Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a career and leadership coach for female leaders in the corporate world. During her decade of working in corporate human resources, Nicole Case saw countless smart, driven, and talented women become stalled or stagnant in their careers. Today, she uses her corporate HR experience to help women land their ideal roles and succeed in their careers on their terms as their authentic selves.
I was so excited to talk with Nicole on the most recent episode of Elite Achievement because I remember wanting more and having the desire to lean into my ambition so often in my last corporate role. It was challenging! I start our conversation by asking Nicole what inspired her to leave her corporate role and become a career and leadership coach for other women.
Nicole explains how she spent over a decade in corporate HR roles in male-dominated industries. She recalls that while amazing women were present, they fell behind or struggled with becoming stuck and stagnant. That struggle to get into leadership roles and make an impact was just as important as having a full life outside of work. “I was seeing that struggle in my day-to-day work,” says Nicole. “Plus, I saw the conversations behind the scenes, with executives talking about who’s getting promotions, who’s getting the raise, or best projects, and what they valued in a leader. I noticed that it was disconnected to what a lot of women thought they needed to get ahead.”
Nicole had insights or “secrets” that she felt she could share to make a bigger impact. So, she finally decided to go all-in and work with women full-time. I ask her to share how that transition felt. “It was actually a little bit challenging, or a lot challenging,” Nicole recalls. “I thought that doing everything myself, as a business owner, as my own boss, was going to be amazing. It’s going to be easy and fun because I had a passion for the work that I was doing. But what I found was going from 100% structure in another person’s organization to me, needing to put those expectations on myself, was challenging.”
Nicole describes how that transition took time to adjust to, which surprised her. The systems and routines that worked in a corporate environment didn’t necessarily translate to her new venture as a solopreneur. “Being a driven, ambitious woman, you think that you’re just going to dive right in, and it’s all just going to be awesome,” Nicole remembers. “And it was a really fun and interesting experience to rethink my work routines and ask, what time am I going to get up in the morning? When am I going to go to the gym? It all changed overnight, and I honestly wasn’t prepared for it. But now that I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”
I love how Nicole talked about how her systems and routines from corporate didn’t translate when she became a business owner. I found myself working the same way I worked in my corporate role, scheduling coaching calls at 7 am. And I thought, wait a minute. Is this what I want? Is this going to help me maximize my potential and serve my clients in the best way possible? I’m still figuring it out, two years into my business. It’s an interesting process for sure.
“100%,” confirms Nicole. “I was finding myself working crazy hours. And on the one hand, I’m working on my own thing and doing work that I absolutely love. So sometimes, it’s really easy to lean into that. But on the other hand, I was getting exhausted! I had another coach friend of mine, who had a successful executive career in the pharma industry, who also transitioned out to do her own coaching and leadership business. And she said to me, Nicole, the work that we are doing requires more whitespace and rest. And when she said that to me, it just clicked.”
Nicole shares how one boundary, limiting the number of client calls per day, allows her to be fully prepped and present for everyone. “When I started doing that, I felt so much better,” she says. “I know that I was showing up better for my clients. I had more creativity. And it made me rethink what I was doing previously in corporate. Like holy cow, had I discovered this previously, could I have been that much more satisfied and successful in my corporate job? Those are some things that I talk about with my clients today.”
I am so grateful Nicole shared that our work requires more whitespace. I was recently beating myself up because I used to get up at 5 am to work out, be fully ready (hair, make-up, suit), and be in the office at 7:30 am. I ask myself, why are you not getting up earlier? And why are you so tired at night? But it’s a different mindset. And we don’t always give ourselves that grace, that the work that we’re doing as coaches requires a lot of thinking. We’re pouring ourselves into our clients, so I love what Nicole shared. I also appreciate Nicole’s comments about boundaries and ask for her advice in setting them.
Nicole begins by suggesting you sit and reflect before setting boundaries to think about what’s working and what’s not working. It helps to identify where you need boundaries and the triggers, such as a situation or a certain meeting or person. She explains how when you feel your chest tightening or feel resentment, you can reflect on whether there might be a boundary that is being violated or hasn’t been communicated yet. Once you have done that, you can think about what is needed first and then decide what the boundary will look like. “What is it that you need to feel satisfied, to feel respected, to feel seen and heard?” Nicole asks. “What are those things that you want and need to put into place? Then you need to actually communicate those to people. Sometimes we want to think that everyone has our amazing intuition as women and can read the room really well. But not everybody can do that. You are robbing yourself and that other person by not clearly articulating what boundaries you need and why. Communicate clearly what your expectations are and what your boundaries are. Then if they violate those boundaries, or decide not to follow them, or forget, which happens, call them out in the moment, or shortly after the situation.”
Reminding someone of a boundary can be as easy as saying something like, I don’t take calls after 6 pm. Can we schedule this at another time? The point Nicole explains is to remind them what your boundaries are and call them out when the boundary is violated to avoid frustration or the other person continuing to push the limit.
Nicole continues to explain that we need boundaries in place for ourselves as well. Whether you want to stop scrolling on Instagram at a certain time or not look at your phone first thing in the morning, some boundaries are there to hold yourself accountable.
Holding or establishing boundaries for myself can be challenging, and I find that I am tempted and probably violate them most when leaning into fear or limiting beliefs, such as a scarcity mindset. I ask Nicole if she experienced limiting beliefs and if so, how she leaned into them.
“Totally,” Nicole confirms. She continues to explain how the limiting belief that systems and routines in corporate should translate helped her revisit the issue as a solopreneur. It also helped her look back and revisit what she did in her corporate role. It helped her better understand that the right priorities and focuses were what contributed to her success, not long hours. Another belief was that success would be overnight and that if it wasn’t, she didn’t have what it took.
“Some people go into business, and they hit a level of success really quickly. And that’s amazing. I was expecting to hit a certain revenue number right away. I was expecting to have people coming at me all over the place to hire me to speak or be their coach. And it didn’t happen like that overnight. I have to continually remind myself that I’m still building this and growing and learning as a coach. The success that I thought that I would get was a little unrealistic. My success is going to look different than other people’s success. Once I let that go, I felt so much more satisfied and present with my clients and what I was working on felt so much more fulfilling. And honestly, my revenue went up. Whenever I was in the space, the space of lack, or scarcity mindset, which is really what that was, once I let go of that, then things began to flow.”
I have been thinking lately about this concept of push versus flow. And as an ambitious woman, a goal achiever type A personality, I am a really good pusher. When I put my mind to something, I know I’m disciplined. I have the work ethic, I will grind, and I will push, push, push. But I’m on a journey to understand the difference between push and flow and work more in my flow. It is working through some of those same limiting beliefs that come with a corporate career where the longer you worked and the more you earned was celebrated. It really is an opportunity for those of us that step out of corporate to sit back and reflect on what success means. And at what cost? Yes, we could all go out and build these massive businesses, but at what cost?
“I think we all are influenced by our upbringing and the values that our parents bring to us,” Nicole says. “Then as adults, we have to reflect to see if those values are the ones we want to continue to take forward with us. And for me, my parents are entrepreneurs. My dad raised two young girls as independent, strong women. In his business, he works long hours grinding. He has that hustle mentality, the – when I’m not working, I’m not making money – mentality. And I needed to overcome that value. I needed to overcome that position. It doesn’t mean that ease means easy or lazy. Ease means you are clear about what it is that you want to do, what you want to accomplish, and then to trust yourself that it will happen.”
Ease means you are clear about what you want to do and what you want to happen, I repeat. It is such a brilliant way to rephrase and reframe a thought process. I ask Nicole for her advice to women who feel stuck or stagnant in their careers.
Nicole responds that it’s one of her favorite topics to talk about because it’s a common problem for women, particularly those who are driven and ambitious. Hitting a plateau can make them feel like they’re doing something wrong, even though it’s a normal part of any career. She suggests starting by reflecting and asking questions to determine what is really happening. Is it boredom or a lack of challenge? Some women may feel like they need to change their career completely, but after reflecting, they find it could be the environment or the role they’re in and not their entire career. After reflection, the second step is to be clear about your own values and strengths. If you’re not living those values and strengths daily, Nicole explains, it can lead to feeling stuck or burnt out.
Earlier, Nicole mentioned the conversations behind the scenes and some of the things that women think we need to do to get ahead are actually holding us back. So, I ask her to share what a woman needs to do if she desires to get to that next level.
Nicole says the first thing to decide is if getting ahead means doing so in a current or new company. And in some cases, maybe doing both. “So often, our managers have no idea what our career aspirations are or what it is that we want next,” Nicole explains. “We make some assumptions or think they should know and see the value we’re bringing, but frankly, they just don’t – they’re busy too. So, make sure you have a really clear conversation with your manager about what you’re looking for and what you can be working on. If you don’t have a strong relationship with your manager, I recognize it can be a challenging conversation to have, although I still recommend doing it.”
If you need an outside resource, Nicole recommends finding mentors and sponsors in your professional and personal life who can talk about your aspirations with you and give you feedback.
Nicole goes on to explain that often if you are super, super good in your current job, you may get stuck, particularly if a manager wants to keep you there. She says in those cases, it may indicate that you haven’t picked your head up and connected the dots to other departments and initiatives. “The people who get ahead, particularly if you are in leadership or want to step into leadership, are the people who can look around to the other areas in their organization, see what the challenges are, and connect back to the role they are in,” says Nicole. “It’s not to say that you shouldn’t be focused on doing a great job where you are, but that’s the baseline. See what’s happening around you and connect the dots. Understand how your role impacts other roles. I was just talking with a client earlier this week who has a great foundation in her specific area. She’s like, Nicole, I’ve done all the things. However, she wants to continue to move up in her career and become a more strategic leader. And so, it’s not that she needs to let go of that foundation that she has already built. She just needs to now elevate that conversation to a more strategic one, around the entire company and the entire organization.”
Nicole recommends that we have a conversation with a manager. And I remember very vividly having several of these conversations with my former leadership team, so I’m curious if she has any recommendations on setting up this conversation.
Nicole says that a leader should be talking to their team proactively about their careers and what they want. But if they’re not, then be proactive. Send them a note or tell them ahead of time that you would like to carve out some time to talk about your career. Setting up a conversation allows your manager to take some time to think about the feedback they may want to give you, or refresh their memory from past conversations. Putting someone on the spot can make them uncomfortable and doesn’t allow them to prepare properly.
I know I like to have prep time before impactful conversations. So that would make sense to allow that space for other individuals as well. Nicole shared that if you’re a leader, you should be initiating these conversations. And we both came from a male-dominated industry, so I ask what advice she has for men leading other women.
“Fantastic question,” Nicole says. “I wish more people were asking it! The first thing is to ask them and not make assumptions about what they need. I had a client last year who was pregnant with her first child. She was having conversations with her manager about maternity leave. She said, I’m going to come back from maternity leave in October. And he said, okay, well, this big project will start up in October. I will give that project to someone else and give you this easier project because I don’t want you to be overwhelmed. He’s coming from a place of wanting to be helpful and supportive.
However, he needed to let her decide what she wanted and determine if it would be a little much coming back from maternity leave. If that was a really big, visible project that went to somebody else, then the other person could have then gotten the promotion, raise, and visibility that they needed in order to continue to move up. My client could have stayed stuck, stagnant, or doing projects that didn’t have the bigger value impact that she was accustomed to delivering. So again, asking your employees, what do you need from me? How can I support you? Don’t assume what people need because it could be different from you.”
This is making me think of a leadership shift in general. As a leader, I think a lot of times, we feel like we have to have all the answers – the right strategy and the right solution. But Nicole recommends we move away from that desire to figure it all out and move towards curiosity, asking questions, seeking to understand, and engaging in dialogue with the team to create the best solution together.
“100%,” Nicole confirms. “It’s another one of those things that I saw women and men tripping up over as they’re moving into leadership positions. You were likely recognized for being that expert at one time, and then you get into leadership, and leadership is not about being the expert in all things. Leadership is about helping your team and being successful through your team, and removing roadblocks for them. If you approach leading your team with authenticity and vulnerability and saying, I don’t know the answer to that, let me get back to you, you are going to gain more credibility and more respect from your team than faking it or forcing a decision. The best leaders that have the teams that will follow them wherever are the ones that say, let’s talk about it as a group. We’ll still be very clear about who has the final decision, what the final decision is, and why. But being able to co-create that together is the best way to build that high-performing team that stays around long term.”
I’m grateful Nicole brought up the words authenticity and vulnerability, because it takes us back to the work Nicole does to help women bring more of their authentic selves to work. I ask Nicole to share her advice for how women can be more authentic in the corporate workplace.
Nicole shares her belief that if you want to show up more authentically in your corporate world, you have to start by knowing yourself. “I think, sometimes we’re like, oh, I know who I am and what I need,” says Nicole. “But that is not true for a lot of people. We are growing, evolving, and changing as humans all the time, particularly in these last two years. I can tell you that I was not the woman I was in March 2020. And so, recognizing that and having that reflection to ask, who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I want to show up here? Also, knowing your values and your strengths. Because when things get challenging, or when you are faced with a decision, being able to go back to your values and your strengths will help you make that decision more quickly and more confidently, whatever that decision is. Whenever you truly understand who you are and what you want, you’re going to show up not only authentically, but you’re going to show up in a really confident way.”
Nicole continues by saying that the idea of authenticity is easier for straight, white women. “Women who are women of color, women who are LGBTQ, those women are certainly going to have a much more challenging time showing up in an authentic way to work,” Nicole says. “Because this world is not set up to respect and honor those differences. We’ve got a lot of work to do there. And so, us as white women, straight women, need to be those allies to our women of color and women who are LGBTQ, just like we need men in the workplace to be our allies.”
As our conversation ends, I recognize that it has been full of insights for business owners, women, and leaders. I thank Nicole for all her wisdom and ask where people should go to learn more about her and her work. She suggests her LinkedIn, where she does live shows and posts journal prompts every Friday and Saturday. I ask her for an on-the-spot favorite journal prompt, and she does not disappoint. “What do I need to let go of?” Nicole shares.
And with that goal achievers, keep focusing on your weekly wins, noting your lessons learned, and identifying your priorities for next week so you can consistently pursue progress in the direction of your goals.