was in over my cabeza, for sure.
But in retrospect, I learned SO MUCH. The fact that I could complete an entire written exam about the history, geography, and art of Spain, even with grammatical disasters, spoke volumes to how much I had learned. I still see that professor around (he is a runner and we both run local races), and every single time I think how grateful I am to have been “in over my head” and not to be cut any breaks by him for not being a native speaker.
I’m finally in over my head again. It’s been a while but I’m back! I feel like I’m at my best when I’m trying something new.
Starting a new business is a competitive local market is a challenge. I’m the CEO, CFO, IT specialist, marketing manager to name a few rolls that I fill. So I read a LOT and talk to a lot of experts to help keep me on the right path. It is completely overwhelming. I love that we are going to be successful (or fail) because of my efforts.
When I’ve seen other people who were in over their head they need support. Mentoring is key but not the only answer. The mentee needs to embrace the fact that they are in over their head. They need embrace the fact that the position isn’t going to be easy and then they can start to move forward, one meeting, one interaction, one task at a time. String a few good day together and you have a little success. String a few good weeks and then months together and then you’re on the road to competence.
hey Dan & Scott.
Thanks for sharing your story, I am totally with you on ” over your head” moments are necessary on a journey of true do-er.
Coincidentally I am in the middle of crazy and lunatic times, when I am putting together 2nd NGLS Conference. (www.ngls.sk)
Second year of creating a platform for emerging leaders in Slovakia, who care about our future. With no funding, except my passion and power of word of mouth on web 2.0
It is unbelievable, what one can do, when things are just pouring in and how many great people are out there to give a helping hand.
Keep on rocking leadership freaks!
Cheers from Slovakia,
Thanks for this helpful interview. It seems to me that there are two different kinds of being in over your head. The dangerous kind is caused by hubris. Early in my career and my corporate period I was promoted into a job that I was dead sure I was ready for. I was, but I discounted the need to learn in my new role and I slowing sank farther and farther into the hole. My performance was deteriorating and my work relationships were headed south.
For a while I wallowed in my own despair, I was sure I would be fired and my entire life would be ruined. Then I got a call from a friend who had worked with me on the previous job. He let me have my little pity-party and allowed me to blame everyone but me for a while. Then he said, “The guy I remember working with was a Marine, he wouldn’t whine about this, he’d do something.” It was the hard truth I needed to hear.
That night I sat down and mapped out what I had to do to make things better. Over the next couple of months I worked the plan, which included talking to lots of people about how I was doing.
The wisdom I got from this is summed up by advice I didn’t hear until years later and then I was listening in to a seasoned police sergeant telling his rookies, “Situations rarely get better by themselves.” If things aren’t working, get moving on changing things.
That’s one kind of “over my head,” but there’s another one that’s positive. I do project work and I’ve found that good projects are ones where I start out at least a little over my head and a little scared that I might fail this time. That becomes a driver of excellence for me.
That was one heck of a welcome party for you Scott. It has always been interesting to me that it is the painful situations, where we are stretched beyond our self-imposed boundaries, that really help us develop.
It had to be when I was working in Finance and we had serious cash flow challenges and were taking 90-120 days to pay suppliers.
Communication and agreements with key suppliers was what got us through.
It’s so cool to see how my “over my head” story (one of many!) is sparking such thoughtful reflection on the part of the commenters. Thanks, Dan, for sharing it and to all for sharing your own stories and thoughts. We can all learn from each other.
Great interview. Getting out of your comfort zone allows you to grow. I feel in over my head on a regular basis (personally and professionally) and each time that happens I realize that my comfort zone is getting larger and larger as I become a more well versed leader and person. It also allows me to guide others in the same direction – sometimes they may feel my instructions are incomplete…because I want them to take the reigns. Getting others in over their head sometimes means showing them where you want to be and letting them plot the course and as a leader, being there as a passenger for reassurance…but not being the tour guide. If you’re too much of a tour guide, you close your mind to alternate ways to do things and miss out on great ideas. I truly feel that in order to grow yourself and others, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
I like what you and Scott have done with this interview Dan. Nice work.
If you believe in God,and Jesus is your personal Savior Jesus said he would go thur the Fire with you that’s awesome.Not to be worried.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who wrote the very important work, FLOW, identified that people who work at the edge of their comfort zone — those who are engaged working on things that are just beyond their comfortable skill level — are the people who are most satisfied and engaged by their work. They experience flow, they are ‘in the zone’. Being tossed in over your head, if it is not TOO far over your head, is exhilarating, engaging, and makes the time go so much faster. I know it is time to change jobs when I am no longer stretching to learn something new.
Amen to this! I had a rare opportunity to work with Csikszentmihalyi in Madison, WI, and was astounded by his ability to make challenge exhilarating. If we are not paralyzed by the unknown, growth is inevitable…and ineffable…
This seems to be about risking…with wisdom and skill.
(Often wisdom is knowing that you don’t have all the skills.)
Risking in any/all arenas is a great revitalizer because it keeps you in a ongoing learning mode and tends to keep you humble.
Figuratively and literally over my head, with snowboarding in mind, you have to continually adjust to the conditions on the slopes. If it is icy, you really have to dig in your edges. If it is crusty, need a different angle and approach. And you cannot go slow through deep powder…but it is a risk to go fast. Constant adjustment to the conditions because nothing stays the same. And still I do believe, you are not having ‘fun’ (learning) unless you are falling down now and then. Is leadership any different?
Great interview. This happened to me. I applied for a manager position for “rounding,” in a small department. Next my VP boss was let go. The leadership gave one of his direct reports to me which included the newly centralized call center, AR, dispatching, and a dotted line to field ops. Then they gave me a director title. A VP mentor came to my rescue and taught me how to handle it all. The guy was my hero! Thanks. ~Dawn
Dan – it’s more like when was I not over my head! In my early 20’s, I figured out that whenever I felt comfortable, it was time to shake things up. More often than not, that has been a formula for personal and professional growth, but other times has gotten me in trouble.
Once, after being with a new company for only a few weeks, I got into a heated disagreement with the CEO in public. We both felt strongly about an issue and debated. Afterwards, I felt great about the exchange. So did the CEO, who made a point of seeking me out and thanking me. But most of the company saw it differently. My boss took me aside and said that I had overstepped several norms of company culture and weakened my position. I checked with peers and subordinates and they all confirmed. It was a non-confrontational culture, and by airing my disagreement in public, I had unintentionally branded myself as an outsider.
Ah well, we survived that too. My learning, though, was to take things slowly in a new situation, taking time to learn the culture before advocating change.
Great way to share insights, Dan! And I remember my in-over-my-head moment oh-so-well!
I was handling labor relations for a food-processing organization and was the first woman to do so. I was itching to move from second chair to lead chair for the contract negotiations with the Teamsters (that hubris as Wally so accurately pointed out). Be careful what you ask for – as my desire was granted.
Two hours into the first day of the first negotiation session and I knew I was in deep do-do. Our labor attorney, who was my mentor and who had traditionally been the lead chair, graciously took over that seat after a break.
I call that day one of my “cosmic two by four” moments — both humbling and liberating!
Thanks Dan and Scott for this interview and how Scott shared his ]over his head’ story. My ‘over the head’ story is when I first started doing leadership coaching. I was paired with an experienced coach to work with a team of 15 leaders on an ‘action learning’ project (see Wikipedia entry on Action Learning for a description). There were lots of program & project elements to learn but having a seasoned coach there was invaluable. My real ‘over the head’ experience was the next time where I was now the ‘experienced coach’. I looked back to my prior experience and it was great to have others who had made the journey previously to call on. I now have done this 8 times and I am looked on as one of the ‘go to people’ for these projects. My lessons are: practice improves performance and don’t forget to reach out to others who have had a similar experience. Thanks for inviting others to share their stories.
I created A Week With My Father, the Reality TV show that I’m producing and pitching, in the Spring of 2005. That same year I lost my favorite uncle Daniel Whitner, who through his own career (The Family Man, alongside Nicholas Cage) and mentoring, inspired my creative ambitions. That same year I also asked my female roommate to leave – lot of stuff I’m keeping to the vest on that one. Needless to say it was a tumultuous year.
I didn’t meet my partner Julie House until 2007, and we weren’t able to come up with the money to shoot the pilot until 2008. That entire time, since my background was in acting and stunts, I was afraid I wasn’t ready or able to produce a television pilot. With no formal production experience, I was indeed “in over my head”, and even more so, I was the head of the team!
I hope you will check out our finished product. A cool head and strong faith is all that’s required to work through an overwhelming situation.
I’ve had a long career of jobs that had me “in over my head”, whether it was my boss or a manager of a project that put me there, or taking a new job. I found that as long as I stayed calm and looked at it as “What would make this a success” and then worked toward those goals, mapping out short term action items that needed to be done and keeping an eye to the long term view, things worked out well.
As an example, I was a developer, but my director made me a project manager for a very high profile project because my boss who was responsible for it, left without handing anything off. My director told me to do my best, he knew I didn’t have formal pm training and I was in over my head. I had to negotiate with all the vendors to complete the project and keep my eye on the milestone due dates, then worked backwards to figure out what needed to be done to complete those. I also knew that it is *people* who complete these milestones, so I made sure I let them know I was there for them, and checked in frequently to make sure they had what they needed, even if I had to do acrobatics to get it.
I was very terrified to “get stuck” with such responsibility on a project with high visibility, but as long as I kept things moving and didn’t dwell on the real possibility of self-destructing in the process, it worked amazingly well, and the project came in on schedule and within the budget originally allocated for the project.
Believing I could do this, acting with confidence and letting people know “we need to work together to get this done” were the keys to a successful conclusion.
Very busy day today and I just had a chance to linger and effect on all the comments and stories you shared. The really inspirational part, I think, is that we all lived to tell our tales and are the better for it!
One of my favorite questions to ask groups of leaders is “how many of you have had an experience in your career that when you look back on it you realize that your growth went from here to there (wide hands at this point) in very short order. Invariably, every hand goes up and, invariably, when the stories are told they all involve being in over your head.
There’s a reason we get these experiences folks!
Many thanks to all for sharing.
All professionals if they’re growing and developing should be in over their head from time-to-time. I know if spent more than my fair share of time gasping for air over the years. If you never feel in over your head you’re likely not challenging yourself enough. Most new initiatives, no matter how well they’re planned, leave you with a feeling of uneasiness at the outset. The trick is not to stay in over your head long enough to drown…
Very interesting post and having brought Scott Ebin to chat and share his eye opening story/experience which had significant impact on his work life. I remember the day when I came first to see my campus before accepting an offer of Directorship of the management institute. A beautifully designed web-site gave me an inner satisfaction of going to a well-set infrastructure with modern facilities. But to my great surprise and shock, I saw an under construction building much away from the city. I was certainly disturbed seeing the site but made up my mind to build this start-up venture into the most reputed one, established institute with sheer hard-work and qualitative efforts.
I accepted the offer and working towards its planned growth.
The lesson learnt was that one needs to justify for the position and nothing comes on a sliver plaque.
Good to hear how you face in the journey of leadership,not always easy but very rewarding!