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From technically brilliant to great leader


One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years in many technical organizations is the criteria used (sometimes unspoken) about who gets to be promoted to choice management roles. A smart and successful technical manager often has a head start on getting a promotion that will require them to lead a larger piece of the organizational pie even if enough attention isn’t paid to whether they possess the skills to lead people at this new level.

If a technically bright manager doesn’t have the right people skills, you might notice that work isn’t getting done or their direct reports become disillusioned and leave in numbers greater than expected. Eventually stress and failure set in as these managers discover that being smart is only part of what’s needed to have a broader scope of leadership.

The good news is that people skills can be learned at any level. If effort is put into helping these managers learn those skills, a brilliant person can also become a brilliant leader. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve been privileged to coach some of those people to transform into well-rounded leaders all the way up to the CEO level.

Take a good look at your technically brilliant but struggling managers and find the ones who exhibit characteristics that tell you they have potential to be better leaders by getting better at people skills. You might find that they:

Are driven to be better even if they are having difficulty now. Perhaps they don’t interact well with others, or they aren’t strategic thinkers, or they get too involved in the day to day work of their team. Even as these obstacles are present – if they are driven to learn, they can transform into effective – maybe even great – leaders.

Take responsibility for themselves without blaming others or unseen forces for what they can’t do. They know that they will find a way to bust through obstacles, and they work hard to get to the goal even when it’s hard.

Are open and willing to learn some things that may stretch their thinking beyond the technical aspects of the work their organization does. If you see glimmers of their interest in developing their employees or their team, there is hope that they’ll also be interested in developing the skills to become a better leader.

Are willing to take personal risks that might be difficult. It can be challenging for someone who has self-defined as technically smart to take a stance of not having all the answers, to listen when they really prefer to talk, and to let go of control when they need to. This is what it will take to grow individuals and a team.

If your struggling yet smart managers meet these criteria, there is hope that they can be brilliant leaders. Talk to your Human Resources or Talent Management department to see what can be done. Or contact me; I’d love to work with them.


How to lead when others hesitate


There are times when people may be reluctant to follow your lead. Maybe you recently received a promotion to a new position with new direct reports and they are holding back as they evaluate your leadership capability. Or you might be working to become a better leader and changing your behavior making people unsure of what to expect from you now. Maybe you’ve been leading your team for a long time and you’ve just awakened to the realization that team members have been hesitant and you want more of them to step up to increased responsibility. They might also have lost trust in you for reasons you’re unaware of.

Whatever the reason, there are times when those you lead will be hesitant to follow you. If you watch closely, you’ll notice it when your team seems reluctant to speak up, or doesn’t follow through on commitments. There might be lots of awkward silence and inability to meet your gaze in team meetings that may have something to do with relationships that need attention. To put the situation bluntly, if it’s bad enough and something doesn’t change, your leadership may very well fail.

Instead of getting frustrated with what’s happening and blaming the team, look to yourself. You are a leader, which means you need to begin to take action to fix whatever is making others hesitant to be led by you.

You can start to shore up your relationships with followers in these ways:

Spend time with individuals: Get to know the people on your team on a one-to-one basis. Take the initiative to meet with them individually in person or virtually. Learn about them by listening well; discover what their interests are within and outside of the team, what they are good at, what their long term goals are. Be personable. Getting to know people in this way will go far in creating strong healthy relationships.

Be open and inclusive: “Leading” doesn’t mean you always have to be out front, have the answers, or direct people. See them and interact with them as your equals and you might learn a thing or two. Ask questions about what they think, their ideas, their ways of doing things. Listen and stay open to what they have to say. Incorporate their ideas when you can.

Show your support and encouragement: Show your support by working with them to bust through organizational barriers and having their back when they need it. Encourage and coach them to take risks that just might make a difference for them and for the work you’re doing. Let them know what that you appreciate the work they do.

Be patient as you work to improve the relationships you have with hesitant followers. Depending on circumstances, it may take some time. The rewards of a great team await your efforts.



Developing strong peer relationships


Peter, an executive on the CEO’s team, hired me to work with him. Something wasn’t working in his relationships with his peers on the team, and he wanted to figure it out. He felt ignored, dismissed and disrespected by his peers. They seemed to avoid Peter and often went around him to others in his organization for decisions that he should be making. So I interviewed the CEO and Peter’s peers to ask them about what they observed in the situation.

As it turns out the CEO felt Peter was smart and capable but could push too hard for his viewpoint, and he had given Peter this feedback on several occasions. Peter’s peers described a leader who would dismiss their ideas. He interrupted and talked too much, insistent that his solutions and ideas were the best.

Peter was not interacting well with his peers and they were responding in kind to his poor behavior. Peter didn’t feel respected. His peers eventually got tired of his insistence that he always had the right answers and started working around him instead of with him. Interestingly, Peter’s peers didn’t feel respected by Peter.

All the while the CEO- was watching and doing damage control while evaluating the impact Peter had on the team and the organization. Realizing that his behavior could eventually be detrimental to the organization and his career, Peter was motivated to change. He decided to focus our work together on improving his relationships with his peers. We began with a plan for him to recognize the triggers and reduce the pushiness that was not serving him or the team. Peter also saw the imperative to repair the damaged relationships he had created with his peers.

Beginning to heal those relationships

Relationships with your peers may be as important as those with your boss; in fact, some argue that they are THE most important relationships you can have in your organization. Peter recognized this, and the things that worked for him to begin to heal those damaged relationships may also work for you.

Stay open to new ideas: When you kill an idea by dismissing it or trying to speak over your peers with your views, your actions can come back to haunt you. Realize that your ideas are not the only ones that might work. See if you can find merit in ideas offered by others. Listen to understand your peers and their viewpoints. Be curious and ask questions. Not only will you learn something but you’ll help to keep creativity alive in the team.

Volunteer to assist: When there is something that needs to be done by a peer that you can help with, volunteer to assist. Or better yet, ask for help when you need it. This gives you a better chance to work with and understand other’s views and they’ll generally welcome the collaboration.

Find new ways to connect on a personal level: Work doesn’t have to be all about work. Seek out your peers and get to know them on a personal level. Invite them to share lunch with you and spend at least part of the time talking about your interests outside of work. Do a lot of listening. Ask them to help you figure something out. This small talk, often dismissed in organizations as “fluff”, actually builds bonds.

Peers can be very important to your efforts and your career. If the connections with them are sound, you’ll all reap the benefits. Peter was able to realize that those peer to peer connections were a key to getting things done within his organization as well as throughout the enterprise. The entire team found more ways to collaborate for the greater good. The CEO also became more willing to give Peter increasing responsibility and to designate him as a potential successor.


This post was originally published on Smartblog on Leadership.



Putting stuff into perspective


I’d like to say that I’m well prepared, but in reality I’ve often been getting ready for all of the things I worry about. I worry about big things: Ebola, water shortages, and world unrest. I worry about small things: my car breaking down on long drives, my grown children’s wellbeing and my aging canine companion’s health. Worry seems to be an old habit, a trusted friend that has been with me since the time I was a child who had headaches (even back then!) that were identified by our family doctor as self-generated from worrying too much.

Preparation is a good thing, but now I know that worry isn’t worth the effort. I want to say goodbye to this worry habit that no longer serves me. So I’ve been working hard to replace it with perspective. I can’t do a lot about the crazy big stuff in the world, but I can turn off the news for a few days. I can keep my car in good repair, help my children when they need it and take my dog to the vet regularly. I can also spend daily moments reflecting on all that is good in my life.

I’m getting better at losing the worry. The worry still comes but I can choose to deal with it differently than I have in the past by putting it into perspective. So what does this have to do with leadership? A lot, as it turns out.

Putting stuff into perspective for yourself and those you lead

Part of the job of a leader is to translate what is happening (like major organizational change) and put it into perspective for themselves and others. It starts with taking care of your needs, and then helping others with their concerns. A few ways to do this:

Stay centered and grounded: Take care of yourself; because the better you feel the better you’ll be able to convey perspective through the rocky times. Do what works for your own wellbeing: sleep well, eat healthy, exercise, and get away from the ongoing speculation at work in order to think through your perspective.

Surround yourself with listeners and challengers: Close friends are great assets to have at times when it’s difficult to acquire perspective. Even better are the friends who will listen well and challenge your (sometimes twisted) thinking when all you can think about is future disaster.

Clarify, listen, and challenge the worriers: People need you when there are big changes afoot. Your calm presence will go a long way. Since there are usually many unknowns, explain what you know. Calmly listen when others speak about what they are afraid of and challenge those with “disaster theories”.

Have a story ready to tell: When the company I worked for dismissed thousands of employees, someone calmly helped me to put things into perspective by telling of his close calls with death in a war. This showed me that our organizational situation was not “life or death”. It may seem a bit dramatic but it helped me (and others) to put the current circumstances into context. Find stories you can tell about getting through tough times to put the current situation into perspective.

Rocky times will smooth out when you take care of yourself and calmly help those you lead to gain perspective about the future.



Burning the box of yesterday


It’s human nature to want to make sense of the world. We make our best attempts at clarifying what we don’t understand by categorizing and putting things into boxes. Mostly, that isn’t a bad thing to do as it helps us to comprehend what’s going on. However this can cause stagnation in organizations and teams as human potential isn’t recognized. When you’ve boxed people in it’s hard to notice what’s possible in them.

I see it often when I’m coaching someone. The most dedicated leaders will work hard to make changes to become a better person and leader. But sometimes those changes just aren’t noticed or they aren’t meeting up to the standards others (their boss in particular) had in mind. People change from day to day but if it isn’t recognized then talent can lie fallow, resulting in a lack of spirit within individuals and organizations.

You may have people in your organization that you’ve judged harshly. Unless you can challenge your judgment, people become locked in a box stuffed with your beliefs about them (whether they’re spoken out loud or not), making them unable to move and be seen as full of the potential they have.

Here is my challenge for you: to see each person you lead with new eyes every time you encounter them. This requires intentional focus on each and every person who supports the work of your organization. Metaphorically burn the box of yesterday by:

Setting an intention to forego the past judgments, assumptions and criticisms you’ve had. Consider that the people you’ve judged harshly may be vibrating with possibility that you have yet to uncover. Being intentional in how you see others as they are today and what they can become tomorrow might be the key to unlocking their potential. Ask yourself “How can I see each person I lead with fresh eyes today?”

Be observant and curious about how what you notice today. It’s possible that a new and different person is emerging. Transformation can move slowly or it can happen in the wink of an eye. As long as you’re willing to be observant and curious about emerging potential in those you lead, you may see new possibilities for them. Ask yourself “How can I set aside negative judgments of those I lead?” and “What am I noticing that is new and different in those I’ve judged harshly?”

Coach and challenge them with all of the encouragement you can muster to help them to step out of the box. They may lack self-confidence or believe what you – or others – have told them they are incapable of. They need you to believe in them and support them as they take new risks. Ask, “What can I do to support this person in becoming the best they can be tomorrow?”

When you burn the box you’ve put people in and you can be curious and supportive in their yearning to be more than they were yesterday, hidden potential can emerge.





Leading with small, everyday gestures


You have worked hard to get to where you are and can readily rattle off significant times in your career that gave you great satisfaction. Perhaps you experienced a big promotion, dinner with the CEO or heading up a large successful initiative. Spend a moment thinking about one of those, and you will likely feel a wash of warm pleasure.

Congratulations. You know what makes you happy. Or do you?

Recent studies have shown that we significantly undervalue the more ordinary or mundane events in our lives. These events can also produce happiness even if they seem insignificant when they occur. We may not notice them since they are a part of our everyday experience.

Why do happiness and joy matter to your leadership? Happy leaders tend to be more productive at work, make better decisions, express more creativity and have better social interactions (among many other benefits) with others. I think you can see how all of these things would impact your ability to be the best you can be at your craft.

So think back on events that might appear mundane and consider what you feel as you think about those. All of us have experienced at least one of these seemingly insignificant interactions in the recent (or even distant) past:

  • a recent interaction with someone –even a stranger – that just felt good.
  • a time when you felt really listened to.
  • a time when someone helped you with something with no expectation of any reciprocation.

If you can become happier the impact you make will be significant. But if you can also purposefully work to create everyday leadership moments for those around you at work, you can double the impact you make.

What if your own everyday interactions with the people who support the work of your organization included:

Kindness: Deliberately focus on what others need. It’s often very simple: a kind word, delegation of a new and challenging project to work on or an understanding of tough times that others are going through. Give them the kind words they need or the day off that will help them to get through their situation. Look for moments when those around you do well and let them know that you noticed.

Respect: Show respect to others every day and in every way you can. Simply focusing and listening to someone (even when you don’t want to or don’t have the time) is a way of showing respect. Watch the judgments, assumptions, and sarcasm that may be sitting on the tip of your tongue and replace them with encouragement. Treat others with civility, particularly when stress is high.

Service: How might you be able to help those who support your organizational mission? Take time to notice when someone needs assistance and ask how you might help. Coach others because its’ an effective way to help them without getting caught in the trap of doing their work for them. Remain alert to how you can be of service in even the smallest of ways.

The same small and often mundane gestures that create moments of happiness or joy in your life will do the same for those around you. The results of improved productivity, better decisions, increased creativity and healthier relationships can occur in the organizations and systems you lead as a result of your attention to others in small gestures. Isn’t that a place you’d want to work in? You can, beginning with how you treat others.


This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.



Boost their confidence


Over the years in my role as an executive coach I’ve noticed a disquieting pattern in the leaders I work with. They’re hungry for encouragement and a vote of confidence for a job well done. Some will admit openly to a lack of self-confidence and others will beat around the bush by avoiding difficult situations they should be dealing with. When I ask why they sidestep them I might hear “I’m not ready yet” or a concern that they don’t know how to deal with it. These responses may be an indication of a lack of confidence in their ability.

I rarely see “increase self-confidence in the way I lead others” as a personal goal on a development plan. It’s embarrassing for someone to openly admit to lacking confidence yet it’s one of the most common confessions I hear behind the wall of confidentiality created in a coaching relationship.

These leaders I work with aren’t slouches. My clients are primarily designated as high potential in their organizations to move into positions of greater influence. They are smart and they get results. But their high potential status may make them fearful of doing unfamiliar or difficult things.

Over time, if confidence doesn’t build in these leaders, their relationships, impact, and results suffer. So, as an executive coach to leaders, I sometimes become the chief confidence-booster. It’s sad that it takes an outsider to do this when insiders – like you – can probably do it so much better.

Watch for signs of waning self confidence in the people who report to you. Boost it by:

Noticing the fear and giving support: It would be unusual for someone to actually admit to you that they lack confidence so watch for it in not-so-direct ways. Evasiveness about why things aren’t getting done, a negative mood, and resistance to your suggestions are all ways that fear may be expressed. Instead of being accusatory, try a little empathy. Ask how you might be able to help or support them.

Noticing things that others do well: It’s too easy to go to a place of judgment and criticism of others. Why not challenge yourself to look for what they’re doing well, and letting them know what you noticed? Even better, a brief handwritten note or other tangible reminder from you can be keepsakes for them to remind themselves what they’re doing well.

Cultivating a more positive environment: Become more vigilant about what is working and going well. I’m not suggesting fake positivity, but I am suggesting a more balanced approach. Like many of us you may spend too much time discussing, diagnosing and fixing what went wrong and less time and effort in conversation about what is going right or what is possible. Conversations about a positive future for individuals and your organization are also particularly uplifting – have them often!

I would be happy to come in and help your leaders work on their self-esteem, but why don’t you start the process and see where it leads? You just might find a boost in self-confidence that leads to great results.



Leadership practices for presence and focus



All leaders experience situations that surprise them, distract them, or knock them off center. These are the events that can trigger us to react in a way that is not what we prefer by assaulting our values and intent.

A practice that helps you to stay present, centered, and grounded will keep you focused, ready for whatever comes your way, and can help you get through the things that are surprising and difficult with grace. This preparation is not necessarily the kind that you are familiar with.

By way of explanation, if you want to be a piano virtuoso, you practice playing the instrument until you reach your goal (and then you set a new goal). But there is another kind of training that is needed. When you observe great piano players, you may notice their focus; the audience and other distractions don’t get in the way of their performance because the best piano players also have an “internal practice” (in addition to practice playing the instrument) that helps them to stay present and focused.

Practicing leadership often requires a similar focus on the present. This kind of focus can benefit from “a practice” – something that takes you out of your normal routine and helps you to focus on the “here and now”. Some ancient wisdom, developed in an earlier, slower time, is making a comeback and with good reason. We have more distractions and a faster pace than centuries past and are losing our grasp on what’s in front of us.

When you’re creating that leadership action/development plan for how you’ll show up in the world, consider also developing a practice to help you to focus and stay present. The practice you choose will assist you in achieving your goals. Fifteen minutes a day is all it takes to give you the focus you need to be more present, grounded, centered, and, ironically, more productive. Some favorite things to try:

Centering and grounding: Our state of mind is more dependent on our physical body than we might realize. To center and ground, consider a somatic (soma = body) activity like yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong. They all have elements of centering and grounding your body – with the added benefit of helping you to quiet your mind.

Meditating: I’m a big fan of meditation or mindfulness training. The simplest techniques can be found by searching those keywords on the internet. Try them out and see which kind you prefer. Even if you think you can’t sit still for fifteen minutes, you’ll find the techniques and ways to handle your distraction helpful in learning to focus.

Listening: Simply sitting in a quiet spot (I prefer sitting in nature), and noticing the sounds you hear is a great way to focus your distracted mind. Count the sounds. Try to identify them. If you find your mind wandering, gently and with self-compassion, bring yourself back to listening.

There is a reason why these things are called “practices”; they prepare us for our performance as a leader and help us to be at our best. What are you practicing to increase your presence and focus?






Five steps for having tough conversations


You don’t have to look hard to see that there are tough conversations that need to be had all around you. You may tend to avoid them, which isn’t a good strategy if you’re a leader. You must model the work of a leader including stepping into uncomfortable dialog with others.

Perhaps someone who reports to you is not working up to their potential or an individual on your team is disruptive to efforts to move the team forward. Maybe a peer is undermining your efforts or your boss is not supporting you in the way you think she should.

Ignoring these things is not very leader-like. And similar to that little light on the dashboard of your car that says “Check engine soon”, if you don’t take action on the things that need to be addressed they can get worse. And that’s when you have an even bigger and tougher problem to deal with.

If you’ve been in the workforce long enough, you’ve seen it all. Do you use any of these excuses for avoiding or ignoring tough conversations?

  • The problem will go away if I ignore it
  • It’s a small thing
  • I’m afraid that my emotions will get out of hand if I address it
  • I don’t want to hurt their feelings
  • I don’t want to make a scene and am concerned about their reaction

What will it take to have those tough conversations? Some thoughts about how to proceed:

Set an intention for your behavior: The better you can manage your own behavior, the better the likelihood that the person you need to have a tough conversation with will respond well. You may expect defensiveness or even blame. Yet you might be surprised when it doesn’t happen because you’ve managed to have a dialog while remaining calm and expressing care for the individual.

Breathe in compassion: The breath is a wonderful tool to calm yourself. Before the conversation begins, take a few moments to breathe deep belly-breaths full of compassion for the person you need to talk to, because your feedback may not be easy for them to hear. Remember that this person is a complex human being and may not be aware of the harm they’ve caused.

Let go: Release any assumptions or judgments about the other’s intent; they will not serve you (or them) because honestly – you don’t know why they did what they did. You can’t read their thoughts and really don’t know the reasons for their actions. Letting go of assumptions and judgments opens you up to learning about them in a good way.

Be direct: Say what you have to say in a direct but respectful way. Most people will prefer that you don’t beat around the bush; it can be frustrating and create misunderstanding. Tell them what you’ve observed and the impact it has on you, the team or the organization. Realize that this is your truth – not THE truth. Be open to surprise that there may be more to their story than you expected.

Listen: After you’ve said what you need to say, stay silent and let them respond. This is a conversation, which means it’s two-way and you don’t have to be the person who does all of the talking. Check your need to control the conversation. You never know where it will go, and that’s okay, go with it. If emotions get out of hand suggest a break and resume the dialog later.

Leaders have tough conversations. Don’t ignore things that require your intervention. You can manage how you conduct yourself and do it with respect and care, even if the other person doesn’t.

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.



The courage to listen


People want to have your answers to even the most routine of issues. If you notice your reaction when they ask for your advice or thoughts, you might feel a little “hit” of adrenaline kicking in – your breathing and heart rates increase with a subsequent increase in energy, perhaps a feeling of wellbeing. You like it when someone wants to know something that you know, and you especially like telling them about it.

You are rewarded for your knowledge. You see a direct link between your personal knowledge base, your performance rating and your pay. Your manager appreciates that you are a deep well of information because it takes some pressure away from him to be the one people come to for answers.

It’s exciting to be smart and reap the tangible rewards of feeling appreciated by your boss and your peers. People notice your intelligence and they respect you for what you know.

Listening is foundational to your performance

Performance evaluations and 360’s might provide feedback on your smarts but they rarely gage your ability to listen. Yet listening is foundational to all other qualities we expect to see in our leaders such as decisiveness, strategic thinking, influence, and getting results. In the noise of our organizations, listening gets little attention.

Listening isn’t easy. Not only do you have to stop talking, you also have to give up your agenda, your judgments and your assumptions. You must be fully present and intent on seeking to understand the person in front of you, even when you might disagree with them.

Listening in this way takes courage because:

When you’re listening, you’re not talking: The urge to speak is sometimes overwhelming. It takes work, requiring you to find a way to tame that impulse.

You don’t get to impress people with everything you know: You’ll need to wean yourself off the adrenaline hit and become more self-observant about when to speak and when to stay quiet and just listen.

You have to be still: You need to listen with your body, heart and mind. Your body needs to stay still, but so does the rest of you. The thoughts that run through your mind want to manifest through your lips. You’ll need to find a way to quiet them to listen at your best.

So what’s the payback to having the courage to listen?

Understanding the other’s point of view which leads to compassion, empathy, and better relationships. These are important qualities that help you to be a better leader.

New knowledge. You’ll find what others know to be amazing and useful. It can be humbling (and we all could you a little humility) to discover that you don’t know everything.

Better decisions. Listening fosters creativity. When people feel heard, they also feel free to speak up with their own thinking and ideas. This leads to better decisions.

People will think you’re brilliant. Listening to others is an ideal way for them to notice your brilliance in a different way. Haven’t you noticed that the quiet ones who are really listening are often pegged as being very smart?

Find the courage to listen and you’ll be a better leader because of it.



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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