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Creating Successful Leaders

Category Archives: Organization

As a career coach, I am well aware of the rigors of the modern workplace. Many businesses are understaffed or have ultra-high expectations for their employees, demanding sixty or eighty-hour work weeks. There’s a lot of rushing around, and forging ahead on projects…even if the plan or objective isn’t crystal clear. And that can cause a lot of trouble in the long run.

If there’s no room for question-asking, a work team could end up missing a crucial deadline, misinterpreting a client’s needs, or taking a project in the completely wrong direction. The team will then have to back-pedal and try to correct their errors, costing the company time and money.

The simple way to prevent such mishaps is by simply asking questions.

Good leaders not only ask questions, but encourage others to ask questions. This creates a culture of openness and candid interactions. Questions also can open up a dialogue about the best course of action, rather than limiting future actions to one set of ideas.

Utilize questions to…


When a client or manager is introducing a new initiative or project, be sure to ask questions to make sure you understand everything correctly. If you are the one explaining a new concept to others, be sure to ask if they have any specific questions about the actions and objectives.

Learn more about asking great clarifying questions in my video on clarity.

Put Forth New Ideas

There is usually more than one path to a solution. When you ask questions that challenge the current way of doing things, you open up new ways of thinking and acting. These are the “What if…?” questions. They are the questions that encourage your team to think outside the box and become more innovative and creative.


There’s a tactful way to challenge an idea, project, or statement. Use questions to uncover any holes in a plan, and gently offer a solution. A tactful challenging question may sound like this:

“I know your team has extensively tested the product on U.S. audiences, but have you considered our international market?”

OR: “I know we’ve been using the same financial tracking equipment for years, but have we thought about exploring XYZ Equipment?”

Dig Deeper

Use questions to really sink your teeth into a project and learn about the thinking behind it. “Digging questions” help to unearth any potential flaws in a plan and open up a dialogue to explore other possibilities.

These questions might ask, “How did we conclude that this is the best course of action?” or “What are some alternative ways we could market to X?” or “How does the data back this decision?” These kinds of questions will challenge your team to be more reflective and thoughtful about their current course of action (and potential future actions) and how they arrived at certain decisions.


Creating an open atmosphere that encourages asking questions can tremendously strengthen an organization. When people feel comfortable enough to ask clarifying questions or explore alternative routes, that opens the floor to increased creativity, candidness, and a sense of collaborative decision-making.


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State Fair Animals and Work Team

The Minnesota State Fair begins in just over a week, so I thought I would continue my blogging theme with a fun post about how state fair animals are like the perfect work team. I know, comparing barn animals to people seems like a stretch, but bear with me! The MN State Fair animals are teeming with their own personalities and purposes. They are as diverse as the people who love and care for them. If you’ve ever walked through the chicken barn, you’ll know what I mean! Such variety, even among members of the same species.

Here are 6 distinct personalities that you’ll find in the state fair barns, as well as in a well-balanced work team:

The workhorses

These are the people who dive headlong into their projects with fervent dedication. They may not dwell on logistics or alternative routes—they just do. These go-getters can be compared to people who lead with red energy on the Insights Discovery wheel (for more on the Insights system, click HERE). They forge ahead fearlessly and set an example of “go get ‘em” leadership for others to follow.

The loyal ones

Many pets are fiercely loyal to their owners. They would do anything to protect them and keep them out of harm’s way. Loyalty is one of the ten attributes of an excellent leader (as you’ll find in my book, The Ten-Minute Leadership Challenge) because it is a necessary trait for those who want to succeed within an organization. Loyalty doesn’t mean that people can’t challenge ideas or systems—it does mean that they’re dedicated to their company and will do whatever they can to help it succeed (including challenging faulty aspects of it).

The social ones

We’ve all seen animals who absolutely revel in attention. They just want to be part of a pack—whether among people or their fellow species. In the same way, your extroverted team members thrive when they’re closely collaborating with others. If you want them to be productive, don’t force them to work alone! They’ll do much better (and be happier) if they’re able to bounce ideas off of others and talk things out.

The thinkers

Some animals are quiet and pensive. They take in the world with their silent observations and surprise us when they flawlessly navigate an obstacle course or solve a puzzle. A good team is comprised of at least a few analytical types. These people are data-driven and like to thoroughly think through issues before acting.

The ones that make a squawk

It’s okay to have squeaky wheels on your team. These are the ones who will keep things honest and be the voice of others who are too afraid to speak up. These vocal individuals may even identify problems that could affect your customers or clients, which is always great to catch before anything goes wrong “in the field.” There is a fine line, however, between articulating thoughts and opinions and complaining. As long as the “squawkers” don’t cross the line into griping and grumbling, it’s useful to recognize their opinions and address them.

The givers

Many animals take care of us. They give us milk, wool, eggs or just plain camaraderie. In the same way, there are those in the workplace who are advocates for others. They make sure everyone’s voice is heard and that others are treated with respect. It’s great to have these empathetic personas on your work team. They foster an atmosphere of inclusivity that is often lacking in the workplace.


With a little imagination, we can draw comparisons between the animals of the state fair and your perfect work team! Do you have a good balance of workhorses, loyal ones, collaborators, thinkers, squawkers, and givers?



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perennials: don't generalize by generation

I hear it all the time. People complaining about other generations.

“Millennials are                I don’t understand them at all.”

Or: “Why are Baby Boomers so               ?”

Or: “Everyone in Gen X is clearly                  .”

It’s time we stop limiting each other. These on-the-surface labels are doing much more harm than good. They allow us to write off entire generations (many millions of people!) with sweeping generalizations. And the truth is, many people don’t fit the stereotypes.

Take “entitlement,” for example. Many people think of Millennials (the group born between 1980 and 2000) as an entitled bunch that thinks they deserve things without actually working for them. Not only is this stereotype getting tiresome, it is frankly untrue.

Although many of them started working at an economically tumultuous time (the Great Recession), Millennials have proven themselves to be innovative and resilient. They’ve invented jobs when none were available; they’ve taken over top leadership positions; they’ve learned how to live with less by taking advantage of the new “sharing economy.”

Are some Millennials entitled and lazy? Of course. But so are many Gen-Xers and Boomers.

And just because Millennials have new ways of working, doesn’t mean they’re lazy. They might simply have a better grasp on technology and be able to complete tasks more efficiently.

On the same token, not all Baby Boomers are out-of-touch and irrelevant! Many are excited and interested in new technologies, new ways of thinking, and creative endeavors.

Although generational constructs are helpful for marketing purposes, they can be utterly lethal in the workplace. Pigeonholing people before they’ve had a chance to show their true colors only harms productivity and interpersonal dynamics. Besides, you might be working alongside Perennials, a group that defies generational boundaries.

What are Perennials?

Gina Pell, who coined the term, says that Perennials are “ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages…[they] comprise an inclusive, enduring mindset, not a divisive demographic.”

I’m sure you’ve encountered many so-called Perennials in your life. These are the young people with “old souls.” These are the older people who love to crack jokes and try new things. These are the people who don’t limit their interactions to their own peer group and instead find friendship with people of all ages. These are the people who refuse to be defined by age.

As Pell says: “It’s time we chose our own category based on shared values and passions and break out of the faux constructs behind an age-based system of classification.”

I couldn’t agree more.


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Dilbert cartoon 1


Do you ever feel like you’re trapped inside a Dilbert cartoon with bosses that don’t understand you, nonsensical tasks, and no sense of purpose?

This type of workplace is ineffective and damaging to a person’s self-worth, BUT they are still commonplace. I’ve worked with many coaching clients who complain that no one really gets them at work. They feel stifled, misunderstood, or disconnected from their co-workers. It doesn’t have to be this way!
Founder of Keyhubs, Vikas Narula, talks about how to abandon the “Dilbert workplace mentality.” His focus is on individual merits and contributions, not titles or the traditional hierarchal approach. He looks at the informal networks that exist in a given workplace and urges the company to capitalize on them. Narula even developed software that measures connections between co-workers by asking them to identify the people in the workplace who influence and inspire them the most. What he’s found is that people on the “bottom tiers” are frequently important influencers and are often overlooked or under-appreciated by upper-management.

Dilbert cartoon 2

An article about Narula on puts it best: “In reality, work gets done through an unseen network of personal relationships and connections. Uncover that informal network, and you see how your company actually runs.”

The article breaks Narula’s viewpoint into 4 key principles:

  1. Talent and influence transcend hierarchy.
  2. Title and status don’t necessarily grant you influence. Influence happens by building genuine connections. Having a fat title and a big salary doesn’t grant you that privilege.
  3. Proximity makes a big difference. If you’re not close to people and you don’t seek people out on a day-to-day basis, it can affect your ability to build human connection.
  4. There are different types of influence. You might have someone who has a large followership in an organization, or grassroots influence, but who isn’t perceived by the higher ups in that way. And vice versa—someone may be seen as highly influential by a higher up, even if they’re not. This gives them an associative influence.

How can you move your company from a “Dilbert mentality” to one that embraces and appreciates individuals? How can you uncover hidden talents and influencers?

Look beyond the hierarchy. Pay attention to the informal networks that exist within the workplace and identify the key influencers within those networks. Go out of your way to connect with others, no matter their status. By tapping into the organization at the grassroots level, you’ll get a better sense of the foundation on which your company is built.

Dilbert cartoon 3


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inclusivityLast week, I addressed diversity and how it goes beyond physical characteristics and also involves diversity of thought, behavior, and perspective. This week, I’d like to discuss how your diverse workplace can be an inclusive one. First, let’s define what an inclusive workplace looks like.

People in an inclusive workplace…

…feel a sense of belonging, are treated fairly, and have equal opportunities

…feel like they can be themselves and allow others to be themselves

…are fully engaged and part of a team

…remain authentic

The result of inclusivity? Innovation, creative ideas, and fresh ways of looking at things. These are all things any organization wants, but how to achieve them? How can people with widely differing outlooks on life work together harmoniously and accomplish great things?

According to the principles I’ve learned from Insights® Discovery (a tool for understanding and developing unique personalities), inclusion really starts from the top. Company leadership needs to be fully invested in the idea of inclusivity before the rest of the team can truly adopt it. The organization should consider these questions:

  • Does the leadership recognize the diversity of its team?
  • Do they know how to adapt and connect with all the people on their team?
  • Do they know what motivates certain people on their team? Do they know what derails them?
  • Are there open lines of communication in the office?
  • Are questions and concerns addressed or ignored?
  • Does the leadership make an effort to hear from everyone at the table?

Company leadership can facilitate an open, inclusive environment, but it takes the rest of the organization to keep it up on a day-to-day basis. That takes awareness and reflection. We should be asking ourselves questions from time to time like: “How does the work environment feel?” “How comfortable is it for me? For my co-workers?” “Does the minority have a voice in the office?” “Are we encouraged to raise questions or concerns?”

It takes time to build an inclusive environment, but the results are worth it. Each person has the ability to add unique value to the organization, so it’s important to create an environment where that value can come through.

If you’d like to delve into workplace inclusivity in more depth, I encourage you to contact me so we can discuss your organization’s needs. Thanks for reading!

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Millennials and altruism

The next generation of leaders can’t be bought. In traditional business thinking, if you give an employee a raise every once in a while, that’s enough to keep him or her around. Not so for Millennials. According to Forbes Magazine, “They [Millennials] long to be part of something bigger than themselves… Millennials want to lead a balanced life. They want to be happy at home and happy on the job – money is somewhat secondary.”

Additionally, a recent study showed that a whopping 92% of those born between 1980 and 2000 (commonly known as the Millennial or “Y” generation) believe that business success should be measured by more than profit. They want to know that their company is doing good and they want to be a part of it.

I’ve written a past blog post about what motivates Millennials, but this time I’m going to narrow my focus and concentrate on one big motivator: altruism.

Simply put, Millennials care. They’ve been raised volunteering at church and community events, they go on Habitat for Humanity trips, they discuss issues like poverty and social injustice in their classrooms. When all that takes a back burner in the workplace, it can be a bit of a shock for them. They might ask themselves, “Where are all the people who care?” Or “Why doesn’t my company have a heart?” Or “Am I really doing the kind of work I should be doing?”

On the flip side, Millennials are attracted to companies that actively care. 88% of Gen Y women and 82% of Y men believe it’s important to be able to give back to community through work.

What are some things your company can do to engage Millennials (and other caring employees!) in altruistic activities? Here are some ideas:

  • Create a program in your company that rewards good behavior (good attendance, outstanding leadership, team collaboration) with money that goes to a charity of choice.
  • Sponsor fundraisers (such as a 5k run for charity)
  • Create drop-off areas at work to donate used clothing or food items
  • Allow your employees paid time off for charitable work (and keep a board that tracks and celebrates all the different organizations your employees are volunteering for)
  • Promote green living:
    • Provide incentives for biking, ride share, and public transportation
    • Create an eco-friendly cafeteria with reusable or compostable plates, cups, and eating utensils; a compost bin; and locally/sustainably sourced food
    • Provide water bottle refill stations next to drinking fountains
    • Get an energy audit and make the recommended changes. Keep track of your energy savings on a chart that everyone can see
  • Start team fundraising/volunteer work competitions
  • Work on having an open line of communication with your employees so they can bring their altruistic ideas to you!

Margaret Smith is a career coach, licensed Insights Discovery practitioner, founder of UXL, and co-founder of the TAG Team. You can visit her website at

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pecking order at work

I recently watched a highly inspirational TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan, former five-time CEO and “management thinker.” She begins her talk with a study about chickens, performed by Purdue University biologist William Muir. In short, he found that flocks comprised of “superchickens,” or the ones that were the highest producers, tended to fail. They would turn on each other and peck each other to death. The control flocks (groups of average chickens–some high-producing, others not), ended up doing much better and producing the most eggs by far. This is a lesson, Heffernan says, that we can apply to any typical organization.

Many companies make the mistake of pouring resources into the few “super employees” and attempting to groom an elite group to carry the company. This, Heffernan says, often leads to “aggression, dysfunction, and waste. If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.”

So, what does make teams successful? According to an experiment conducted by MIT, successful teams were found to have the three following characteristics:

1. High degrees of social sensitivity to each other

2. No one voice dominated the successful groups–the members all contributed roughly the same amount

3. The most successful groups had more women in them (the scientists who conducted this study are not certain why this was the case, but one reason could be that women typically score higher on empathy tests)

In short, groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other work better together. Ideas can flow and grow. People don’t get stuck. They don’t waste energy down dead ends.

Heffernan goes on to examine specific ways that companies have encouraged teams to work together and bond. Some companies discourage drinking coffee at your desk–instead, you’re encouraged to go to a common room, take a break, and talk to fellow employees while enjoying that cup of coffee. Other companies have office vegetable plots where people can go and pick weeds or water plants when they need a break. All these little connections lead to a big concept: social capital. Social capital is “the reliance and interdependency that builds trust” and it takes time to really grow and build that trust.

The main lesson from all of this is that we are all valuable components of the team, no matter our I.Q. or level of creativity. Diverse teams that are encouraged to grow, share their thoughts and opinions, and lean on each other are the most successful. It’s time to forget the pecking order and embrace collaboration.

For the full TED Talk, please click below:

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