With our anthropomorphized phones down – their backlit faces struggling to buzz, ring and ding us into submission to their never ending quest for immediacy – we sat and greeted one another with cautious optimism. Backs straight and eyes forward, we began our conversation by setting aside all reference material in the hopes of achieving a truly human connection.

Two critical questions emerged as I wondered how to encapsulate her storied career and complex role in less than an hour’s time.

“How do you define success?”

I watched her eyes for a confident response (no break in contact and a trusted plan), a skyward glance (thoughtful consideration and a rapid assembly of considered goals) or downward stare (belying the futility of ever achieving something so grand as ‘success’). I nodded and prodded, seeking to uncover as deeply as allowed before posing my next question.

“What scares you?”

The eyes had it again. Her shoulders started to relax followed by a bend forward (suggesting intimacy or secrecy) and lean backward (exhaustion or frustration breaking the facade), a laugh and smirk quickly emerging to suggest perhaps it is safe to be a simple mortal of flesh and blood.

Encapsulated within the density of our interaction was the underlying tension in maintaining three mission critical, seemingly complimentary yet often contradictory roles.

  • The Strategist: The proactive identification and execution of solutions that explicitly align with business needs and goals.
  • The Steward: The active management of trusted assets and processes in a manner that supports strategy while mitigating business risk.
  • The Service Provider: The assurance that programs and processes are executed in an efficient, customer-centric and cost effective manner.

I asked how much of her time is allocated to each role, her response consistent with nearly every leader I’ve met in the past ten years.

  • The Strategist: 10-15%
  • The Steward: 40-70%
  • The Service Provider: 50-70%

We chuckled at the 155% mathematical anomaly, the numbers not so usual if 40 hours equals 100%.

Her lack of individual capacity, organizational elasticity and fiscal predictability was buckling under the relentless headwind of untenable expectations and unreasonable timelines. She is a multi-degreed and highly accomplished professional seeking ‘some small semblance of sanity’. And if she – the leader of one of the most critical functions in the organization – cannot find her way, how can the rest of her team or the organization at large?

That was the question I posed.

The Steward told me that she will not let the organization fail under her trusted watch. The Service Provider called out each stakeholder group with a well defined commitment to the success of each.

The Strategist wrestled with the first two to find a confident toe hold, finally settling on a reluctant truism. With a sigh and clear exhaustion in her voice, she said:

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

I thanked her for her time and did a quick calculation.

Three personas. Two questions. One hour.

Zero mirrors.