Define Your Meaning of Success


What is success to you? Watch Matthew McConaughey’s five minute talk and he will give you a framework to think about this question. He believes that before we can determine what success means to us we must first know who we are. Knowing precisely who we are is a more difficult than knowing who we ARE NOT. McConaughey suggests that by discarding the people, paths, and activities that make us feel less than, we make more space and free up more time to to be more than – meaning more who we really are. Once we know who we are, we are more able to become the true architects of our lives and pursue our individual definitions of success.

Another way to look at this same question is to consider what we do best and value most. Our strengths and our values help us to define success. How can we do more of what we love? How can we quit chasing weaknesses? How can we align our abilities with our goals?

Whether you define success as an accomplishment, achievement, fame, family, happiness, prosperity, or victory is not the issue. The real issue is that you create a life filled with abundance and joy on your path to this success.

For more about creating a life filled with joy and success, see Sarah Robinson’s Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want.


When Teamwork Doesn’t Work – and Why

Teamwork, as opposed to independent work, has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Some calculate the average time spent working with others has increased 50% or more in the last 20 years.

Many times the result of the team’s collaborative effort is greater than the sum of each individual’s contribution; this is the magic of teamwork. But occasionally the team’s work doesn’t work. Effective leaders quickly recognize that some individuals are better in a team setting than others, but are frequently at a loss when it comes to considering how their actions – as a leader – impact the team’s overall performance.

Below are tips for leaders who are looking to improve their own leadership abilities and, ultimately, the performance of their team.

Create a Trusting and Fair Environment – Trust is the foundation of good leadership and strong teamwork. Being fair and trustworthy is a leader’s first order of business. Squashing attempts by team members to create an unhealthy work environment – an environment that contains backstabbing, cynicism, cliques, or one-upping – is the second most important order of business. Great leaders are good at detecting early signs of such behaviors and nipping them in the bud. Some leaders encourage “stabbing them in the heart, not the back” which translates into “tell a team member directly and to their face when you are put out or peeved with their behavior instead of telling another teammate behind their back.” Many might think such language is too harsh for the workplace and I might agree. Regardless of the actual wording, the message from the leader – communicated by words and actions – needs to be “our team behaves in ways that promote trust and fairness.”

Value Diversity – Diversity can come in many forms: sex, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, weight, disability, and the list goes on. Today, we recognize that diversity can include non-visible characteristics and that diversity improves teamwork. However, 20 years ago, the opposite belief was held. Most leaders I worked with early in my career believed that diversity referred to visible traits and that too much diversity could cause problems on a team (thus the need for diversity training!). For example, two decades ago, I worked with a sales team that was known for having and building great relationships with their customers. Common wisdom of that time declared this team needed more salespeople who were very similar to the current team members, if the team was to perform at that same high level.

Most leaders today recognize that this “homogeneous is best” attitude is flawed. However, leaders can be slow to recognize how they may be inadvertently de-valuing diversity. I recommend that leaders take a good look at the kinds of people they favor, count as key team players, and are generally impressed by. Leaders who value diversity surround themselves with, and take advice from, people who have a variety of personalities, abilities, and strengths – in sum people who are not like themselves. The teams led by such leaders have fewer blind spots and greater success. Leaders who overlook the benefits of diversity and surround themselves with people who look, act, or think just like themselves, create teams that have a one-sided, myopic vision of the world and its problems. Studies show that these less diverse teams do not perform as well as diverse teams.

Address Social Loafing – Social loafing occurs when individuals put forth less effort when working in a team than they would when working alone. In high school and college, instructors use feedback tools to assess the social loafing that can occur during a group project. Such tools are less prevalent in the workplace despite the fact that social loafing at work creates bad feelings, stress, and negativity among team members. It is a leader’s duty to be on the lookout for social loafing. It is the leader, not the individuals on the team, who should be preoccupied with the distribution of work among team members. Both the leader and the team member in question should remedy this situation by finding new ways for the underutilized team member to contribute to the overall goals of the team.

Reinforce the Use of Emotional Intelligence – Emotional intelligence is defined as one’s ability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of someone else. Emotional intelligence – and its cousin empathy – are greatly underutilized skills in the workplace. Last week I had a manager question how empathy could be used productively and professionally in her straight-laced, male-dominated, and unemotional banking environment. I tried to convince her that being aware of emotions like fear, confusion, sadness, stress, and the like, are keys to promoting individual and team productivity. Leaders who can honestly address the emotions that fill a room and start a conversation about those emotions (for example, “I’m noticing some negative body language in the room; possibly there is not as much agreement about this issue as we have verbalized. Can anyone give me their thoughts on this?”) are light-years ahead of those who stick their heads in the sand and ignore the silent messages that many times are more important than the overt discussions.

Reinforce Turn-Taking When Talking – Successful teams have a track record of taking turns talking and giving equal time to each team member to communicate their opinion. Participating on a team where one person monopolizes the discussion and plows forward with her ideas, obliterating any rival suggestions, can be exhausting and even enraging. Leaders who set clear communication ground rules when it comes to brainstorming, problem solving, and figuring out a new strategy create an environment of open and safe (meaning no ideas are ridiculed) communication. When team members recognize that everyone’s viewpoint will be heard and considered, the need to be the loudest, longest, or most passionate communicator is lessened. Open and safe communication builds trust, just as trust builds open and safe communication.

Empower the Team’s Introvert – If your team has a quiet member, don’t immediately assume that person is loafing! Great leaders know how to engage introverted team members and spark their less attention-needy personalities. In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” she explains how the insights and knowledge of introverts can be greatly diminished in a world that values extroverts. Leaders can address the issue of overlooking the introverts by 1) having a strong personal connection with them, and 2) a good knowledge of their expertise. Drawing the introvert into the group’s conversation with particular questions (for example: “Bill, I know you have done some special training in this area. What are your thoughts?”) is a great way to empower this individual.

Focus on the Strengths of the Team – Teams that focus on what each member does best, receive feedback about how they are utilizing their strengths, and know how their unique talents connect to their work have higher productivity, increased profitability, and are six times more likely to be engaged at work. The leader sets the tone and can create a deficiency-based culture (“If only we were more like team B, they have some real stars. Let’s do what they are doing.”) or a strengths-based culture (“I’m so excited about the abilities of everyone here and complementary skills of this team. We are unique. Let’s use our unique talents to be the best we can possibly be.”) Harnessing the strengths of a team may sound challenging but is actually a very straight-forward process.

Every leader plays a key role in the outcomes of their team. In fact, the outcomes are precisely how each leader’s ability will be judged. Are you looking for that magic ingredient to unlock your team’s potential?  Look no farther than the mirror.


For more about leading with strengths see Sarah Robinson’s best-selling book “Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want.”




The Differences in Your Team Make the Difference

It is widely recognized that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those organizations in the top 25% for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have above average financial returns.

Below are three reasons why having a team with visible and invisible differences positively impacts the results that team can produce.

  1. Innovation is more likely when the team has divergent thinking and divergent life experiences.
  2. Teams are more apt to carefully process information when an outsider is present.
  3. Diverse teams focus more on facts than less diverse teams.

While all of these reasons make sense, we know that not all diverse teams perform consistently at a high level. Google wanted to discover if there was a magic ingredient that created the “secret sauce” of a perfect team. Did some teams have a trait, a characteristic, or a minimum composite IQ that made them better than at solving problems and producing high quality results when compared to similar teams?

Google has the resources to discern what the perfect mix of personalities, IQ scores, cultural backgrounds, and religious preferences of a team might be – and luckily the rest of us can benefit from learning from these efforts. Remarkably, the results of Google’s Project Aristotle found that success had less to do with individual attributes and more to do with social norms and mutual respect.

Social Sensitivity and Equal Time When Speaking Are Key Traits of Successful Teams

The way Project Aristotle summed up its findings were that: (1) the most successful teams had a high average on a “social sensitivity” score; and (2) the team members all got turns speaking and roughly the same amount of time speaking when the group convened.

Social sensitivity is evaluated by showing individuals photos of people’s eyes and gauging the emotions of the person in the photograph based on the expression in the photo. The most high performing teams had individual team members who scored above average on these tests. Presumably, this means these same individuals are proficient at understanding how their teammates feel based on non-verbal cues such at facial expression, tone of voice, or other non-verbal mannerisms. I might place the term “social sensitivity” under the umbrella of emotional intelligence (an oft-referenced organizational behavior term that refers to the ability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of someone else.) Importantly, Google did not make this same generalization.

The second trait of a high performing team turned out to be respectful listening and turn-taking when it came to conversations. Anita Woolley, Project Aristotle’s lead author, found that when one person or a small group dominated the discussion of the team, the collective intelligence of the team declined. The face validity of this result is high. Who hasn’t felt reluctant to participate in a group’s discussion when one or more people in the group seem to dominate or control the topic of the conversation with their perspective?

So, yes, it is the differences in your team that make the difference. But it is also the ability of your team to understand the emotions of team members and encourage equal participation in discussions that allow those differences to enhance the group’s decision making and problem solving.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day: Here’s to Making Your Own Luck

The quote above is from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is one of my favorite historical leaders. In fact, I feel so close to him, I’ve given him a nickname – TJ.

TJ was no slacker. He was a hard worker who accomplished quite a bit in his lifetime. Just five of TJ’s many significant accomplishments include:

  • being the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, an amazing document that was created in just 17 days.
  • serving as the first U.S. Secretary of State (1790-1793).
  • serving as the third President of the United States (1801-1809).
  • doubling the size of the United States while President of the United States; this feat was achieved by orchestrating the greatest land deal ever – the Louisiana Purchase.
  • founding the University of Virginia in 1819.

This short list shows the magnitude of TJ’s impact, his life-long devotion to hard work, and the good luck he managed to have along the way. It’s a great reminder that hard work always seems to come before luck and not the other way around.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Supply Your Own Sunshine and Happiness

We are on day 31 of 2018. Thus far, we have experienced 40 days of winter, with 50 days left to go. In Indiana that means too many gray days and not enough “squinting at the sun, unable to see the traffic light, blinded by the gorgeous rays” days.

Having a sunny disposition is contagious. This winter, instead of spreading the common cold, spread a little happiness.

Here’s how:

  1. Smile more: Studies show that if you smile, the people around you will smile. Smiling makes everything better. Do it.
  2. Consider what you do well. Do more of it. This will make you feel good about yourself and spread your natural talent.
  3. Give someone a 100% sincere compliment.
  4. Pet your dog, cat, turtle. This will make both of you happy.
  5. Help someone. Giving to others is the best way to raise your spirits and someone else’s.
  6. Express your gratitude.

To curb these deary days, bring your own sunshine. It will warm you and everyone around you.



The Difference Between Being Busy and Being Productive


I’m sure you’re too busy for this 4-minute video but humor me for 2-minutes and I’ll give you a very brief synopsis.

Many of my corporate clients struggle with the issue of working on the RIGHT thing. This video squarely addresses that problem. The most common strength of the 17.5 million people who have taken the StrengthsFinder assessment is Achiever. This means that of those folks who have taken the 45-minute personality assessment, many of them report enjoying getting a lot done every day and making things happen (at work and at home).

However, after years of coaching some of these Achievers (and wrestling with my own Achiever which ranks #3 in my “Top 5” strengths), I have noticed that many of these same people worry that they can work on the WRONG things – for instance the easy things, the things that are “low hanging fruit,” the things that may make your colleague happy but that are not necessarily your top priority. They leave work every day knowing that they were busy, but they have a gnawing feeling that they were not productive. Sound like anyone you know?

Here are four tips that may help you in 2018 and beyond to become productive at work (and not just busy).

  1. Set priorities – Your top priority should be where you spend your time and effort. Get the critical things done first, INSTEAD OF the easy things.
  2. Start saying “No” – This is a big challenge for many of my clients who enjoy reaping the respect of others by helping and seeming to be the “go-to” person when there is a difficult task at hand due to their stellar work ethic. My suggestion to those who love saying “Yes” is to say, “Yes, but not now.” If saying “yes” to helping others on tasks that are not your top priority is your number one productivity distraction, test out this technique.
  3. Set realistic deadlines – Giving yourself too much time (or not enough time) to accomplish tasks can also be problematic. Breaking large priorities into smaller tasks is the best way to initiate difficult projects. Setting the appropriate timeline to complete these smaller tasks will create a positive snowball effect in that you can build on your small success day after day.
  4. Create short “to-do” lists – Many of the busy people I coach create long lists every day of all of the things they plan to accomplish. I have met more than a handful of these same people who keep their past notepads containing these lists for posterity. Ok, there may be a tiny chance that they’ll need to know in the future that they started working on a certain project on May 14, 2015 but it’s much more likely that these old notebooks are only used as a self-soothing technique to give evidence to worried Achievers of just how much work these dedicated individuals have put in year-in and year-out. The proof is not for their boss, mind you, it’s for them. High Achievers love to know they are getting lots done, and these old lists – with check marks at the side, or lines crossing out the tasks listed – are a way to show themselves in black and white that they have a long history of getting things done. Unfortunately, these old lists only show how busy they were every day, not how productive they were each year. If your habit has been to create a long daily to-do list, try something different in 2018. Create a daily 1-3 item list that forces you to consider your biggest priorities every day.

Best of luck for a PRODUCTIVE and happy year.

Managers Push, Leaders Pull: Tips to Become a Good Puller

Do you push or pull? We see these words frequently in our daily lives (mostly above door handles), but they have meaning in our work lives too.

Marketers use the terms push and pull to explain how they can strategically gain a new customer. If you decide to use push marketing, your approach is to promote your product by pushing it onto the potential buyer. If you decide to use pull marketing, your approach is to build brand awareness and draw the potential buyer to you naturally.

The terms are similarly used when applied to managerial processes. A manager might push her direct reports to implement a new sales technique by requiring that they use a particular sales process by the end of the year. In the new year, all sales will be recorded using documentation that supports the new sales process. When a manager chooses to push instead of pull her direct reports, they have no choice in type of sales method chosen, no input on how it might be implemented, nor any say about the time frame that a new process will be launch. All of those decisions are pushed upon them by their all-knowing manager.

That same pushing manager can transform herself into a pulling leader by making three changes to her approach.

  1. First, the pulling leader is persuasive; she lets her direct reports make their own decisions but is sure to put all of the relevant information on the table. A leader can gently pull her reports to implement changes, when her direct reports come to believe that there are a host of personal and professional advantages that make this change desirable. Comparing and contrasting the current process, the newly proposed process, and rival processes (also referred to as the “learning orientation”) is key to this step. When direct reports feel educated and empowered by new information, they are more likely to choose the best option.
  2. Second, the pulling leader creates an open dialogue. In the case of implementing a new sales technique, a pulling leader would create an environment where direct reports can openly discuss the pros and cons of each scenario without backlash.
  3. Third, the pulling leader allows individuals to test the waters in the way that suits them best. For some, this might mean rolling the idea around in their head for a few days or weeks. For others, this might mean taking the process out for a test run. Still others might want to do their own research. Allowing for individual differences in the implementation process gives direct reports faith that this is not a one-size fits all, top-down, mandatory procedure.

There are plenty of reasons that managers continue to push instead of pull. Pushing is quick. It requires very little managerial savvy. “Because I said so” is basically the pusher’s response to any queries about the change process.

The pulling leader has a much more uncertain road. The individual differences of the team, their buy-in preferences, their personality quirks, and their individual desires are all a part of the consideration process for the pulling leader. The good news is that the pay-off for pulling your team into the future is that they will willingly be standing by your side. This is vastly different from pushing them into the future with you because they may be next to you in body alone, begrudging every minute spent with you.

Be a puller, not a pusher.

For more from Sarah Robinson about persuasive leadership see Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want.

New Year’s Resolution 2018: Be a Giver

Are you a giver at work? It turns out that givers, as compared to takers or matchers, are both the HIGHEST and the LOWEST performers at work. Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take and Originals, believes that creating organizations with more high performing givers is a workplace imperative.

So, if becoming a giver and/or creating a culture of giving at work is high on your to-do list for 2018, what steps can be taken  by you individually or your collective management team to promote a workplace that emphasizes contribution (and giving) rather than competition (and taking)?

Here are three tips from Adam’s talk:

  1. Don’t burnout: The giver has a hard time saying no. Givers, who I frequently encounter in my coaching business, buy into the idea that they can save the day with their knowledge, expertise, or amazing work ethic. They appreciate the opportunity to help and want to gain the respect of the individual or group that may have asked for their help. They need to be protected from (or least advised and counselled about) giving too much. Grant suggests that givers try to limit themselves to a 5-minute helping hand.
  2. Promote help-seeking: Workplaces are naturally constructed to promote teamwork: we have meetings with our colleagues; we have joint office spaces or neighboring cubicles. Remarkably, despite the proximity of these smart people, we are frequently reluctant to ask them for help. We do not want to burden our colleagues with our work. We do not want to appear inept. Creating and promoting a help-seeking environment can dramatically lessen the awkwardness of asking for help at work. If someone asked you for help yesterday, wouldn’t you feel more secure about asking for help today? Of course. Grant discusses how hospitals have used this concept effectively by creating the position of a “helping nurse,” whose primary responsibility is to help other nurses.
  3. Don’t hire takers: Although this last tip may be easier said than done, an effective way to increase giving and reduce taking in the workplace is to eliminate individuals who are prone to having a competitive, silo-ed, non-sharing demeanor. Grant makes a great point that we must be on the look-out for the office backstabber – the individual who pretends to be kind and helpful to your face but who actually runs you down and diminishes you when you turn your back.

The timing of this message, on the heals of the holidays and preceding the New Year, is intentional. My guess is that at some point last week you realized (once again!) that giving is better than receiving. Let’s make it our 2018 mantra.

Happy New Year!


People Need One Another

Do you like to fly solo? I ask that question both literally and figuratively. Sometimes it’s nice to travel alone. You don’t need to wait for your companion’s luggage or worry about getting them a latte before boarding. It can be nice to work independently too. When we work solo, we may believe we have more control over deadlines, work product, and final outcomes. Depending on other people is a huge risk. Sometimes people let us down. Sometimes they come up short. Sometimes they annoy us.

After years of considering these issues, I have come to think that focusing on the positives of independence, is a trap. This flawed thinking can lull us into the belief that flying solo is not only better for us personally (less hassle!) but also better for our professional outcomes (more control!). But we do not develop, grow, and learn in a vacuum, cut off from other people. We learn about ourselves and the world by relying upon friends, colleagues, relatives, acquaintances, and total strangers every single day.

Depending upon others, at work and at home, is a skill I continue to grow. It does not come naturally to me. However, when I am able to find a great partner, or a fantastic group to be a part of, I have to remind myself all over again that flying solo has many disadvantages. When I pretend to be self-sufficient (is anyone actually capable of this?), I cut-off opportunities for collaboration, new thinking, and process improvement.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the many people who make me better, who draw awareness to issues that lie in my blind spots and who know how to press back and slow me down when I want to charge ahead.

Who do you need most? How do they help you to be a better you? If you have the tendency to want to do everything yourself, ask yourself who actually benefits from your desire for total autonomy? When I ask myself this question, I realize that the benefits of flying solo are limited. People need one another. The Pilgrims were quick to figure this out.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Power of Differences

Most of us have experienced the fear of being different at some point in our lives. I had more than a fleeting awareness that there were a handful of things about me that were different from my peers during grade school. Most notably, I was Caucasian and all my best friends during the period between first and sixth grades were not. I was really bummed that I couldn’t wear hair ties that had huge gumball-like balls on them as my African-American friends did. My fine, brown, slippery hair could not hold those heaving, decorative balls; the ties would just slip out of my hair, quite to my dismay. It seemed unfair and it made me sad.

The Fear of Differences

However, it wasn’t until junior high school that differences – whether they be physical or related to beliefs – actually caused fear in me. The fear of being different, of buying the “wrong” brand of jeans, of liking a boy that no one else liked, or actually enjoying a class that everyone else hated, was profound. There were many brands and beliefs that were easy to conform to. For example: what was the BEST soap opera? General Hospital; what was the BEST lip gloss? Bonny Bell; what was the ONLY tennis shoe that could be worn? Nike. This cult-like thinking was frequently inspired by the awareness of the ridicule that was in store for the outliers. The outliers were the people who dared to buck the norm and be different. The term outlier has been made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s book with the same name. In this book, Gladwell dis-spells all of our lingering junior high fears while shining a bright light on the value and necessity of outliers. Gladwell not only praises the outliers but he inspires his reader to be an outlier.

The Power of Differences 

In the work I do with corporate teams as a StrengthsFinder coach, I frequently highlight the outliers of the team. Who is the only member of the team who has Woo in their “Top 5 Strengths”? Who has Analytical? Who has Context? When the team members understand how each strength can be productively applied, these outliers become remarkably important.  The Woo can advise the team on the best way to approach a stranger at a networking cocktail party, or better yet, they can go to the event and flex their strength in full view of their adoring colleagues. The differences of the team and the team’s ability to tap into these differences are the team’s “secret sauce.”

Research that supports this idea was completed by the company that is so well-known for creating high performing teams: Google. In Google’s quest to find “the components of a perfect team,” they studied 180 teams and found that there are two factors that most impacted a team’s performance. The first factor is “social sensitivity” or how aware group members were to the importance of social connection. The second factor relates to how well the group communicates. The groups who gave each team member equal time to speak and freedom to share ideas did best. Teams that consistently shared different ideas and resisted the temptation silence the outlier in favor of the majority rule consistently outperformed their peers. Needless to say, Google evaluated a host of other factors, including IQ and personality traits, when trying to decipher the key ingredients of a perfect team, and social sensitivity and idea-sharing were the big winners.

Embracing your differences and the differences of those around you while simultaneously learning how to focus the unique lens through which your team sees the world is your team’s challenge. Good luck!


For more on using your strengths as well as your differences productively see: Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want. To learn more about Malcom Gladwell’s work see: Outliers.