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Leading through uncertain times


The announcement last week that Microsoft would be laying off 18,000 employees washed over me. Emotions emerged of a time several years ago when I was working in a company that had made several major mergers over the course of a decade while trying to survive in a marketplace that was relentless.

The final blow culminated in massive layoffs. Many employees who would lose their jobs had spent a lifetime working for “the only employer in a small town” known for good pay, benefits, and treating employees with respect and dignity.

While many employees certainly experienced the empathy and support from their managers needed to stay well-balanced throughout those uncertain times, some also experienced its opposite. Many managers were vying to be “named” into a new position or just trying to hang on – sometimes resulting in less-than-stellar behavior.

During these uncertain times, I noticed that the best leaders were able to instill a sense of calm in their teams despite the ambiguity and threats to their own sense of stability. Here is what I observed the best of the best doing:

Respecting: The best leaders understood that each employee dealt with uncertainty in their own way. They respected them as human beings, through the anger, tears, and outbursts. These leaders didn’t judge harshly, but would calmly address the behaviors that were disruptive as needed. They made it clear that they expected employees to respect others while personally modelling what that means.

Listening: Listening is a fine way to show empathy and a sense of understanding others. The best leaders did a lot of listening during those uncertain times. Instead of speculating and prognosticating their opinions about what the future holds, they allowed others to feel heard.

Providing perspective: Sometimes people get so wrapped up in uncertainty that they can’t be rational. The best leaders helped others through the uncertainty by providing perspective as well as being transparent in their communication. They were also able to put their own situation into perspective as a way of staying calm and rational.

Taking care of themselves: While they were helping others to move through this transition, these wonderful leaders knew it was important to make sure they took care of their own needs too. They knew they needed to show up at their best by doing regular self-checks on their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health – and taking action in any of these areas that needed it.

Carrying on: Their ability to carry on with work and continue to set expectations for their organizations provided a sense of normalcy and stability. They set an example with their unruffled demeanor for others. In this way, they displayed strength in the face of uncertainty.

Your behavior in uncertain times will define your leadership; more so than when things are running smoothly. Be intentional about how you want to show up in order to model the behaviors you expect of others.


Don’t make them cry


If you’ve been in the corporate or business arena for any period of time, chances are that someone has done something to you that was unthinking or insensitive, making you feel like you didn’t matter. This can be particularly upsetting if that someone is your boss. I shed a lot of (silent) tears because of some of the insensitive ways I was treated by some managers:


  • The first day I returned from maternity leave, I walked into my office and found someone else sitting at my desk. My manager had forgotten to let me know that an office had opened up across town where my client base was, and my stuff was packed into boxes and shipped to that spot in my absence.


  • Another manager reorganized his responsibilities while I was on Christmas break. While at a Christmas party, I learned from a friend that I would be reporting to someone new when I got back to work. Similar to the situation above, the manager “forgot” to let me know that I would be coming back to a big change.


  • A new boss made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t interested in the work I was responsible for. When we had meetings it was obvious he wasn’t listening by picking up the phone (and often talking at length to caller while I sat waiting for our meeting to resume) or interrupting our meetings for someone else who came to the office.


I’m sure you get the idea; there are other examples, but I’ll spare you. These incidents were all wake-up calls that it was time to move on, and I did just that. In each case, a sincere and heartfelt apology would have made me feel better but all I heard were excuses.


I never felt that these managers were horrible people; they were just insensitive. They were unaware of the impact of their actions on myself and others.


Stop. Think. You are a leader, and leaders make others feel like they matter by:


Communicating more than you think you need to: You may not communicate things that seem insignificant to you but they might be important to others. Even if those you lead matter to you, your actions can make them believe otherwise. Err on the side of over-communicating to the people who are impacted by your actions.


Listening: Do you remember a time that you felt you weren’t listened to? If so, you know how important it is. Turn and face the person you are listening to, look them in the eyes, and get rid of distractions. Listening to them is one of the most important things you can do.


Appreciating: Make sure that you consistently tell those you lead that you appreciate the work they are doing and you appreciate them too. The next time you do something insensitive, your gratefulness will help to smooth things over.


Pay attention to actions and decisions you make that might matter to others. When you make people feel like they are important by communicating, listening and appreciating them, they become invested in your leadership and your organization. That’s what leaders do.


How to be a leader without faking it


What makes it important to understand and stay connected with the core of who you are as a human being? How do you become an authentic leader? How do you know when your actions are less than genuine?

These are some intriguing and deep questions that you may not have thought about. I have – for the simple reason that I believe the answers are important for leaders to be able to sustain the energy and dedication that are necessary for them to continue to inspire themselves and the people they lead.

Inspiring others is part of what you must do, because it keeps people engaged and interested in the work at hand. You can’t fake it. You have to feel it. Recent studies in human interaction and brain science have shown us that emotions are contagious, and this goes both ways; any dissonance you have gets picked up by others no matter how hard you might “try” to be genuine.

This is why it makes sense to know yourself well, and it may be some of the hardest work you do. Learning about who you are is also a good way to develop self-confidence, stay resilient in difficult times and to develop the kind of relationships with those around you that will support the health of your organization.

Self-knowledge is a journey, not a destination. Too often I see executives in the C-suite avoiding the kind of development that will help them remain true to themselves and continue to show up as honest and genuine to their stakeholders. That’s where trouble begins. So no matter whether you are the CEO or the project leader for a small initiative, it pays to:

Learn about yourself: Much of your self-knowledge will come from observing your behaviors and reflecting on them. Since we learn by accumulating a variety of experiences this learning takes time. Being present enough in your interactions and decisions to observe yourself is a great start. Taking well-vetted self-assessments (Myers-Briggs, DiSC) to learn about your strengths and foibles are helpful if you notice and observe how your results on these assessments play out in your behaviors.

Know what you value: It’s important for you to have a short list of your top values to refer to when making decisions, interacting, and influencing others. A list of your top 3-5 values are like the foundation to a building. If they aren’t there, the building won’t stand. Likewise, if you don’t know what you value, your actions may not be consistent and anchored, causing others confusion and doubting your motives. Trust can erode, undermining your leadership. Make your values explicit and keep them accessible.

Be aware of others’ perceptions about you: One of the most honest ways to understand how others perceive you is through 360 instruments where those who respond to the questionnaire remain anonymous. If your organization doesn’t have one they use, find an external consultant or coach who does. Alternatively, asking for feedback directly from your stakeholders is another way to get this information, although it may be less than honest. This can give you information about what others observe in your behaviors which sometimes may not sync up with your own perceptions.

Reflect: For many action-oriented leaders, taking time to reflect is the hardest part of getting to know themselves, but think of it as the beginning of becoming a better leader (an action in itself!). A few minutes each day to reflect back on whether you showed up in harmony with who you and what you value will serve your intentions to be authentic. Ask yourself: What did I do today that was a genuine outward expression of who I am? Did I make decisions and act with my values in mind? Where did I stray?

It’s important to know who you in order to lead others with inspiration. Where will you begin to learn more about you?

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.



Are we there yet? Managing your impatience


Do you remember those childhood family trips to a vacation spot, a parade, or Grandma’s house? A sense of excitement seemed to slow time down and we continually asked our parents, “Are we there yet?” from the back seat of the car. Those parents who were patient knew how to deal with that question by playing a game (“how many out of state license plates can you count?”) or otherwise focusing the attention of impatient children elsewhere.

As an adult leader, you may have been promoted to a position of authority because you were able to get things done quickly. Your pace and impatience to achieve results may have served you well; there may still be times when a sense of urgency is called for.

However, when your impatience manifests itself in your own inappropriate behavior, it can work against you. Interrupting others, lack of full attention, sighing, being dismissive, or even walking away when someone is in mid-sentence may actually result in others avoiding you, gossiping behind your back, or not being completely honest to you because they think you don’t care. Ultimately your impatience can be damaging to your leadership and to the mission of your organization.

If you’re receiving feedback that you: lack empathy, take over a conversation, have all the answers, or that people just can’t seem to keep up with you, consider what leadership means. Are others willingly following you?

Some strategies that might help you to show more patience:

Notice triggers: The things that trigger impatience aren’t always about getting things done. You may want to be acknowledged (thus interrupting or speaking out of turn) or you may not care about socializing and small talk. It helps to know what sparks your impatience so you can manage it. You might also want to notice where the sensation of impatience begins in your body and what behaviors you manifest when you feel it.

Breathe deeply: Deep breaths can be wonderfully relaxing and can serve to slow you down when you feel that sensation of impatience. Different from a sigh, a deep, quiet, full breath that goes all the way into your belly may allow the exasperation you feel to reach the logical part of your brain where you can make a decision about more appropriate behavior.

Focus on the present: Return your focus to what’s in front of you. Listen, observe, and enjoy it. If that impatience trigger goes off in you again, you can go back to taking some deep breaths. Know that by focusing and listening, you are forming relationships and showing empathy in a way that you haven’t before; these things will help you to lead at your best.

Match others’ pace: As you pay attention, you’ll likely notice that not everyone has the same pace as you do. Some are faster, but the ones who likely frustrate you are those who are slower. When in conversation, try to match their pace. You’ll find that when you match the other’s pace, the relationship will deepen and flourish.

Don’t let your outward manifestations of impatience spoil your otherwise good leadership. Learn to notice and manage the sensations you feel to lead at your best.




What’s behind the passion of great leaders?


I’m a big fan of really great leaders. There are more of them out there than you might believe because the press seems to want to capitalize on the worst of them. Perhaps I’m biased by the work I do, but consider that I’ve been in the business world, a leader myself, and an observer and student of other leaders for a very long time (I’ll keep my secret about how long!). I’ve been around the bend and I’ve seen a lot of very good leaders.

Those great leaders love to lead even if they can still get tired, frustrated, and angry at how hard it can be. Yet even in the face of professional and personal adversity they will pick themselves up, reinvigorated and ready to make a difference in the lives of the people and organizations they lead.

I’ve noticed that it’s what’s behind the passion for their work that keeps them going:

The people: People are at the top of the great leader’s list of reasons being passionate for what they do because they know they can’t lead alone. Exceptional leaders love people even with all of their messiness, confusion, and difficulty because they get joy from guiding them to perform at levels that they didn’t know were possible. These leaders forge strong bonds with the people they lead, helping them to reach or exceed their potential through mentoring, coaching, and being a great example.

The learning: The best leaders have a curious attitude and a beginner’s mind. Their world is changing quickly and they can swiftly adapt to every new situation that comes along. They never seem to tire of asking the questions needed to understand what’s happening and to figure out solutions with their teams that work. They learn from their mistakes, live full lives inside and outside of work, and they reflect regularly on the impact they make and how they can get even better at it.

The challenges: The great leaders not only love the challenge of leading their organizations and getting people to work together, they also meet the challenge of saying “no” to doing things that aren’t mission critical. They continually prioritize work opportunities with their vision in mind. They are willing to trust others to get the work done without their interference even when it’s tempting to do it themselves because they understand the double win of helping others to grow through challenging work while lifting themselves up to higher ground to lead at their best.

The best leaders are grounded in a passion for what they do and the people who help them to do it; they love to learn and they enjoy the challenges of leading.

Have you reflected about what makes you passionate in your leadership? What gets you out of bed in the morning?



5 Ways to Notice Hidden Leadership Talent


I once worked with a leader who completely turned around his perspective of one of his employees. This employee was skilled but was critical of the leader. When the leader had to find someone to fill in while he left the organization for several months, he saw something in this challenging individual that told him that this was the one to take care of things while he was absent. It wasn’t just a leap of faith on the leader’s part; he saw something in this person that others may not. The employee led the organization well while the leader was gone, and he also gained newfound respect for the work the leader had to do every day.

If you are responsible for leading others you must also ensure that you have a successor ready to fill your position when you leave it for whatever reason. In many organizations, you won’t get promoted without preparing someone to take your place. Even if developing your direct reports isn’t in your job description, its common sense to make sure someone is ready to step up in your absence.

If you think that you don’t have anyone in your organization that might be capable of filling your shoes, think again. It may be that you aren’t observing those who work for you closely enough.

Look beyond the surface: It might be that the immature employee you’ve rejected has dormant leadership capabilities. The employee who personally annoys the heck out of you yet is skilled in their job may have potential that is hidden. Look harder at those who work for you and scrutinize them beyond their weaknesses. You just might be surprised to find that those you’ve rejected have more to offer than you thought.

Still unsure that you have a potential successor in your midst? Watch for the following qualities:

Open to learning: Look for those who are open and willing to learn new skills and behaviors. They may enthusiastically volunteer for new assignments and work hard at becoming better at their current job. Perhaps they’re perpetual learners with a “can do” attitude. They may readily request to take training classes or willingly jump into new or different work than they’re used to.

Courage: The best leadership-capable employees aren’t afraid to step up to a challenge. To their credit (and sometimes your concern), they will try anything, even at great risk to their reputation. They may need to be guided to pull back sometimes, but they learn the appropriate contextual boundaries over time.

Self-Disciplined: Those who have hidden leadership capabilities take decisive action and move forward. They will don’t allow criticism of their mission to keep them from doing what is right. They have some ability to control their feelings and not let what others think become a barrier. You might also notice that they have persistence outside of work to do things that others won’t do: run a marathon, learn a new language, or begin to play an instrument.

Relational: Even introverts and “individual contributors” can show a desire to seek out, create and maintain relationships. Watch for those who naturally reach out to help others with their work or who seek to collaborate on projects. Any roughness or immaturity in communication or relationships can be overcome with diligence and dedication by those who also have the traits mentioned above.

Once you’ve identified these qualities in your successor(s), you can continue to test their leadership potential by delegating some of your work to them while mentoring and guiding them to become ready to take your place. Meet with them regularly to discuss their challenges and successes. Encourage them to become stronger in the traits they’re already good at and to overcome any traits that may inhibit them. If you’ve chosen and mentored them well, you can gain satisfaction as you watch them go above and beyond what you thought they were capable of.

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.


What your humanity looks like to others


Sara picked up a used set of golf clubs determined to play golf with her friends; so she just started playing. Although she enjoyed it, a year or so into golfing she recognized that she needed to some instruction on the finer points of her swing so she hired a golf pro to assist.

David had been a successful CEO for several years. He was beginning to feel stale in his ability to lead. He also noticed that he had returned to some behaviors that he had worked hard to eliminate. He’d relaxed his vigilance about how he showed up as a leader, which resulted in a resurgence of those earlier less-than flattering behaviors. He knew he needed some guidance.

Both situations are about the finer points of a craft. In both cases, there was something to be learned or re-learned. Sara stepped easily into learning to swing a golf club correctly.

Yet David was concerned about what others might think if he “went back to school”. How would it look to his executives and the employees in his organization when he admitted his fallibility and sought out the help he needed to improve his game through training, joining a peer group, or hiring a coach?

This is what it would look like:

He would demonstrate that he’s human: To be human is to be imperfect, and it’s likely that others would see his willingness to admit his shortcomings and do something to change them as admirable. The employees in his company already know he isn’t perfect, and they will know that he’s earnest in wanting to be a better leader for them. By stepping into a learning experience, he will show his humanity and that is something that others can relate to.

He would show that he’s aware that he has room to grow: Even the greatest leaders know that there is always room for self-improvement. They know there’s a gap between what they are doing today and what they need to do to assure that they lead a great tomorrow in their organizations. They seek out the resources needed to lead them through that gap. Asking for help shows humility and demonstrates a willingness to change for the better.

He would be setting a great example: It goes without saying that organizational leaders are being closely watched. So why wouldn’t David want to set a great example of what it means to be human (with all of his weaknesses) and to change (for the better)? His example may just be the kind of push other leaders in his organization need to look at themselves and decide to change themselves too.

Welcome to the human race. There is always more to learn or re-learn. Nobody is perfect, so figure out what you need to do to improve your leadership and then do it without concern about what others think. Chances are they’ll follow your lead!


Want to be inspirational? Be inspired by others.


“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”—Jack Kerouac, On the Road


If you want to be inspirational, seek out other leaders who inspire you. Surround yourself with them. Spend time with them. Listen to them and ask questions about what they do and why they do it. People who inspire us lift us up, creating openings for our hearts to swell and our brains to find the creative juice to become inspiring. I find that those who are “desirous of everything at the same time” as well as those who thoughtfully reflect and continually improve their leadership are inspirational for me. A few examples of everyday leaders I know come to mind:

My friend Loretta Cipkus Dubray is inspiration; not only is she a creative soul who is desirous of everything at the same time, but she also acts on her dreams. Loretta owns a successful small business that does work globally. It would be easy for her to be complacent and get so focused on her work that she’d close the door to new ideas. But she doesn’t do that. I’ve watched her business transform several times over the last few years, not just for the sake of change, but for the sake of business. Some might say she’d try anything, but I would say that she chooses her creative ventures carefully, and they’ve served her business well. She’s remained enthusiastic, open, curious, and positive.

My colleague and friend Ron Kitchens inspires me because he reads more than anyone I know and has convictions and beliefs that run deep; he knows what he’s here for. He’s started a local leadership program that is part of the economic development organization he manages that gets rave reviews. This may be an odd marriage to some, but Ron is grounded in how it can help to grow leaders – and jobs (which is what economic developers do). Ron is thoughtful and deliberate in the big things he does and cares about the people in his organization (which are also big things), resulting in his organization becoming a great place to work and getting recognized for that. He always seems to be able to stay fresh in his work and in his life.

My client Roger (first name changed, last name kept confidential)inspires me as he quietly observes himself and others for signs of what is and isn’t working in his leadership. He is likely one of the most reflective leaders I’ve known and it serves him well. As an introvert working in an executive position in an extraverted Fortune 100, he is in the midst of chaos yet he manages to break through the activity to assure that he is doing right by and for the people he leads. He loves leading others (not something I hear often and with such conviction). He thinks deeply about the impact he is making. All the while he’s remained humble and unassuming. He is truly one of the great quiet leaders I’ve known.

All are leaders, in different ways. All are inspirational. Who inspires you?


5 ways leaders can be more approachable


When I interview the stakeholders on the strengths and gaps of the leaders I work with, it’s not unusual for me to hear that the peers and direct reports may see that leader as “aloof” or unapproachable. The fact that they may be in a senior management position can compound the issue, as there is always that hierarchical block that may keep employees away.

Some reasons why a leader may appear to be unapproachable:

Discomfort: It’s not unusual for leaders to be uncomfortable and even awkward around others. They may naturally be an introvert or they may just not have learned the social skills needed to interact in a way that pulls others toward them.

Driven: Many good leaders are so naturally focused on the work of getting things done (which is often why they have been promoted to management positions) that they haven’t recognized approachability as a significant leverage point for great leadership.

Self-contained: Some very good leaders are just plain hard to get to know. They don’t talk about themselves or reveal their vulnerabilities, making them appear less than human while unknowingly giving off an air of detachment.

Unapproachability can be a blind spot for some very good leaders. In other words, they are surprised (and dismayed) to hear that others see them as unsociable, standoffish, or distant. It’s rarely intentional on their part even if the office gossip might make one believe their behavior is “on purpose”. Without a change in an unapproachable leader’s behavior, this can become a significant career staller or stopper.

Employees need to be able to interact with the leader in order for the work to get done. In the end, work IS a relationship that requires collaboration. Without healthy relationships in the workplace, all kinds of dysfunction can occur.

If you are one of those leaders who has had feedback indicating that others see you as aloof, distant, or unapproachable, it’s important for you to use some interpersonal skills that might make you uncomfortable, up to and including conversations that might make you uncomfortable.

Consider starting the following:

Initiate conversations: Get out of your comfort zone and begin some conversations. It is essential for you to approach others first in order to begin to be seen as approachable. Remember to be sincere, smile, make eye contact, be relaxed, and start with a question. Something mildly personal is not a bad way to start – “How was your weekend?” or “What hobbies do you enjoy?”.

Listen: You might think everyone would know that when they ask a question, they need to listen to the answer. Not always, particularly when a leader is in a position of authority or nervous. They may talk over someone and respond by giving their opinion, judgment or personal experience. When you listen, do so by turning off the chatter in your brain (as well as your mouth). Try to find: a.) a follow on question about their interests, or b.) common ground to further the conversation.

Reveal some things about yourself: It’s perfectly okay to reveal your own interests outside of work, or what you did on your vacation. But be brief, don’t dominate the conversation, and remember to keep listening to out more about the person you’re speaking to so you develop the relationship in a way that they will approach you in the future.

Remember: Try to remember some things about the other person that you can start a conversation with next time. They’ll be grateful that you remembered. Take notes after your conversation if you need to about their interests so you can have a conversation-starter next time.

Showing empathy: People want to be heard and active listening is one of the best ways to show empathy to others. When I think back over my career, the leaders and bosses who I felt really heard me are the ones that I worked hardest for. Beyond listening, when someone is troubled about work or something personal, try to put yourself in their shoes to understand their side of things and follow up later to inquire about their concerns.

Be every bit as diligent about reaching out to others as you are about getting the work done. They go hand in hand to lead you to success.

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.

How to (not) plan your career


I learned the hard way how to plan my career by not planning. I began working post-college as a laboratory research biologist. I didn’t stay with this long as I discovered it was lonely work, preferring to work with others collaboratively. So my journey began to find the work that would allow me to be at my best.

Suffice it to say that the rest of my 25 years of corporate life was filled with searching for the perfect job and learning a lot about my strengths, weaknesses, skills, talents, values through some positions that that didn’t fulfill me and some that did. Besides needing people, I also learned that I would thrive when I worked in a creative and trusting environment with great people. Finally, I wanted autonomy and to make an impact on others.

I was lucky with the opportunities I had, but in the end, it took me 25 years to find work that included the last two (autonomy and make an impact). So here I am. Doing something I love, am good at, and making a difference in the lives of people who make a difference in the lives of others. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.

It took almost a lifetime to find a perfect match in work that fulfills me. There are some things you can do to fast-forward your own quest for the perfect career without planning it out in minute detail (which might cause you to miss the perfect opportunity).

Get to know yourself: A brief daily reflective practice and/or journaling is a great way to begin. Start with questions you ask yourself like “What about my current situation fulfills me?”; “What am I doing well and enjoying?”; “What would I change about my current situation if I could?”. Take reputable self-assessments (not the Facebook kind) like DiSC and Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram and hire a consultant or coach to debrief them for you. These can help you to begin to understand your strengths, weaknesses, skills and talents. Any investment you make in time or money for these things will be worth it.

Learn how others see you: If your company has a 360 assessment process, see if you can take advantage of it to learn how you’re viewed by others in your organization. Learn to ask for feedback or feedforward to get specific information on how you can do better. Ask friends. Ask colleagues. Ask your manager. Make it a habit of regularly checking in with others on how they perceive your behavior and performance, and be specific with your inquiry (it’s not enough to ask “how am I doing?” try instead to ask about a specific time and place when they observed you in action).

Know what’s important to you: Knowing what you value helps you to make decisions about career choices. If you value working alone, why would you want to manage others? If you value time with your family, why would you choose a position that requires significant travel? Learning what you value can come with taking a values assessment or through your reflective practice. Becoming aware of your values is like standing on solid ground; it rarely shifts, and it becomes a foundation for the career decisions you’ll make.

These things are the beginning of your journey to find a career that fulfills you. So don’t plan, but get yourself ready for the opportunities that may come your way.




Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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