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Creating Successful Leaders

Tag Archives: margaret smith career coach


Cats climbing over keyboards, children screaming in the background, co-workers nodding off while your boss is talking—these are the realities of a world governed by video conferences. We are faced with any number of distractions (from dirty dishes to dirty diapers!) that we wouldn’t normally face in the workplace. It might seem impossible to control the video chat chaos, but there are certain steps you can take (whether you’re in an official leadership role or not) to improve the online conferencing experience.

You might not be able to control whether or not your co-workers are wearing pajama pants, but you can control other aspects of video conferencing.

Here are four steps you can take:

1. Start with a check-in

Get team members involved right away by checking in with each person (if you’re meeting with a relatively small group) and asking for a two-minute update. This will help people feel involved right from the get-go, and help them be more connected to the group, even at a distance.

If you’re working with a larger number of people, you might ask everyone a simple question that can either be answered through the chat feature or by giving a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” For example, you might ask, “How many of you are actually enjoying working from home?” Or, “How many of you cooked or baked something fantastic this past week?”

Engaging the group right away sets a precedent. It shows that they are important, and you’re happy they bothered to join the conference.

2. Encourage Video Use

It’s tempting to shut off the video function during an online chat, especially if you haven’t combed your hair or your house is a tad messy. Even so, it’s a good idea to keep it on and to encourage others to also keep theirs on.

Why? Because seeing other people helps the meeting be more interactive and engaging. It also holds people accountable (they can’t just turn off their video function and leave for an afternoon siesta). What’s more, if you’re the speaker, it is completely discouraging to talk at a wall of black screens. You’re already feeling distant, as it is!

Help people overcome their fear of the video camera by speaking openly and honestly about it. “Video might feel uncomfortable at first,” you might say, “but you’ll get used it. Besides, we’re all in this together, and your presence is important.”

3. Ask Questions

I am always a proponent of asking questions, whether in a video conference or an in-person meeting. Questions help clarify information and also help people become more involved with the information. Beyond asking good questions, you can also encourage others to ask questions by specifically calling out a particular group, i.e. “Does anyone from the IT Department have any thoughts on this?”

4. Treat Distractions with Grace

Distractions are inevitable. Someone’s dog is going to bark; someone’s child is going to break a dish. Instead of letting the group get completely off track and pulled into the distraction, acknowledge it right away and deal with it appropriately. There’s no need to either A) make the distraction-causer feel bad or B) make a big deal of the situation. Instead, address the person who caused the distraction (or whose child/cat/dog/parakeet caused the distraction!) and say something like this:

“Oops! Looks like you have to go deal with that situation. Do you want to turn off your video and microphone for a little while and take care of it? Come back whenever you’re ready.”

Then, move on. There’s no use dwelling on a distraction, getting angry, or letting it go without acknowledging it. The best course of action is direct, swift, and calm.

Virtual meetings are our current reality, but I’m guessing they’re not going away anytime soon. Now that we’ve grown accustomed to working from home, there’s a chance we’ll continue doing it more often, even after the COVID pandemic has passed. If that’s the case, we’d better get used to virtual meetings and how to make the most of them. Otherwise, we’re doomed to endure black screens and petty distractions, instead of quality engagement with our virtual community.


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Man looking at wall of plans

If you’ve found yourself working from home all of sudden, you might be feeling disoriented or downright unproductive. This isn’t your typical workspace. This isn’t your daily routine. Now, you’re free to wake up later, work in your pajamas, and browse social media or watch TV without fear of someone catching you. Even the most disciplined of people may be having difficulties making the adjustment. How can you possibly put in a solid day’s work when you’re distracted by bad news and feelings of dread?

One of the most powerful ways to anchor yourself and increase your productivity is to establish your Goals + Routine.

This is a trick that work-from-home folks are quite familiar with. Set your goals (both your macro and micro-level goals) and fit them into a set routine. Just don’t forget to build some flexibility into your goals and routine because life happens. Maybe your son or daughter drops a stack of dishes. Or your boss requests an extra Zoom meeting. Or you hit some kind of snag in your current project.

Building flexibility into your Goals + Routine helps you navigate through the bumps in the road, rework your plan, and keep on moving.

How do you begin planning your Goals + Routine? Start with these steps:

1. Outline your big-picture goals

What things would you like to accomplish by the end of the year, or even further out? Which objectives will occupy a good chunk of your headspace and time over the next several months?

These objectives could be professional (finish a major project, earn a promotion, etc.) or personal (get in shape, read 25 books this year, learn a new language)

2. Break down your big-picture goals into smaller steps

What are a few steps you’ll need to take to reach your big-picture objectives? Think of these are your milestones.

3. Outline your quarterly goals

What smaller goals would you like to achieve? (This step is optional if it overlaps too much with Step #2).

4. Outline your weekly goals

This is HUGELY important. When people make a to-do list, they are often thinking of THAT day, and not the week as a whole. By laying out what you’d like to accomplish this week, you allow some room for flexibility.

5. Outline your weekly STRETCH goals

If you are highly productive and everything goes according to plan this week, what could you accomplish? If you don’t hit your stretch goals, don’t beat yourself up; if you do reach them, celebrate!

6. Outline your daily goals

Start your day by creating a to-do list. Include both personal and professional goals you’d like to achieve today. If you have any time-sensitive commitments, be sure to include those first, and then work around them with other tasks. It can be helpful to add a timeframe for these tasks (i.e. work on a proposal for one hour, go jogging for 45 minutes, etc.)

7. Establish your routine

Once you’ve finished your goal-setting (keep in mind that the daily and weekly goals will be continuous), write up a daily routine for yourself. Your mornings are particularly important for setting yourself up for a good day.

PRO TIP: Include both the things you DO want to do and the things you do NOT want to do. Here’s an example:


  • 6:30 a.m: Wake up
  • 6:45-7:15 a.m. Do yoga/stretching
  • Get dressed, make coffee, and eat a healthy breakfast
  • 7:30 a.m: Check and reply to emails
  • 8:30 a.m: Write out daily task list
  • 12:30 p.m: Break for lunch
  • 3:00 p.m: Take the dog for a walk
  • 5:30 p.m: Start wrapping up work
  • 6:30 p.m: Make dinner
  • 8:30 p.m: If the day did not go according to plan, use an hour or two at night to do work I meant to do earlier.


  • Stay in pajamas
  • Snack throughout the day
  • Forget to write my daily to-do’s
  • Neglect to move around
  • Get frustrated by distractions
  • Neglect to connect with others

To help you prepare your Goals + Routine, I’ve created the following printable handout. Enjoy!

Click to Download PDF

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Hand writing in notebook near laptop and phone

Years ago, I sat with a group of co-workers, listening to our CEO as he described his goals and visions for our company’s future. It was clear he was excited about what was ahead, and he succeeded in drumming up excitement in all of us, too. As I listened, I began to picture myself in a leadership role, helping the company get to where we wanted to go. I could see myself spearheading projects and guiding a team. The thought got me so excited, that I left the meeting with fire under my feet, ready to take action!

The only problem was…the CEO hadn’t discussed any practical implementation for his plan. He did not go into many details, and it was unclear who was going to lead his initiatives and, more importantly, how.

So, I decided to write my own job description. I laid out my responsibilities—precisely the work that was needed to bring the CEO’s goals to fruition. The job fit me to a tee, and I was excited about the possibilities, but then…that negative gremlin on my shoulder began to speak.

It told me I couldn’t do it.

It told me my plan was silly, and no one would listen to me.

It said I would be foolish to show my dream job description to anyone.

So, I put the piece of paper in my drawer and I didn’t show a soul.

Not long after that, one of my co-workers was given a job that would directly fulfill the CEO’s requests. MY job. His responsibilities almost directly mirrored the ones I had laid out in my job description.

Shocked (and more than a little annoyed with myself!), I decided to show my mock job description to my boss. I explained what it was, and handed it over. After he read it, he looked at me and said, “I had no idea, Margaret. I didn’t know your ambitions so closely aligned to this job.”

But it was too late to change things. The job had been created and awarded to someone else, and I was left with only a valuable lesson:

Visualize the career you want and take control of it.

Write out your dream job description, and then let your boss in on your plans. Don’t keep your ambitions a secret. Share your goals, and create a road map for how to get there.

Asking for what you want is never easy, but it is absolutely critical if you want to get to where you’d like to go. Be true to yourself and candid about your goals. This openness and honesty will be worth it in the long run.


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