The Talk: An Executive Preparing a Young Leader

April 4, 2022


We were promoting a new leader and it was time for me to sit down with her and have “The Talk” to help her understand what was ahead for her. “The Talk” originated with a mentor of mine. It begins with the acceptance and acknowledgment that this position of leadership will, at times, make you the “bad guy” and that you will often be misunderstood, but due to privacy and proper HR, you won’t get to explain yourself. Your peers that you just served with, many who are friends, now report to you and your relationship will change, and it must change. 

No one wants to feel excited about a new challenge and opportunity for 30 seconds and then have a wet blanket thrown on them.

“The Talk” was something I always did a week after promotion. No one wants to feel excited about a new challenge and opportunity for 30 seconds and then have a wet blanket thrown on them. But, this talk is something that for years I have had leaders come back to me over and over again and thank me for. 

My First Big Promotion

It always draws me back to one of my first big promotions. I had been in ministry for ten years and I was burnt out, so I went to work for a software company within the Christian space. Shortly after arriving, I was asked to build a department. It was a department of one, because I had to prove it could be successful first, then we could scale up. During this time, I was able to prove that the department could be successful and right around that time, I was called into the Senior Vice President’s office. They had just let a department executive go and were seeking a replacement. I was so unimpressed with myself, that I didn’t even consider myself to be in the running. 

I remember going into the SVP’s office and sitting down. He said, “I bet you’re curious who we have chosen to replace the head of national sales.”  He spoke and allowed the suspense to build up over several minutes, then, he hit me with it. “It’s you,” he said. I was speechless. This was the biggest opportunity I had ever been given. He then leaned way over his desk and said, “But I need to let you know some things that will be changing in your life.” 

Well, he had my attention. He told me a variation of “The Talk” and I walked out of his office realizing he was right. My world would change. My relationships will change. To make it all the more clear, he had handed me a file which was very in-depth and it was on an employee who now directly reported to me. This employee was also one of my best friends. It was a Friday, and he asked me to study the file intensely and then determine what needed to be done. 

That weekend, I dove into that file with all the exuberance of a young leader who wanted to be able to lead change and be a success. The more I read, the more I realized what needed to be done. I walked into the SVP’s office on Monday with a heavy heart. I told him that after searching and searching for any other solution, the only decision that made any sense was to let that employee go. But, to me, it was more than an employee. It was one of my best friends. 

The seasoned SVP looked at me and said, “That’s correct. We’re all in agreement. However, your next decision will be more difficult. At the end of this week is the company’s Christmas party, and I’ll leave it to you as to whether you want to let them go before or after.” My heart sank deeper. I knew that my friend’s wife had just bought a dress for the party. I knew this was his favorite event, because he got to see the national team and many were his friends. We always had a great time and would hang out afterwards until the early morning hours. 

So, do I rob him, in one respect, and call him in immediately and let him know my decision? Do I let him have one last hoorah before letting him go? My Monday was 30 minutes old and it was already ruined. The issue was that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t tell anyone. I had no one to bounce it off of. I knew if I waited until after the party, that while he’d have a great time, once he was let go, he would think that I made him look like a fool, because every terminated employee believes everyone knew and they were the last to know. 

Yet, hands down, it was the best “talk” I could have been given. It was a reality of the job. My level of leadership required it of me. 

I’ll let you guess what I decided, but the SVP was right. My life changed. My friend never spoke to me again. His best friend was still on my team and directly reported to me. Everyone on our team had questions. Questions I could not answer. Without answers, I became misunderstood and there was nothing I could do to change that. Yet, hands down, it was the best “talk” I could have been given. It was a reality of the job. My level of leadership required it of me. 

So, now, years later, I am an executive pastor at a large church and I am sitting in front of a ministry team member who we had just promoted. I know how close she is with her team. I know she spends a lot of friendship time with a few of them unrelated to work. I know her life is going to change and that it is my responsibility to help her prepare for that. 

Our Driving Purpose is Preparation

A lot of times in ministry, I feel we make fast promotions without truly preparing the candidate for the life change. If you’re familiar with John Eldredge and his wife Stasi, you are familiar with a timeline. Participants write out their timeline with significant events, hurts, trauma, etc. When we take the opportunity to be leaders with hire/fire privileges and we have to make that difficult call, we must accept that we will forever be a point on their timeline. No one ever forgets a termination. 

It might be an overly simple definition, but an Executive Pastor’s driving purpose is preparation. We must prepare young leaders for what lies ahead. We can’t give them all the answers. We can’t tell them how to do everything. We must prepare them, then give them the autonomy to succeed or fail. Like a coach, we can cheer, shout, and even get them in the film room, but when they are in the middle of the game, they own their decisions. Many decisions that can change lives. 

If we’re preparing those who God has given us to mentor for those tough decision days, then we can trust He will guide them to success or pick them up when they fail. If we just drop them in the deep end and let them sink or swim, I’m afraid we will be the ones accountable to God for that and all the ripples that it creates.

Pete Heiniger is currently the Content Curator at Leadership Network and has served as an executive at Faithlife, a VP at Outreach, and as the Executive Pastor of Discovery Church in Colorado.

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