CXO Conversation Podcast

Pushing Boundaries Leads to Executive Growth

Carla Fowler, an Executive Coach and founder of THAXA, has gone through the challenge of changing a career path and embracing new opportunities. Carla speaks to the advantages and growth (both personal and professional) of pushing yourself and getting outside of your comfort zone.  Professionals achieve career accomplishments by continuing to push oneself, learning, tackling new projects and improving. That’s how Executives are formed.

Carla talks to;

  • Realizing path one is on isn’t always the right one
  • Pushing your boundaries and trying new things
  • She agrees UDub is the best university- Go Huskies!

After dedicating over 10 years of education, training, and long hours to become an MD, Carla had a long hard self-reflective journey that in the end said, ‘This isn’t what I want to do‘, and she became an executive coach. If anyone can appreciate a great career pivot and the personal journey that is required, Carla can.

Referenced prior podcast guest: Casey Woo

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Thank you Jalan Crossland for lending your award-winning banjo skills to CXO Conversations.

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Episode Transcription

Michael Mitchel: 

CXO Conversations talks with C-level executives on how they reach the C-suite, and what advice would they give to those who want to be one. Today, Executive Coach, Carla Fowler, joins us to discuss the challenge of changing a career path and embracing new opportunities. It’s a topic that has come up on other interviews, but none quite like Carla. After dedicating over 10 years of education, training long hours, sleepless nights to become an MD, Carla has had a long, hard, self-reflective journey that said, “This isn’t what I want to do,” and she became an executive coach. For Carla’s full bio, please see the show notes. 

Carla, welcome to the conversation. Please say hello, and also, explain where the title of your business came from. 

Carla Fowler: 

Michael, it’s great to be here. So THAXA, I picked because it means a task in Latin- 

So I always thought about doing ambitious things as being something you got to break it down and do it one step at a time, and so that’s why I picked THAXA. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Well, let’s do a nice, little, warm icebreaker. What’s a unique life experience? 

Carla Fowler: 

So probably the most unique thing was living out a childhood dream and that was, I had this idea, I think I wanted to be an Olympian or a world champion, and so I got to … When I was in my mid-20’s, finally, I got to play in a world championship, and it was the World Championship of Beach Ultimate Frisbee, and I traveled to Brazil, and it was really interesting to see how they ran a tournament there. We won the tournament, and it was this pinnacle of something that I had always wanted to do. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Move over Top Gun beach volleyball. Well, Carla, I’m looking forward to this conversation, and full disclosure, we’re both U-Dub alums, alums of the best university in the country. 

Carla Fowler: 

Woo! Go Dogs. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Let’s get into it. I’m just going to tee it up. We’ve had other guests who’ve gone through something somewhat similar, but not clearly as life-changing as you’ve gone through. Earlier guests last year, we had CFO, Casey Woo, who he’s one of the … It’s really hard to get into West Point, and he got in. 

It was like his first year, and he just said, “You know what? Not so much.” One, the selection process was hard, the culture is very unique, and for him to raise his hand, I just, I really admire him for that, but you kind of … 10 years, right, of education training, and I’m just curious, what was your thinking? Was it a sudden thing? 

Was it a long walk to get there? How did that change come about for you? 

Carla Fowler: 

I think it was more of a slow boil, which is to say that, I think my approach to career was not so much about like, “Oh, I’m …” From the time I was in high school, wanting to be a doctor. I think it was more I was looking for a home, and I wanted to work on things that were interesting. I wanted to work with smart people, wanted to be challenged, and I loved math and science, and it seemed like those skill sets were valued, and so I think a better way to think about just where I was heading in career was I went off to college not knowing I was going to go into medicine, and all along the way, I felt like I was meeting my goals, so when I found out there was a program where you could get an MD and a PhD, I was like, “That sounds awesome.” Like you get to learn about all of this stuff that’s interesting and really work on challenging meaningful problems, like things that could actually have an impact on the world or on people’s lives, and so as a mid-20-year-old, that actually felt kind of more import than I might have been able to find in a different career trajectory at that moment, at that early moment, and so I would say it was working for me for a very long time. 

It was really only in sort of the later years, where I had finished my PhD, I had gone back into the clinical years of med school, and then I actually finished and went on to residency, so I was in a general surgery residency at Stanford. I had picked it because I loved how the surgeons thought about things. I loved that there was a physical performance element, and there was also kind of a mental decision-making element, and surgeons really kind of own their choices. You got to see the choice, operate or don’t operate, and then you have to improve your choices over time, but what was very clear was the work environment and the level of flexibility, and I would say room to kind of make your own stamp or really approach things, kind of the way I used to think about things was no longer a great fit for the culture, for the workplace dynamics, and so it was really a slow boil as you get into things, and so it wasn’t exactly a sudden moment, but getting into the environment and starting to say, “Okay. What are people who are 20 years ahead of me on this path, what’s going on for them?” 

“Do they look happy? What is their life like? What is work like?,” so, yeah. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Would you say you are running from something or running to something? 

Carla Fowler: 

I think I’m always moving forwards, but what that means is sometimes you have more clarity about where you’re headed, and sometimes you have less clarity about where you’re headed, but for me, when I can see clearly that something isn’t working, then to me, even if there’s uncertainty about what’s next, the probability that what is now is not right is much higher than even the kind of probabilities around the uncertainty of what I will do next. So that’s how I think about it. 

Michael Mitchel: 

So what drew you specifically to executive coaching? 

Carla Fowler: 

Well, okay, so you can imagine, I’m at this pivot moment. I’m about halfway through my residency year, realizing that this, just the amount of constraints on the system of healthcare and all of this is not a great fit. I’m someone who loves performing at a high level, but also is creative and often is looking for how to improve things, and if there isn’t space to improve something, that’s frustrating to me. You can probably tell, as I’m talking about this, that I have always been an optimizer. I’ve always been a person who’s thinking about performance, and what really helps people do their best work. 

Over the course of time, whether that was in athletics, whether it was in school or professionally, I just always was looking around, asking the question, “Why is that person good at that? What is it that really allows them to level up or be better than everyone else who they’re working with or competing with?,” and so I have always been on the lookout from my mentors, from my teachers, with my peers for, “What are these things?” You could argue it’s like, “What is the science behind performance?” And so I think that’s something that’s been with me probably since early childhood. When I was thinking about, “All right, surgery’s not the thing.” 

“How do I take everything I’ve learned?,” ’cause I’ve spent 10 years in training. “What do you do with that?,” and also, “What do you want to do?” So it’s sort of like, “What can you do?,” and also, “What do you want to do?” And so really, looking back, I started to say, “What have you always been fascinated by?,” and I was like, “Well, human performance. Absolutely.” 

I think the other thing I really liked in my medical training and my science training was how to think about a hard, unstructured problem, like how to deal with the uncertainty, which when you’re trying to do science, is that’s the game. You walk in every day, you don’t know the answer, you got to figure it out, but- 

Michael Mitchel: 

A little bit of detective work there. 

Carla Fowler: 

Exactly. But also, in medicine, one of the big things that you do as a doctor is you talk with people about high-stakes problems that are deeply important to them and you help them make educated decisions about what to do next, and sometimes you have to motivate behavior change and learn to kind of interview people and understand what matters to them, and help them make good choices going forwards. In addition to that, we got some training in psychology, and so for me, as I started to think about what I really wanted to work on, I loved the human element of medicine, and I realized that I wanted to have a practice, I just didn’t want to have a medical practice, and so ultimately, what I turned that into was to take both all my experience and thinking about high-performance and being in high-performing environments, and then started to learn and really focus there with the goal of opening a practice that was more behavioral, and that was in the coaching field, to help leaders level up their game using performance science. 

Michael Mitchel: 

What do you feel … You’ve kind of hit on it. I want to drill down on that a little bit more. What do you feel are some of the transferable skills from your science background into coaching? I mean, you started to go there, but I want to get deep on this. 

Carla Fowler: 

I mean, I think one of the most important things is when you go into business, so if you were an entrepreneur or you’re going into business, and for me, I had some sense that I wanted to have a coaching practice that I really built the method for, because I felt that the field of coaching could use some added rigor, and also that I had a lot of thoughts about what would be useful that aren’t things that necessarily you’re trained in when someone goes to a conventional sort of coaching training program, and so one of the biggest skills that I started to use was, instead of doing a science project, I had to start building hypotheses about, “Okay. How do you build a methodology to work with people to, more or less, help them take action on and use, what I think are the most important elements of performance science?” So really, that skill I was using every day in the lab to do biological science of ask the right questions, understand what are the most important questions to ask, and then also kind of plot a course and test it, and then decide if it’s working or not, that was very similar to the kind of thinking I had to do when I was a lab scientist, and not just like, “Oh, here are things we could do,” but, “What would really be most impactful in the field you’re trying to go into?” I think that was one of the big transferrable skills. 

Michael Mitchel: 

I would imagine that you can have more meaningful discussions with executives who are considering transitions. 

Carla Fowler: 

Yes and no, but certainly, I think people, it is helpful when you can have some empathy, like literally, personal kind of empathy for what someone is going through, and certainly … But what I’ll bring up is that even people who are not going through a transition but are in a leadership role and are staying in that leadership role, the interesting thing is that they actually are going through transitions also. Actually, what I should have said, this is totally a yes and, Michael, because some people, we often see the pivot as this big, glaring thing, so it’s obvious what’s happening, but the thing that is happening for people like name a CXO, but they’ve been in a leadership position, they got there because they’re highly competent, and yet, the landscape around us is changing, and what are the skillsets that are needed? The technology is changing, and so one of the things that, whether someone is going through a big transition or not, is that I’m often looking at, “How do you help people do something new?” As an example, I have worked with some executives who are realizing that part of what is needed from their company is they need to get into a new area, and they need to provide leadership in an area that has not been their area of expertise, for example. 

It is really difficult to be a beginner again when we’ve reached a point in our career where we feel like we are a leader because we are highly competent and we are an expert, and that’s what we’re basing our leadership on, and so it’s equally important just for those folks who are listening, whether you’re going through a transition, or whether you’re staying in your role and working towards new goals to be able to walk into something uncertain and new. 

Michael Mitchel: 

What advice would you offer to a professional who’s considering a career pivot? 

Carla Fowler: 

We talked about one of the things, which is, I think it’s helpful to take stock of what your transferable skills are. You can do this before or after you answer the question, “Why do I want to do a pivot?” You asked like, “Are you running away from something? Are you running towards something?,” but regardless, it’s usually good to ask yourself, “What do I want that’s different?,” and get some clarity on that, but in terms of identifying transferrable skills, one of the exercises that I think is really helpful, and I do this with clients all the time, is to ask yourself … Like make a list of both what you think are some of the biggest or most challenging accomplishments that you’ve done kind of in your current position, and those tend to be maybe not as frequent, but take those biggest accomplishments. Then, I also have people make a list of, “What is the day-to-day of your job?” 

Like so, for a doctor, there are any number of things that are day-to-day, including like a baseline level of organization, very, very important. There’s decision-making, there’s running a team through rounds effectively, blah, blah, blah, all these things. What’s your day-to-day? Here, we’ve got your peak experiences. We’ve also got your day-to-day. 

Then, I tell people to think about how you would actually express that in industry agnostic language, so a doctor might say, “Well, I run rounds every day,” and how I might translate that, so rounds are basically where all your residents show up, they’ve pre-met with all the patients and kind of done some updates and looked at the labs, and they’ve sort of figured out everyone’s status, and then you run around to the hospital and meet each patient, do a quick exam, and make a plan for them. The way you might express this in common language is that you ran sort of a day-to-day team with status updates and in real time decision-making and plan adjustment for the aims of discharge. The point is you can often really get to just what is more transferable and understandable when you take both your basic competencies of day-to-day, and then your peak accomplishments to actually express that in more universal, kind of transferable language. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Well, one thing that came up in our earlier conversations was my takeaway was that your observation of folks that may have a fear of trying new things or the fear of failure. What do you feel holds people back from trying new things? 

Carla Fowler: 

Well, I think you said it, that we hate to fail. Socially, it feels embarrassing. We often have a lot of judgments of ourselves about whether or not we should be able to do anything or get something done, and in some ways, I think it almost gets harder as we go along in our career, because when we’re earlier in our career, we’re all drinking from the fire hose and we’re not good at things, and our peers are not as good at things either. There’s almost a more acceptable culture around it earlier in career, but when you start to get up to higher-level positions, sometimes we feel like, “Now, I’m done with that phase, so I need to now really have this dialed in.” And so there’s a couple things that I talk to people about to help them approach something new. 

The principle or the perspective that I use is this idea of relishing uncertainty. What I mean by that is to say that most of the great stuff that we’ve already accomplished in our lives, that were pinnacle experiences, came because there was some element of uncertainty that we overcame, that we work towards. We don’t feel as good about the stuff that is in the bag. Like I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment when I cook breakfast for myself in the morning. I’ve got that locked down. 

I know I can do it, and it is not as meaningful, but when there is that uncertainty, we both have to work harder for it and we feel better about it, and so when I talk about relishing uncertainty, it’s helping people cultivate a mindset that where there is uncertainty, there is opportunity for us, and there’s often novelty and also the ability to actually really evolve as people, and so that’s the perspective. Then, there’s three parts of it, ’cause people say, “Okay, that’s great, Carla, but process wise. How do I that?” So there’s three parts. The first part is, I call it sort of having an abundance mindset, but there’s three phrases that are helpful to define that, and I think the first is to say, “There’s more than one good place to get to, there is more than one good way to get somewhere, and also to trust your future self.” You may see a lot of unsolved problems that are coming down the track that are a piece of that uncertainty, and you’ll be able to solve some of them today, but some of them, you’re not going to know until they show themselves, and we need to trust that our future selves will be able to find the resources, do the learning, and do the adjusting and the practicing to manage that when it occurs, so I find that that is helpful. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Do you have a sense of, your theory on where the fear of failure stems from, the risks, the unknowns? I mean, what advice would you give to someone to say, “Look …” I just want to say walk it off. That’s probably not the right answer. 

Carla Fowler: 

Well, walk it off. Sometimes you do just need to reset, give yourself a fresh slate, not focus too much on what happened previously. One piece of advice I have is it’s a good idea early on to determine or define what success looks like at each point in the game. So I’ll give an example. I think you can break down doing a new skill or doing something into get started. 

The second phase is really keep going, that if you imagine that learning something new always requires a number of reps that’s sort of compound on each other and build that mental groove, that makes it just more ingrained in your brain or your muscle memory, so if you assume that you’re going to need to keep going to get that compounding. Then, the third phase is where you actually start to really iterate and intentionally improve. I like to break it down into three distinct phases because then, you can actually define what success looks like for each of the phases, and I’ll just say proper accounting. Judge yourself appropriately for the phase you’re at. So one of the reasons people have a fear of failure is because, and it stops them from even starting, is because they’re already judging themselves for not being an expert on day one, and that’s not fun. 

We avoid stuff that we make ourselves feel bad about, but I think if you can divide it into saying, “What does success look like for getting started?,” well, then, you could actually say like, “I’ve made a list of the resources I want to read, or the people I want to talk to, and the plan for the first gig,” just using your media example. You could say, “I want to have done those things and complete the first gig on …” That is success at getting started. When you say, “Okay, how do I keep myself going?,” I often find what success looks like is, “Can you create a structure that keeps you learning?,” like even if you have a bad day, you have to get back up again tomorrow and talk to whatever the local gazette, because you’ve actually put those things in place. It’s a little like if you want to get fit, prepay for three months of trainer three times a week, and you’ve set a structure for yourself to make sure you show up and do the work, complete the workouts. 

That’s kind of that second stage, and what I find is once you’ve done the second stage for a few months, it feels normal. You might not feel like an expert, but you’re no longer hyperventilating before you get up to the microphone. You’re like, “I’m used to doing this.” Then, you can move on to the third phase, which is to start to say, “How can I actually make this better and be really intentional, now that I’m not having to think about just the basics anymore?” 

Michael Mitchel: 

This reminds me of a little bit of cognitive behavioral therapy. I mean, am I in the right wheelhouse here? 

Carla Fowler: 

Cognitive behavioral therapy and also dialectical behavioral therapy are both very interesting to me, but tell me more what you’re thinking about. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Well, so I’ve been doing research on this recently. I think I know where the term, witching hour comes from, ’cause I was sick a couple weeks ago, and I had a bad … For the first time, insomnia, and it popped up at 3:00 AM. I have a Garmin, so I was tracking my sleep, and I realized I kept snapping out of sleep during REM, and the more I read research, that’s the common time, is ’cause that’s when your brain’s the most active. Not that I’m telling the doctor anything about brain, and so then, some of the ways of addressing insomnia is CBT, and so I’m starting to learn more into that, but then it led to a whole bunch of reading around, I think … 

I can’t remember what the stats was, but I think as humans, we tend to focus on negative memories and experiences, and when you’re trying to lay there at 3:30 in the morning, trying to get back to sleep, your brain’s stuck in the cycle, and then you trying to say, “Okay,” think about a positive. “Oh, Mike, it’s not. I’m awake at 3:30. I have to get up in four hours,” or whatever that time, three and a half hours. No. It’s, “Hey, I get another three and a half hours of sleep.” You’re trying to reprogram the way you think about yourself. 

Carla Fowler: 

Yeah. 

Michael Mitchel: 

At least that’s been my experience so far. I mean, maybe I’m one of those guys where a little knowledge is more dangerous than- 

Carla Fowler: 

Well, no. I don’t think so. I think learning about things is always a good idea. Well, and the way that I think about it is sometimes we can change a perspective, and then we can just go do the thing. It’s a little bit like all the research on mindsets. 

The reason mindsets are a very powerful kind of intervention is they seem to have staying power, so when we sort of flip power thinking about something in the mindset, we take suddenly, a bunch of more possibilities open up to us sort of behaviorally, and it has some lasting staying power, so one way to change behavior is when we can change our mindset, how we show up is often really different. That’s one direction, but the other direction is sometimes we can say, “I’m just going to change my behavior. I’m going to focus on the behavior, and I’m just going to do it,” and over time, doing things differently changes our perspective, and so when I’m working with clients, I like to approach it from both avenues, and for some people, when they can get their perspective right, then they can go do the thing. For other people, it’s, “Let’s just get you doing the thing,” and we’ll do whatever we need to, to kind of make that possible, we’ll think ahead about the roadblocks, things you’re worried about, but we’re just going to give you that exposure therapy of like, “Go do it. Okay, now, go do it again.” 

“All right, let’s do it again.” Suddenly, over time, how they think and feel about it shifts because they’ve actually had that experience, and so I think it’s a really important thing about the two-way connection between how we feel and what our behaviors are, and that you can use that going either direction. You just have to figure out sort of what’s going to be most effective for someone. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Hey, you know, when we talk about trying new things, I started this podcast in 2019, and the premise was I really enjoy interviewing people. I’m lucky. I have the best job ever, as far as I’m concerned, and I get to meet people and learn about them. The podcast started out, I talked to a friend of mine who has a podcast. He’s like, “You’re not going to really hit your stride until episode 40,” and I thought that was really good insight and advice. 

I think in some ways, I hit my stride before, and in some other areas, later than that 40 episode mark, but I’m really glad I tried it and I’m doing it, ’cause it’s given me an opportunity to really meet interesting people, learn a lot. I’ve quickly, seen trends in the guests in different areas. Whenever someone tells me, “Oh, I’m thinking about starting a podcast,” and I’m like, “Well, why?” Like going back to what you said earlier, right? “Why?” 

Then, the second question is, “Who’s your audience?” Right? If it’s just about you, well, good luck with that, and so I think that when I meet with folks and executives, the common theme I’ve quickly identified at the C-suite is they raise their hand. They tried something new, and if you fail, that’s great. It’s a learning opportunity. 

So I think that really kind of mirrors what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced. I mean, I could be just swing and a misses here. 

Carla Fowler: 

No. I agree, and part of that is because, again, to reach the C-suite, we need to not kind of stagnate or plateau, kind of on our way there. And so one of the things that I love to talk to people about, and this is true if you’re transitioning, but it’s also true as a way to say, “Well, I’m not transitioning. I want to keep on this same path, but I just want to elevate myself. I want to get to that C-suite,” and so the advice that I often give is to think about your time and your career as like a pyramid, and so really, the foundational bottom part of that is stuff you can do in your sleep, and the amount of stuff you can do in your sleep increases as you get more experienced. At most, maybe that’s 30%. 

The middle portion is the part that you’re pretty competent at, but still takes some effort. It’s like you’re striving. You have to work for it, but it’s not uncertain. You know how you have to work at it to produce the results you want, but I always recommend that people keep that top piece of the pyramid. It’s usually not more than 30%, but it’s the growth part. 

It’s the piece where you’re pushing your edge of knowledge. You are really in a little bit of discomfort because it is new. Maybe you’re a beginner, and that is, you have to keep that part. Never eliminate that piece of the triangle because that’s part of what helps you keep going and really be exposed to this stuff and not feel off-kilter when things change around you, and your ability to adapt to that. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Normally, I would ask, from your perspective, “What are common themes and successful executives?,” but I’m going to ask something different. How do they define success? 

Carla Fowler: 

I think that they define success as whether or not they are creating an environment where they’re people, and the system of those people can produce great results, and can do so over time, so with some sustainability. That is, in some ways … Like they will be measured on whatever the profits or the business metrics, typically, but I think the best executives understand that the only way they can continue to produce that over time is based on the environment they create, so what they’re actually doing is influencing the environment that their people are working in. That’s their touchpoint. They’re not intervening and doing the jobs for them. 

They need to think about, “Who are the people in the ecosystem?,” and make good choices for that, and then create environments where they can succeed. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Okay. That’s really good insight. Excellent. Well, I’m going to kind of start to transition to wind it down, and as people who have listened to the show knows there’s one question I ask. My last question is consistent. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had, and what takeaway from that experience do you still use today in a positive way? 

Carla Fowler: 

It’s funny, I’ve thought about a lot of different things for this and there’s different ways to approach it, but it probably was a high school job I had. It was right before college, and I drove around with truck drivers. We were distributing frozen foods, and they would hire extra help in the summer because people eat a lot more popsicles, and so I would get up at 4:00 AM, I had to be there by 5:00 AM, and we drove around, and my hands were very cold all day, ’cause you’re basically stocking stuff in the freezers, and the truck driver I was driving with was so grumpy, grumpy all the time. There was one day where I got to work with someone else, and she was like, “Sunshine,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s really different,” but in some ways, I also think I knew sort of what I was in for and was getting paid better than I could get paid at a grocery store, and so in some ways, I did accept that, but I will tell you, I was so sleep-deprived. And I definitely was like, “Yeah, I think I want to do something a little bit different than this.” 

Michael Mitchel: 

So I want to become a resident in surgery. 

Carla Fowler: 

Yeah, I know. I see the irony in that, Michael. 

Michael Mitchel: 

Well, Carla, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much for your time. You’ve been very generous, and thanks for being on CXO Conversations. 

Carla Fowler: 

Thanks for having me, Michael. 

Michael Mitchel: 

So, everyone, thanks for listening. If you hopefully enjoyed the show, give us five stars on iTunes so others can find it and enjoy it as well. If you want to get ahold of me, you can find me on LinkedIn. It’s Michael Mitchel with one L out of Denver, and the one L. That’s the test, and I want to also thank Jalan Crossland for allowing me to use your amazing music on the show. Jalan, you’re the best banjo player I’ve ever heard or seen. 

Thanks, everybody. See you next time. 

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