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What if conversations were action?


Josh is a seasoned leader who identifies with being introverted. As such, he prefers to stay in his office, head down, only looking up to answer the phone or to acknowledge someone who is at his door. He’s a hard worker, he’s smart, and he gets lots of things done. He’s noticed that his team seems scattered, losing their sense of direction often. Josh knows something is missing in his leadership; he just can’t put his finger on it.

Marie is a C-suite executive who climbed to where she is by being driven to take action and get results. She’s fast paced with high expectations for herself and others. She keeps on top of things by working long hours and sending messages to her staff on evenings and weekends to remind them of their deadlines and to redirect them (often) when she thinks they aren’t doing things correctly. She feels like she’s starting to wear out at the ripe old age of 42. She knows she has to make some changes in her leadership and her life but can’t quite figure out where to begin.

Leaders may avoid having conversations, seeing them as sucking up valuable time that can be spent “taking action”. That was the case for both of these leaders.

Yet they each have come to a crossroads. They can keep doing what they’ve always been doing or they can try something that just might boost their ability to lead others to a new level.

Could it be that “something missing” might be the very thing they’ve avoided because they don’t see it as “taking action”? What if that thing, called “having conversations” were actually an action? Without two-way conversations:

  • Resulting activities by their teams can veer off course because expectations aren’t clearly discussed and understood;
  • Team members may be seen as incapable or misunderstood when they haven’t been fully listened to;
  • A leader can be viewed as unapproachable, preventing them from hearing information that is important to their ability to lead well;
  • Casual conversation is absent making the bonds between the leader and their team tentative.

As you move up the corporate ladder, conversations with others become ever more vital to your success and ability to thrive as a leader. Leadership is all about influencing and motivating people to take action, and that won’t happen without your willingness to spend a significant part of your day in conversation.

The kind of conversations you need to have consist of two obvious parts that may require different approaches than you’ve used before:

Talking should be kept to a minimum. What if you let go of the need to direct a conversation and spill out everything that’s on your mind? A conversation needs to be two-way, but particularly when you are leading your own team, I’d suggest that you shoot for talking 30% of the time or less. The words that you speak should be stated with care, brevity, and clarity. A significant portion of those words should be open-ended questions such as “What do you think?” or “What are your next steps?”. Finally, remember the power of silence and don’t feel a need to fill it. Trust that if you don’t talk someone will; your silence will encourage real conversation.

Listening more than you might be comfortable with now. If you’re talking 30% of the time, then you’ll be listening 70%. The kind of listening you should be exhibiting is the kind that is without external distractions (checking your cell phone, reading something on your desk, etc.) and devoid of internal distractions (otherwise known as brain chatter). If you notice your mind wandering, just go back to listening. The great thing about listening is that is creates emotional connections with others and fosters empathy and trust. At the same time, listening can be a selfish activity, providing you with valuable information needed to help you to lead.

Conversations are action, and they are necessary for subsequent actions to be focused appropriately as well as to foster healthy relationships. What conversations do you need to start with today?

This post was originally published on Smartblog on Leadership



Meaningful development of others


There are some myths about what it means for leaders to develop the people they’re responsible for leading. A few of them:

Developing others doesn’t belong to Human Resources, Talent Management, Organizational Development, or whatever other helpful organization you may have access to, although they can help. Let’s be clear that developing others is your job.

Developing people doesn’t have to cost oodles of money. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost anything but your time and your effort; and you might just find a great deal of satisfaction helping others to grow and learn.

Meaningful development isn’t only about delegating work to others. Delegating is important, but it’s what you delegate and how you do it that can make it a growth opportunity.

Don’t wait for someone to come to you and ask to be developed. Don’t tell them to think about what they’d like to do as a development opportunity; that’s pretty scary and they may not be comfortable throwing out ideas that will get shot down because of cost or fit within the organization.

Be intentional about your efforts to find meaningful development opportunities for others:

Be an equal opportunity developer: Everyone who wants to grow and develop should have the opportunity. This doesn’t mean that everyone should get the exact same opportunity. Some people will be ready to do something spectacular; others may be more comfortable with opportunities that come in baby steps. Honor their place in life at this moment and understand that not everyone will be ready to become the next CEO.

Ask them what they want: What are their future goals? If you don’t know, ask them. For some, it might be to get better at their current job. For others, it might be to have your job, or the next one, or the one beyond that. Some may want to be in training to work somewhere else. Don’t project your ideas about what’s best for their growth on them. Be honest with them in terms of what they think their next step is and how you might be able to help.

Find ways to stretch them: This is the part where developing others isn’t just about delegating your grunt work to them and calling it a developmental opportunity. You might have to think more broadly. Is there an assignment in another business unit that might fit the bill? What about a cross-functional team for them to contribute to? How about a local board in their community to join?

Keep the conversation going: Help them to learn as they take on new things that will stretch them through regular check-ins. Have a regular dialog to ask them what they’re learning. Ask what they enjoy or don’t enjoy about the opportunity you’ve provided for them to develop. It’ll help both of you to get more precise for the next opportunity.

Most leaders find that developing others is fun and meaningful for but very few actually do enough of it. Don’t wait until you’re in a bind and need to declare your successor. Start now.


Six things you can do in 15 minutes or less to be more focused and productive


I am naturally driven to push through a challenge. When my work “to-do” list looks like a mass of deadlines, I sacrifice many other important things for the sake of getting it all done. When I’m sick, tired, or unfocused I like to pretend I’m the Energizer Bunny, continuing to move ahead at all costs. Sound familiar to you?

This driven, move ahead, push-through-it-all way of being to make a deadline is where I live if I allow myself to run unchecked. I’ve learned that it doesn’t serve me well, and if I really want to focus and be productive over the long haul, I know I need to spend some time doing other things that will foster those qualities.

You might find it surprising that taking small amounts of time in non-deadline activities can create the conditions for you to concentrate better and get more done. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of time these activities “should” take, start with fifteen minutes or less – daily if you can (or as needed!).

Some ideas:

Meditate: Sitting still for the recommended 20-30 minutes can be difficult. Try smaller increments – even just 3-5 minutes on a regular, daily basis in a sitting meditation with a focus on your breath. You might notice that meditation allows your brain to relax, opening a door to creativity and energy.

Reflect: Block out fifteen minutes a day to reflect on your priorities and your leadership. Do it when you will be uninterrupted; some leaders enjoy an early start to their day to reflect, others prefer their fifteen minutes at the end of the day. You may notice your reflection time makes a big difference in your focus and productivity.

Take a break: Get away from your deadline by walking outdoors, or chatting with others. A few minutes of time away from your deadlines is a great way to refresh your brain, allowing it to function more efficiently and focus with less effort when you return to your work.

Exercise: Take a brief exercise break. Exercise “feeds your brain” as well as your body, allowing them to function at their best. You’ll notice that distractions can be overcome with greater ease and your productivity will increase.

Sleep: Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier than you normally do. It just might be enough to make you feel better on waking, with energy, focus, and increased productivity.

Read things you enjoy reading. Fiction, non-fiction, business, or news – reading is mind food, helping you to learn and grow. Try reading something without distraction that you can learn from.

All of these things can be done in small increments of time (baby steps!) to begin. If you find one or more that helps you to focus and become more productive, you’ll now have the capacity to increase the time you spend with it and observe how it helps you to become a better leader. You might be surprised that a few extra minutes gives back so much more to your day.


Four things managers need to stop and start doing


Over the years, I’ve amassed a fair amount of information about what managers need to start and stop doing in order to be at their best as leaders. This information has been gathered through conversations (interviews) with bosses, peers, and direct reports of the managers both at the beginning of a coaching engagement and toward the end (to measure progress).

This information can be consolidated into general “themes” which might say a lot about what stakeholders want from managers. These themes are prevalent with managers in small and large companies of all kinds, and at all levels within those companies:

  1. Stop doing work others should do and start letting them do it: Most managers I’ve worked with have room to do more delegating. Their employees get frustrated because they are fully capable of doing the work the manager is doing. When the manager and I talk about their need to delegate, I often hear that they fear cutting the chord, believing that things won’t be done “right” (translation: things won’t be done their way). This is about control, which only serves the manager and not the organization.

    My thoughts: If you’re not delegating enough, you aren’t realizing the wealth of untapped potential in your employees who are anxious to be autonomous and be challenged! If it’s true that if you believe your employees aren’t capable of doing the work they are meant to do, then you should fire them and start over with employees you can believe in. By the way, if you haven’t noticed yet, you’re burning yourself out while doing too much!

  2. Stop ignoring key relationships and start nurturing them: Almost all managers need to set a priority to develop important relationships with stakeholders who will help them and their organization to become successful and sustainable. When smart managers and I talk about this, they often say they don’t have time to work on relationships at work. There is no leadership without relating to others so put relationships at the top of your priority list.

    My thoughts: The chances that you’ll fail because you’re too smart are small. But the chances you’ll be successful by nurturing key relationships is great. Your brain-smarts will only go so far in an organization. As you work your way up the leadership ladder, it’s absolutely essential to make sure that you develop and nurture key relationships. Many leaders find that it works to identify their important stakeholders and schedule regular meetings with them.

  3. Stop talking so much and start listening more: Over-talking and failing to listen to others might appear to be a very minor indiscretion on the part of a manager. In the end, failing to listen to others and really hear them results in problems all the way from strained relationships to ethical breaches to failure of an important initiative. All this can happen because a manager feels like they have to be heard but are unwilling to listen to others.

    My thoughts: The kind of listening that you need to cultivate requires you to be fully present, to shut off the judging chatter and waiting for your turn to speak. This is the kind of deep listening where you stop talking and open your ears AND your heart to hear others in a way that promotes understanding and learning. It’s harder and more important than you might think.

  4. Stop being tactical and start broadening your scope. When you’re in a position that requires you to become more visionary, staying tactical bore your manager, employees, and others who have your career in their hands. It will keep your organization from being everything it can be. When you broaden your sights, your organization can exceed its goals and expectations (and you just might be seen as promotable).

    My thoughts: You can’t fully lead until you’ve mastered this, and it is often aligned with #1 above. When you stop doing the tactical day to day work and allow your team to step up, you leave room in your brain to think bigger, more strategically, and to develop and realize a vision.

If you’re pondering what your developmental opportunities for the year might be, take a look at these four things, find one that resonates with you, set some goals, and take action.

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.


Do a work-life synergy checkup


The word “synergy” comes from Greek origins meaning “working together”. In the world we live in now with instant connectivity and speed of light decisions, we have choices to make about how we’ll integrate all parts of our lives. “Work-life synergy” seems a more relevant and realistic term than “work-life balance”.

There are ways to discover how all parts of your life can integrate and work together to assist you in being the best leader and human being you can be. Most leaders I talk to are trying to figure out how to make everything work together in a way that can reduce their stress level. I believe you can do this if you begin by recognizing the early warning signs of stress that may be subtle and throw you off center, reducing your ability to be at your best.

Consider the following questions that you can ask yourself to check up on your current ability to synergize your life:

Check in with your body: In general, what is your body telling you? What bodily signs do you notice that might be a signal for you to reconsider the life you live now? When you check in with your breath, your heart, and your digestive system, what are they telling you? What do you sense as you scan your muscles? What else do you notice with your body that might be out of sorts? What steps do you need to take to assure that your body is healthy? Your body can be a warning signal that stress is taking its toll.

Check in with your energy: What do you notice about your energy throughout the day? What does your level of energy tell you about your life now? What gives you energy? What saps your energy? What strategies do you need to employ to assure that your energy is at its optimal level every day? What needs to occur at work, home, or in other areas of your life for you to maintain the level of energy you need to achieve or surpass your life goals? Your energy level can be an early indicator to consider where you need to make changes in your life.

Check in with your heart: What are you noticing about your enthusiasm and engagement in all arenas of your life? What are you doing to stay connected to your sense of purpose? What personal values are being fulfilled (or not) in your life? What does your inner wisdom say about the status of your relationships? Are you making the contribution you desire to make in the world? Are your highest priorities being treated with care? What place does inner peace have in your life? What direction is your heart telling you to take now? Your heart is your emotional center, driving you with passion or putting up barriers and creating stress.

Many leaders I know are driven in one part of their life (often in the work arena) and neglect the other parts of their lives. Are you one of those? Conduct a regular work-life synergy checkup to help you to figure out where you need to focus more attention in order to be at your best.


Having difficult conversations with heart


Susan, a manager of managers, had been thinking about the conversation she should have with Jackie for some time now. Jackie’s micromanaging, overly-direct behavior with her employees and peers was becoming a problem. The thoughts about the situation circled in Susan’s brain while her fears kept her from actually initiating the tough conversation.

“Maybe I should just ignore the disruptive behavior”, Susan thought. “After all, Jackie is very good at her work. She’s not so good with people skills, but as long as she’s doing her job, isn’t that enough?”.

Sound familiar to you? Maybe at some time, you’ve been through the same scenario. Unfortunately, ignoring the situation may be an excuse to avoid admitting you’re fearful of having the conversation because:

You don’t know how you’ll react in a tough conversation in a way that is present, calm and composed. You may have a tendency to retreat into yourself or explode from exasperation, which only serves to make things worse.

You fear the other person’s reaction to what you have to address. You might be anxious about hurting them emotionally, or uneasy that they’ll explode, and you don’t know how to handle these situations.

You don’t know how to begin the tough conversation. Although you’re well versed in the problem at hand, you don’t know where to start the conversation and how you begin is important for the conversation to be respectful and calm.

You know that the situation can get worse if you don’t address it soon. It can negatively impact your team and the organization at large. You need to address it by:

Managing yourself: Be resourceful in managing yourself so you can stay calm and composed. Set an intention for your own behavior and try deep breathing, grounding and centering yourself prior to the meeting. Envision a conversation where you don’t judge or make assumptions about the other person’s thinking or how they’ll react (because you don’t really know). You are present, respectful, calm, and compassionate in the dialog, no matter what happens.

Beginning the conversation with clarity and compassion: Tell the person briefly, compassionately, and clearly what you’ve observed. Don’t delay the point or use too many words (your nervousness may have caused this to happen in the past, but today you are present, respectful, calm, and compassionate). A brief sentence or two to describe the behavior succinctly is enough.

Listening: After you say what you need to say, just listen. Let silence unfold, and don’t feel the need to fill it. If indeed you’ve been present, respectful, calm, and compassionate, the other person with will begin the rest of the conversation that you both need to have. You may now be able to find a way to solve the issue together, as partners (note the distinction here; you are a partner, not the boss in this conversation).

How you show up for difficult conversations is important. You have your best chance of having an engaging conversation when you do it with heart – in a present, respectful, calm and compassionate way.



Coach those who want to help themselves


Does one of the following scenarios hit close to home for you?

Scenario 1: You’ve been watching one of your regional managers closely for some time, and gosh, can he ever generate sales. He treats customers with great care and his salespeople are bringing in the dollars; the numbers for his region were up significantly last year.

Just one little thing – his employees and peers are streaming into your office telling you that he’s volatile, “going off” on them for every little thing that they do that isn’t exactly the way he would do it. You wonder if he is “successful” because he’s instilled fear in others. You’ve had a dialog with him about what you’re hearing and he blames others, who won’t do things right without the slight “nudging” (his word) he gives them.

Your rational brain whispers “But the sales……are up”.

Scenario 2: You have a brilliant engineer on your team that you’ve recently promoted into management. Smart as a whip, and as an individual contributor, she’s always been able to bring home results on time and within budget.

Her position now requires her to work with her peers, but she’s withholding information that is crucial for a key project to get completed. And her direct reports are close to mutiny with the way she micromanages their work. You’ve discussed her tendency to hold information too close and to over-manage the work of her employees. She doesn’t see it that way, she’s simply protective of the work they’re doing and wants it to be perfect.

Your logical brain says “But she’s so……brilliant”.

In either scenario, you know change needs to happen. What will you do?


What you’ve decided to do

You’ve enrolled in a class in “coaching skills” and are ready to help your manager to see what they’re doing wrong and find a way to correct it. You believe in human potential and can’t wait to use your new skill to help them develop and become a better manager.

Six months of regular coaching your manager passes….then nine. Their employees and peers are still coming to you with complaints about the same things you heard before you started working with them. What went wrong?

Excuses. Denial. Resistance.

Your zeal in wanting to help your manager is commendable, and your belief in their potential to correct their behavior should be admired. However, in this case, the hope you had for their salvation was futile. You’ve realized now that they are impacting the organization negatively, and you have to deal with the situation through your performance management process. You’ve learned a lesson in where to expend your coaching efforts.

Honestly, the clues that your coaching may not help them came before you started coaching meetings. You heard excuses, denial and resistance in their replies.

Sometimes these traits can be overcome, but in many cases they can’t. You could try hiring a coach from the outside, but if your managers aren’t ready to accept responsibility for their behaviors, you may just flush your investment down the toilet.

When coaching your direct reports, be wary of excuses, denial and resistance; if they don’t subside, you may need to change your tactics. In the future, consider using your coaching efforts to help those who want to help themselves.



Is kindness as important as toughness in leadership?


I once interviewed for a position where the hiring manager interrogated me mercilessly. The immediate impression I had of him as a leader was not favorable. My concern was that he would be overly demanding to his staff and possibly a micromanager. I thought he’d be very tough (in an unfavorable way) to work for.

Luckily, I spoke with some of his direct reports to find out more about him after the interview. Several stories from those who reported to him illustrated his kindness; there wasn’t evidence that he would be excessively tough to work for.

I was offered, and accepted the position. It required me to work closely with my new manager on a particular high-profile committee in the company that included top executives. I discovered that this manager was one of the best I’d ever had in terms of balancing his intervention in the work I did as I was learning with trusting that I was capable of doing what was required to have our business area seen by the executives as professional and effective. My new manager was both tough and kind.

This manager’s criticism was delivered with care and his praise and recognition was just frequent enough to give me the confidence to know that he believed in me. In turn, I had no problem giving him feedback or suggesting new ways to operate; he wanted it and received it with grace. Finally, our team (those who reported to him) forged bonds with each other that I found to be rare. We helped each other out when there was a crunch, and we delivered feedback without rancor. We were both tough and kind to each other, and we accomplished a lot.


What the data is showing


More and more data is showing that managers who focus on results while still showing kindness are what the world needs now:


  • Projecting warmth before establishing competence in a new position is more effective than beginning with toughness.


  • When leaders are fair to their team, the team reflects fairness to each other and to customers


  • Employees would rather be happy than have more pay


  • A focus on results and social skills are necessary to be seen as a great leader


How many leaders are both results and people focused?

Management Research Group has mined the data of 60,763 leaders who completed the LEA360 (a multi-rater feedback tool) to answer the question: Can leaders be both caring and focused on achievement?. Within that sample, they found only .77% (that’s not a typo; the number is less than 1%!) of leaders who were in the top 1/3 of the population studied that had a balanced focus on both achievement and caring.

Part of the reason for this strikingly low number is that the brain only seems capable of focusing on results or people at one time, as they’re processed in different parts of the brain. However, we know that the brain is “plastic”, with the ability to change, so with intention and practice, you can change how you react and lead over time to be more balanced.

So even if being overly tough or overly caring is your ingrained response mode, I believe you can become more balanced. It takes practice, focus and dedication. It’s hard. But your balance in these areas can help your organization to get better results.

The bottom line is that we need toughness (results-orientation) AND kindness (caring for others) in our leaders. What if we started rewarding leaders for knowing how to balance these traits? Where do you stand on the continuum between results and caring? What impact would achieving balance have on your organization?


This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.

Want charisma? Know who you are and act accordingly.


Robert (not his real name) is one of the most charismatic leaders I’ve ever known. Simultaneously he also happens to be ethical, effective, influential and even inspiring. He is graceful in his approaches with both his board and the people he leads; in return they express great respect for him. Comfortable in his skin and able to get along with anyone, he might be considered the “ideal” leader, the one we want to be or be like in the way we lead.

His charisma is just who he is. There is never a hint that he may be playing a role or putting up a false front. He is very self-aware of himself and the impact he has on others.

We love charismatic leaders – the ones we so often think of who are at ease in their approach and able to speak and act in a way that draws others into their vision and creates great organizations that get results. Charismatic leaders are attractive, and they are true to themselves; they don’t “act”, they just “are”.

Consider Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Margaret Thatcher (frankly, I would throw Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres into the mix too). For the record, charisma can reside in evil leaders too. These (Adolph Hitler, Charles Manson types) are not the subject of this post.

I urge you to watch those leaders you admire in order to hone your own style. However, beware that imitating the charismatic leaders you admire might be a bad idea – especially if you take on a way of showing up in the world that isn’t really you. The most effective leaders are genuine and true to themselves. That requires some work that goes beyond observation of others to truly knowing who you are and what works for you.

If you want to be a charismatic leader, you have to start by getting to the heart of who you are. And then as you take on new, potentially more effective behaviors, you can try them on for “fit”:

Learn about you by observing, journaling, reflecting, taking self-assessments (MBTI, DiSC, etc.), hiring a coach. Get to know your values and life purpose. It’s all useful for beginning the journey of being a charismatic (genuine) leader.

Ask for specific feedback on your behaviors from those who observe you in action. Some example questions you can ask: What should I start, stop, continue doing? What am I doing that prevents you from being at your best?

Observe others who lead well. These can be people at your organization, or others that you observe elsewhere (movies, TV, books). What do you notice that they’re doing that makes them genuine that you might be willing to experiment with?

Choose, try, and tweak the new behaviors you want to attempt. For example, if you’d like to listen better, try that. Tweak the behavior so it’s just right for you and the impact you want to make (too much listening, for example, may prevent you from speaking up when your voice needs to be heard).

Keep practicing until your new behavior feels like a sustainable “fit” for you.

Charisma isn’t magic and it can be within your reach when you make a conscious decision to be true to who you are.


Can you make an impact and still have a life?


A successful leader was seeking new ideas for his career. His life in a respected Fortune company was stressful, and he’d been at it for a while. He posed a question he’d been thinking about for a long time:

Can I have a career where I can make an impact and still have dinner with my family?

I had to stop and think about that. I’d spent many years in Corporate America, and felt that, honestly, I gave up a lot for both my career and my family when decisions I made were not advantageous to what mattered to me and others in my life.

If you’re human, you know the feeling of guilt and the stress it causes when you have to decide between attending the programs your kids are involved in vs. the important meeting requested by the C-suite executive scheduled at the same time. Or a sick elderly mother who needs you NOW when you have an urgent work deadline that’s going to require every last minute of your time.

These are the times that try your soul, and you have to be very clear about what matters to make the decision that’s right for you.

Yes, it’s possible for you to make an impact and still have a life outside of work. In fact, I think it’s preferable, because all parts of your life work together to inform all others, making you the best leader you can be through your varied experiences. The way to make the best decisions that will assure you stay balanced in all areas of your life will happen when you:

Know what you value: Be clear when about what’s important in your life when you have to choose where to spend your time. Consider who/what you want to make the biggest impact on and how that impact coincides with what you value.

Identify what you’re here for: Have a life purpose statement that you can commit to. Spend some time thinking about what you’re on this planet for, and remember and invoke your resolve in this area when you have tough work-life decisions to make.

Surround yourself with people who can help: At work or at home, very few of us have to “go it alone”. Find smart, capable people who can help you out when you ask for it. If you’re a people manager, developing your team to step up will be crucial.

Stay grounded in all of the above: Don’t just react – be intentional and use the above strategies when you have to decide between two or more choices. When you’re intentional and grounded, you’ll be ready to weather the conflicts that come your way.

When all of the above fail, you can make other choices: Sometimes a tougher decision has to be made, and you’ll find yourself choosing something unexpected if you keep your options open. You always have a choice – but knowing what you value and why you’re on the planet will help you to decide. The leader mentioned above decided in favor of leaving the Fortune company and taking a position at a smaller company that placed more emphasis on work-life balance.


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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