I was tired of second guessing myself. There has to be another way!

A personal and candid conversation with Janet Van Huysse, Chief People Officer of Cloudflare

Accomplished, driven, and on top of her game. That’s Janet Van Huysse, a veteran culture and people org builder, who has brands like Cloudflare, Twitter, and Sony Pictures under her belt. As Twitter’s first VP of HR, Janet helped grow the company from 90 employees in San Francisco with $0 revenue to over 3,000 employees in 20 countries with revenues nearing $2 billion. Reporting directly to the CEO, she led the people efforts through the IPO. Over the past 4 years as Cloudflare’s Chief People Officer she has successfully scaled the organization to over 1,600 employees worldwide and led the company through a successful IPO. She is also the co-founder of TendLab, a venture seeking to optimize the workplace for working parents because, in doing so, you make it better for everyone. And, Janet is a mother of three young girls.

Janet Van Huysse, Chief People Officer, Cloudflare

Christine: You are a successful builder and leader. In my work with clients I often hear that the external perception doesn’t reflect someone’s internal state. What is going on underneath the hood for you?

Janet: Yes, people would often look at me and say “You are always so confident. You have it all figured out. How do you do it?” Flabbergasted, I would respond that I don’t. I often assumed the worst about myself. I might have seemed calm and confident on the outside but under the surface an unnerving inner dialogue was unfolding. “You are not smart enough to be here.” or “That was a stupid thing to say.” All these phrases were going through my head, oftentimes in meetings. It felt like a broken record, playing the same phrases over and over again. Yet, when I shared this with my team or friends they couldn’t believe that I had these thoughts in my head.

Christine: If you would give this inner voice a name and picture it, what would it be?

Janet: It seems like a very mean and disappointed version of me. Like a mini Janet that is observing the situation and berating me about it. It’s almost like “Well that was super stupid. And now you’ve let the cat out of the bag. Now they know you aren’t good enough/smart enough/qualified enough…..I’ve exposed myself, and it feels quite fatal. It’s all over now!” And I’m not exaggerating. It sounded that dramatic.

Christine: What was the trigger for you to explore coaching on this topic? What were you hoping to get out of it?

Janet: Here I am at Cloudflare in the best job I have ever had, yet I was pulling myself down. I was tired of second guessing myself. I thought there had to be another way! I had the luxury in my life to take some time off in between jobs. I loved the slower pace and enjoying more time with my family. But when push comes to shove I’m at my best when I’m working, and my family functions better when I am working. It’s so meaningful for me yet my mental chatter was wrapping it all in a darker than necessary cloud. I needed to get out of my head and stop assuming the worst about myself. It is counterproductive.

I watched an interview with you on Cloudflare TV which deeply resonated with me. You were talking about the craft of management, and how coaches help you hone your craft. I remember you saying how even Pavarotti had a singing coach! So it got me inspired to do better, be better, to find a better way.

You also talked about the concept of the inner critic, and how it’s holding us back from living a more authentic and fulfilling life. I was thinking “She’s speaking to me. That’s me!” So I reached out to you. Your coaching has changed my life. This has been life altering.

Christine: Thank you, Janet. It means a lot to hear that from you. Can you share more about what has been life altering? What helped you experience such a big internal shift?

Janet: There have been many things along the way, but there are two big moments or break-throughs, so far.

Firstly, you introduced me to the concept of the inner critic and had me go through a saboteur assessment. The saboteur description so nailed me! I usually don’t like to be categorized or boxed in, and have a tendency to reject or dismiss assessments for that reason. But as I read it, I thought this really describes me. Every.Single.Word.

There was no way I could dismiss it. Every single sentence fit. It was hard to read, but it actually gave me hope. I realized if an assessment could so accurately describe this destructive behavior or mindset I was in, then there’s a chance that it can show me the way out too.

Christine: As a quick background for our audience, a saboteur assessment helps identify different ways on how someone might self-sabotage (i.e., inner critics or limiting beliefs that often work against one’s best interest). What was your primary saboteur or negative voice in your head, and what did the assessment say about it?

Janet: I was skeptical going in because I usually don’t like assessments like this. But the results came back that my main saboteur is “The Stickler” and reading its description was my first a-ha moment.

I had come to coaching, as we mentioned, because I was tired of beating myself up and feeling inadequate. I had to find a better way. I had started getting into meditation a bit because part of me believed that a big part of what was holding me back was deeply ingrained in me — and something that I would not be able to intellectualize my way out of. So when my assessment came back and the Stickler was labeled “the original survival function” it really resonated. I did think that this something was deep in me, and it was as basic or primal as survival.

To back up….I came from pretty humble beginnings. I paid for my own college, I worked up to three jobs at a time while in school (and honestly worked that much through most of high school too). I started my career in credit card debt with student loans, a used car payment, and responsible for all my expenses. There was no cushion or wiggle room. I wasn’t thinking about climbing up a ladder; I was trying to climb out of the hole. So I’ve always worked hard to make the ends meet because I had no other choice. So seeing “Survival” on there hit me, “Yes, that’s me. Trying to survive.”

Reading further: “The Stickler offers a way of quieting the constant voice of self judgment and fear of others’ judgments through trying to be perfect.” Yes — that was it, right? The constant voice. Self judgment — and fear of others’ judgment. I was constantly beating myself up because I wasn’t perfect, and I was afraid my imperfections would be the end of me/this job/my reputation. And even when I was out of the hole, and honestly quite at the top of the ladder, the voice was still there. Ironically louder than ever.

But here’s the line that was revelatory: “If you do what is right, you will be beyond interference and reproach by others.” So the first line explained my ‘what,’ but this line…it explained my ‘why.’ For the first time ever I realized that all that stickler stuff…all the planning and preparation I was doing…I literally thought it would protect me from all criticism or from disappointing others. I never realized that was what I was doing: that my goal was to be beyond reproach. I mean when I think about that, it sounds extremely foolish to me — no one is beyond reproach. Even if you are “perfect,” someone will have something critical to say. That’s life.

But subconsciously, I was planning and preparing for life where that was a possible outcome. And of course, I was constantly falling short of that goal. It was very liberating because once I understand what my true motivations were — the absurdity of them — I was able to free myself of them.

From there we dove deeper into the Inner Critic. I had described “her” to you as basically a super mean girl version of myself. She would pick apart everything I said, and never had anything nice to say to me. But I also thought that she was wiser than me and knew the real truth: that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or capable enough. That I would fail. You asked me if she was playing a purposeful role, and I literally could not think of anything positive she was contributing to my life. It was just unhappiness.

Through our work, I learned that the role the inner critic plays is to keep you safe. It wants you in your comfort zone. We had talked about how I thought my inner critic had gotten louder and more present in recent years versus earlier in my career. So this made sense, my last few jobs have really stretched me the most. I was so outside my comfort zone, the inner critic was raging trying to get me back in the safe zone. I was feeling uncomfortable because I was aiming high.

This exploration has given me a whole new narrative for that inner voice. I thought I needed to tame the mean girl or learn to ignore her. But now she is a welcome guest. When she shows up, I know I’m doing the right thing, I’m stretching myself. I’m outside my comfort zone. That’s a good thing! In fact, if she doesn’t show up I’m going to take that as a bad sign. I’m not stretching myself enough. I do not want the status quo. My new narrative is “You are doing more, good for you!” I’m excited for it to show up again.

Christine: I’m so thrilled for your revelation. Not only did you sharpen your awareness but you are fully owning and living it! What is your advice for someone who is experiencing a similar inner dialogue that might get in the way of experiencing work and life in a more fulfilling and less anxious state?

Janet: If you would have told me this two months ago I would have said you are crazy. That’s why I want to tell everyone. Spend time understanding the stories you are telling yourself — the voice(s) in your head. Externalize them. Understand their intention. Maybe you can see them as an asset versus a threat. But to be fully honest, I spent a lot of time trying to get there on my own, and it just wasn’t happening. So if you are stuck, like I was, my advice would be: to get help. Invest in yourself. The revelations that coaching have brought have been truly liberating. It feels magical.

Christine Raschke is an Executive Coach working with entrepreneurs and leaders in the corporate world. She helps them maximize their potential and solve problems with creativity, clarity, and courage. Christine has coached executives at companies like Google, LinkedIn, StitchFix, SurveyMonkey, Bain & Company, Lyft, Twitter, CloudFlare, and Clearbit. Besides work, she loves to spend time in nature, meditate, read, run marathons, surf and is raising two little human beings with her husband.