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How to Successfully Manage a Former Peer

Managing former peers

One of the challenges I faced when I was promoted to a management role was managing a coworker whom up until my promotion was a peer. Although she was supportive, it was uncomfortable and changed the dynamic in our relationship. We both knew that ultimately, I was now her manager, and that I would be conducting her performance evaluation. I struggled at first to manage the changes in our relationship. I find this is true for most leaders who shift to managing a former peer—many managers avoid the elephant in the room and because they are uncomfortable, act like nothing has changed.

Yet there is a great opportunity when this change occurs to redesign the relationship in a positive way.

Managing a former peer can be challenging and uncomfortable. One of the best things you can do when you start managing a former peer is to meet and discuss how your relationship will work going forward.

Begin the conversation by saying you value your relationship as coworkers and look forward to being able to continue working together. Use this conversation as an opportunity to form a partnership with your colleague. Then focus on asking questions to understand the person’s goals and challenges.

For example, you might say:

“I really value our working relationship, and I look forward to continuing to support each other. I hope you will feel comfortable sharing with me challenges you see in the department and how we can improve things. You bring a lot of experience that will be helpful in making our department effective.

I’d like to meet bi-weekly to check in on projects and support you with any challenges. I’d appreciate it if you could bring a list of what you are working on, as well as your biggest challenge at the moment so we can work through it together.”

Questions you may consider:

  • What do you like most about your job?
  • What are the biggest challenges you are facing in your job?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What suggestions do you have for improving the department?
  • How can I support you?
  • Is there anything else you feel is important for me to know?

Reinforce that you would like to have a relationship with open communication and that you welcome the person to come to you at any time. Discuss how often you would like to meet, and what to expect in those meetings.

Designing the relationship in this way will underscore your approachability and support for your former peer.

If you inherited an employee who is struggling or a poor performer, use the coach-approach to work through the issues. Start by asking the questions above, and then use the regular coaching session for checking in on progress, setting expectations and goals. Setting expectations doesn’t have to feel like you are being a dictator. Employees want clarity, and you are simply providing clarity for the person on what it takes to succeed.

One of my favorite coaching phrases is “I’ve noticed”. This is a very neutral phrase that doesn’t evoke judgement or defensiveness.

For example, “I’ve noticed you have been late to work four times in the past month. What’s going on?”

Approaching issues in this way opens up the space for the employee to share their perspective and makes the conversation interactive. It takes the pressure off of you to “deliver” a difficult message and instead fosters an open dialogue.

As a supervisor or manager, your goal is to facilitate, not fix. Many managers think their job is to fix problems and issue directives to their employees. The best approach is to facilitate the discussion and shift the ownership to the employee.

For example, “I’ve noticed you have been late to work four times in the past month. What’s going on?” Allow the employee to respond. Perhaps the employees says they’re having a hard time getting up in the morning. You can empathize, and then shift the ownership by asking a question.

For example, “It sounds like you are having some challenges sleeping. It must be tough to get up when you haven’t slept well. What do you need to do to make sure you are here by 8:30 each morning?”

The question shifts the responsibility to the employee and has them come up with a solution. It’s fine to share suggestions if an employee struggles to come up with solutions, but focus on using a facilitative approach as much as possible.

It’s not always easy managing a former peer, and your approach can make a big difference in how you interact going forward. You can be supportive and approachable, yet still be clear and instill a sense of accountability.  Take the opportunity to redesign the relationship as soon as possible after the change so you can reduce the likelihood of awkwardness and discomfort.

How to Be More Strategic

How to Be More Strategic

A few months after I was promoted to director of human resources, my vice president called me into her office to discuss my new role. She noticed I was still doing some work from my previous position as a human resources generalist, and said that I needed to learn to delegate those things to my team members. Even though my responsibilities had changed, I was still answering benefit questions and fixing payroll issues when employees called me. This was keeping me from focusing on more strategic work like developing training programs for our managers. I was struggling to let go of the technical HR work I was good at, and my old task-oriented work was getting in the way of performing what was necessary in my new position. Employees were used to coming to me with payroll and benefit issues, and since I wanted to be helpful, I would take care of their issues instead of directing them to the HR assistant. While I was being of value to those individual employees, I was not contributing the best value I could for the credit union.

If you’ve ever had a manager tell you that you need to be more strategic, and struggled to understand what that meant, you are not alone. In my experience as a leadership consultant and coach, this is one of the biggest challenges that keeps managers and executives from being successful in a leadership role. The more senior the leadership position, the more strategic thinking and focus is required for success. Strategic work is typically not as activity based as the tasks we are used to in more technical positions. In a leadership role, “being strategic” could include coaching and developing employees, influencing others toward results, planning, developing ideas and strategies, communicating goals to your employees, and researching industry trends, to name a few. In my position as HR director, being strategic meant analyzing our employee talent, assessing the skills and competencies managers needed to be successful, and developing training programs to elevate the leadership skills of our managers and executives. This was an ongoing, long-term focus, and often felt harder to accomplish than my previous position which focused on daily technical tasks.

While strategic thinking is a skill that can be developed, many leaders still struggle to do it successfully. That’s because being strategic is a practice, not just way of thinking. To be more strategic, leaders need to develop practices and structures that support higher level thinking and execution.

Below are six ways to be more strategic:

  1. Identify your annual goals. While the executive team often creates the strategic goals for the credit union, many departmental directors and managers don’t take the time to develop their own strategic goals for their functional area that support the credit union strategic goals. A one-page document that creates clarity on what your department should be focusing on for the year can be a highly effective structure for directing your team meetings and daily employee tasks.
  1. Think long-term. Many professionals thrive on completing activities and handling organizational emergencies, and they fill up their days with tasks that don’t contribute much to overall results. In fact, my love of checking things off my list often got in my way as a new HR director since my new responsibilities were often longer-term goals rather than daily activities. To develop your long-term thinking skills, make a list of the outcomes and results you need for a particular project. Here are some questions to prompt long-term thinking:
    1. If this project were to be successful, what would the result look like?
    2. What are the success criteria for this project (what specifically needs to be accomplished for this project to be successful)?
    3. If I were to break this project into three phases, what would they be?
    4. What are the steps that go into each phase?
    5. Who needs to be involved? What resources do I need to make this project successful?
    6. What is our timeline for each phase of this project?
    7. What blocks of time do I need to schedule in my calendar (and in my employees’ calendars) to work on this project?
    8. What team meetings do I need to schedule upfront to ensure this project stays on task?

These are not the only questions that can help leaders be more strategic, but they can prompt more long-term thinking. An important skill leaders need to be successful is the ability to “Zoom Out” to see the bigger picture of what you and your team need to accomplish (long-term projects, strategic initiatives) and then “Zoom In” to focus on the part of the project that needs to be done in the short term. Many leaders struggle because they are too focused on the short-term tasks and issues right in front of them.

  1. Schedule retreat days. Some managers and executives have developed the ability to think strategically, but they struggle with follow-through. Being strategic is not just a thinking skill, it’s a practice. To get results, leaders need to create structures to support strategic implementation. For example, in my own business, I can become so focused on facilitating workshops and working with clients, that other long-term projects I would like to accomplish in my business get put off, like creating new programs or writing a leadership book (my current project!). I have to be deliberate in scheduling time to focus on strategic projects. Several years ago, I started scheduling three to four retreats a year where I get away from the day-to-day work for two or three days and focus on strategic projects. This time away from my daily work is extremely beneficial because it allows me to focus and make progress on important strategic projects outside my daily work. I recommend leaders set aside at least one day a month to focus completely on a strategic project or area. For example, perhaps you want to research industry trends so you can make a recommendation on how to approach an issue your credit union is facing. Unless you are purposeful and make time for this type of research, it may never get done.
  1. Block time. This strategy almost seems too simple to be so powerful, yet it is one of the most effective practices for improving focus and productivity. As leaders, one of our important responsibilities is to develop our team. This requires strategically thinking through the unique development needs of each employee and coaching them toward their best performance. Scheduling time in your calendar at the beginning of the year for important meetings that support your strategic focus, like coaching sessions, planning sessions, and teambuilding activities will ensure they are a priority.
  1. Team strategy meetings. While it’s important for you as a leader to find time to focus, you also need to make sure your team is focused on the important goals. Scheduling monthly strategy meetings can ensure you and your employees are making progress on your important goals. A strategy meeting is different than a regular team meeting that typically focuses on projects and sharing information. Strategy meetings are completely focused on future thinking and aligned with your long-term goals. These meetings are not the time for status updates; the time is best used discussing industry trends and recommendations, overcoming obstacles, and ensuring the team is aligned around high-level goals.
  1. Delegate. In order to be more strategic, you need to have the time to focus on higher level ideas and projects. As a leader, one of the most important elements of success is the ability to delegate. Our jobs as leaders is to facilitate, not fix. Many of us were taught that managers should fix problems and issues. However, the best managers and executives understand that facilitating others to take ownership and get results not only frees up our time, but develops our team. As you go through your week, keep a list of tasks you are currently doing that can be accomplished by someone on your team. Start delegating these items to your employees so you deliver the maximum value you bring to your organization—your leadership talent, and your ability to be strategic.
    Smart, successful leaders know that it’s not enough to think strategically. You must be purposeful in developing practices that support you in delivering your strategic best every day.

Banish this Phrase From Your Organizational Policies

Banish this Phrase From Your Organizational Policies

You know the saying, “Out with the old, in with the new.” When a new year begins, many people take the time to assess their life and create goals or intentions for having a successful year. Perhaps they attempt to purge old habits that don’t serve them and adopt better habits that will help them reach their goals. They declutter their home, their office and their closets to make room for the new.

Organizations can benefit from this practice as well. There is a specific area in organizations where purging and updating is typically long overdue: Old-school policies and practices.

There is one phrase used in countless organizations that is so outdated that it should be deleted from every one of your organizational policies immediately… “disciplinary action.”

Why do I detest this phrase so much? Because it conjures up images of traditional, old-school, ineffective managers who do a lot of directing and telling, and not a lot of inspiring and coaching. Because it sounds like a phrase that would be invoked in third grade if you talked back to the teacher or pulled down your pants in front of the class (as one of my childhood friends did in the third grade). Because it is condescending and demeaning.

If we want to create engaging, productive cultures where people enjoy working, we need to have policies and practices that support a more modern workplace. Alternative phrases might be “coaching” or “counseling”.

I remember the first time I became a manager in a credit union, and I was handed a huge policy manual to review. As I flipped through the book, I came upon the travel policy. This is the policy that told you how much you could spend on meals, lodging, flights, and anything else travel related to business travel. And it was 40 pages! Yes, 40 pages of great bedtime reading that made no one want to travel for work…EVER.

What kind of impression do you feel that policy left on employees of the organization? I can tell you how I felt—micromanaged and distrusted. It certainly didn’t instill a sense of ownership and empowerment. I suspect that one time, maybe ten years before, one person didn’t follow common sense and spent too much on dinner, so the leadership team called a three-hour meeting to enact a policy to ensure that never happened again, instead of addressing the issue directly with that employee.

How many times have you received an email that was sent to “All Staff” because one person broke a policy or rule? I remember receiving emails with an “updated” policy and a stern warning to all staff that included how long a skirt needed to be, what shoes were appropriate at work, and that visible tattoos were not allowed.

I am not suggesting we throw away guidelines and policies. They can be helpful and necessary. What I am suggesting is that we don’t insult the very people we are trying to engage. Instead of including every situation under the sun, or detailed minutiae of what will happen if someone breaks a policy, let’s start having conversations. If you notice a pattern of lateness, or declining performance, sit down and have an adult conversation with your employee. Don’t send an email to your whole team “reminding” them of the attendance policy.

There are things that are never out of date:

  • Hand-written cards
  • Holding the door for someone behind you
  • 80s music
  • Reading physical books
  • Saying “thank you”
  • Karaoke
  • Roller skates
  • Treating people as human beings with needs, goals, and emotions

And things that are very outdated:

  • Aqua Net
  • “Disciplinary action”
  • Micromanaging
  • Believing a paycheck is enough to motivate your staff
  • Thinking Millennials are the problem
  • 80s hair
  • Old-school policies with robotic rhetoric
  • Knowing all the answers

As leaders, if we want to create cultures of ownership, accountability, and empowerment, we need to make sure our policies align with our desired goal. The organization I worked for actually had a very good culture, but outdated policies and practices were undermining the great culture the leadership team was working to create.

Here are some things to consider when assessing your policies and practices:

  • Is there any outdated language that needs to be updated? (examples: disciplinary action, personnel)
  • Is our language inclusive to all individuals?
  • Are any of our policies exhaustive and too detailed, sending the message we don’t trust our employee’s judgment?
  • What kind of tone do our policies suggest—an employee-centric tone of a great place to work, or an employer-centric tone about rules and regulations?

Perhaps asking different segments of your employee population to review the policies and give their impressions can be helpful to ensure you are striking the tone you intend when updating policies, procedures, and employee handbooks. While legal language is often necessary in some policies, you still have the opportunity to portray a welcoming and approachable tone in all of your organizational communications.

The small things matter. You can have a great culture and have great employees, but if all your practices don’t align with the culture you aspire to create each day, it will leave your employees feeling unsupported and disengaged.

How to Get Employees to Handle Problems Themselves

How to Get Employees to Handle Problems Themselves

When I first became a manager, I thought my job was to give instructions and answer questions. No one sat down with me and set expectations on how to effectively lead a team. I wasn’t provided with any leadership training. One day I was just given the responsibility to supervise someone.

I became a fixer. She had a problem; I would fix it. After all, that was my job, right? Over time, my employee would interrupt me more and more to get her immediate questions answered. Sometimes she just wanted to “run things by me” to make sure she was making the right decision. Looking back now, I realize that I perpetuated this issue by always having the answers to her questions. I would quickly take care of the problem for her and then try to get back to my other tasks so I could get valuable work done. By quickly answering her questions, I was teaching her to upward delegate all problems to me.

Upward delegation is a challenge that can keep you from focusing on more strategic or important work as a leader. Upward delegation is when your employee relies on you to solve problems and fix issues for them. They shift the ownership to you, their manager, instead of solving the problem on their own. And it’s not always their fault. As managers, most of us were taught that our job is to do just that—fix problems and handle issues.

The challenge is, if your time is spent on constant interruptions and “fixing,” you will rarely find the time to work on your most important key result areas and priorities for your role. Your day will be filled with a barrage of issues, interruptions and emergencies. The more employees you manage, the more challenging it will become to be successful in your role.

If you consistently have employees who upward delegate to you, there is a simple fix that can make all the difference in getting them to take ownership and think for themselves. How we handle these interruptions and issues makes all the difference in how employees respond.

As leaders, we need to shift from being fixers to facilitators.

Fixers handle problems, emergencies and issues themselves. Facilitators facilitate others to take ownership and solve their own problems.

Let’s say your team member, Jake, approaches you with a problem. Instead of telling him how to handle the problem (fixing), you ask him, “What do you think?” or “What options have you thought of?”

This takes the ownership of the problem off of you, and puts it back onto Jake. Now Jake has to come up with an approach to solving the problem. You are teaching Jake to think through the problem himself so he can become independent and self-sufficient instead of relying on you (often the easier way to get his problem handled—you solve it for him!).

If Jake truly doesn’t know how to solve the problem, that’s where you as the leader can facilitate by coaching him through the issue. Some possible follow up questions might be:

  • Where do you think you can find the answer to this question?
  • What is one option you could try?

There are times that you as the leader may need to offer guidance or perspective to help him learn how to think critically through these issues. The point is to not be so quick to just solve the problem for your employee, which perpetuates a cycle of you fixing, and them not having to think for themselves.

This doesn’t mean that you as the manager don’t ever need to step in or provide an answer or guidance. But most often there are opportunities to build confidence, critical thinking skills, and knowledge by taking a few minutes to facilitate rather than fix. This is how we develop future leaders and stronger teams—by taking a different approach than being the keeper of all the knowledge and answers.

As leaders, we do not need to know all the answers. Our job is to influence and facilitate others to find the answers to solve their problems. I guarantee that if you try this approach, you will cut down on interruptions, develop more independent employees, and finally have time to focus on the priorities that will truly help you to become more successful and make a bigger impact at work.

Leadership Lessons for Working Remotely While Managing Your Kids

Leadership Lessons for Working Remotely While Managing Your Kids

I write a monthly blog for the Credit Union Executive Society (CUES) and when they asked if I would write a blog on advice for working remotely during back-to-school season, I struggled at first to think of what I could contribute. I want to preface my column with a caveat—I don’t know all the answers. I don’t have a magic wand to make things go back to normal. Every situation is unique. But there is one thing we all have in common; things are different. How we work and how we lead has significantly changed over the past six months. My intent is by sharing a few things that worked for me that you might glean an idea or two, or at the very least, know you are not alone.

I have publicly shared my challenges when this pandemic hit last spring.  I still struggle in many ways—having my three kids home for the past six (!) months has taught me that I am definitely not stay-at-home or homeschooling mom material. I’ve never been the mom who loves crafts (in one weak moment in a Michael’s craft store last Christmas I thought it would be a good idea to buy build-your-own gingerbread houses. Disaster). I dislike Halloween—it’s just one more thing on my list of things to do. And at the holidays I’ve been known to send my kids’ teachers gift cards and wine in lieu of the homemade gifts that show you put time and effort in (who doesn’t need wine and Amazon?).

So I’m pretty sure the biggest lesson I have learned through all of this is that I like my life to be compartmentalized into neat sections—kids in the morning, work during the day, a little bit of kids at night, and clock out of all parenting responsibilities by 8:30.

I always thought I was resilient, but I’ve found that I’m most resilient when things go my way.

But here’s the reality: my kids fight, all the time. They don’t listen. I think my nine-year-old daughter handed in exactly two assignments out of 20 last spring. My seven-year-old son whined for a half hour every day before his daily one-hour recorded math lessons. They watched way more TV then I ever thought I would allow. I bribed them with ice cream more times than I can count. My daughter has refused to go to bed before 10:30 for the past 62 days (yes, I’m counting) which has led to nightly tears (me and her) and meltdowns. All the parenting strategies I learned in the books has gone down the drain.

This is hard. *Sigh*

I’ve heard the struggles from my clients—particularly my women clients—who have young children. How will they balance working full time with managing Zoom calls, assignments, and interruptions? How can they get through their own workload and Zoom calls each day?

You can see what a dilemma this is. The hours just don’t add up. It’s not possible to do it all. And if we try, we will break.

As leaders, the two skills we need the most right now are empathy and flexibility. To get the best from our employees during this time, we need to support them and understand the impact this challenge is having on each of them individually. And as much as possible, we should work to be flexible with how our employees get their work done. Now, in some cases, you may not be able to be flexible for some positions. You may need some front-line employees in the branch. However, some management or exempt positions may allow for some flexibility.

One shift that leaders need to make is moving from hours-focused to results-focused. It may be impossible for many of your employees to work a straight eight-hour day right now. I know in my public-school district, the virtual school hours will be from 8:30 to 3:30 with a ninety-minute break for lunch. Many parents will need to support their children in getting setup for video calls and completing homework (this is a full-time job). If you are focused on the hours your employee works, it’s a lose-lose situation. No one can be successful. Instead, focus on outcomes. What are the outcomes you would like each employee to complete each week? Focusing on results or outcomes allows each person to manage their schedule the best way possible to get results at work and keep the peace (more or less) at home.

Here’s the thing—your employees will take care of your members if you take care of them. If you want member loyalty, you should build employee loyalty. You do that by treating your team members as human beings who need flexibility, support, and empathy from everyone in their life right now—including their managers.

If you are a parent struggling to make it all work, below are some strategies as you navigate balancing remote work with kids at home:

Communicate with your child’s teacher. When my daughter struggled to complete online assignments, I reached out to her teacher for support. I was able to negotiate my daughter hand-writing a report each week instead of completing paragraphs for online assignments. I also shared that I was struggling to keep up with her assignment while I worked full time. Her teacher was more than willing to help and created a plan with me that suited our family schedule better. The lesson—often teachers are more than willing to adjust to help you and your child be more successful. Keep the lines of communication open.

Be proactive with your manager. This will be particularly important if you have a traditional manager who is not as flexible or shows less tolerance for the reality of your situation (kids interrupting your Zoom calls). Traditional managers tend to focus on tangibles like hours worked. Be proactive by approaching your manager about your personal situation. If you need to help your kids with school during the day, propose a schedule that would allow you to get certain outcomes done during the week. I have several clients who were able to adjust their schedule to work an hour before the kids are up, limited hours during the day, and more at night. Suggest a schedule that is realistic for your situation and propose the results or outcomes that you can complete each week. Set up a weekly meeting to update your manager on what you have accomplished, and ask her how she would prefer you communicate results (weekly check-in call? Weekly email update?).

Create self-care rituals. I know, you probably are tired of hearing this. I often roll my eyes when I read this suggestion in an article. But what I know from the first three months of the pandemic, is that I almost cracked trying to juggle it all. At that point, there was nowhere to go, and self-care was a challenge for most of us. What I’ve learned is that I need to be creative. This might be having a friend watch your kids and trading off together so you can each have some time to yourself. If you have family support, having your kids sleep over at a family member’s house on a Friday night. We let our kids watch a movie so we can exercise or have some quiet time. One of my friends created a small “learning pod” where four families rotate hosting the kids (socially distanced) one day a week for lessons and that parent manages the Zoom calls and assignments. Be creative and be resourceful. The only way to get through this time is to have periods where you can recharge.

Give yourself grace. Above all, don’t be hard on yourself. I know things are all over the place right now, and you are probably feeling overworked, exhausted, and underappreciated. I have moments where I think I may have a mental breakdown (no kidding) and moments where I am so grateful my family is healthy. All the emotions we are feeling are valid and real. Don’t get down on yourself for not being able to be your best at all times. Take a breath. You are a human being having a human experience. Give yourself grace.

There are things we can control, and things we can’t. We can’t control the school system. We can’t control all of the precautions we have to take in our world right now. We can’t control the fact that our kids are learning in a less-than-ideal environment. But we can control how we show up as leaders to support our team. We can control our leadership actions—reaching out to touch base with each of our employees, showing empathy when someone is feeling challenged, and being flexible with schedules as much as possible. Our employees will not forget how we treat them during this time. Doing our best to support our team will pay dividends in loyalty and productivity long term.

What We Can Learn About Leadership from Ellen DeGeneres


Ellen DeGeneres has had a tough month. Multiple news outlets have been circulating employee and celebrity stories accusing Ellen of not living up to her declaration of “be kind to one another”. I don’t know if these stories are true, but they are certainly compelling given various instances shared of Ellen being more mean-spirited than kind-hearted.

Ellen’s current predicament is a great leadership lesson for all of us. It’s not the words you say that matter, it’s the actions you take. Behind everything great is a quality that brings it to life—action.

This reminds me of an interaction I experienced several years ago at a chapter meeting for the National Speaker’s Association. A well-known speaker was presenting to the group the importance of building rapport with an audience when he happened to mention the town he grew up in. Immediately, I felt a connection to this speaker; he grew up in a small town in upstate New York just ten minutes from my hometown.

“What are the chances?!” I thought.

Right after he finished speaking, I excitedly approached him to share our mutual connection of small upstate New York towns when he totally blew me off. He was so concerned with getting his books ready for the audience to purchase, that he missed an opportunity to really make a connection with someone right there in front of him. It was ironic since his speech was about building rapport. Yet the minute he walked off the stage, it was like he got out of character and stopped playing the part.

Interestingly, last year I re-met this speaker at a national conference, and he was friendly and engaging. So perhaps the previous year, I caught him in a moment of stress, and he wasn’t his best self. But as leaders, we need to be mindful of how we show up. People are always watching, and every interaction we experience has the opportunity to reinforce our positive message, or, completely negate the message we just professed. These interactions matter, and although we all have bad days, these negative exchanges can have a long-term impact on our relationships.

People don’t follow what you say, they follow what you do.

To be exceptional leaders, we need to put action behind the messages we convey. We need to walk our talk, not just declare it. It’s in the moments of action (or inaction) that we build trust and cohesion with our employees or chip away at trust and our integrity. Our words matter, but our actions are what bring them to life and demonstrate our message.

Everything great intention needs action to bring it to life:

  • It’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you need to demonstrate it.
  • It’s not enough to say you’re building a great place to work; you need to create a great place to work.
  • It’s not enough to say you value your employees, you need to show them.
  • It’s not enough to say you value respect, you must be respectful.
  • It’s not enough to say you are open to others’ opinions, you must listen.

People trust you when you do what you say you will do. This is how great cultures are created and how leaders become truly influential.

Effective leadership is less about doing, and more about being. It’s not a role you play, it’s a practice you cultivate. It’s the everyday actions you put behind your leadership that makes all the difference.

And you know what, Ellen is right about one thing—kindness matters. But don’t just say it, do it.

Five Self-Care Practices that Improve Leadership

Five Self-Care Practices that Improve Leadership

The past few months have been one of the most challenging times I’ve faced in my adult life. Back in March when our school system announced that schools would be closed for two weeks, I remember panicking about what I would do with my kids for two weeks while I worked. Little did I know, that almost four months later they would still be home!

Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids. I love spending time with them, but on my schedule. Suddenly becoming a full time stay-at-home mom and teacher in addition to working full time was a recipe for disaster. And that’s pretty much how it played out. My husband and I struggled to balance our three kids’ different Zoom calls and assignments with our businesses. There were no breaks. When I would take a short break from work to get some lunch or more green tea, I would have three kids hanging on me asking for snacks or complaining about their siblings.

We were exhausted. My well-planned, organized, compartmentalized life was suddenly turned upside down. Of course, I was grateful that we are all healthy and well during the pandemic. But the everyday reality of the struggles and challenges was really taking its toll. About three months in, I remember saying to my husband that if I didn’t have a break, I think I might have a breakdown.

You get the picture. And perhaps you can relate. It’s times like these that I remember why it is so important to take care of myself and give myself a break. But that was hard during the pandemic when you can’t go anywhere or meet up with anyone. I was exhausted and struggling to show up as my best self.

As we came out of the self-isolation, my husband gave me a gift on my birthday at the end of June—a complete day to myself. He took our kids to his parents’ beach house and I had a full day all to myself. It was glorious. I relaxed, read, exercised, practiced yoga, rejuvenated, and felt like a completely different person by the end of the day. I felt more positive and resilient. I could handle the pressures and challenges of life in a healthier and more rational way.

How does this impact leadership? In all the big and small ways. Our energy is the one thing that we can control that impacts our everyday actions, behaviors, and mindset. These past few months have highlighted for me how important my energy is to show up as my best self at home and at work. When I am depleted, tired, and stressed, I lose the mental capacity to handle challenges in a productive and healthy way. I struggle to lead my life and my team effectively. Things feel hard and grueling.

When I am rested and refreshed, I have the energy to bring my best to work. I am focused, composed and present. I am more resilient and productive. Our habits are impacted by the mental and physical reserves we have available to get through our day.

While it may be more challenging for some of us to practice good sleep, exercise, and self-care habits while in quarantine, as we begin to transition to a new normal, there are several practices that can support self-care, maintain our energy and show up as our best as a leader and human:

  • Work Rituals: creating a practice for the beginning and end of your workday can help you harness your energy and increase your productivity. A productive day begins the night before. This means taking 10-15 minutes to review your projects and tasks and prioritize the top two actions you will focus on the next day. Doing this the night before allows you to jump into your most important task in the morning without procrastinating. In the morning, set aside 10 minutes to review your plan for the day and prepare any materials (files, phone numbers, etc.) you need to successfully execute your projects.
  • Schedule Productivity Sprints. We each have a peak time of day when our energy is highest. For most of us, that is in the morning hours. During that time, schedule a block of time where you focus on one—and only one—task and block out all interruptions. I call these productivity sprints because you can get more done in this focused time than most people get done in a week. Instituting productivity sprints can transform your productivity and utilize your peak energy times. The ideal length of a productivity sprint is one to two hours.
  • Meditate. I never thought I would be a meditator. I’ve always been very action oriented, and didn’t think it was possible to quiet my mind and sit in silence for any amount of time. Five years ago I took a transcendental meditation course that proved otherwise. When I stick to my meditation practice, I feel calmer and more resilient. It feels like my brain took a nap. The feeling is addictive—when you really fall into a deep meditative state (which doesn’t always happen, but gets easier with practice), you crave that silence. Even a few minutes of meditation can help calm your mind and help you to be less reactive.
  • Sleep. Most people don’t get the sleep they need to function properly. I know when I lose even an hour of sleep at night, I can feel the negative impact the next day. It feels harder to make decisions and stay focused. Writer Keith Jones wrote an article for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global on Why Sleep is so Important.
  • Schedule a personal work retreat. I started this practice about three years ago, and it has been a gamechanger for my productivity, energy, and results. About three times a year, I schedule a personal offsite at a small bed and breakfast for two to three days. During this time, I focus on one major project (right now that is writing my book) and sequester myself to get into deep focus while also relaxing. I might also get a massage, take a walk, and read to rejuvenate. This is a time to focus on a strategic goal in my business that is challenging to accomplish during a normal workday.

I believe all leaders would benefit from even a day each quarter to reflect, reset and plan. Whether it’s a solo retreat to reflect and adjust the goals for your team, or a team retreat where you take the team offsite for a day to refocus and plan, a quarterly retreat can boost your productivity, energy, and focus, while at the same time giving you the quiet and space you need to make your best decisions and plans.

If I’ve learned anything during this pandemic it’s that we all need time to ourselves to rest, reflect, and rejuvenate. I’ve seen the negative effects when I don’t make this a priority, which is why I am committed to finding ways to preserve my energy and mindset, even in the most difficult of times.

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.