The boss who taught me about psychological safety, coaching, and talent whispering, Cece Morken

It isn’t about you. It’s about them.

james helms
9 min readOct 21, 2020


The journey from individual contributor to manager, for me, was an enlightening one. In several of my previous companies, I was promoted into managerial roles with very little training — or even rationale. In many cases, the only path up in those companies was a managerial path. Promoting me as a manager was a reflection of my strength as an individual contributor and perhaps an acknowledgment of my potential. In nearly every case, I was asked to “keep doing what I was doing” — just do it while in charge of others. A player-coach model, I suppose.

I’ve learned that managing people effectively requires an entirely different set of muscles than contributing, individually, or even collaboratively. Maybe that's why, for a long time, I felt like a failure as a manager despite the fact that I was being pushed in that direction.

I’ve come to love the role of leading. Because the focus has shifted from driving my own career ambitions to growing my team. I’ve been satisfied to earn the assist. Or better yet, whisper a little encouragement between plays on the bench. What I’ve found is, one can gain tremendous satisfaction in unlocking the potential in others. Without taking credit or adding one’s fingerprints at all.

Empowerment, not control

Recently a significant truth of effective management has been revealed to me: being a good manager requires a mindset of doing it “for them, not me.” Yes, you will be evaluated on your ability to lead the team. Yes, you will be paid for your effort and your impact. But the lion’s share of the managing is understanding, enabling, empowering, and unblocking your employees so they can execute and so they can grow.

Many picture a command and control style — pointing, telling, pushing. And that is a way to lead a team. But if you’re interested in unlocking the superpowers of your employees as innovators and critical thinkers with diverse perspectives, I’ve learned a more nuanced approach is required.

Be clear when to coach (ask) and when to teach (tell).
When executing for the business, deliver clear direction (tell). Then rely on the team to plan and explain their approach (ask). Occasionally, you may have to get explicit with the approach — typically because you have context that would be impractical to impart — but be quick to give the reins back to the team or you’ll end up having to solve the whole thing yourself. Definitely not ideal for you or your team.

When having a career conversation, it’s actually flipped. Encouraging employees to take the lead (ask) in terms of their career goals — then use business objectives and accountability measures (tell) to ensure they make demonstrable progress. It’s critical that an employee spend time reflecting on their aspirations and own their career path themselves. Giving someone career goals is like pushing rope. And worse, you're projecting YOUR goals onto them — which can lead to disengagement, burn-out, attrition, etc.

Coach your employees to innovate on their career with GROW.
I’ve mentioned GROW before. It’s a gap-analysis framework that helps coaches uncover Goals (ideal state), Reality (problem state), Options (ideas) and Way forward (decision-making criteria or principles and success measures). As designers and critical thinkers, we’d ask our teams to provide a customer problem statement, an ideal state, brainstorm ideas to address the gap, and then breakdown their best ideas into bite-sized, high-value experiments they can execute right away. GROW is a way to coach Design Thinking. And it’s a great way to coach employees to innovate on their career.

Be an active listener. And stay curious.
This is so hard. Don’t. Solve. In your head or out loud. As an individual contributor, you were valued for your ability to solve problems. As a manager and an enabler of talent, your job is now to support your employees while they solve for themselves. THIS continues to be the hardest lesson for me to learn on my journey from a creative contributor to manager.

Ever played the game “hot and cold”? I imagine playing that game, but I communicate hot and cold with my enthusiasm. When I feel like people are off the track — I ask questions pretty matter-of-factly. As they start to get to a place that feels more on track, my questions get more excited. I can't help it. The cool thing is, your curiosity and enthusiasm can energize teams.

I watched and learned this from several great mentors at Intuit. Scott Cook is a great example. You can hear his interest emerge in seemingly involuntary “aha’s” that he expresses as you reveal what you’ve learned and what surprised you about your research, your experiments, and your insights. His body language leans in, or he’ll suddenly sit back with a grin on his face and a literal — “AHA!” It’s exciting to light up a person like Scott. I have to assume he knows he’s doing it — but he has great command of a team’s energy with his body language. And so do you.

Creating conditions for growth

Again — this is about your team, not you. You have the power to create a culture that promotes safety, rewards risk, promotes growth, and develops evangelism. Your words, your actions, and your beliefs all matter. And your employees are reading these signals every day to calculate their ability to grow within your team.

Teams need psychological safety to ask hard questions, to take risks, to learn from failure, and to share their doubts. As a manager, you must role model space-making. Acknowledge when things are hard, or unclear. Encourage discussion and dissent. Ask questions like “What might go wrong? How would we know? And how are we planning for that?” Teams that trust each other and their manager are more likely to take educated risks in pursuit of learning and growth. Teams that don't will sit quietly and wait to be assigned work.

Teams need advocacy. Recognition does wonders for morale and productivity. Public shout-outs. Mentions in executive forums. Private congratulations and thank yous. All of these, when they come from a place of genuine appreciation, encourage teams to take big swings, and to pour their heart into their work and one another.

Teams need to be both challenged and inspired. Teams need to feel that you trust them with the hard stuff. And, candidly, you need to put challenges into the hands of employees before you’re even sure they’re ready. You can't afford not to take these risks. When great employees aren’t challenged, they get complacent. And very likely, they leave.

Teams also need a vision. And they need to connect to that vision through stories, empathy, visuals, and tangible actions they can take immediately. Big targets with important outcomes. They deserve this. If you ask your team to leave everything on the field, they must understand what winning looks and feels like.

Teams need consistency. Teams need to know what to expect. They need to feel like accountability is universal. And they need to feel like everyone is getting treated with an appropriate level of trust, empathy, and honesty. Favoritism is poisonous. So is tolerating mediocrity. It’s completely fair to have a high bar — make sure everyone is accountable to the same height.

Talent whispering

Your employees are humans. Every one of them is a unique collection of strengths and opportunities. If you’ve done your job correctly, you have a wonderfully diverse set of employees — with different backgrounds, skillsets, and life experiences. And so, in some ways, you must personalize your leadership style — certainly in your 1:1 interactions — to meet them where they are.

Employees have different wiring.
Different motivations. And different triggers. Developing trust is a fundamental part of the talent-whispering process. That’s not just a single get-to-know-you conversation. It’s an ongoing commitment to their psychological safety and growth. It must be nurtured over time, in different forums. “I know you” is a universal signal in a landscape that is crowded with mixed signals.
This is difficult for me because my memory can be challenged. But I work at staying close to my employees so they will interpret my questions, my suggestions, my decisions, and my occasional outbursts with the context that I mean them no harm and I am on their side.

Employees have different styles
Intuit invested a lot of time and effort creating a company-wide communication style baseline with a tool called “Styles of Influence” which highlights just how different each of us is as we approach problem-solving and communication. Whether or not you have an explicit tool or framework, it’s important to note that everyone has a slightly different approach to how they communicate and how they process interactions with others. Two people who agree in premise can have a very unproductive conversation simply because their styles clash.
In this case, I believe it’s important for you to remember that as the manager, it’s actually incumbent on you to flex, especially in your 1:1s. Learn how your employee hears best, learns fastest. Check for understanding frequently.

Employees have different needs.
All employees are unique. Their definitions of success differ. Their understanding of their own value could be wildly different from what you see. Some incredibly talented folks suffer from imposter syndrome. Others seem to think they have it all figured out, and can't see their biggest blindspots. Everything is coachable. Everything is addressable. Some angles work better for some than others.

The really hard stuff

One of the hardest parts of being a manager is making the call to let someone go. As will all managerial intent — this decision should be about them, not you. Typically it’s a decision that’s informed by a few things: misalignment of their goals, their skills, their competence, their focus, and perhaps their values. And it’s important to realize that letting go and being let go have similar emotional tolls: fear, uncertainty, failure. But it’s also important to understand that as a manager, you have the power and responsibility to make this process clear and effective.

Rely on facts
Typically, news like this is not a surprise. Likely you’ve already had several conversations about performance, expectations, and opportunities. anchoring your decision in an employee’s outcomes is helpful. You may have objective feedback from peers. You may have incidents you can refer to. But ultimately, you are sharing a decision. And that decision is final.

Separate feelings from decisions
Clarity is key — and getting to the point without a preamble of “It pains me to have to tell you…” or “This is one of the hardest things a manager has to do…” It’s certainly understandable that you will feel conflicted, stressed, sad and guilty. The employee you are terminating is not interested in that.

Don’t burn a bridge
The process of letting an employee go should be the same as other hard conversations. Be honest, be fair, be firm, the brief. These are demonstrations of respect. You have a duty to your company to maintain your integrity and uphold your company’s brand. This is a business decision with personal implications. That’s a fine line but an important one. And easy to misinterpret.

Bring the rest of the team along
Share the news with your team. Be clear about the difference between caring for the person as a human and the outcomes required by the business. This is a delicate conversation, but your employees will appreciate your honesty, the respect you show for their former colleagues, and you’ll preserve the psychological trust you worked so hard to create. It’s all connected.

Rarely is an underperforming employee a secret. Usually, the team can see the lack of outcomes. Be prepared to answer their questions and make space for them to ask them. And understand that there is an emotional process, like grief, that work friends must work through. Sometimes it takes a day or two. Sometimes it takes longer. Stay close to the team and continue to keep communications open — transparency heals.

Take time before and after for yourself
These are hard conversations. You should practice. Include HR. Have a plan. Create space in your calendar to prepare before and decompress after. Be ready to talk about your feeling with the appropriate people afterward (your boss, your HR partner, a therapist).

The last word

Managing others is a gift. It is a chance to unlock superpowers, foster growth, and channel productive energy. It’s not for everyone. For some people, the satisfaction that comes from being an individual contributor is equally alluring, or more so.

Not aspiring to be a manager doesn’t make you a failure. Or a selfish person. There are plenty of ways to support the growth and careers of your peers without the title. Remember that you have the power to make people around you better, every day. By finding and recruiting great talent. By contributing to a diverse and safe workplace. By learning about and supporting others in their goals. By using GROW. There’s plenty of value in the assist, AND scoring the goal yourself.



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.