Instilling Ownership and Accountability in a Virtual Environment

Instilling Ownership and Accountability in a Virtual Environment

Working from home can have its perks—no commute, more family time, and less distractions. But it can also be challenging to lead a team that you don’t see in the office every day. Several leaders have expressed frustration that some team members aren’t as responsive, or they lack follow through since they have been working from home. The lack of personal interaction can make it more challenging to check-in with team members who aren’t pulling their weight.

So how do you instill a sense of ownership and accountability in a virtual environment?

1. Establish goals and outcomes.

Although there may be less distractions when employees are working from home, it also can be challenging to focus. As a leader, it is important to set clear goals, outcomes, and deadlines for projects and tasks so that each of your team members know exactly what your expectations are. Focusing on outcomes allows an employee to take ownership of a task or project, and alleviates you from having to micromanage the process. When creating an outcome, think about what the end result would look like and communicate that to the employee. At the beginning of the week, communicate exactly what you are expecting for each employee to complete, the deadline for completion, and how they should submit their work.

2. Create Structures.

This is not the time for a completely hands-off approach. As a leader, it is important to create structures that will support the achievement of tasks to move projects forward. You want the right balance between giving your team members some freedom to come up with their own solutions and manage their own time, while providing guidance and support when needed. For employees who are self-starters and manage their time well, a weekly check-in may be sufficient for communicating progress. For employees who need more direction or guidance, a daily call may be necessary. Another structure could be weekly “office hours” you make available for employees to schedule time with you to ask questions or get support.

3. Adjust your leadership style.

You may have one team member who only needs a clear goal and can work independently and autonomously. Another employee may need more specific direction and instructions. It’s important to know the working style of each of your employees, and how you can support them best. Daily check-ins may make one employee feel micromanaged, yet may be necessary to keep another employee on track. Don’t frustrate your employees who are naturally accountable and take initiative by micromanaging their daily work. Create structures that work to support how your employee works best. A good practice is to ask each employee in your next one-on-one call. Here are some examples of what you might ask:

      • How is this check-in structure working for you? Would you prefer to meet more often? Less often?
      • After working virtually the past two months, what have you noticed works best for you to accomplish your tasks?
      • Is there anything you would change about how we are communicating?

If you notice a drop in production or missed deadlines, use your next one-on-one call to coach the employee. Don’t avoid the discussion, approach the employee in a non-confrontational way so you can support him to get back on track.

Examples of questions might be:

      • “I’ve noticed the past two weeks that you have missed three deadlines. What can you do differently going forward to ensure you are meeting your deadlines?”
      • “What got it the way of finishing the project?”
      • “What will you do to make sure this is completed today?”

4. Institute collaboration software.

Collaboration software such as MS Teams or Asana can help to manage projects and deadlines, particularly if you have multiple employees working on a project,. I know several virtual teams that use collaboration software on a regular basis to track projects. Having a public forum like a software program to list who owns a task and important deadlines can provide the necessary peer accountability for an employee to take action.

It does take some effort to keep projects and tasks on track. As a leader, your job is to facilitate the best performance from your employees by adjusting your leadership style to coach them through challenges and obstacles, and supporting them to meet objectives.

The Three Most Important Leadership Actions During a Crisis

The Three Most Important Leadership Actions During a Crisis

I’m writing this article from my walk-in closet during the second week of being at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now it’s the quietest place in my house as we navigate this new normal. My regular office is being used by one of my three kids who are being “homeschooled” while my husband and I balance running two businesses virtually. I’m not sure how much learning is happening right now, but we are doing our best to manage this challenging situation. This is real life. It’s messy and it’s difficult.

Each of your employees has their own situation and challenges during this unprecedented time. Some may have elderly parents who are at higher risk, some find themselves teaching their children while they juggle work, and others may have a spouse who is self-employed or recently laid off. Each situation is different, yet many of us are experiencing the same emotions of fear, uncertainty, and frustration.

Many of my clients have been working overtime to get their employees set up remotely so they can continue to serve their members and clients as effectively as possible. Some are strategizing how to handle the uncertain economic outlook as we navigate this change. These are all Important and urgent responsibilities that leaders need to navigate. But leadership is not just about solving problems.  There is another important responsibility that we should not forget while we continue to ensure our operations run as smoothly as possible: caretaking the culture.

Now more than ever it is important for leaders in organizations to put leadership into practice. Leadership is not a title or position. Leadership is a verb—it requires action. Just like a garden requires water, soil, and sun to thrive, relationships require cultivation to thrive. This means leaders need to show up, connect, support, and provide clarity; especially during challenging times. Exceptional leaders will rise to the challenge and seamlessly do what they do best: connect with each human being who is on their team and listen, support, and encourage. But I fear mediocre managers will hide behind their laptops and focus on technical work rather than the important actions required of great leadership.

Below are three areas to focus on to be an exceptional leader and manage your team in this uncertain time:

1. Acknowledge and address emotions.

This is so important during this time, and cannot be overlooked. Employees aren’t looking for a cheerleader to tell them to think positive and everything will be fine. It’s important to provide hope for our employees, but only after we have acknowledged their feelings. Each manager must connect individually with each of your employees (preferably through video if you are working remotely) to understand the impact this challenging situation has had on them personally. This means scheduling a one-on-one video call with every one of your employees to ask them how they are doing during this challenging time. Not only will this allow your employee to express their fears and challenges so they can work through those uncertainties, but knowing this information will allow you to support each individual better.

I led a virtual leadership session this morning where we spent 45 minutes allowing the twelve leaders to share how this virus has impacted them personally, and how they are navigating the changes. By the end of the 45 minutes, the leaders were more positive and were sharing tips with each other on how to work in a virtual environment more effectively. One of the worst things leaders can do in a crisis is to gloss over the hard part (emotions) and focus on plans of action. People need to feel heard and understood before they can move to problem solving. You simply cannot ignore human emotions and fears. Your employees will appreciate that you care about them and their families, and they will respond with more discretionary effort. The Kubler-Ross Model—Stages of Grief is a great resource to understand how humans process not only grief, but big changes such as mergers, layoffs, and pandemics.

2. Create Clarity.

Communication is always an important part of leadership, yet during challenging times, clear and frequent communication is more important than ever. In this virtual environment, the best way to create clarity and keep the lines of communication open is to create structures to support dialogue.

  • Virtual meetings: I recommend at least one team meeting each week and regular check-in calls with your direct reports. One of my clients is holding a morning and end of day check in call with their teams every day. In the morning, they set the goals for the day (creating clarity for what needs to get done) and in the afternoon they check-in on progress. This has kept their projects moving along on schedule. Mediocre and poor managers tend to take the easy route by retreating to their virtual office while focusing on their own technical work. Exceptional leaders know that the effort they put into creating communication structures will keep everyone engaged and on track.
  • Office Hours: Another great practice for supporting your employees is to create weekly “office hours”. Much like a professor has office hours where students can drop in to get help or ask questions, leaders can offer specific times during their week where employees can schedule individual time with you.

3. Caretake the Culture.

It can be challenging to keep a team engaged when they aren’t interacting in person every day, but it is possible to create connection virtually. Here are five tips for ensuring a positive, engaged culture during this challenging time:

  • Connect with each employee individually, preferably through video, at least once a week.
  • At the start of each meeting, take some time for a short teambuilding exercise. Some of my favorites:
      • One Word: ask each person to share one word to describe their state of mind. This is a great exercise to gauge how your employees are feeling.
      • New or Good: What is something new or good that has happened in the last week?
      • Questions: pick one question that each person answers. For example, “What is the best vacation you have ever been on?”
      • Positivity exercise: give everyone one minute to write down anything positive that has happened in the past week. Ask each person to share one before the start of the meeting.
      • Ask each person to share a strategy or tip for working successfully from home.
  • Hold a virtual coffee or “happy hour” at the end of the week where everyone can bring their favorite drink and catch up socially. It’s important to build in time for people to connect outside of the typical task-focused meetings.
  • Send a handwritten card or a small gift in the mail to each employee to let them know you are thinking of them. You can order a book, bookmark, coffee mug, journal, or even a box of chocolates right from Amazon (if you search “gift for employee” on Amazon, you will see some great options).
  • Recognize milestones like work anniversaries, birthdays, marriage anniversaries, and baby milestones at the start of weekly team meetings. Encourage employees to share a picture with the milestone. For example, while “homeschooling” my three kids last week, they all (finally) learned how to ride their bikes. A huge win, as it gets them outside more!

  • Communicate and encourage boundaries. Some leaders worry that their employees won’t work hard enough when working from home, but a two-year study from Stanford University showed that employees in the study were 13% more productive when working from home. As leaders, it’s important to encourage employees to set healthy boundaries like taking breaks, stopping work at a certain time, and not checking emails after hours. Model this behavior for your staff and share with them how you create healthy boundaries so you can take care of yourself mentally and physically.

Being human and transparent during this time will allow you to deepen your connections with each employee and keep them engaged in their work. Remember, it is your responsibility as a leader to provide support, remove obstacles, and create connection on your team. It takes even more effort to do this in a virtual environment. And this is our job as leaders. Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility, and it takes daily effort and consistent practices to show up as an exceptional leader each day for your team.

Your Leadership Energy Matters

A few years ago, I switched to a new chiropractor. When I entered the office for my first appointment, the receptionist barely looked up as she unenthusiastically muttered, “Yes?”. Her unfriendly greeting had an immediate impact on my mood as I felt my energy drop. Needless to say, her lack of welcoming energy and friendliness had an impact on my entire experience at the office.

I’m certain you have experienced this before—the customer service representative who has no business being in a customer service role. First impressions matter; and it only takes a few seconds for someone to pick up on the energy (or lack thereof) of the person across from them. We train our member service representatives to be friendly and knowledgeable to provide the best service. Yet it still mystifies me how many organizations don’t hire people in customer service roles who actually like interacting with people. Customer service roles are often the first point of contact a customer has with an organization, and can leave a lasting impression; whether good or bad. There is another important position where our energy matters—leadership.

When you are a leader, you are being watched every day, whether you like it or not. Your employees, your colleagues, and your manager are all impacted by your actions, your words, and your energy. Even subconsciously, people are picking up on your energy at work. Do you consistently appear overwhelmed and stressed out? Are you tired or irritated? You are likely transferring that energy to those around you.

Every morning, when you walk into the office, what kind of tone are you setting? Are you greeting your employees with a warm “good morning!”? Your enthusiasm and warmth have to be genuine, but many leaders are not purposeful with how they show up at the office each day.

When you come to a meeting with your colleagues or a coaching session with one of your employees, are you completely present, listening and connecting to the person in front of you? Or are you distracted or inattentive?

We should always be conscious of the energy we are putting out into the world. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a bad day or that we have to be positive and upbeat all the time. Certain situations may not call for an upbeat or friendly demeanor. But it does mean that as leaders, we should be aware that our mindset, energy, and language impacts everyone around us. Our employees look to their leaders for cues on how to behave, and we need to be aware that we are sending as much of a message with our energy as we are with our words and actions. As leaders, we have a responsibility to model the behaviors we want to elicit from others.

Your energy can be impactful outside of work too. I have been conscious of my energy when I walk in the door at home after work. Although sometimes I arrive home tired and stressed from a long day or a terrible commute, before I walk in the door, I consciously release that energy and put a smile on my face to greet my children. I’ve noticed that when I enter the house with positive energy, they give me positive energy (and behavior) back. People often mirror our energy and mindset back to us.

So next time you are entering the office, a meeting, a coaching session, or walking around the office, pause and think about the energy you want to consciously spread to others. Your level of positivity and engagement can impact the mindset and engagement of those around you.

Read This Book to Have an Awesome Year

Before the year began, my husband and I took a mini-vacation to a bed and breakfast in West Virginia to relax and unwind. With three young kids at home, it’s not often we get away together alone. One of our favorite things to do is read by the fire. On this trip, I read two books cover to cover, and one impacted me so much, I want to share it with you.

In studying success for over 25 years, there is something I have discovered that is a common theme in high achievers—they have a bias for action. They have the same fears, doubts, anxieties, and challenges as everyone, but they push through the negative mind chatter and get themselves to do things they may not feel like doing. Success and confidence are not innate qualities, they are the result of small actions that compound over time.

In all honesty, my default is laziness. If I didn’t consciously push myself through the barriers my mind creates, I would sit around every day watching Hallmark movies, eating Lindor truffles, and drinking cappuccinos. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these things, but compound them daily over time, and they would not lead me toward my best self. My guess is that your default is also laziness. I know this, because of all the leaders—of all the humans—I have ever worked with, been friends with, or had a conversation with, no one has ever said that sticking to their goals was easy peasy, lemon squeezy (this is a current favorite phrase of my almost seven-year-old).

Sitting by the fire two nights before New Year’s Eve, I was reading the book, The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. I had seen Mel’s Ted Talk a few years ago, so I wasn’t in a rush to read the book. Frankly, I thought the “5 Second Rule” she preaches was too simplistic to be of value. But as I read the book and the case studies from people around the world, I became enthralled with the concept and couldn’t put it down. There was one piece of research that Mel shared that really stuck with me, and made total sense based on my own personal experience. She said that in the quest to reach our goals, thinking is not the problem; we rarely make decisions based on logic. Research has shown that we make 95% of our decisions based on our feelings, not on our thoughts. I reflected on the choices I make each day, and realized that if I didn’t push myself, I would absolutely choose to watch Hallmark movies while drinking cappuccinos and eating chocolate all day.

Left to my feelings, here is how I would make decisions each day:

  • Do I feel like getting up an hour early today? No, I’d rather stay in my warm bed.
  • Do I feel like working out today? No, it’s too much effort.
  • Do I feel like writing two blogs today? No, it takes too much thought.
  • Do I feel like eating a healthy salad for lunch? No, that doesn’t sound delicious!

You see how that works? We make 95% of our decisions based on how we feel in the moment, and our feelings are rarely in our best interest. Change requires us to have the courage to make choices that feel hard and challenging. So what do successful people do? They make decisions before their feelings set in and hijack their life. Mel Robbins’ “5 Second Rule” is about counting backwards—5-4-3-2-1—and then taking action immediately, before your feelings set in and your mind rationalizes why not to do something.

It’s not that successful people aren’t lazy. Most of us would rather take the easy way out rather than have to put forth effort to accomplish something. Successful people make the choice to push through, despite their feelings. It takes bold action—quick action—to move past your feelings and toward your goals. It’s our daily practices that will lead us toward our best self. No one is perfect every day, but if you consistently take action before your feelings set in, those small actions will compound to lead you toward better health, better relationships, better leadership, and a better life.

  • Do I feel like tackling that hard project first thing in the morning? No, but I know if I do, I will get it off my plate and get to leave work on time today.
  • Do I feel like having that tough conversation with my employee? No, but I know it’s necessary to maintain a cohesive team.
  • Do I feel like taking 45 minutes to teach a task I can do in 10 minutes? No, but I know if I delegate it now, I will free up more of my time in the long run.

This morning, when the alarm rang an hour earlier, instead of hitting snooze, I jumped out of bed before my feelings convinced me I needed more sleep. It may seem like a small action, but I started my day off in control—in control of my actions, in control of my goals, and in control of my life.

Three Pillars of Exceptional Leadership

Three Pillars of Exceptional Leadership

One of the biggest challenges professionals face when promoted to a leadership role is where to focus their time and energy. In a sole contributor role, we are rewarded for technical expertise and skill. The transition to leadership can be very different and challenging, as many professionals have not been prepared and developed to master the competencies that are necessary for success.

I remember the first time my vice president gave me feedback after I had been promoted to assistant director of human resources. It was about two months into my new leadership role, and she called me into her office to tell me to stop doing my old job. In my previous role as human resources generalist, I performed several technical jobs like processing payroll and benefits. While I wasn’t still processing payroll every two weeks, anytime someone had a payroll or benefits issue, they were still coming to me to fix them. My boss told me I needed to start delegating; fixing payroll and benefit issues was not my job anymore, and I was expected to coach my employee to perform those functions. She wanted me to focus on creating leadership programs to develop our management team. This was a big shift for me, as I had always equated my value as my technical HR expertise. But in my new leadership role, the competencies required and the value I needed to contribute were vastly different from my previous role.

For many new managers, leadership can feel less tangible than their previous technical role. We aren’t sure where to spend our time, so we become fixers (jumping in to solve problems our employees should take care of) instead of facilitators (facilitating dialogue and coaching employees how to handle challenges themselves).

Leaders need to focus their time and energy on the right areas to facilitate a positive, result-driven team—creating a positive and productive culture. There are three key pillars of exceptional leadership that are important for building trust and commitment, and for producing sustainable results.

Create Clarity: the first pillar is to create clarity. This means consistently sharing the vision and the path for employees so they know where to focus their attention. Leaders need to inspire employees by sharing how their contributions fit into the strategic goals, and then set clear expectations, goals, and deadlines. It is necessary to create clarity daily so employees understand the priorities. This requires the skill of zooming in and out. Zooming out to see the broader strategic picture of what needs to be done, while anticipating obstacles and adjusting priorities, and then zooming in to focus yourself and your staff on what needs to be done in the short-term.

Caretake the Culture: the second pillar is to caretake the culture—develop a relationship with each employee and understand how to adjust your leadership style to bring out each employee’s best performance. This is a very important part of leadership; leaders should be spending a significant amount of time coaching, developing, and providing honest, consistent, meaningful feedback. When an employee struggles, managers should be there providing support and direction. Leaders also need to be approachable, and foster cohesiveness and constructive conflict among their staff. Your job as a leader is to create a positive and results-driven culture—in your functional area, as well as the overall organizational culture.

Consistency and Results: leadership is not effective unless you can facilitate consistent results. This means modeling accountability for your staff, creating structures, following through, and being on top of your own priorities, as well as continuously focusing your staff on the daily goals to lead to results. Leaders must be able to coach employees to focus, remove roadblocks, and make timely and thorough decisions.

To be a successful leader, you must focus on the people side of the business more than ever before, and get results through people. This is why delegation is key. Leaders need to appropriately delegate tasks so they can focus on the most important priorities of creating clarity, caretaking the culture, and delivering consistent results. Not everyone is meant to be a leader. Leadership is a privilege and a huge responsibility. True leadership is in service to others, and requires mastering relationship competencies for success.

Why I terminated our family Au Pair

In August, our family welcomed an Au Pair from Italy who was supposed to be with us for a year. With a busy household of three young kids with many activities, my husband and I were hopeful this was the answer to our struggle of sport schedules, work travel, and two businesses. Having an extra set of hands would reduce some of the stress of managing five different schedules.

Within two weeks of arriving, our ideal vision of a life with our Au Pair had faded to the reality of stress, disappointment, and unfulfilled expectations. A week into her stay, we gave her some candid and supportive feedback about how she could engage better with the kids, and how we needed to increase the driving lessons because her driving skills were much lower than we had expected. A week later, during her fifth driving lesson with my husband, he had to grab the wheel to avoid a catastrophic accident. We realized we could never trust her to drive our kids, which was one of our main goals of the program. We sat down with her and our local consultant from the Au Pair company and respectfully shared the news that we weren’t a good fit for each other. She was upset and disappointed, as were we, but we felt confident in our decision. It would be easy to avoid the conversation and convince ourselves that she is a nice girl and we should try to make it work, but the bottom line was that her skill level was not a fit for our needs. Dragging it out for another two months would be stressful and unpleasant for her and for us.

Although most people were supportive and understood our decision, we were criticized by a couple of people who thought we should have given her more time to adjust. We felt strongly that the issue was not the adjustment period; her fundamental skill level was not a match for our needs and we would never feel confident or comfortable with her driving our children anywhere. Being a nice person didn’t make her effective at the job.

Despite the criticism, we stood by the decision to part ways, which was the best choice for our family, and ultimately the Au Pair. Keeping her in a situation that did not fit her skills was not in her best interest either. Being an only child, she was overwhelmed by three small kids, and would fit better with a family with less kids who did not need a driver.

This type of situation occurs often in our organizations—should we keep someone who is not meeting expectations, or terminate employment. These decisions are not always easy, but they are the hard decisions that leaders must have the courage to make. Keeping a low performer because they are a nice person and people like them does more damage than good to your culture. Choosing to preserve relationships over making hard decisions can frustrate your high performers, increase turnover, and have a negative impact on engagement.

Although these situations can be uncomfortable, we can handle them with respect and kindness. As leaders, we need to set expectations, provide timely and meaningful feedback, and provide coaching and support. It is our responsibility to do what we can to effectively lead an employee to better performance. And if performance isn’t improving, we can part ways with an employee with compassion and kindness.

It is important to take into consideration the whole system when making important people decisions. Sometimes that means a decision that is best for the company over our own department, and sometimes that means letting go of someone who is not a good fit for our team. Keeping an employee who is not a good fit not only has a negative impact on our teams and culture, but also on that individual employee. Releasing that person to find a better fit for their skills is the kind and respectful thing to do. In our case, keeping our Au Pair because she was kind and we felt bad wasn’t helping the fact that we needed someone who could engage with our kids, set limits, and take them to activities. Keeping her was not the right choice for our family system.

Time and again I have seen leaders accept mediocre or low performance to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or situation. I have frequently been called upon as an executive coach when the CEO or senior leader has reached their frustration point and been asked to coach a leader who has been ineffective for 10, 15, 20 or more years. Many times these ineffective leaders have received little or no feedback on the impact of their actions, performance, or behavior. The organization has worked around them, and both sides have suffered. It is our responsibility as leaders to be honest and direct with people so they can improve or find an organization where they will be more successful.

Our Au Pair left two weeks ago to join a new family in New York who have two children and don’t need a driver. By parting ways, our Au Pair was able to find a family where she has the skills to be effective and successful. And we can now find an Au Pair who will meet our needs and be fully successful in our family.

How I Started Taking Unplugged Vacations

How I Started Taking Unplugged Vacations

In mid-August, our family took a ten day vacation to Nashville where we stayed on a 200-acre working ranch with horses, a pool, and a spotty internet connection. If it were over two years ago, I would have panicked at the thought of not being able to check my work email, but on this trip, I deliberately unplugged from work—no emails or phone calls for eight of the ten days. This is progress for me. Although I’ve rarely brought “real” work on vacations, up until two years ago, I had always checked my email several times a day to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, or to answer simple questions. The problem was that I never really disconnected enough to actually enjoy my vacations—there was always an underlying sense of anxiety about what was going on at work.

This all changed two years ago when I joined a program for entrepreneurs. It was there that my coach introduced the entrepreneurial time system, which included free days. Free days are 24-hour periods of complete disconnection from work—no email, no phone calls, no reading any business material. The idea is for you to free your mind and focus on other activities you might enjoy (for me that includes drinking wine, massages, playing tennis, or hiking). This concept seemed so crazy to me at first. What if a potential client emailed me? What if one of my CEO clients had a question? What if people were annoyed, they had to wait over a week for me to get back to them?

In February 2018, I tested the concept out on an eight-day vacation we planned at a resort in southern Virginia. Day one and two were very challenging for me. I found myself frequently grabbing my phone out of habit, but the only thing I could check were my personal email (which was mostly sales emails) and Facebook. I felt an underlying sense of anxiety for two days as I wondered what I could be missing at work. And then something magical happened. By day three, the anxiety had disappeared. I was actually enjoying our vacation—truly enjoying it—without thinking about work. My husband and I went on a hike and had a great conversation, and I wasn’t constantly distracted by things I couldn’t do anything about.

This trip was a huge learning lesson for me. I realized by staying connected to my email, I became worried about small things—things that could wait a week—and it impacted my entire vacation. If a client emailed to ask a simple question, I would think about it all day until I could find a minute to reply. I would begin thinking about all the things I had to do when I got back to the office, instead of being present and enjoying my family who was right in front of me.

It may seem impossible (or feel irresponsible) for you to imagine going on vacation and completely disconnecting from work. I’m sure you take pride in doing a great job, being responsive, and getting things done. But you are truly missing out on an opportunity to free your mind of distractions, improve your relationships, and clear your mind. After your break, you will return more focused and rested, and with creative and better ideas. Your body and mind will get the rest it needs to work at your peak performance.

Our modern culture is so different today then years ago when you didn’t have a phone in your hand or email and texting at your fingertips. As a society we have blurred the lines between work and home. So many professionals are feeling burnt out, exhausted, and overworked from being constantly connected.

There are a couple of things you can do to prepare for your trip to reduce your own anxiety, while also alleviating the questions others may have while you are away.

Set up your auto responders. Before you leave, set up your out of office responder in your email and on your voicemail. This sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how many people I email who are on vacation and forget to put their out of the office message on. This just causes frustration and delays for your members and your colleagues. Here’s a tip: even if you are at a conference or away for one day and plan to check your emails, still set up your out of office responder. This way you are setting the expectation that you will not respond, and if you do, the receiver is pleasantly surprised. For example, I recently attended a four-day conference in Denver and set my auto response message saying I was at a conference and would respond when I returned to the office. I responded to more urgent messages the same day I received them and saved the others for when I actually returned to work.

Provide a contact. Always provide the name and email of someone who can be contacted when you are out of the office (and make sure they are not out of the office too!). When I set up my auto responder, I always include my assistant Lisa’s contact information so clients can have someone to reach out to if they need it. I tell Lisa she can text me if something urgent comes up and she thinks I need to be involved. This rarely happens, but will give you and the person emailing you relief in knowing if something is truly important, it will be handled.

Tie up loose ends. Make sure you follow through on any commitments or projects before you leave the office. Colleagues will be frustrated if you leave and they don’t have what they need while you are gone.

To really enjoy your unplugged vacation, you need to set expectations. Since I started taking unplugged vacations two years ago, I have not once (that anyone has communicated to me) had an issue where a client or partner was frustrated or mad because they received an auto responder and had to wait. In fact, several people have said it’s inspiring to them that I am able to really disconnect. As long as you set expectations of when you will respond and you follow through, it will rarely become an issue. You can be a successful, high performing leader and still take unplugged time to recharge. In fact, you will become more successful and high performing when you do. Personally, I have made more money both years I have taken unplugged vacations compared to years I have not.

And the upside? You will truly enjoy connecting with the special people in your life, and will return more rejuvenated and focused.

Why Great Leaders Invest in Themselves

I just returned from five days at the National Speakers Association conference in Denver, Colorado, where I had the opportunity to learn from the best speakers in the world on how they grow their businesses and stay relevant for their clients. These sessions were invaluable—hearing what worked, what didn’t, and the different approaches speakers take in working with clients and making an impact. I took copious notes which sparked many ideas I hadn’t thought of before.

This conference is one of several professional development sessions I attend each year to develop myself as a professional and business owner. In fact, every year I increase the amount of money I allocate for professional development. I have seen a direct connection between my personal and business growth and the amount I invest in myself.

Most of us didn’t receive any management training before—or even after—we were promoted to a leadership role. Most professional jobs—whether it’s a chef, a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, or even your local barista—require some kind of training or certification. Leadership is the exception. There is a common practice that is contributing to mediocre and bad cultures in organizations; promoting technical superstars into leadership roles. This practice does a disservice to the person being promoted, their employees, and the overall culture. The competencies required in a technical role are different from what is important in a leadership role. And we need to invest in our managers and executives to teach them modern leadership skills that bring out the best in employees and build exceptional organizational cultures.

The best leaders proactively seek out professional development and never stop investing in themselves. And it doesn’t matter the level of leadership. The most successful CEOs, executives, directors, managers, and supervisors never think they have learned all they need to know. Smart leaders understand that they are never done learning. Learning is a lifelong process that never ends. I am amazed at how many executives feel they don’t need professional development once they have attained an executive role. The work doesn’t end when you are a leader. In fact, it’s just beginning.

The best keep getting better. The best leaders always think there is more to learn.

Below are some ways to invest in yourself:

Read and listen. Consistently read books and articles that help you develop your leadership skills and spark new ideas. Listen to podcasts. There are so many powerful podcasts where leadership influencers are interviewed. I listen while I’m in the car so my commute becomes learning.

A few of my favorite leadership books:

  • The Success Principles by Jack Canfield
  • The 5 Levels of Leadership by John Maxwell
  • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
  • Leadership from the Inside Out by Kevin Cashman
  • Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

A few of my favorite podcasts:

  • The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast
  • The School of Greatness by Lewis Howes
  • Lead to Win by Michael Hyatt

Magazines:

  • Success
  • Harvard Business Review
  • CEO World
  • Forbes

Attend conferences inside and outside of your industry. Regularly attending conferences gets you out of the office (an environment of distractions and meetings) and into a space of learning, innovation, and growth. I am always amazed at how different and energized I feel after attending a conference where I learn about better ways of doing things and have the space to think differently. Conferences in your industry or functional area are helpful to build skills and educate yourself on trends, and conference outside your industry can bring fresh perspectives and new ideas.

Attend local events. Your industry association will likely have one day events and conferences for professional development. Don’t wait to be asked to attend. Take charge of your own development. Research your association website and ask your manager to attend an event.

Find an internal mentor or coach. You don’t have to leave the office to develop yourself as a leader or professional. Find a leader in your organization who you respect and want to learn from, and approach them about forming a more formal relationship. Be prepared with how you would like to use your time together and have specific questions ready. You want to take ownership of this relationship and not leave the work for the mentor/coach. Sometimes these relationships naturally form and aren’t always a formal relationship, so utilize the expertise, experience, and coaching of well-respected leaders in your company.

Great leaders are always evolving. In order to successfully fulfill the responsibility of leadership, we need to consciously develop ourselves so we can serve others.

Are You Networking Effectively?

Effective networking is a key component in professional development.  It applies to every industry at every level and can be utilized in many ways – to grow your business, to sign new clients, to create referrals, to find employee candidates, or to discover a new mentor.

Often, networking can be viewed as a task to check off the list, as opposed to an opportunity to build ongoing, meaningful relationships.  But networking makes a significant difference in our career when we focus on the relationship piece.

Building meaningful relationships begins with a simple concept: show a genuine interest in the other person. 

Many people approach networking by thinking about how to present themselves and what they have to offer in the most compelling way possible – you certainly want to know how to talk about yourself, your strengths, your business, etc. but the most important facet to networking is learning how to genuinely connect with other people.

Connecting with people is not hard, but it requires intentionality. A few key tips include:

  1. Smile at people when you meet them, shake their hand and look them in the eye. Be pleasant and friendly.
  2. Ask people questions, pay attention when the other person talks, instead of thinking about what you want to say next. Listen well.
  3. Share confidently about yourself and the value that you can bring to other people – whether it’s professionally or personally. Be real and candid.
  4. Always remember a person’s name and use their name in conversation – it makes conversation more personal and makes people feel important.
  5. And finally, show people that you are the real deal and reliable by always following up on what you say you will do.

When you go to a networking event, almost everyone else there is looking to obtain a job or to gain a new customer.  They are more interested in promoting what they are doing than hearing about what you are doing.  You can stand out by being a person who actually is interested in what everyone else is doing.

How? Again, we come back to showing a genuine interest in the other person.

As Dale Carnegie says, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

What are some practical ways you can show interest with someone you are meeting for the first time?

First, ask questions to learn about what they do.  Do they like what they do? What’s their favorite thing about their career? What did they do before what they do now? What led them to this career?

Second, ask them questions that will lead to how you can add value to them.  What are their goals? What is a priority to them? How can you support them as they work to achievement?

Third and very importantly, follow up.  Email every person with which you interacted and tailor each email to your conversation. Make it personal.  Brainstorm how you could truly add value to someone else that you met and offer this value. Whenever you help someone, they will be inclined to think of a way they could potentially help you too.  You can even ask them to coffee or lunch to learn more about their business or their goals.  And be interested to learn about it – why does this person do what they do?  What do they want to achieve? How could you help?

Always start out focused on what value you can add to the other person.  If the value you have to offer is a business opportunity, not just a favor, share it confidently.  Keep in mind that you must be convinced of the value that you offer before anyone else will be.

Remember, key relationships can have a significant impact on your career.  No matter what stage you are in, there are always benefits to making new connections and learning what you can about them.

How to Manage Your Emotional Hot Buttons

I had just returned from a rare weekend away with friends when I walked into my house to find a mess–clothes all over the floor, living room pillows scattered everywhere, papers littering the table and floor, and about fifty tiny staples stuck in the carpet. I felt my frustration rising as my calm, relaxing weekend faded away by the minute. This is a familiar scene in my house, since I have three kids, ages eight and under. Even though they have a playroom full of toys, they love to play with my things-namely office supplies and the pillows on our couches.

I like order. I think things to be the way I left them when I left them. I like the pillows to stay on the couch. This has been a hot button with me, these pillows, because every night before I go to bed, I find myself annoyed by having to put the pillows back where they belong. Having three young kids, things don’t always go how I want them to go. This has been a huge adjustment for someone who is orderly, on time, and structured. Because kids are not orderly, on time, or structured. I used to react really negatively when my kids would mess up my neat and orderly house. The past few years, I have been working on adjusting my mindset around how we live; setting new expectations for the reality of our daily life. I remind myself regularly that kids are kids, and that getting angry or upset every time I find the pillows on the floor will only make me more miserable, not them. I am working on embracing the chaos, even though it goes against my values and triggers my hot buttons.

Hot buttons. These are situations, events, and sometimes people, who trigger a negative emotional reaction in you. We all have them. And being aware of your hot buttons is an important piece of effectively managing your emotions.

You have undoubtedly heard a lot of talk about emotional intelligence and how important it is for successful leadership. Despite what most people think, emotional intelligence is not just about getting along well with people. That is certainly important, but it’s deeper than that. Emotional intelligence has many elements-how we feel about ourselves, how we interact and connect with others, how we make decisions that involve emotions, how we manage stress and change, and even how we feel about life overall.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to notice your own emotions and the emotions of others, understand why you are feeling how you feel, and consciously choosing your actions and behaviors, even in the face of emotion. This is a skill that is not always easy, and becoming familiar with your hot buttons or triggers can be a great starting point for understanding yourself and increasing your self-awareness, thereby increasing your emotional intelligence.

Which brings me back to the pillows. One of my hot buttons is when things are out of order. This is not to say that my house, my office, and my life are always neat and orderly. On the contrary, there are many times when I feel off balance because my space isn’t how I want it. I’ve noticed that when I am feeling overwhelmed, it is usually because things are out of order-my desk is messy, my schedule is overloaded, or the house is in disarray. Knowing this about myself has been integral in helping me to manage my emotions around it. Instead of becoming angry, I have learned to pause, take a breath, and identify why I am feeling the way I am feeling. I have learned to respond rather than react. As my husband and kids can attest, this has been a big step toward a happier and a (semi) peaceful household.

Below are some questions to ask yourself to bring awareness to your own hot buttons or triggers:

  • What makes me angry, or brings out a negative emotional reaction in me?
  • What irritates me at work?
  • What makes me crazy/frustrated/annoyed?

Perhaps your hot button is not pillows on the floor. Maybe it’s when someone talks over you, or doesn’t listen, or makes a lot of mistakes, or makes excuses, or when your schedule is packed full of meetings and kids’ activities.

Becoming conscious of your hot buttons allows you to build your self-awareness and actively work on handling your reaction when you feel triggered. Managing your emotions is an important part of being an effective and successful leader. This skill creates the ability to approach situations more mindfully and calmly, connect with people on a deeper level, and collaborate more effectively. Noticing other people’s emotions helps you to navigate challenging conversations and be purposeful in responding.

Increasing your emotional intelligence allows you to bring your best self to each situation–to approach your employees, your boss, your colleagues, and even your kids-with a long-term perspective that builds and strengthens relationships.

Over the next week, whenever you have a strong negative reaction, whether it be frustration, anger, or annoyance take note of the situation.

  • What specifically happened?
  • What were you feeling in that situation?
  • How did you respond?
  • Is this a pattern that shows up in other areas of your life?

Taking note of your triggers and hot buttons is the first step to learning how to manage them better.

Now please excuse me while I pick up the pillows off the floor. For the fifth time today.