How to Succeed in A Career Test: Owning Your Leadership Style Under Pressure

Upwards Arrows

The Final Countdown” by Europe 🎵

It’s 2024 and I’m back from taking a break on this blog.
The break was worth it. I thought – well maybe I don’t need to write…

Just kidding. I desperately need this.

The new year has gotten me thinking about tests…but not the automation kind.

The career kind given by your boss’s boss’s boss’s– you get the point.
The ones that challenge if you can maintain a leadership style in front of your proctors, your peers, and your people.
The adventures that map your character, not only your ability to get work done at a company.

I have seen senior leaders above and peer to me tested many times in my career in distinct ways where their career test was obvious and given to them by their leadership. In each case it was fascinating to watch or at times participate in. Sometimes it was painful.

In these few examples below – 2 or 3 key people were tested and needed to work together as partners. It was clear that they had been tasked to work together even if their leaders had not directly told them together in the same room.

It was also clear if they did not they would not be promoted into executive leadership regardless of the outputs delivered.

In one example, I was a bystander who saw those being tested create silo cultures to “race” to solve a business problem their management had tasked them with and never talked to their partner peers. They pro-actively tried to avoid the discussion. Each individual contributor and manager wanted to ‘win.’ They excluded each other to move fast or retain ownership and it was obvious. I saw this behavior rip apart an entire division where it became the leading gold standard way of operating. Everyone was racing autonomously, driven from the top.

In other tests I saw a manager being tested if they could manage another manager on a shiny opportunity they were passionate about without completely consuming the task itself and causing misdirection in their org – or if speed and greed would pull one or both of them both under.

One successful time I got to be a part of – I was managed by a manager who was lower than my level per the company ranks. The biggest challenge we had: keeping trust between us and those we were responsible for at a multi-million dollar pressure of inaccuracies. We taught each other so much. He struggled with timing and being behind the team because it moved so fast. I was a principal over two enterprise companies and all their subsidiaries. Rumors, hype, and exaggerated numbers around our collective team accounts were a problem. I partnered with him to build his trust in the team as fast as possible. He taught me how to be patient when shielding my peers and under extreme fire (far more than I have today). From what I remember, he was promoted (and he deserved it). I was grateful he finally got ahead of the entire team because often I was not the driver – demand and opportunity was. Greed will definitely make the uninformed happily escalate past you with no regard for your fate to get their ‘win’ and it completely sucks to live in. It’s on you to help your manager if that happens, not let them drown with you.

Another time, one of my managers promoted me to be his peer level and I felt unworthy of that distinction because he was far beyond my skills. He reminded me often that I deserved it and that it was not because of how I compared against him, but what I had done. He shortly after went on to lead an entire division and increased his scope – he knew how to to separate the idea of manager and individual contributor from level and rank. He never saw himself as above others. He lived “comparison is the thief of joy” and always thinking of others first. He led with kindness, the idea that the other person may have the best intentions, and that made him successful.

In all cases where two leaders were seen as needing to work together, but they excluded each other: None were promoted for years. Only sometimes did the leaders realize they were in the test by their executives. The more senior they were, the less direct the test was, but the expected outcome was obvious. Work together with the people they already knew were invested, build context, and figure it out.

Pressure is the Thief of Inclusion

It sucks to walk away from a call where you came in with the passion of selfless intent looking for a partner, waiting for that moment to finally get their undivided attention on that one thing, only to leave it broken. It’s worse when there was an expectation that you would work together from your leadership.

You both could even be talking about the exact same mission struggling to collaborate until someone backs down because neither can see past the clutches of time or the people they’ll impact. Perhaps your peer concerns themselves with who was first and how to make it an easy win to prove their value to leadership more than the problem you both are trying to solve for everyone. They may resort to shedding their leadership values – to exclusion – for the sake of speed or safety or both.

Listening, but not hearing, that “pressure is the thief of inclusion and patience but you don’t have to let it be” is important when you’re actively in it because it will feel like you are doing the right thing. These two values are key to strategy and why those leaders failed their tests.

We have all lived a moment where a collaboration fell from a partnership to a healthy debate to an unhealthy fight: Trust is sacrificed in the process for the sake of being right or for speed, or worse, both. Watching leaders destroy their own values of patience and inclusion in order to ‘win’ is watching helpless goodwill grasp for air and selflessness tread water. But it’s also watching someone tank their career in my experience.

No matter whether it’s someone you manage, someone managing you, a direct peer, a customer, or a partner in another division there is always a lesson to learn in an interaction.

It is easy to make the problem about the person you are talking to and not see past that at those they have roped in already on their mission or where they have been. Life has taught me that the disappointment which comes from relinquishing one’s leadership style to the demon of pressure, ironically, with the perspective of time can turn around broken trust quite quickly.

Repositioning a Fight in Flight

It’s okay to step away and take a 30 minute break after a poor conversation in a career test.

Ask “What in the world was that trying to teach me?” It’s much better to have that skill to process live that question while a conflict is happening. Even something as simple as changing “I do not believe that.” to “Do we believe that?” can raise the tone bar of a discussion. More importantly, pausing to reflect if either of you are being transparent or feel you are even up to speed about your contexts when in a conflict over a technology, the progress of a mission, or a team is important.

“What is this trying to teach me?” comes from the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp and recommended by my former manager Brandon Cox.

This commitment looks like the following:

“I commit to growing in self-awareness.
I commit to regarding every interaction
as an opportunity to learn.
I commit to curiosity as a path to rapid learning.”

Commitment 2, Learning Through Curiosity from The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, pg. 61

Instead of…

“I commit to being right and seeing this situation as something that is happening to me.
I commit to being defensive, especially when I am certain that I am RIGHT.”

Commitment 2, Learning Through Curiosity from The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, pg. 61

In an argument both parties can be defensive – unwilling to dare to ask “Do you really understand the problem we’re solving?” If one of them asks it – they get to become an asshole for calling it out.

Truly what is unfortunate is that in that same moment there can be another option and it’s easy to forget and even swallow without practice: Both in real-time could say “Do we really understand what is going on and do we trust each other enough to believe that maybe we don’t?” as partners. Partners without the ammunition that comes from pressure creating authoritative directives and exclusion. Respect without requirement to reach resolution when there is a clear need to take a step back to get more data.

I tend to look up to leaders who are exceptionally patient – and so do senior leaders value this quality.

I caution if you are feeling pressure, to take a step back and remember the person in front of you. Do you truly believe that they are selfish, defensive, and not listening? Or are you not valuing the time it will take to get up to speed on where they are in order to collaborate with them? Did you miss something? Did they come to the call intending to be inclusive? Did you both? Don’t measure who is being the bigger person – measure yourself and if you are losing your values.

Very few things are worth losing a patient and inclusive leadership style for – and by extension trust.

How to Repair Trust

It’s hard to know who is right under the pressure of a test. Upon reflection of some of the ones I’ve been in my past, I am grateful to have realized that it was possible I was taking the wrong test – that I misunderstood the assignment as a task for which leadership gave me to complete, instead of one testing who I would complete it with at that exact moment and needed to be invested in the other person not failing.

There are two options when your’e in a real career test:

(1) Speed racer through a task hoping it works out with whomever you want


(2) Slow down temporarily to remember who you really are with the person asking for your buy-in because they may need it

I prefer option (2). This is done through transparency – dump everything on the table. Who do you both know that cares about the problem, what is the problem you are both really trying to solve, and how did either of you get here to begin with. Assume you yet may not be working to grow the other person and yourself. Then solve the problem with patience and inclusion as best as you can so you can get there.

Absent all that external pressure: what was the root cause of why you attempted to work together in the first place and the partnership went south? If your goal is to impress your leadership by completing a mission and you have even a hunch you’re supposed to work with this person – Slow the crap down with your colleague and say “I’m sorry. I realize you came to this table believing in me and that you wanted to work with me this whole time. I will fail this test if I do not include you OR I will fail you and I am not okay with either.”

It takes a lot of courage to be the person leaving a meeting who said I’m sorry I was the asshole that excluded you because I moved too fast and that was never my intention when often it’s both parties who should say that. It’s worked for me every time to say “I’m sorry. This is not what I wanted.” and give the other person time to decompress and catch up. The times it hasn’t – the relationship wasn’t worth it, it was not their intention to be inclusive, and you can’t know that until you both check your humility.

The key lessons in so many of my direct career tests was that I realized the assignment to be not only about the work getting done, but that senior leadership cared who I got it done with. They cared that we maintained the patience for who we were already accountable for growing alongside the speed needed for inclusion of new parties with shifting lanes.

The proctors had known the parties that needed to work together because they were better than those being tested at staying ahead – and while they did not know what the deliverable would be, they had a vision of who was ready to be challenged to pass the inclusion test which was just as important, if not more so, than only delivering the right outcomes.

Image Credit(s): Header image from Unsplash by Jungwoo Hong.