The Lead Yourself First Blog

How to tell people at work what you really think of them

ID-10054899Act One Scene One:  Learning a brand new way of implementing: “Don’t get mad, get even.”

During a recent training session regarding workplace relationships, I asked attendees to think of a time when a co-worker, client or manager’s words left them absolutely speechless.  Shock waves filled the room as participants willingly shared their stories. One example in particular threw everyone for a loop. As one of the attendees revealed the details of an encounter with a VP, the workshop discussion quickly heated up as people chimed in with their best comebacks. The collective “you have got to be kidding” sentiment made me think about the importance of knowing how to respond professionally to a disparaging remark in order to keep one’s credibility and composure, as well managing as the ramifications of unpleasant business interactions spiralling out of control.

What were the words that left everyone aghast? Continue reading “How to tell people at work what you really think of them”

When Customers Walk – The Business Consequences of Disengagement

Please help meAfter a seventeen hour journey from Australia to Canada, plus forty-five frustrating minutes talking to airline staff about a pair of prescription glasses that were left on board, our friends left Vancouver International Airport knowing that the chances of anyone caring enough to resolve their concern was almost zero. A young woman who listened to their plight while repeatedly attempting not to yawn informed them that if found, the glasses would be taken to the appropriate location for lost articles. She scribbled down the company’s website name and told them to fill out the on-line form for lost and found articles. It was time to go on her break and there was nothing else she could do. The fact that their airplane was still at the gate, and the fact that the “at your service” agent could have easily communicated with airline’s ground staff to check for the glasses seemed all too difficult.

This scenario is not merely an example of poor customer service. It demonstrates something much deeper…a problem that is reaching endemic proportions in many workplaces of every description: Skyrocketing levels of employee disengagement. The results of a new Aon Hewitt study, reported in HRM Online, found 47% of workers are disengaged from their work – the lowest employee engagement levels in North America in five years.

Healthy levels of workplace engagement indicate discretionary effort, i.e. wanting to do, rather than having to do a job. HRM online also noted that “the drops in areas such as diversity, customer experience and leadership lead to an overall decrease in how employees felt about their overall work experience.” In the case of my friend’s lost pair of glasses, she encountered an individual who was not only unwilling to ask another colleague at the gate about the status of the glasses in that moment, but gave no thought to the bigger picture regarding the future buying decisions of an unhappy customer in her highly competitive industry.

Workplace cultures, together with employees’ perceptions of their role in the grand scheme of impacting the bottom line are key indicators of engagement. A recently published report entitled: The impact of the new long-term employee…Dealing with the Increasingly Shorter Definition of “a Long Time with the Company” defined engagement as: “the degree to which employees are psychologically invested in your organization and motivated to contribute to its success.”

The above definition ought to become the new benchmark for assessing the entire spectrum of organizational effectiveness. Employers of any size and industry that continue to ignore the significance of their staff remaining disengaged do so at their own peril. Unfortunately, the front line is not the only cohort who is psychologically “checking out” on the job. Management are also disconnecting for a host of reasons that include pressures to achieve higher performance and productivity with reduced staffing levels, limited resources, and increased workloads. As a result of being pulled in divergent directions, they are compromising their own abilities to lead, inspire, and motivate in order to meet or exceed senior leadership’s expectations.

Sadly, the story of my friend’s lost pair of glasses continued on a downward spiral. Email communications with supervisors and managers proved futile, as it became evident that their apologetic responses were obligatory rather than empathetic. At no time did my friend get a sense that there was a genuine desire to resolve her concern, from the top down.

When individuals at every level of an organization lose sight of the “how” and “why” of their job function, the disengagement cycle continues to build, job satisfaction wanes, client service is affected and opportunities for business growth are lost. As a leader, are you personally setting the example for your team to be highly engaged? Is your customer service a reflection of a team doing what they do because they have to or want to? Disengagement is not only evident within your internal operations; it is also evident to your customers who may ultimately experience its consequences and take their business elsewhere.


Are you taking the lead with your customers?

A friend of mine went to pick up his dry cleaning last Friday. While this isn’t exactly headline news, be assured that the dry cleaner in question has no idea that he is the main story of my blog. He doesn’t know that potentially 1,000’s of people are reading about his example of appalling customer service right now.

Most of us expect that if our dry cleaning is tagged for pick up on a particular day, it will be ready. When my friend went to the store, he found a sign on the door that read: “Closed Fridays”. He had several suits waiting for pick-up…the only suits he owned. He needed them urgently and was left high and dry. When he was finally able to pick up his clothes and asked the dry cleaner why he tagged his clothes for Friday, the owner of the store tersely replied: “What do you want me to do about it”? Wrong answer.

The cleaner offered my friend a 20% discount. Although he had not asked for one, the offer made no difference. He had already made up his mind that he would not be coming back. False promises and the owner’s attitude were enough for him to make the decision in a split second. The dry cleaner failed to realize the implications.

Unfortunately, these situations play out every day, worldwide. Businesses of every description often fail to realize the consequences of poor communication as the fundamental reason for people deciding to invest their dollars elsewhere. One “faux pas” can destroy the relationship permanently. This truth applies to transactions at the highest level…from the board room to the mail room. Millions of dollars are being lost due to the absence of a Lead Yourself First mindset.

The tone of your communication is your responsibility. When you say or do the wrong thing, when your advertising is misleading, when your clients question any inconsistencies, listen and apologize immediately. Otherwise, you and your business may may find yourself front and centre on a very popular website known as “I’”.

“The Mighty Have Fallen”…Lessons from a Generation of Mentors

Eleven months ago at 90 years of age, my father’s voice fell silent. My brother and I watched him take his last breath as he departed the world for another place to join my mother. The enormity of the loss is still with us as we unveiled his headstone this weekend in Sydney, Australia.  Many from his generation exemplified the greatest examples of overcoming tremendous adversity during their living years and I know that their legacy lives on in me.

Growing up in the safety and security of Australia, it was often difficult for me to comprehend the situations that my parents endured; although I have no doubt that their experiences had an indelible impact on my identity and perspective on life.

As I remember my father, I think of the stories he told regarding his upbringing and the tumultuous years he spent as a prisoner of war on two occasions. First, in a forced labour camp in Hungary, only to be liberated by his future captors who placed him in a Russian prisoner of war camp until after the Second World War. He went home to discover that many members of his family had been murdered in the concentration camps.

Like many who faced the reality of a world changed forever, my father’s survival skills prevailed. He emigrated to Australia in 1952, arriving with a small amount of cash and big dreams. He seized the opportunity to forge a new beginning and saved his earnings to return to Europe. While attending a trade show in Vienna he saw an automated knitting machine and recognized an opportunity.

With his hard work ethic, endearing personality and strong sales skills, my father was able to secure the necessary financial backing and ultimately sell the machines to the largest department stores in Australia and New Zealand. Dad was the first to introduce knitting machines to the southern hemisphere and became wildly successful with his new business venture.

Despite the horrors of war and loss everlastingly etched in his memory, he was nonetheless a risk-taker extraordinaire and entrepreneur before the words became popularized. Above all, his eternal optimism triumphed over his darkest times.

Even though he experienced numerous ups and downs in business, including the collapse of the knitting machine venture (as Dad put it, the Australian public’s fascination with the introduction of television took over from their first love affair with his knitting machines,) he would always persevere.

When faced with the biggest test of his personal life…the role of caregiver for my mother at the age 80, he rose to the occasion despite a breaking heart, witnessing her demise to the cruelty of dementia.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my father was this: In order to rise above our challenges of any description, we need to focus on developing a resiliency mindset. It is a business and life strategy that many individuals and organizations must adopt in order to deal with adversity as well as uncertainty.

My father also taught me about the willingness to dig deep and gain strength from past experiences. We can overcome seemingly impossible challenges in the present by drawing upon our own inner resources.

The most striking words from his eulogy came from one of my father’s business associates. When describing his generation, he reminded the mourners: “the mighty have fallen.”

There will never be another generation that resembles my parents’. We have much to learn and appreciate from their timeless legacy.

The Age of Leading Yourself First

“To thine own self be true,” said Polonius in the play Hamlet, by Shakespeare. It is highly likely that Shakespeare had not intended for his character to be the spokesperson for humanity on the subject of living one’s truth (indeed, he was portrayed frequently as a foolish old “goat”.)

Nonetheless, his ramblings remain legendary; renowned through the ages for their wisdom. This quote epitomizes the essence of leading oneself first: i.e. practicing personal leadership. To lead ourselves first means that we can differentiate our values without holding any attachment to another person’s idea of whom we are supposed to be.  When we are true to ourselves, we know ourselves and we understand our place in the grand scheme of things. We have discovered our unique purpose and we regularly tap into our intuition in order to make decisions of all kinds.  We are successfully practicing “me” management in every situation or challenge.

When we think of “leadership skills”, we usually associate these with individuals who are in a management or supervisory role. Leadership rhetoric has its roots in a variety of management theories espoused over the ages. What is missing, however, is the idea of taking charge of oneself. It has been commonplace to think of a leader in terms of “position”, generally associated with being in charge of others. However, a title on a business card or a placard on a desk or door does not automatically make someone a leader. It may give the impression of self-importance and achievement, however, the title alone is not enough. Neither is a job description that notes functions associated with managing people.

The importance of practicing personal leadership is everyone’s personal responsibility. Attaching importance to what we do for a living is often recognized as a yardstick for measuring success. However, the manner in which we conduct ourselves has far greater significance and impact in the long-term. Therefore, the meaning of leadership denotes character, above all else. It has nothing to do with a job title.

 Definition of leadership

 A leader is someone who recognizes that character is the greatest test of true leadership. A leader is someone who is clear about their values and applies them on a regular basis. In other words, having values and living by one’s values are two distinctive propositions. This has very little to do with moving up the management ladder into a leadership role. Furthermore, one doesn’t have to be in a workplace to be a leader.

Be the best version of you with others

 Honing this specific talent is more noteworthy, because human beings progress further in life by mastering the capacity to appreciate, relate to and communicate with the vast array of personalities, cultures and demographics, without judgment or discrimination. A business title conveying “leader” is no proof of having acquired this gift.

 Experience the totality of the moment 

According to physics, the earth’s average orbital speed is around 30,000 mph. Our planet is spinning so fast, yet we don’t even feel it.  One could say the same thing about numerous interactions that occur on a daily basis. Do we truly experience them? It is an interesting dichotomy, although the reality is that it is precisely because of the speed at which we live, we happen upon human encounters that have a fascinating potential to provide a quantum leap in our own learning, yet we shrug them off.  Rarely do we stop to consider their impact.


Leading yourself first in your organization, your career and your life requires commitment, desire and discipline. Recognizing the true essence of leadership is the first step. We are experiencing a unique period in our history where it is possible for anyone to be thrust into the spotlight, either through our own efforts or via the plethora of social media. Therefore, at any given moment, we have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership on a daily basis, regardless of vocation or position, in all that we do.

Michelle Ray is the author of  “Lead Yourself First”, coming soon!

New Year…New Career: Are you ready for “me” management?

This is the time of year when many people set New Years’ Resolutions or big goals for future. You may be thinking that 2012 is the year to start a new venture and finally resolve to start a new business or make a career change that has been on your mind for a considerable period of time. As exciting as your plans may be, you want to ensure to the best of your ability that your goals come to fruition.  We have all heard sayings such as “the only place that success comes before work is in the dictionary” and although it is one of the most overused clichés on the planet, the fact remains that many small businesses and solopreneurs fail because they mistakenly believe that self-employment provides a glamorous lifestyle. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. While there is no doubt that I enjoy my daily working life without routines or bosses (and wouldn’t have it any other way), buying into the notion that I no longer answer to anyone and can do whatever I please is not a winning strategy for long-term success. When it comes to practicing self-leadership at work and in business, it is important not to underestimate the challenges associated with being your own boss while deciding whether it is really for you.

Having entrepreneurial roots did not give me the rite of passage to financial freedom. It took considerable time for me to see my business as a viable enterprise. If I wanted to merely survive and make enough money to pay my rent and living expenses, I could have remained employed. However, the primary motivator was based on a lack of fulfillment.  My decision to start my first business as a speaker was based primarily on lifestyle considerations, coupled with the belief that if it were a truly viable enterprise that allowed me to do what I loved, it could afford me a way of life that would be immensely gratifying. At the core, I believed in myself enough to take the risk.

If you are contemplating leaving your job or starting a new venture, your capacity to be brutally honest regarding your expectations is a good place to start. When it comes to making choices such as pursuing a new vocation or business, your most important asset is mindfulness. It is all about practicing “me” management…being able to effectively manage yourself. The first step requires honing an unfamiliar kind of mental toughness that will force you to personally dig deep and assess your own reality while loving what you do in order to stay the course.

Achieving professional success is not only about honing one’s business acumen. It requires the ability to truly lead oneself by clarifying one’s values and beliefs. The truth is that many of us buy into the accepted wisdoms of society rather than formulating our own. As a result, we experience an inner conflict as the real “me” is trying to find the way. For example, do you value balance and are you “living it”? Can you discern your own truth and are you able to follow through on your own values and beliefs by putting them into action, rather than rhetoric? This type of values test invariably comes with the territory when you are your own boss. The more clarity we gain around our values, the more effective “me” management becomes. Are you ready?

 PS: Look for my brand new book and website in 2012!

2012: Photo by Salvatore Vuono


Getting Unstuck: Finding momentum to create change

The truth is that many of us are never taught how to lead ourselves at work, in business and in life. As a result, we settle for mediocrity and dissatisfaction.  Why is it that so many talented, creative people stay in jobs that make them miserable?  Is it because family responsibilities must come first and the financial risks associated with leaving are too great? Is it the fear of the unknown, the comfort of the status quo? “Better the devil you know”…etc? Or is self-doubt, a lack of faith, trust…perhaps all of the above? We have a burning desire to transform professionally and personally, to alter the course of our vocation, to let go of people and situations that no longer serve us, yet we hold back. Until the level of discontent becomes greater than the fear of change; we will stay stuck, perhaps for many years.

The Towers Watson’s 2010 Global Workforce Study of over 22,000 employees in 22 markets revealed some key points regarding career change and choices. These are particularly interesting findings for anyone considering making life-altering decisions regarding one’s professional path. From their surveys, they discovered that mobility is at a decade-long low point, and many are sacrificing career growth for a secure job. Their results also indicated that confidence in leaders and managers is disturbingly low.

A recessionary environment exacerbates the feeling of helplessness, as we believe that we cannot escape our situation. When we experience enormous frustration ith our employer due to a poor relationship and lack of support from our immediate manager, we slowly begin disengaging from our work. When you add these two factors together, it is no wonder that people lose interest in what they are doing and genuinely feel stuck. How do you free yourself from the “trapped” experience?

1.  Realize that self-doubt is often at the core of your fear

In the words of Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Recognize that the opposite of fear is faith. We prefer to stay “safe” and therefore it is understandable that we can easily justify our rationale to maintain the status quo. By listing the “pros” and “cons” associated with moving in, we can get clarity around the feeling of being at an impasse.

2. Pay attention to the signs that are pointing you in another direction

When we are caught up in the fear, we often miss the signs indicating a new path. By taking the step outlined above, we will have more awareness regarding the signposts that are either subtle or flashing neon lights, guiding us elsewhere.

3. If your job and workplace aren’t going to change, it is up to you to initiate change

Staying stuck in a job or career where the situation has become untenable will invariably take a toll. Only you can decide whether that psychological toll of staying outweighs the financial risk of leaving. If you can find the momentum to re-think your attitudes and beliefs around creating change, change will happen!


Fish Jumping: Photo by Danilo Rizzuti


Workplace Motivation…Three common myths

One of the old age questions leaders ask is“How do I motivate my team”?  The answer is not as complex as you may think.  In fact, there are a number of myths associated with the notion of creating and maintaining a happy, productive work atmosphere that warrant scrutiny at all levels of an organization. Ask yourself if any of these apply and what you can do to focus on creating more motivators and eliminate, or at the very least minimize the existence of demotivators.

 Myth # 1: The paycheck is a primary motivator

Although remuneration may initially attract people to a particular job, it isn’t enough to sustain interest, productivity and engagement. In fact, money has never been at the top of the list of workplace motivators, yet is often seen as the key solution in the attraction equation. The allure associated with the overall salary package is tangible and short-term. For leaders, providing a pay cheque may be easier than finding the energy to truly connect one-on-one with everyone on a team. Moreover, when individuals say that they are at work “just for the paycheck”, they are denying the existence of a fundamental intrinsic motivator; i.e. to be recognized as a person with deeper needs… as someone who wants to know that they matter in the grand scheme of their workplace. They have something valuable to offer their employer and if they are unable to tap into their unique worth, then simply “showing up at work” becomes are drudgery and emotionally dissatisfying experience.

Myth # 2: Building in more extrinsic motivators creates a better atmosphere 

While it is true that we are all motivated by different things outside of ourselves, the more useful approach for a business in terms of achieving a highly inspired atmosphere is to pay attention to the existence of demotivators, as opposed to the absence of motivators. The most common demotivators include working with chronically negative people, (in management or non-management positions) who successfully drain other peoples’ energy reserves. I have found that a lack of action builds resentment amongst those who desperately want their leadership to deal with these people issues. Another popular belief is that by encouraging people to work longer hours in exchange for a more pay (also known as overtime), people will be motivated to work harder. In effect, longer hours justify a slow-down approach to work and do very little to enhance productivity and profitability. The physiological consequences of overtime are heightened levels of stress, which are in fact demotivators rather than motivators.

Myth #3: Happy people remain satisfied and don’t require as much “nurturing”

There is no doubt that contentment regarding ones workplace and job function is a desired state. However, once we have achieved a sense of fulfillment regarding our work, praise and recognition remain critical as on-going intrinsic motivators. We all require different “strokes” in terms of being acknowledged. A wise leader will recognize the differences between those who seek appreciation privately and publically. Validating effort and results is also an individual responsibility, no matter what our job title may be. Peer recognition is a powerful energizer that is often more meaningful than any other form of appreciation, as we often hold the opinions of our co-workers in the highest regard. Therefore, it behooves us to express admiration and applause for a job well done, regardless of our position.


Photo By Renjith Krishnan

Are you happy at work?

There is no greater waste of energy than getting up in the morning and hating where we spend most of our day.

If we aren’t enjoying our work, chances are that we aren’t much fun to be around.  On the other hand, when we feel inspired at work, we make a difference to our co-workers and those closest to us. Our clients also benefit when we are happy and customer service levels improve dramatically when we feel more connected to our work.

Despite the prevailing pessimism regarding the economy, the 5th-annual Labor Happiness Index commissioned by Snagajob in the U.S. (hourly job specialists with the world’s largest community of hourly workers) recently released some interesting findings on the subject. Although the economy remains a key issue in for workers, these macro-concerns are not preventing individual job happiness. Roughly six in 10 working Americans say they are happy in their current jobs, relatively unchanged in the past three years. The Snagajob survey is showing some consistency in the key contributors to workers’ happiness. Over the past three years — since this particular data has been collected — the top drivers of workplace happiness have been personal satisfaction the job provides (27% this year), feeling fortunate to have a job at all (26%) and the job being a good fit for the worker’s lifestyle (19%). Meanwhile, only 15 percent of workers say that their paycheck is the No. 1 factor that defines their job happiness.

“One message to workers and employers is that the paycheck isn’t everything,” CEO Shawn Boyer said. “While we all want to be compensated fairly for our hard work, most people won’t be truly happy unless they are deriving a sense of pleasure from what they are doing and from what they are contributing to.”

If you are miserable in your job and still feel you aren’t ready to make a job change, or financially you cannot envisage taking the risk right now, realize that you could ultimately pay the highest price in terms of the physiological, psychological and emotional consequences to your well-being.

Even though you are consciously aware of your goals and desire to create change for yourself, recognize that there is a part of the brain that automatically reverts to a fear-based, negative response unconsciously.

Consider athletes who train for the Olympics or World Championship events. They do not allow themselves the luxury of a negative thought during their preparation. Instead, they use visualization to literally create a winning state of mind.  The mental preparedness is equally as important as the physical aspect of their training. Therefore, with discipline, repetition and practice, you can begin to alter the pattern of your thinking in order override the “pre-programmed” response mechanism.



The world through kaleidoscope eyes

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”…Marcel Proust

This morning I found myself tuned into my favourite radio station, singing along with the Beatles and their memorable hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  It made me curious about the origin of the lyrics, so I decided to do some research. The “Lucy” in the song was a classmate of John Lennon’s eldest son, Julian. Julian had drawn a picture of Lucy as well as stars in the sky and brought it home from school one day when he was four years old. He called the picture “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Many people thought that the initials of the song as well as the lyrics represented getting high on the drug LSD.  Rolling Stone magazine once asked John Lennon about this very question. He told the reporter that he had never even considered the initials of the song, let alone the interpretation. Personally, I remain curious about Lucy. Was she the “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” or was it ultimately Yoko Ono? Perhaps we will never know.

My findings about the song caused me to ponder the manner in which we attach meaning to things, even though we may not have all the facts. If all of us interpreted people, their behaviour and situations in an identical fashion, the world would quickly become a dull place. Instead, consider looking at life through a kaleidoscope and become an “observer of beautiful forms” (the ancient Greek translation for kaleidoscope). We can unravel a deeper meaning behind what we think we see when we become more receptive to looking at life through a broader lens. How often have you found that your original perception of a particular person or circumstance was flawed?  Upon further investigation, you uncovered fresh and exciting information that gave you a renewed appreciation for the relationship. These are the experiences that we need to draw upon whenever we catch ourselves in “black and white” mode; convinced that we are right. Instead, when you find yourself taking a myopic view, consider the words of French novelist Marcel Proust: “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”


Photo by Koratmember