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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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Text over a red lattice
Background image via Alicja from Pixabay

At one time, it was fairly common for a person to spend their entire career at the same company, working their way up the rungs of the organizational ladder. Today, things aren’t nearly so neat and tidy, and career paths are not nearly so straight (or even vertical). Instead of a ladder, many modern workers’ careers resemble a lattice.

How can a career trajectory resemble a lattice?

A lattice fans out in many different directions. It climbs, but not necessarily in a straight line. Similarly, a person might take on a variety of different roles in a number of different industries. They might learn various skills along the way, each one building up their expertise and knowledge base.

This type of “climbing” creates a more well-rounded person—someone who has dipped their toes into many different waters and has developed skills in numerous areas. The latticed career path also inevitably makes people more adaptable—they’ve had to learn the ins and outs of a variety of different workplaces and roles.

If so many modern employees move in a lattice style, how is it possible to map out one’s career? Is it even plausible?

Absolutely. You just have to adjust your thinking. Instead of visualizing your career as “climbing the ladder,” think instead about the different skills you’d like to learn, experiences you’d like to have, and goals you’d like to attain. How will you get there? What training do you need? What roles and responsibilities do you need to fill? These different skillsets and experiences are offshoots of your lattice.

If you’re having trouble with this visual, you can also think about your career path like a tree. While the whole entity goes up, some of the branches are more horizontal than vertical. These branches are the different career detours you might take. You might, for instance, take the time to earn your MBA, learn how to code, or take a class in public speaking. While these little detours may deviate from your main career, they make you more well-rounded and valuable in the end.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how to lay out your non-linear career goals (moving like a lattice or a tree!) in more detail. In the meantime, simply recognize that your trajectory may not be straight, but that doesn’t mean you’re not moving forward and picking up valuable skills and lessons along the way.


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Light bulb with thought bubble around it
Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein

If you’re like me, you enjoy brainstorming sessions. I’m energized by the creative process—tossing ideas onto a white board and seeing which ones stick. This is typical “yellow energy” behavior (see my post on the four Insights Discovery color energies to learn more). People like me enjoy spontaneous problem-solving, talking through difficulties, and offering off-the-cuff solutions. We also tend to adopt whichever solution seems like the best option, without overthinking it or plunging too deeply into the analytics.

People on the other end of the spectrum (those who tend to lead with more blue energy) are not terribly fond of this method. They like a more analytical approach…and if a solution is offered, they will examine it closely to determine whether or not it might be a viable option.

Neither method is wrong, but both are lacking something in their approach. Some experts argue that focusing too much on solutions is the wrong way to go about problem-solving in the first place. They claim that you (or your team) will ultimately arrive at a better solution if you live in the problem for a while.

The thinking behind this claim goes like this: You can’t really come up with a good solution until you understand the problem inside and out. So, instead either of tossing ideas up on a whiteboard OR getting analytical with potential solutions, this method calls for all parties to take a step back and examine the problem in front of them.

Author and Stanford professor, Tina Selig, calls this approach “frame storming.” She believes that if you want to unlock innovative solutions, you have to “fall in love with the problem.” By spending more time considering the problem, you are more likely to take into account all the factors that are at play. Who is affected? How? Does this particular problem create other problems? Would one type of solution only partially solve the problem or, perhaps, solve it for a short period of time?

Considering the problem might be a way to bring people like me (yellow energy!) together with more analytical types. This approach forces everyone to slow down and consider the dilemma in front of them, before moving to take action.

So, next time you and your team are faced with a sticky problem that requires an answer, try “frame storming.” Agree to spend more time immersed in the issue at hand before even considering moving to a solution.


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Microphone with text: 4 Vocal Tricks to Be Heard
Image by 19dulce91 from Pixabay

Have you ever noticed some people have the type of voice that commands attention? When they start speaking, the room listen. People pay attention.

Even if you do not naturally have a “sit up and take notice” voice, there are still steps you can take to improve your vocal tendencies and help yourself be heard. After all, what you’re saying isn’t necessarily as important as how you say it. A study by a UCLA professor found that a full 38% of our impression of someone is formed by their vocal quality, while only 7% of our impression is formed by their message (the remaining percent has to do with body language and facial expressions).

In short, vocal tone and inflection is important. Here are 5 ways to improve yours:

1. Know Yourself

Pay attention to how you talk and how your voice might be perceived. To do this, it’s helpful to record yourself speaking (as uncomfortable as that may be!), play it back, and pay attention. Is your voice low or high? Fast or slow? How do you emphasize words? Do you include a lot of filler language such as “like” or “um?”

Knowing how you speak gives you a baseline for how to improve.

2. Lower Your Voice

According to an article by Susan Berkley in BottomLine magazine, a study revealed that a lower voice (for both men and women) makes that person seem “more competent and trustworthy than those with a raised pitch.” She goes on to say that you can work on talking at a lower pitch by placing your hand on your sternum (for women) or beneath your sternum (for men) and strive to create a vibration.

NOTE: You never want to seem inauthentic when you’re speaking, so don’t try to go too deep. Just lower your voice so it’s still within your natural range.

3. Pay Attention To Pacing

There’s a balance between talking too quickly and talking slowly. If you tend gab at a mile-a-minute, it may be difficult for people to keep up, and you’ll eventually lose them. On the other hand, if you speak too slowly, you may leave room for people to interrupt or talk over you.

Practice speaking at a comfortable pace (again, record yourself OR, if you’d really try to nail your pacing, try joining Toastmasters). Be sure to ask questions as you go, so you can gauge how engaged your audience is.

4. Practice What You Will Say

If you’d really like to be heard, it’s worth it to practice what you’re going to say before actually saying it. This way, you’ll go into the conversation with more confidence and sound more sure of yourself. When you practice, make sure to focus on eliminating filler words such as like, uh, um, or ah. Also pay attention to your pitch and pacing.

You deserve to be heard. Try putting one or two of these tips into practice and let me know how it goes! Also, if you have other tips to share, I’d love to hear them.


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Purple Lotus flower
Image by Ri Butov from Pixabay

Have you ever worked in an office that’s brimming with hostility and disgruntled staff? Have you ever felt like just a number–like you’re practically invisible to everyone else? Or, on the other side of the coin, have you ever dealt with a pushy, aggressive boss or co-workers?

Sure, all of these situations are bad for morale. They make you uninspired and unexcited to go to work every morning. BUT, the consequences of an unfriendly workplace are even more widespread than that. This type of environment can decrease productivity, increase turnover, and actually affect the company’s bottom line. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that, “ostracism, incivility, harassment, and bullying have direct negative significant effects on job productivity” and lead to higher job burnout.

In short, hostility in the workplace affects the both entire organization and the individual.

But, what do you do? You’re just one person, right? While it’s difficult to change an entire workplace dynamic, there are a few steps you can take to try to make improvements. Make kindness part of your leadership brand—truly live by the golden rule and treat others how you’d like to be treated (or, even better, treat others as they want to be treated).

To get started, try implementing these five practices:

1. Greet others

It may seem like a small thing, but the simple act of greeting someone you pass in the hallway can make a significant impact. According to author and Georgetown professor, Christine Porath, it’s a good idea to use the “10-5 rule.” When someone is within 10 feet, acknowledge them, make eye contact, and smile. When they’re within 5 feet, say hello. In one study, healthcare facilities that implemented this practice saw a marked increase in civility and patient satisfaction.

2. Hold inclusive meetings

There is, perhaps, no easier way to shut down voices than to hold non-inclusive meetings. Ideally, meetings are a chance for everyone to ask questions, propose ideas, or voice concerns. If only one or two voices are heard during most meetings, that quickly sends the message that the rest of the team is not valued.

Be a meeting leader. Bring others into the conversation by saying things like, “This topic would directly affect Kelly’s department. Kelly—do you have any thoughts about this?”

3. Don’t gossip

The office gossip machine can be cripplingly toxic. Just don’t do it. For more about shutting down gossip, take a look at my past post.

4. Acknowledge achievements

You don’t necessarily have to give out plaques or achievement pins, but it is a good idea to acknowledge people’s accomplishments in some way. Whether a shout-out at a meeting or a handwritten thank you card, make an effort to let others know they are valued members of the team.

5. Listen

You may not have the solution to cure workplace woes, but others might. Especially if you are in a leadership position, it’s a good idea to meet with people one-on-one and LISTEN to their ideas on how to improve the workplace. After all, your perspective is not the only perspective. You might be missing a key piece of the worker satisfaction puzzle.

Start making kindness a central part of your leadership brand. If you’re working within a less-than-friendly environment, start becoming the change you’d like to see take place. Acknowledge others, be inclusive, don’t give in to gossip, and (above all), practice active listening. Your actions could make a world of difference.


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