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The leader you will be


Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you to consider that the leader you are now is highly linked to who you are. You are unique, and what is both obvious and hidden to you about who you are greatly impacts your behavior and actions. You, as a human being, are the leader you are because of a multitude of things that make up you: personality, history, education and beliefs among others.

Likewise, the leader you will become is highly linked to the human you will become. A day from now, a week, month, year and decade into the future you will be someone different because you will be influenced by everything that happens in that time. You will change.

Some changes come to us in the form of the unexpected. So when those surprises happen we can thoughtfully and intentionally choose how we’ll react; and then we can decide how we’ll learn and change from them.

Then there are the changes we can consciously and purposefully make in ourselves. These are the things we get to choose proactively and intentionally about the kind of human being we want to be. Putting your effort into shaping yourself into the best person you can (choose to) be will mold you into the leader that you will be. It’s hard. It requires you to look at all of the things that currently shape you – the good, the bad, and the terrifying.

It will make a difference to how you lead. The human being you will be is the leader you will be. Why not shoot for the stars? Envision who you are as a person in that imagined, but perfect future. You can start with:

The destination: What kind of leader do you want to be? When you take a deep look at yourself today and consider all of the options available to become something more, what do you see? How will others see you? What beliefs, thoughts, qualities, values and behaviors will you have?

The path: What is the path you’ll take to become the person and leader you will be? Who can support you? What do you need to put in order before you begin walking on the path you’ve chosen? What are you fearful of, and how will you overcome your fears?

The way: What’s the first step you can take? How will you stay true to your destination? How will you choose when the path doesn’t follow the direction you thought it would? What can you do to sustain yourself while you reach for the stars?

The leader you will become is so much less about what you do as it is about who you become as a person. Why not be intentional about how you will shape yourself as a human being? When you set your personal destination, path and a way to get there, great leadership can follow; you can become the leader you’ve chosen to be.



10 conversations you’re avoiding and how to start them


How often do you have a conversation with your team that consists of something other than what’s being done, what needs to get done, and what they didn’t do? Slow down and include some conversations that are a level deeper than that; you’ll find that if you ask a few good starting questions and listen, you – and they – will learn, grow, and develop the kind of relationships that actually help to get things done with enjoyment and engagement.

There are lots of conversations you can have that you aren’t. Here are some of my favorites and some questions you can ask to get things going:


1. Development: You don’t have to dream up development plans for your team members all by yourself. Enlist their help with questions like:

What do you imagine your future looks like?

What do you think you can do to move toward your imagined future? How can I help?

2. Leadership: Share your leadership with your team by having a conversation about what it means for them to be leaders. Begin the conversation with:

What words would you use to describe your leadership now?

What kind of leader do you want to be? How will you get there?

3. Values: By having a conversation about the values you share as a team, you make them explicit. Ask:

What are the top values that we share together as a team?

What does it mean for us to truly commit to those values? How will we hold each other accountable for them?

4. Ethics: The conversation about ethics often doesn’t happen until it’s too late. Be proactive by inquiring:

What is our team code of ethics?

How will we self-manage around the code?

5. Conversations: A conversation about conversations? Yes, absolutely! Ask:

What conversations do we need to have that we aren’t having?

If we were to have a conversation now about how we can improve our work (or whatever other topic you need to dialog), how would we start?

6. Relationships: My guess is that you’re not talking about relationships, a foundation for great teams and leadership. Begin today by asking:

What relationships, that when improved can help us to achieve our goals?

If you could describe our team relationships in one sentence, what would that sentence say?

7. Team conflict: Conflict is everywhere – you can’t avoid it. Have a conversation about the elephants in the room by probing:

What conflicts within the team aren’t we talking about?

How will we manage conflict now and in the future?

8. Balance: Everyone wants “balance” but almost nobody is talking explicitly about it. Start by inquiring:

What questions do we need to ask ourselves to assure we’re balanced in all areas of our lives?

What do I need to do to promote and model work/life balance for all of us?

9. Appreciation: Your team craves appreciation. Why not learn together about how to appreciate each other by asking:

What do we need to learn about how to appreciate each other?

How can we best express our appreciation to each other?

10. Helping: Great teams learn to recognize when teammates need help. Help your team become aware of how to know when help is needed with these questions:

What opportunities do we see to help each other more?

What assumptions and challenges do we need to test that keep us from asking for (or accepting) other team members’ help?


Sometimes you may not know how to begin a conversation you need to have with your team. Questions are a great way to start!



Beyond brilliance: gaining wisdom

Many of you have achieved a certain status or position in your companies because you’re intelligent. Like others who’ve risen through the ranks by being knowledgeable, you may have discovered a big obstacle in your leadership. You’ve realized that brilliance isn’t enough for you to be the best leader you want to be. You may now see that you need to focus more on the people who support you, but you’re stuck because they’re unpredictable and not subject to any of the things you’ve learned through books and education.

It’s time to develop the wisdom it takes to work well with people; it’s something that you just don’t learn in traditional ways. The good news is that if you are awake, aware and see people as essential to your organization’s success, wisdom can follow if you are willing to learn in a different way.

Your organization, community, and our world desperately need you to go beyond brilliance. We need you to develop the wisdom to lead people well, and that requires your intention, dedication and time to:

Get to know people: I’ve heard it all too often: “I don’t have time to spend with people”. The consequences of such a strategy can be dire. When you begin to spend quality time listening to your stakeholders, you begin to understand their talent and potential. When you fully help others to utilize their strengths, then you can be wise in finding work that satisfies and motivates them without the assumptions that result in errors of judgment about who is best able to do work. Schedule and spend time with the people who are important to you and to your organizational mission. Get to know them, discover their gifts, and become aware of what matters to them.

Do right by others: Wise leaders know how to balance business needs with the right things to do for the people involved. You can learn to treat others with kindness, care, and empathy even in the toughest business situations when you listen to them deeply. Stop talking and slow down. When tough decisions need to be made that involve others, use your heart to ask what the moral choice would be; you’ll know. Business can be brutal, but you don’t have to be.

Reflect: You won’t always make the right choices about people. Learn from your mistakes by taking the time to reflect on what you’d do differently next time. This reflection can be painful, it takes time, AND it helps you to cultivate the kind of wisdom required to lead others. The next time you’re confronted with a similar (because they’re never the same) situation, you will be confident and assured that you are acting with others in mind.

Brilliance will only take you so far. The wisdom to lead others requires a different kind of learning and it’s exactly what the world needs of you now.


Gaining the courage to move through fear


Adele is a leader in a company that produces software. She’s climbed relatively quickly to her current position, where she is a “manager of managers”. Although she’s been in this position for only nine months, she’s hit a barrier in her ability to lead her new team.

Adele is risk-averse. In an industry that’s fast moving and very competitive, success comes with taking risks. Adele’s need to be absolutely certain that the end products of her team’s work will be perfect will eventually translate into lost revenue for the company. Things won’t get done on time, or there may be a lot of unnecessary tweaking of final products before they’re launched.

She doesn’t recognize that she’s fearful yet; but her boss is starting to notice something’s amiss and asked me to work with Adele. I recognized the signs of her fears during our first couple of months of work together when she had intellectually gone through the motions of working with me, but wasn’t willing to take even the smallest step toward changing her behavior.

At some point, she trusted me enough to name it: “I’m afraid”. Fear. It permeates everything in organizations, and is particularly insidious when it’s hidden in the hearts of leaders like Adele. Her team is waiting for her to step up because they want to move forward. They want her to demonstrate the courage they also lack, so that they can match it and make the difference every one of them wants to make.

Because Adele has finally taken in the reality that fear is behind her lack of progress, she feels like she can do something about it.

If you recognize your own need to develop more courage in Adele’s story, you can begin here:

Baby steps: Trying new risky things in small baby steps helps to move things along. If you’ve broken things down into small enough bites, when they don’t work out, the negative impacts are minimal. Look for opportunities to ramp up the risk to bigger steps, and celebrate your success in gaining courage as you go along.

Asking for help: Adele had me to support her, to help her think through the risks and to stand beside her when she failed as well as when she succeeded. Eventually, we’d work for her to continue her courage journey by finding others to support her. Find someone who can be a courage partner to stand beside you in your journey in a confidential way.

Continuous inclusion and feedback: Include your team in the courage journey; chances are, your vulnerability and the support you get will engage and motivate them. Facilitate, coach, and involve them at every step. Ask for feedback from them and any other stakeholders who are important to your success in gaining confidence and courage.

It takes courage to lead, yet behind almost any excuse you make for not moving forward – with work projects, or with personal change –  is fear. Recognize it as such, and take baby steps with the support of others toward developing the confidence you need to lead with courage.


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.



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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