Do you notice the sound of silence?

How comfortable are you with silence in a conversation? How common is it for you?

If you’ve grown up in North American culture, you probably have very little silence when you’re in a conversation with someone and chances are pretty good you’re not really comfortable with it either.

Studies have found the North American tolerance for silence during a conversation is one or two full seconds, at most, whereas in Japan it’s 8.2 seconds and almost as long in Finland.

Can you think of a time when there was an 8 second gap in a conversation and it didn’t turn you into panic mode trying to think of something to fill the space?

The thing is, space isn’t inherently a bad thing. The concept of “dead air” and silence being equated with a lack of conversation skills is a social construction – nothing more.

In fact, not only is silence not a bad thing, it’s can be a really good thing.

With silence we can gain wisdom, develop greater self control and demonstrate selflessness. It also lets people reflect, think deeply, say things they might otherwise hold back.

You may have witnessed this in negotiations or the last time you bought a car or a house.

People who sell large ticket items are often aware of the value of silence. A salesperson who outlines the benefits of their product and then shares the price might hear from their potential client, “Hmmm, it’s very expensive.” A simple, “I understand,” followed by a space is often met with the potential client saying, “But it’s gorgeous, I’ll take it.”

I’m not suggesting any one culture is better than another but when it comes to silence, the Japanese are on the right track. Silence really is golden — particularly when you allow silence into the conversations with people you lead.

How much silence do you have now?

Take some time this week to observe yourself.

Start with one to one conversations.

How much silence are you leaving after you ask a question?

How much before you respond to someone else’s question?

If you pause before answering, are they jumping in with other questions?

What about in group meetings — how much silence is there?

If there isn’t much silence, how much reflection might be happening? Or not?

So how do you bring more silence into your conversations?

Here are a few ideas for how to use silence to bring out the best in your conversations:

  • When you’re in a group meeting, pause, before jumping in. Count to two. Pause when you start speaking, count to two. Pause after asking questions, count to two.
  • When you’re meeting one on one with someone, particularly folks you lead, try asking open-ended questions as we suggested before in this blog. And then count to five. Yep, five. Let the other person take time to reflect before answering. If they haven’t answered by the time you count to five, it likely means you’ve asked a great question and they’re thinking about it — count to five again.
  • Another great technique is to pause after they speak. Ask a question, listen for the answer. Listen to understand, not to respond,. When they’ve concluded their response to you, take a few moments to reflect on what they’ve said. If you’re having a hard time, count again – this time to five or more. Ideally, use this time to think about what they’ve said. Maintain soft eye contact with them* and just reflect. See what happens. You may find they dive back into the conversation with deeper meaning and self-reflection.

*Soft eye contact means maintaining eye contact, without staring. Letting your eyes show you care.

As coaches, we frequently use these techniques in our coaching conversations. This is, in part, to allow ourselves to reflect upon what the client has said, to hear the feeling, the emotion, the deeper sense, but also to see where the client goes. Clients often dig deeper, or start to ask themselves some questions out loud, they themselves start to reflect on what they’ve just said. It’s spectacular — this is often where the “ah-ha” moments happen.

If silence feels awkward and you’re not sure how to maintain it, try asking, “and what else?” or something similar. “How does that make you feel?” “What did you think about that?” These slightly probing but engaging questions, fill the void a little bit, and help the other person to pause and reflect even more.

Coach’s Question

Where could you bring more silence to your conversations? What benefits are you missing in your meetings, and in your conversations with staff, by not allowing silence to do the heavy lifting?

What kind of leader do you want to be?


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou


A lot of us don’t sit down and, with intention, decide what kind of leader we want to be. We learn, we lead, and we share. We practice continual improvement and we just work on being better today than we were yesterday.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, please don’t ever stop doing that.


Every single day that we show up and contribute, we’re creating a legacy as the kind of leader we are, for better or for worse.

Whether we’re strategically building towards something we decided with intention or passively and reactively building, our choices and actions every single day are cumulative.

And, not only are we moving either towards or away from the kind of leader we want to be – we’re building our legacy as we go. What we leave behind is our contribution and that contribution is in service to the people we work with and those who follow in our footsteps.

What we leave behind is our contribution and that contribution is in service to the people we work with and those who follow in our footsteps.

How, then, can we actively choose?

How can we be mindful of the kind of leader we’re working towards and the legacy we’ll leave behind?

How can we decide exactly what it is we’d like to shift or change or influence? And how do we decide to be content with who we are?

Here are a few questions to get you thinking about exactly what kind of leader you are and whether or not you’re on track to be the kind of leader you want to be.

If your work were to be described as movement – what would it be?


What if, instead of thinking of leadership skills as a personal achievement, we consider them a contribution to a social movement. 

What is at the core of why you do what you do?

Is your leadership movement to help staff to feel empowered? Is it to be the leader who built a flat-organisation? Is there a human-centred cause at the root of the work that fires you up? What’s yours?

Is it to be the leader who built a flat-organisation? Is there a human-centred cause at the root of the work that fires you up? What’s yours?

What daily habits and micro-interactions are contributing to your leadership goals?


With health habits, every food choice we make is either neutral, helping, or hurting our health goals whether conscious choices or not.

In that same way, we are either working towards the kind of leader we want to be or not. The micro-choices we make every single day add up to who we are as a leader.

Do you keep your door closed? Do you schedule check-ins? Do you stop and ask your team how they’re doing – even in a moment of stress? How do you respond when you’re dismayed or unhappy?

How much do you delegate and how often do you redirect? Do you frequently run up against deadlines and ask your team to do the same?

What are your core values?


What have you noticed are deal-breakers for you in relationships? Is honesty high on your list?

Are there exceptions? What about altruism — putting the greater good ahead of yourself? Are there exceptions to that one?

Organizations sometimes have great definitions of the core values they look for in a leader (George Mason University has a nice succinct list here) — what would your own list look like?

Can you define it?

Coach’s Question:

How will people talk about the impact you had when you move on? What daily actions are contributing to your legacy? How can you start to ensure your daily choices are moving you towards your leadership goals and vision?  

Want better ideas? Ask better questions

If you’re like most of us in the 21st Century, you’re probably looking to be innovative and effective. You, or people around you might be talking about being “disrupters” in your industry.

You and your team might be trying to “do more, with less.” And of course, with access to the internet and a world full of data, that should be getting easier and easier. But, it isn’t getting easier.

You’re drowning in information and the decisions get harder and harder.

So, how in the world do you get to the good ideas? How do you find the information that will be helpful or innovative or groundbreaking? How do you explore that data and find what helps?

Well, like so much of what we talk about in this blog, it’s a simple idea that can be tough to implement – ask better questions.

If you’re a leader, whether by formal title or informal influence, you’re probably going to find asking questions a bit disconcerting. After all, you’ve gotten your title and your influence by having the answers. Now it’s going to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Or is it?

Asking really good questions doesn’t leave people thinking you don’t know anything. In fact, in most cases it leaves people thinking, “Wow, what a great question, she always knows just what to ask to push us to better things.”

So what makes one question better than another?

Ask big questions early on in a project

Why are we doing this? What will success look like? It might surprise you how often you hear wildly divergent answers, from your team or your colleagues, to some of those fundamental ideas — it’s worth exploring them.

Ask some unexpected questions

What if we didn’t have any money, how would we do this? If something major threw us off track on this project, at what point could we say it’s “good enough?”

Ask open-ended questions

Letting go of that need to know the answer comes easier if you try to be really curious. “Tell me more about that… What makes you think that?”

If you struggle with asking curiosity-based questions you can try literally saying silently to yourself, “I’m curious to know…” before asking your question out loud.

“I’m curious to know, how might we do that with the deadlines we face?”

Encourage others to ask questions

One of my mantras when I was leading large groups of people was, “If you come to me with a problem, bring some solutions too.” It was meant to encourage thinking and discussion and sometimes it worked. But, it also left people floundering to find some solutions on their own before even coming to me. That was the opposite of what I wanted.

A better approach, if you’re going to have a mantra like that, is something like, “Come to me with problems and bring some curious and thorny questions we should ask ourselves about it.” That not only starts the conversation with some good questions but also encourages a questioning, thoughtful approach to problem-solving.

Coach’s Question:

What’s holding you back from asking questions, more than giving answers? Is it worth it? What big idea might you uncover if you asked better questions? What challenges are you or your organization dealing with, that might benefit from some big or unexpected questions?

Are you living in a constant state of urgency?

Busyness has become an epidemic of our time. You may have even noticed, it’s actually been glamorized in certain circles as if busy equates to important.

With the sheer volume of notifications and distractions that are inevitable every day, it’s no wonder that so many people are stressed out.

But, I have to ask – why are we all so often driven by deadlines? Why do we tolerate a life of reacting?

Urgent and chaotic busyness is a trap.

Quite often, it’s a habit that we get ourselves into that helps us avoid addressing what we really want in life.

What if I told you that busyness may be a way of playing small?

Hear me out.

We only have so much time and if our purpose, values, and vision are clear – it also becomes very clear how we should be spending our time. Prioritising becomes a piece of cake.

But, when we aren’t clear on our purpose, values, and vision – what happens?

Demands on time aren’t carefully screened for their relevance to our purpose, values, and vision.

We then allow all kinds of distractions and other people’s priorities to lead the way. Our life is made up of a series of reactions to whatever crosses our path.

We get stuck in a state of urgency that has nothing to do with what’s truly important.

The key to creating a deliberate life on track with our big picture vision and moving from a state of urgency to a state of focus is all about how we spend our time.

Urgent versus Important

Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix provides a great model for looking at how we spend our time and how we can make improvements.

The idea is to spend as much time as possible on things that are important but not necessarily urgent. That last part might sound counterintuitive, but stay with me.

Made popular by Steven Covey, Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix asks that tasks be broken down and assigned to one of four categories based on whether they are important and/or urgent:


Eisenhower Decision Matrix

image credit:

1. Urgent and Important

These are tasks that align with your big goals and vision but have gotten to a place where they’re urgent.

These can be emergencies, looming deadlines, and could arrive by calls and emails. Sometimes these are driven by a boss or board or can occur when something important happens.

Often a failure in something, or a problem (PR problem, governance concern, poor audit, etc) will make an important task also become an urgent one.

2. Not Urgent but Important

These are tasks that are important to your long term success but are not being driven by a looming deadline. Life events in this box could be exercise, vacation and family time.

Work activities in this quadrant could be launching a new product line, improving staff morale, moving to a culture of collaboration, adapting to changing client needs, etc.

You can see how those items could be hugely important but might not have the firm deadline on them like the more urgent things.

Staying on top of these items in Quadrant 2 not only has the most profound effect on you or your organization, it also prevents these items from becoming urgent (Quadrant 1) and thus a crisis.

3. Urgent and Not Important

These are often other people’s priorities that arrive as interruptions and distractions. For example, when someone stops by your desk to ask you a question or an email you receive where the sender has a sense of urgency but it’s not connected to what’s important to you.

4. Not Urgent and Not Important

These tasks are the time wasters, trivia, and busy work. They’re not urgent and they don’t connect to any greater purpose. These are things like watching TV and scrolling through social media without purpose.

So How Does This Help?

First, if you earnestly look at each task throughout your day and assign them to one of these categories, it can be very eye-opening to see how much time we spend on things that aren’t actually important.

And, there’s an energetic component to it as well. When you find yourself spending a lot of time on things that are not important and not urgent – doesn’t it feel kind of draining?

As if, you know that there are better ways to spend your time but you’re somehow stuck scrolling through social media or watching TV.

Once you’ve started figuring out which items are in which quadrant, and where you spend your time, you now start dropping everything in Quadrant 4, delegating or dismissing Quadrant 3 while putting as much effort as possible in Quadrant 2.

If there are items in Quadrant 1, clean them up and get back to Quadrant 2.

The goal is to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant 2.

I’ll emphasize that again, the goal is quadrant 2, not quadrant 1.

Items in Quadrant 2 (important but not urgent) are the big picture, long term things that change lives and redirect companies.

Items in that quadrant can become urgent too, but not often enough to wait for that to happen before you make them a priority.

If we spend most of our time there, important things won’t need to become urgent and we can stay focused on the big goals filled with purpose and meaning.

Coach’s Question:

Does your organization have a culture of busy = important? What will you do today to shift to important versus urgent?

Six ideas for successfully onboarding new employees

We’re lucky people here at Padraig. We get to work closely with some of the most amazing leaders and leadership teams across North America (and, indeed a bit of Europe and Asia too).

Not only do we get to help these extraordinary leaders become even better at what they do, accomplish even greater things and grow even stronger teams, we also get to learn from them. And that’s pretty amazing.

One of the areas we constantly hear great ideas from is our leader clients is how to welcome and onboard new employees to help them get up to speed quickly and more importantly, successfully.

Here are some of our favourites:

Make sure you’re ready for them

Sounds a bit like a no-brainer, I know. But, you’d be surprised at how many organizations have employees who start their first day without a workstation, without access to email, and without a plan for their time.

Remember, first impressions count and this employee is still deciding if they’ve made the right choice by coming on board with you. The position of power has shifted and great employees aren’t always easy to come by.

Before your new recruit arrives on the job – make sure they know you’re happy that they’re there.

Put a few things in place to “wow” them right away such as:

  • Make sure their workstation is set up and ready to go;
  • Have business cards printed and ready, if possible;
  • Ensure all IT is set up and they have access to email and other technology they’ll need, and
  • Prepare an agenda for them for their first week so they know exactly what they’re supposed to be up to. (But, make sure there’s lots of time to do everything so pressure is low. The priority is to bring them into your culture).

Small acts like these send the message that the new hire is valued and that, as an organization, you’re on top of the details.

Mentor them in

For every new hire, identify someone (or two someones) on your team who have experience that will help this person. Perhaps they did the job, or a similar one before (or still) and they’re great at it. Don’t forget that existing employees may not have experience mentoring people so walk them through how to help others and let them ask lots of questions of you before the new recruit arrives.

Use a shared profile tool for everyone

We use Everything DiSC®, our top-selling Behaviour profile tool, with companies around the world and they love it. DiSC is one of the simplest, clearest of these types of tools and, most importantly, focuses not just on knowing yourself but on figuring out others so you can adapt your approach and build stronger relationships.

Many of our clients who have had us in to do DiSC workshops or to do profiles for their staff ask us to run a quick profile for every new hire. It helps the new hire know themselves and we can then draw linkages to their new colleagues and help them figure out how to interact with them.

As well, it becomes a bonding experience over shared language when existing employees can ask them about their “DiSC type” and start a conversation around that.

If you’re interested in DiSC for your organization, Click here.

Make a lunch date

The first day on a new job can be overwhelming. Can you remember a first day in a new organization? Maybe your first day at college or university?

Make the first day a good memory for your new recruit by having one or more of their colleagues take them out to lunch. The company should pick up the tab while the new recruit gets to bond with their new team and the team gets to enjoy a little perk while they welcome their new teammate.

Coffee Time

If lunch is too expensive, here’s an alternative we heard about that we think is a great idea: a coffee gift card. As part of your welcome package, besides the photocopier manual and a guide for how to sign up for the company insurance plan, give the new recruit a pre-loaded gift card for the best local coffee shop and tell them they’re to use it for taking each person on their team out for coffee.

Free coffee, and maybe a donut, are never a bad thing and it accomplishes a couple other goals:

1) Gives the new employee a really good (and easy) reason to strike up a conversation with a colleague, and

2) Get them to know their team and bond with them outside the immediate pressures of the workplace.

Accelerating Success

If the new recruit is going to be a leader in your organization — ie. responsible for leading a team of others, or leading a project with other members on the project team, we love doing our “Accelerating Success” program for them.

With this program we help the new leader and the team, get to know each other, overcome months of learning curves and deliver high performing results to the organization.  

Past participants have said this cleared out “6 months of BS and got us moving so quickly.” And, “Yesterday was the most productive meeting of its kind that I have participated in for a decade. Thanks for leading the time and the legwork beforehand.”

One of our clients even did a case study with us, comparing the situation when the new leader arrived to the situation after we ran the program.

The effects were lasting and a year later they calculated that their savings and gains from doing this program were 27x the cost of the program! You can read the case-study here.

The Coach’s Question

What are you doing to make sure new recruits land firmly and hit the ground running with confidence and pride in their new employer? We would love to hear your answers. Leave a comment below to share with us, and other readers, what has worked for you.

How to be an exceptional mentor

I sometimes get asked, “What’s the difference between a coach and a mentor?”

My answer is usually something along the lines of, “a lot and they can both be really helpful.”

What is a coach?

If you read this blog regularly, you probably have a pretty good sense of what a coach is.

We help leaders (and up and coming leaders), figure out how to be their very best — in a way that works for them.

We use provocative questions (open-ended, bigger than everyday questions) and we use techniques like appreciative enquiry to imagine the desired future and figure out what’s in the way — drawing-out where they want to be and, most importantly, how to get there.

Good coaches are highly trained, experienced, and certified by the International Coach Federation.

They use their training, continuing education and deep knowledge to help you achieve things you might have thought impossible.

So, what is a mentor?

Mentors, on the other hand, are generally folks who have been there before you.

They’ve likely succeeded in a role similar to yours and have their own experience that they can share with you.

Sometimes their experience may have been difficult or unsuccessful and there is much to learn from that.

Or, their experience may have been wonderful and highly successful and, if you can emulate them while remaining true to yourself, you too may have success.

You can probably see why both coaching and mentoring would be helpful. You already know we can offer you a great coaching experience.

So today we wanted to give some ideas on how to be a good mentor and things to think about if you’re setting up a mentoring program in your organization.

What EXACTLY makes a great mentor?

First, if you’re going to be a mentor, think of yourself as a “learning facilitator” rather than a problem solver.

Help your protégé find people and other resources outside of your own experience and knowledge.

Emphasize questions over advice. This is a coaching technique that works well for mentors too.

Ask about what’s being said and what’s not. If they talk only about facts, ask about feelings. If they’re focused on feelings, ask him or her to review the facts.

If they’re stuck on an immediate crisis, ask some genuinely curious, open-ended questions about the big picture. This helps them see alternative interpretations and approaches.

Don’t hesitate to share your own experiences, lessons learned, and advice, but emphasize that your experiences could be different from theirs and so should be thought of only as examples, and food for thought.

Limit your urge to solve the problem for them.

Resist the temptation to control the relationship and steer its outcomes; your protégé is responsible for their own success.

Know that your role is not just to help them build skills — it’s also to help them build confidence. You can help with that through supportive feedback and by helping them see what they do well.

Help them reflect on successful strategies they’ve used in the past that could apply to new challenges.

“In your last role, can you think of a time something like this happened to you?”

Be spontaneous now and then.

Beyond your planned conversations, call or e-mail “out of the blue” just to leave an encouraging word or something you’ve been reflecting on in your own role that might be helpful for them too.

Reflect on your role as mentor and ask them for feedback. Talk to other mentors too.

Enjoy your time as a mentor, knowing that this opportunity will undoubtedly boost your own awareness and success just as it helps your colleague.

Coach’s Question:

Who already sees you as a mentor? Or who do you see as your mentor? And how could you establish a more successful mentoring relationship?

If you’re already a formal mentor, what could you be more purposeful about? Which of the ideas above are you going to start using?

5 daily habits of effective leaders

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle

We are what we consistently do.

Great leadership is made up of the small habits that we foster and the small habits we’re unaware of.

It’s made up of a lot of little things done consistently over time and one of the big keys to success is being mindful and purposeful about what we do day over day.

In the same way we can’t go to the gym once and get fit, drink a single green smoothie and stay healthy for a year, we can’t have one good conversation with a member of our team and call ourselves Leader of the Year.

So what then, are the small daily habits of effective leaders?

What are the things that when done earnestly create a great culture, supportive environments, and effective fulfillment of organizational vision?

Here are 5 habits that we here at Padraig have found to be particularly important – not to be done as one-offs but as a PRACTISE.

1. Ask for help

Sometimes, as leaders, we feel like we have to have all the answers and it’s simply not true. Maybe you already know this but what about asking for help as a practise, as a habit?

What about building in soliciting input as a part of your organization’s culture? Making, “So, what would you do?” a daily question to staff and peers.

One of the things we’re finding with a large organizational clients right now is that their leadership teams don’t see themselves as a team — not because they don’t want to and not because they don’t trust each other, but because they seldom have occasion to offer and ask for input and collaboration between themselves.

As they’ve started doing this their trust levels have increased, their successes are building and overall they’re becoming cohesive teams.

Make asking for help from staff and peers a habit and you’ll be surprised not only at the collaboration environment it creates but also the quality of ideas and solutions that you receive.

2. Connect with the big picture

How often do you find yourself bogged down with day-to-day tasks? Or even saying to yourself, “Once I get through this task or this list, I’ll be able to focus on direction, vision, and higher level work”?

We see this in our clients and, I’ll let you in on one of my little secrets — I do this too. FAR too often.

To help keep the horizon in focus, we encourage our clients to set time aside every single week to connect with their big picture.

I’ve found if I set time aside each week to reflect on my own WHY and the organization’s WHY, you’ll find that it creates more time and space than it takes.

Back to our health metaphor, just like going to the gym doesn’t increase your well-being only during the time you’re actually in the gym – there are ripple effects that go on for hours and cumulatively, you can change your life and body with consistent gym sessions over time.

Connecting with your big picture is no different – you’ll feel more inspired, you’ll find more clarity and focus, and decisions become easier, faster, and more effective.

A few ways you can connect with your big picture each day are:

  • Have a sticky or a quote or a reminder somewhere clearly in sight of both your why and your organization’s why. If you don’t know what I mean by “your why” or “your organization’s why”, click here to read our blog on that topic.
  • Have a Monday morning or Friday afternoon coffee date with yourself where you review your goals, why they’re important, and set three actions you’ll take the following week to work toward those goals — then post them in a place you view daily.
  • Start a journaling practice where you brainstorm ideas on your vision and your why at the same time each day — some clients like doing this at the start of the day, some at the end of the work day and some as they wind-down for the night. The key, like all habits, it to just do it.

3. Over communicate the vision

It kind of sounds annoying, doesn’t it? Like being pestered with emails all day? That’s definitely not the kind of over communication that I’m talking about.

Here I’m talking particularly about over communicating the big picture.

Not in a brain-washy way but in a way that makes certain that everyone knows what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and why it’s important.

This isn’t about more broadcast-style announcements and communications but engagement.

Find creative ways to check in with your team daily and see where they’re at with their understanding of your purpose as an organization such as:

  • Don’t be afraid of repetition when it comes to ensuring your staff is on board with the organizational vision – repeat it daily in staff meetings, emails, and one-on-one conversations.
  • Mentioning to your team members and peers how you see their tasks — X, Y or Z, fitting into the big picture of A or B or C. Why is it important that we do X?
  • When staff come to you with questions – unsure how to prioritize an overwhelming number of tasks, ask them which ones link most critically to the big goal of A or B or C.

4. Celebrate mistakes

We can’t fully know what works without figuring out what doesn’t.

Mistakes can guide us. Testing new things and learning from the results is one of the best and fastest ways to find the best way of doing things.

Some of the best lessons come from mistakes and if you’re making some mistakes, it means you’re pushing your boundaries/limits — if you’re never making a mistake, you’re probably playing it too safe.

How can you make celebrating mistakes part of your daily culture?

  • Develop a risk-managed culture — talk about what could go wrong, acknowledge if that would be manageable and/or how would you make it manageable? What risk mitigation will you take to let you try this new idea?
  • Change the language around mistakes and failures, consider them “learning opportunities” or some other euphemism that doesn’t draw eye-rolls but makes it ok to make a mistake — as long as we acknowledge the mistake and the lesson(s) we learned from it.
  • Have an acknowledgment system for when teams make a mistake and learn something.
  • Track all new initiatives and celebrate the outcome – success or something learned.

5. Embrace different perspectives

As objective as we like to think we are – we always have blind spots.

We always have a biased lens through which we view all things. And that very lens is what makes us great in a lot of ways.

But, knowing that we can’t possibly see all the angles at any given time is just as important.

There are many viewpoints, perspectives, and takes on each and every issue we face in a day. Effective leaders figure out their bias and know their blind spots and truly embrace when others bring them a fresh perspective.

Maybe this isn’t foreign to you. Maybe you do this sometimes.

But, taking this from a once-in-awhile leadership concept to a deliberate and daily practice creates not only an environment where you’re proactively seeking out blind spots but one where the team feels valued and heard, as well.

Coach’s Questions

How can you shift leadership concepts from once-in-a-while to a daily practice? What is the next action you’re going to take to implement one of these habits into your day?

When your toughest conversations are with yourself

We’ve written a fair bit and worked with a lot of organizations around Essential Conversations — our workshop program that helps leaders have difficult conversations with others (employees, peers, suppliers, etc).

The program works well, has a lot of a-ha moments, and helps leaders figure out how to have the conversations they’ve been avoiding.

However, working one-on-one with so many leaders in our coaching programs, we’ve come to realize something else — with many successful leaders, the toughest conversations they’re having are with themselves.

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review1 that dove into this topic and it hit home. So many of our clients, who are themselves respected and sometimes revered senior leaders, are pounding themselves with criticism and self-doubt.

One leader we know excelled throughout his career — rising rapidly, taking on ever-increasing responsibility for people, budgets, product delivery and organizational reputation. His teams grew from a handful of people to a few dozen, then a few hundred, and later thousands.

He exuded confidence in decision making and vision setting, he gave speeches around the world to hundreds at a time, promoting his company’s product with great success.

And yet, on the inside the successes were celebrated fleetingly while he would layer-in things like “you should have seen that coming,” or “that talk was lousy, you didn’t hit the right notes when you needed to.”His team was committed to him and to the product, yet he would worry that he didn’t look “strong enough” or that they would know when he was struggling with a decision and would think him incapable or unqualified.

His team was committed to him and to the product, yet he would worry that he didn’t look “strong enough” or that they would know when he was struggling with a decision and would think him incapable or unqualified.

Another executive we work with is seen as one of the most innovative and dynamic thinkers in her field. She devises new ideas and innovative approaches that leave her team in awe. Yet, she’s so worried that her idea might be wrong or that there might be solid reasons for it not to work that she holds back most of her ideas. Or, she shares the idea and then tries to micro-manage their implementation, to prove it will work.

The team that is so often in awe, often ends up frustrated and exasperated. They see her creative strength but her own worries are diminishing her star power and losing the commitment of those around her.  Many of these great leaders acknowledge that they can have tough conversations with others because they have

Many of these great leaders acknowledge that they can have tough conversations with others because they have to, if they’re to ensure their culture is strong and their success aligned. I hear things like “tough on the problem, gentle on the person,” or “high expectations and high support,” and “I decide which battles are worth fighting — where do we want to ensure we learn from a mistake and where is it ok to just let it go?”

Yet, and I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this… these same folks rarely, if ever, apply those tests to their own self-talk.

When something goes wrong how often do you get tough on the issue, so it doesn’t happen again, while being gentle on yourself?

How often when you’ve set enormous expectations for yourself, do you also ensure you have enormous support? And of course, how often do you make a mistake and consciously decide, this one’s not worth criticizing?

And of course, how often do you make a mistake and consciously decide, this one’s not worth criticizing?

Here are some of the most common negative automatic thoughts2 — which ones have you experienced?

All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a failure.

Overgeneralization: You see a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” or “it wasn’t just me”. In this way, you maintain a negative belief despite it being contradicted by your everyday experiences.

Jumping to conclusions:

(a) Mind Reading. Concluding that someone is reacting
negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.

(b) The FortuneTeller Error. Anticipating that things
will turn out badly and feeling convinced that it’s doomed..

Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement). Or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”

Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’t’s, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.”

When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of a negative outcome.

So how do we change for the better?

Well, the BIG first step is recognizing it when it’s happening. If you’re on autopilot with your criticism and self-doubt, you need to become aware when it’s happening. Our goal is to become an impartial observer – not denying the feelings, not criticizing ourselves for feeling bad, just observe. Just be aware.

Pick a day — today works well, or tomorrow. Try to be aware of your self-talk — remind yourself throughout the day to be aware. Perhaps that means a sticky note on your computer or your notebook. If you’re finding it hard to catch yourself in the moment, spend a few days instead where you reflect back. In other words set two times each day for a 3-minute check-in.

Maybe you want to do your check-in at lunch and again on your drive home. During those 3 minutes, mentally review the day so far. What happened when you were unhappy, disappointed, critical? What were the negative thoughts? How were you feeling at the time? Make a note of these things (if you’re driving home when you do this you might want to dictate your thoughts on the handsfree recording app on your phone!).

The more you’re able to recall these times and to describe the feeling(s), the more you’re going to notice them the next time.

Start with articulating and acknowledging thoughts weighing you down–ones that don’t serve any useful purpose beyond keeping you stuck and then letting go with statements like, “I forgive myself for procrastinating” or “It’s okay for me to be angry.” These shortcut self-bashing and free up emotional resources.

The next big step is to challenge this thinking

One of the techniques we constantly use when helping people lead others is to ask those other folks open-ended curious questions. So, we recommend the same things for ourselves. When you think “that was a lousy talk” or “you should have seen that coming” or any of the others up above, ask “Oh, is that so? What makes you say that?” And then continue questioning yourself — be rigorous in your debate — challenge that negative voice to honestly justify itself.

Here are some examples:

  • What if things are better than I think? What am I depriving myself of?
  • When have I felt this way before, and realized later than everything was better than I thought?
  • So what if [insert worse case scenario] happens?
  • How can I…?

Focus on progress, not perfection

Another technique is to imagine someone in your life whom you care deeply for — your life partner/spouse, your adult child, your best friend, your closest confidante. If they told you they were feeling this way about themselves and they were criticizing themselves this way, what would you tell them? What would you say to help them see their positive progress, to help themselves see how good and capable they are?

Now tell yourself that. Be sincere.

Coach’s Questions

Where are you being tough on yourself? What steps above are you willing to try to make things better? What’s waiting for you if you let go of this?

(1) Harvard Business Review, March 22, 2017 “Difficult Conversations: When Your Toughest Conversations Are the Ones You Have with Yourself”
(2) Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Morrow.

How great leaders get beyond their to-do list

Remember that time when smartphones weren’t a thing? When we would go home at the end of the day and check our messages on the answering machine?

When our time out in the world was spent in that place, in that moment instead of being pinged by 117 notifications at any given time?

No question – our time is strapped! Without exaggerating, our attention is being pulled in multiple directions at almost any given time.

We have a list of things to do at home, a list of things to do in the car, a list of things to do at work – today, this week, this month, this year.

As leaders, though, isn’t our job to rise above the chaos of seemingly urgent and direct ourselves and our team to focus on the bigger goals, the long game, the right direction?

As a leader, I’m willing to bet you’re strategic, you’re a thinker, you’ve got vision.

But, the reality is that all that vision has to be implemented and in many cases, you have to manage the implementation too.

How, then? How do we lead the big picture while rocking the day-to-day details?

Here are four tips for getting beyond your to-do list.

1. Keep ONE to-do list

I know this sounds big but stay with me.

When we have multiple to-do lists across multiple applications, notebooks, and physical locations, it’s very difficult to know if the thing you’re working on is the best most important thing to focus on.

And, focusing on the right thing at the right time is what great leadership is made of – it’s how you move beyond reacting to tasks in your day.

So often I see clients with lists in their email, a random document, an app on their phone, the platform of choice at work, calendar appointments, etc.

Centralizing to-do’s allows you to prioritize tasks amongst each other instead of prioritizing in silos.

There are a lot of ways to accomplish this and it varies based on the type of work and life tasks that you need to manage — and if you’re a paper and pen person, stick with it but carry that one list with you.

Or, if you’re willing to jump into using all that tech to your advantage, there are a few (free) tools that you can use to get all your to-do’s in one place and prioritize accordingly.


Todoist is a simple to-do and task list manager with a beautiful user-interface that allows you to add tasks, assign deadlines, set reminders, use labels and filters, and syncs across devices.

I use Todoist and find it the perfect place to store and manage all my to-do’s.

It syncs instantly between my desktop, my laptop, my iPad and my iPhone, along with my google calendar. Sounds a bit much, but it guarantees I have one organized list, everywhere I go.

Sounds a bit much, but it guarantees I have one organized list, everywhere I go.


Similar to Todoist, Wunderlist allows you to set up projects, assign due dates, collaborate and reorganize all of your to-do’s in one spot.

Also, syncs across devices and integrates with dozens of other applications so you can automate your task management process as much as possible.


Asana falls more into the project management category but is super effective for task list management.

You set up various projects with tasks within and then manage your tasks from a central “my tasks” view where you can drag, drop, and reorganize based on the categories of “Today,” “Upcoming,” and “Later.”

Do you already use a few different applications and you’re interested in being able to see everything in one place automatically?

Check out Taco. It pulls everything from 40+ services into one list for you to reorganize as you like.

Now, your ONE to-do list doesn’t have to be a digital but I recommend that it is so that you can easily carry tasks forward, rearrange, and reprioritize as needed.

I would also encourage to choose something that has a friendly smartphone application so you can add to your ONE to-do list on the fly and not have to worry about reconciling it later.

2. Determine your next day’s top three tasks at the end of every workday.

Momentum is incredibly important for staying focused and continuing to build on accomplishments and progress day to day.

A quick and effective way to make sure that you can hit the ground running (in the right direction!) each morning is to set the next day’s top three objectives at the end of each workday.

When I was working in the Privy Council Office with the federal government, we had to remove all confidential information from our desks each night, and lock it in our super-secure, heavy lead, combination-lock filing cabinets.

Given the work I was doing, that meant pretty much everything had to be locked up at night.

Now I didn’t know it at the time but I have a bit of ADD — I can get distracted by what’s in front of me and I easily forget about what’s not.

That’s not good when there are important and sometimes urgent state secrets, locked away in a cabinet. So, I got in the habit of making myself a list each night before going home.

In my case, the list had to be a bit cryptic so it could be left out, but basically, it summarized, in order of importance, everything that was still hanging over me and needed my attention in the morning.

This solved the ADD problem of “out of sight, out of mind” but it also delivered a few unexpected benefits:  

1) I felt a sense of comfort and ease going home each night — knowing the desk was clear, the office was tidied up, and everything I needed to remember was spelled out for me on a list –  I could literally let go of work, and have a life;

2) I arrived to a clean, organized office each morning which lifted my spirits and removed the “weighty sigh” that comes over me when I arrive to a desk piled with stuff, and;

3) It made me more strategic than ever before because the list of priorities, in order, was literally right in front of my nose as I started every single day.

Block out time each morning to complete most important – not the most urgent, but rather the bigger, important, actions, allows you to hit the ground running and it saves precious time figuring out where to start.

3. Do a weekly brain dump

We all know that feeling of millions of thoughts swirling around and the idea of organizing and prioritizing it all.

Especially as strategic and visionary types – there are so many worthwhile projects and ideas that we’d love to get to that just seem to be pushed back or forgotten in order to face the demands of the day.

It’s easy to do. Putting fires out SEEMS more important than that strategic project that might shift culture, or increase revenue or create more meaning.

But, it’s simply not. It’s crucial to make space for the big picture projects that will ultimately make more of an impact on organizational success.

One way to keep your eye on the big picture is to do a weekly brain dump (maybe at the end of the day on Friday).

You can keep it as a project in whichever to-do list tool you use and take the time to list out all of the things that you’d love to get to but just haven’t been able to take action on yet.

Once it’s recorded, you can assign a date to look at it again or, better yet, decide the next action step that you need to take towards said goal and schedule it.

Not only will this help you move from reactive to proactive, increasing your focus on the big picture and getting you off the to-do treadmill, it’ll lower stress and free up headspace knowing that you’ve captured those items in your system.

4. Create a weekly creativity/vision time block

To take the brain-dump activity even further, schedule a non-negotiable weekly visioning session to create space for guilt-free attention on big-picture work — this is a good time to do your thinking about the brain-dump but also to reflect on how the tasks are getting you to your bigger goals (or not).

A number of our clients have found they like to stop somewhere for a coffee on the way into the office on Monday.

Many tell me if they get to the office, it’s too late — their schedule is jammed, urgencies arise, etc.

But, booking their day to start a bit later than usual, and then using that time to savor a skinny, non-fat, high octane, mocha frappa something — while reflecting on the big picture, day-dreaming a bit, making some notes, helps them boost their success all week long.

Coach’s Questions

Where are you focusing on the urgent and missing the important?  What prioritizing techniques resonate for you?  And, when are you going to start using them?

When organizations pay to coach their leaders – what’s the ROI of Executive Coaching?

What’s the real ROI of Executive Coaching?

You know, we often get questions from senior leaders in organizations like…

“I know coaching is good for the individual being coached, but what’s in it for our company?“


“I hear of other companies paying for their team to be coached – is that just an executive perk?”

But in fact, executive coaching not only helps the person being coached, it brings enormous benefit to the company too.

A study by Hecht Harrison (a global recruiting company) found the top five reasons why companies provide coaching to their leaders:

  • For leadership development—70%
  • For skill development or style differences—64%
  • To retain top talent—40%
  • As part of management succession planning—34%
  • To ensure success after promotion or with a new hire—30%

From “How Is Coaching Used in Your Organization?”

– Lee Hecht Harrison

Another well-known study in the Manchester Review surveyed 100 executives from Fortune 1000 companies, who had participated in coaching.

The execs were:

  • 30-60 years old
  • 34 women, 66 men
  • 50% of them holding VP or higher jobs
  • 28% earning in the low 6 figures
  • 19% in the mid six figures

They also interviewed, where possible, the executive’s’ boss and the HR Director.

The Manchester Review study found the average return on investment (ROI) from coaching was nearly 5.7 times the cost of coaching. In other words, for every $1 they spent on coaching they gained nearly $6 in savings, benefits, efficiencies, etc.

Execs in the study confirmed tangible and intangible benefits to their companies, including:

Tangible Benefits

 Source: The Manchester Review

Intangible Benefits

Source: The Manchester Review

Since the Manchester study, numerous other organizations have quantified the ROI that organizations have found through coaching. An ICF Study found it was, on average, 7x the price of the coaching.

A Harvard Business Review study of companies that spent aggressively on employee development (How’s Your Return on People?) found that each outperformed the S&P 500 by 17-35%.

Of course, by looking at the financial ROI we may have a tendency to overlook some intangible benefits to the company that often are crucial.  

  • Leadership can be lonely. A trusted advisor outside is a big help when times are tough — ensuring a leader had a thinking partner and trusted confidante when they are leading others through difficult times can bring almost immeasurable benefit.
  • Coaches typically work on the leader’s most pressing challenges– one of the reasons the ROI of Executive Coaching is so much higher with coaching than most training and development is that it is customized.
  • Focus. A great coach cuts through the noise of 1000 emails and competing priorities to help the executive find the 2-3 levers that will have the most impact on results – theirs and the company’s.

Coach’s Questions

If you’re a leader looking to grow, how might you approach your company for support so 2017 is your best year yet?

What investments do you need to make to boost your success and your team’s success? What’s that success worth? What’s the cost of not succeeding?