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Lead responsibly


Ken and I were in the yard yesterday planting gardens when a police car drove into the driveway. We’ve lived in this sparsely populated location for almost two decades and although there has been an occasional car accident on the road in front of the house that requires police presence, we’ve never had a cop come up to the house out of the blue.

The policeman had a handful of letters in his hand. He said that someone had opened every mailbox along the roadside the previous evening throughout the township and he’d been picking up mail that was scattered along the ground. He just wanted us to know in case we we’d left mail in the mailbox overnight (we didn’t).

We chatted with him and promised to let our closest neighbors know. He said he was going to pick up every piece of mail he could find, sort it out and make sure it was delivered. I was impressed. There were likely a myriad of other things he’d prefer to do than search for mail along the roads.

He was being responsible. He couldn’t do much about what had happened, but he could pick up the mail so it could be delivered to the appropriate homes.

Leaders take responsibility.

Instead of shrugging your shoulders and saying that there is nothing you can do consider if you are doing what you can. That may mean:

An offer of help to someone who needs it. This could be a colleague, a direct report, a customer or a boss. Someone may be overwhelmed at work and could use your help. Maybe someone is experiencing a tough situation outside of work that would benefit from your assistance. Offer to support them in any way they may need it and not only will you be acting like a leader, you’ll have an ally for life.

A listening ear to hear someone out. Listening to someone tell you their troubles might not sound like your favorite way to spend some time, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes that’s all that’s needed. So often people don’t need our advice or our active problem solving, they just need to feel heard.

A willingness to step in. Yes, sometimes you just have to roll up your shirtsleeves and do it (like the policeman in my story). The job that needs doing might not be glamorous and you may not get kudos for doing it, but it needs to be done. Be aware of the times when something needs your active participation, and step in and get it done.

Leaders lead responsibly by staying aware of the things they can do, even when something looks hopeless or routine. This creates connection and forges the kinds of relationships that will help you to become an exemplary leader.



360 assessments are just the beginning


The leader and I sit quietly dissecting the 360 report she holds in her hands. This is an esteemed and seasoned leader who had spent years managing others and was now a “manager of managers”. She sits across from me, trying understand the feedback in the report. I sense her distress when she says:

“This information must be wrong. I have great feedback conversations with my stakeholders. I ask them frequently what I am doing well and what I can do better. They tell me I’m doing well and that doesn’t match up with the negative information in this report. Is this really my report or could it belong to someone else?”.

She was trying to make sense of information that doesn’t seem to match up because they were different ways of assessing her behavior. The fact of the matter is that the feedback she receives by either method won’t tell her “truth” – they are a snapshot of perceptions of her stakeholders. What matters is what she thinks and does with the information.

First, she needs to spend more time after this initial debrief to review the report again and to think. When she’s digested the report and had time to think more about it, her results can become the beginning of some illuminating conversations and an action plan.

Assessment results can be disconcerting, and every leader deciphers the results reacts differently. Some will agree with the strengths and disagree with the weaknesses that are highlighted. Others feel the results reflect well how they show up, warts and all. All of it’s the start of something.

After you receive your report, begin the conversation:

With yourself: Spend some time going through your report again. Recognize that NOBODY has perfect scores. There is always something that you can do better or differently. As you look at the information, consider the balance – you’ll have plenty of strengths that show up too. Ask yourself: What surprised me? What am I proud of? Where do I go from here? Put yourself in your stakeholder’s shoes and ask yourself if you can imagine why they might have scored you low in some areas of your report.

With others: 360 reports do not always pinpoint the exact behaviors that can result in lower scores in some areas. Have a conversation with trusted stakeholders who can tell you exactly what behaviors they observe that might be causing the lower scores. Listen well and ask questions about when they see the behavior, who you are with when you exhibit it, and what they observe you doing. I know it’s hard to be vulnerable in this way, but its important for you to know the specifics so that you can make the changes that will transform your leadership from good to great.

It can be difficult to receive critical feedback, but when you see it as a learning opportunity and the beginning of conversations that can make you a better leader, you just may be on your way to greatness.



Interview for Radio Reflection


Radio Reflection interviewed me about leadership, coaching, writing…..and more. You can listen in here. About 30 minutes worth, and you can listen in here.


Daily practices for exceptional leadership


Look around and notice the leaders you admire. What they do looks easy – but staying at the top of their leadership game takes intentionality and practice. If they’re among the elite leaders, they practice at being the best by targeting areas of strength and development on a continual basis.

You might not think of leadership as something to be practiced, but like so many professions that require human effort (athletes and performers for example), mastery can be fleeting and elusive. So why wouldn’t you make the effort to become aware of your developmental needs and practice at them in order to always work toward mastery?

You need to continually work at the behaviors that will help you to become an exceptional leader; there’s always something you can improve upon. Start here:

Identify behaviors you need to improve upon: Leadership is mastered through your thoughts and ultimately, your behaviors – including how you communicate, how you move, and how you respond. Maybe you need to listen better, connect more, become more confident in your skin, or make sure you express your appreciation more often. The behaviors you choose are the seemingly small things that make great leaders. I once worked with a client who wanted to stop interrupting others, and she found that when she did this, it made a profound impact on how performed as a leader.

Break your behaviors down into daily practices: Its best to begin with one or two behaviors at a time. Practice them daily. Stay accountable to your practice in some way (ask a friend, your manager, a colleague or your coach to hold you accountable). Plan to spend 6 months or more with daily effort at embodying your practice; it will get easier. Ask for feedback as you practice: are others noticing the changes you’re making? Based on what you hear, adjust and carry on with your practice.

Reflect on your progress: At the end of each day, spend a few minutes in quiet reflection to consider how you are doing with your daily practice and the progress you’re making. Ask yourself: Have I met my commitment to practice? Why or why not? Does the practice continue to be important to me? What do others say about my progress? Are my new behaviors becoming automatic (habitual)? What do I need to change now?

Take care of yourself: Forgive your slips, lack of commitment, and forgetfulness to practice; but if it’s important to you to continue, recommit and stay accountable. In the meantime make sure that you maintain your energy to meet your commitment by getting enough sleep and leisure time, eating well, exercising and doing the things that renew you. They’re like the hidden batteries you need to continue this work.

Leadership requires your intention and continual practice even when you’re at the top of your game. What do you need to start practicing today?



Renewing and nourishing work relationships


I live in a part of the world where we greatly appreciate the spring season. I look out my office window, and see the glorious magnolias blossoming. When I stretch my view just a little wider I can see the tiny spinach leaves and pea shoots stretching out of the soil from where I planted them a couple of weeks ago. The ruby-throated hummingbirds are on their trek back to this part of the world to make their nests and raise their babies. It’s a time of renewal when all of these living systems require nourishment.

Have you thought about the work relationships you need to renew and nourish? So many leaders become caught up in the rush to make the next quarter’s goals, solving issues that arise, and the daily tasks of assuring that deadlines are on track that they neglect the relationships that keep their leadership and their organizations strong.

There are also important connections to be made and relationships to be nurtured that you may not have paid attention to; some may require healing or trust-building.

Consider your:

  • Boss


  • Peers


  • Direct reports


  • Mentors/Mentees


  • Internal support (HR, Finance, Marketing, etc.)


  • Customers


  • Community partners


What have you done lately to connect with key individuals in these areas that support you?

Begin by considering:

Who do you need to connect with? Set aside some “thinking time” to create a list of the key people you need to renew relationships with. Some leaders appreciate the ability to visualize those connections with a relationship map. Others may find it helpful to simply make a list and prioritize the key people they need to reconnect with.

What outcomes would you like? Before you meet with these individuals, think about why you want to nourish the relationship.
Do you need to develop greater trust with a key stakeholder? Heal a broken relationship? Or simply renew a relationship that needs an extra shot of energy?

What outcomes would they like? Don’t make assumptions about what they want, ask them! It’s important to make sure that the relationship is a two-way street and not just what you want. Once you are clear about what both of you want, co-create an agenda and set up a meeting.

How will you foster the relationship? If it’s important to continue to nurture the relationship, then decide together how you will do that. Will you have regular meetings? How often? What will you discuss?

Make a plan to continually renew and nourish your important work relationships. Those connections are the key to insuring that your leadership will grow and remain strong.




When your team is silent


You’re leading team meetings regularly and you’re frustrated. Even though you consider yourself a collaborative leader, you’ve noticed that when you invite your team to participate in discussions you’re often met with silence. They stare back at you. Not much is coming out of their mouths’ that’s helpful to the issues you want their input on.

There are also issues that you should know about that your team isn’t bringing to you. You’re finding out about them from unexpected sources. You’ve told your team you need more information from them, yet nothing is working to assure that you have the information you need to properly lead your organization.

I hear about these frustrating situations from the leaders I work with, and they often blame their team. There will always be some missteps in communication. However, when you notice the kind of withholding described above that prevents you from effectively leading your organization, ask yourself:

“What’s my role in this situation?”

You need to look to yourself for a cause and a solution.

Have you let them know what kind of information you need? Be specific in informing your team about what you need to know, when, and why. They may be making some assumptions about the information you require.

Are you shooting the messenger? Expressing anger when you hear something of concern may keep people from telling you anything. Take a deep breath before you speak, and stay calm; if you remain composed you have a better chance of continuing to hear the things you need to hear.

Are you really listening? Stop trying to add your take on what they tell you. Stop shooting down their ideas. Listen to what they have to say with all of your attention.

Have you thanked them for informing you? Just say “Thank you for letting me know”, or “Thank you for adding your thoughts to the conversation”.

Have you asked them what they need in order to contribute? Ask your team what would help them to participate fully or bring you the kind of information you need. This simple question might just give you a ton of actionable information.

Do you give them what they need to be able to contribute? Once you know what they need, give it to them. If they don’t have enough information to contribute, teach them. If they need training, give it to them. If they don’t feel safe enough around you, change your behavior and make it safe for them to speak.

Look to yourself for solutions when people aren’t speaking up. What can you do, say, or ask to change the situation?


Who are you really helping?


I love it when I come across true servant leaders. They know how to connect with others and how to develop the kind of relationships that have the power to move their organizations into the extraordinary zone. These humble leaders seem hard wired to assist their stakeholders to become the best they can be through coaching and mentoring those who need a boost in their ability to connect and deepen relationships.

Jan was one of those leaders. People were drawn to her style that brought out the best in them. She was a positive force with a great deal of “helper” in her; much of her time was spent with people who asked for her assistance.

When we talked about how she helped others it became clear that her intent and her behavior weren’t in sync; there were ways that she could be more even more effective.

Through our conversation Jan realized that she was really helping herself in some very subtle ways. When she was mentoring and coaching, she was giving her opinion, directing, and advising others (often disguised in “leading questions”). In other words, she was telling others what to do and how to do it in a way that served her because she loved getting that boost of adrenaline that solving other’s problems gave her.

There’s a place for advice, opinion, and direction. Think about a time that you received unsolicited advice or direction. If it came from your manager you may follow through but you may not be as invested as you would be if you figured it all out on your own. All of the self-learning came from your manager packaged neatly, tied with a bow, including a label of “how you should do it”, preventing you from discovering new ways to do things without directed help.

If you truly want to help the people you serve to learn and develop, consider:

Your intent: Is your intent to really help them or is it to show what you know, what you think is right, or to get quick action? Think about it. If you surmise that the people you are helping can figure things out on their own, your focus should be on assisting them to do that. Let go of your need to personally get something out of your efforts and help them to think and find creativity within themselves.

The gift of questions: Be curious. Ask some of those great open-ended questions that don’t lead them to “your way” and that they may not know the answers to. Heck, you might not even know the answers to them. Be careful with the questions you ask when being helpful; they just might be disguised as your advice, direction or opinion.

Heartfelt encouragement: As you watch people learn and develop more than you ever thought possible, encourage them from the heart and let them fail. The freedom to figure things out for themselves is what they’ve always wanted and they need you to cheer them on.

Think carefully about who you are really helping with your opinions, direction and advice. It may not be who you think it is.



How to be a successful leader


“I believe that human beings are desperate, always, to belong to something larger than themselves.” David Whyte

The traditional idea of success in our organizations has everything to do with playing the game, dressing the part, and doing what’s expected. You work hard, you climb the ladder and make oodles of money that can buy you all the trappings of success as defined by external forces rather than your own internal calling. If you’re not careful, you get swept along in the definition of success as defined by everyone else.

You aren’t everyone else; this becomes clear the minute you declare yourself a leader.

If you don’t spend some time reflecting on what success means to you, you allow powerful forces of to take you for a ride when you’re not in the driver’s seat. After years of travel, you may come to the end of the journey and find that it wasn’t your own. It might be too late to change course.

You will have a chance at success when you can define what it means for you, putting the external forces of society, the organization you work in, and how others define it aside. Resist the pull of external sources of success and reflect on:

What puts you in flow in the sense of knowing what puts you into a state of clear focus and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes that flow happens when the challenge and skills required to do a task are high. For many of us, this occurs when we feel as if we’re contributing something to world. The tasks that put you in flow will move your spirit. When have you felt a sense of flow? When this happens you may have an indication of what you need to be doing to be successful. The beginning of the journey!

What’s important to you. As Stephen Covey has wisely said, start with the end in mind. At the end of the journey what can you say about your life? One of the best ways to think about what you’ll leave behind is to consider what you’d want others remember about you when you’re gone. If you articulate that, you can work backwards to define where to begin your excursion of self-defined success. (p.s. It’s no small thing that a side benefit of clarity about what’s important to you is that you become able to set boundaries that point to what you’re willing to do and what you aren’t).

Real success as a leader can mean not listening to what external forces think defines it for you. Instead, listen to that inner voice, with reflection and silence, and follow it. This kind of success can be difficult, lonely, and risky. Yet it’s the beginning of the journey that can impact your ability to lead at your best in ways you can’t imagine now.


Being realistic


I often get inquiries from people who want to become an executive coach and don’t know where to begin their journey. I’m more than willing to talk to them, because I have some opinions about what it takes not only from personal experience, but from watching this profession expand and shape over the years. And just maybe, they’ll take away something that will be helpful.

They often come to me believing that being an executive/leadership coach is what they’ve wanted their whole lives; a starry eyed approach similar to the one I started out with. I completely understand and felt that way myself but it’s not enough to make a go of it. When I became an executive coach nobody told me how hard it would be.

So I’m going to be measured and grounded in what I tell them. I’ll relate the good parts but I won’t sugar-coat the hard parts; like the first couple of years when I was scared to death as I worked to build the business wondering if it would be enough to pay the bills. There is now a crowded marketplace requiring them to distinguish themselves from all the other competitors out there. And some pretty sticky situations can happen when working with powerful leaders in complex organizations.

Yet for me the difficulties are worth it when I see the clients who can go from good to great leaders while being happy, persistent, and enduring in the work they do and the lives they live.

I don’t know if the same will be true for those who reach out to me to get some pieces of wisdom that may keep them going when times get tough. I’ve watched the executive coach career door revolve too many times to think that all of them will be successful. I’m satisfied that some have told me years later that they remember and used some small piece of my experience that was important to their success.

I’d like to believe that these new coaches hear a realistic viewpoint from me. In the end I’m glad I’m being truthful with them, even when some of the messages are less than positive. This is fulfilling work for many of us but it’s not for the weak of heart. I’m hopeful that the realism I provide will provide the balance for new coaches to be persistent and make their own mark with the work they do.

So what’s the message for you here?

Be honest and real. Balance the messages you deliver with realism. If all you do is sugar-coat the news you have to deliver to others they will smell it a mile away. And if all you do is communicate the hard stuff your followers will get bogged down in negativity and never have a chance to realize their potential. Don’t hold back, be honest and speak from the heart and you’ll gain trust and make great things happen. And isn’t that what leadership is all about?



How to have conversations like a jazz musician


Winton Marsalis has said that the best listener in an improvisational jazz session often ends up contributing the most to the music because they are able to play off whatever is being offered by the other musicians.

And so it could be with the conversations you have within your organization. How often have you been in a meeting where everyone is vying for attention and waiting for their turn to speak? The dialog is disjointed, with disparate pieces of information coming in from all sides. If you’re leading the meeting, you have to work doubly hard to make meaning of the cacophony. The music of the conversation is discordant, without common threads.

If a jazz musician is focused on what they’ll play next rather than listening to what is going on in the ensemble, they’d miss out on contributing in a meaningful way. Likewise if we focus in a conversation on what you are going to say next, we don’t have the important information necessary to contribute to the meaning that is emerging.

Like many leaders, you may have concerns about the absence of creativity and insight in your organization. If you and your team were practicing listening like a jazz musician, creativity could flow through the “listening conversations” you have.

Listening like a jazz musician

I was recently reminded of the power of listening conversations when hosting a World Café in my community. To be honest, it’s a very difficult yet essential thing to do when you are the host (leader). Yet, as I listened deeply to the thoughts, opinions, and stories that emerged in the conversation I could see how each contributor played off the others in the room. Not only was I listening like a jazz musician, but the others in the room were too. Participants approached me later to tell me how unusual this kind of conversation is.

The guidelines for a World Café conversation can be adapted and made explicit by you for all team members during those times when you need to have conversations that include deep listening. It is particularly important for you, as the leader, to demonstrate them and discuss them with your team:

Speak with your mind and your heart.

Focus on what matters.

Listen to understand together for patterns, insights, and deeper connections.

Link and connect ideas.

Slow down so you have time to reflect.

None of this is easy in our discordant organizations. Some of the assumptions behind the conversations that happen in a World Café conversation may be helpful for you to embrace as you facilitate these kinds of conversations:

Collective knowledge and wisdom needed are present and accessible in others.

Intelligence emerges as positive connections are made in the conversation.

These deep listening conversations can uncover a great deal of the intelligence, wisdom, and creativity that you’ve been craving for your organization. They can- and should – be a part of any conversation that requires new insight. Can you see where you might be able to have the kind of conversations that jazz musicians have?


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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