Working from home? 3 New Habits to Stay Balanced & Healthy

During this unprecedented outbreak, like many of my colleagues, I’ve been asked to work from home. At first, it seemed ideal. No traffic, no make-up and I could work from my dining room table in my sweats. After a couple of weeks, though, I’ve realized a few things.

  • It’s harder to shut off when you’re not supposed to be working. After all, your laptop is just there. It’s easy to pull it back on to your lap when you hear an email come in.
  • I wasn’t getting my daily steps in. I’m not walking between offices anymore, or even walking to my car! I was in danger of becoming a working couch potato.
  • I wasn’t taking breaks as I should be and I was snacking constantly. At work when everyone goes to lunch at the same time, it’s easy. Just follow the crowd to the cafeteria. When you have to make that lunch and eat in on the same table that you’ve spread out your work, well, it’s a little different.

So what have I learned?

1. Set a schedule & use an alarm clock to help you keep it

Plan what you will do after work, even if it simple things like calling family or binge-watching your latest TV series. Make sure that it is something to look forward to. It will help to keep you motivated during the day as maintain a healthy balance between work and home. (I’m a self-confessed workaholic – anything that helps me maintain the balance is a good thing!)  Personally, I’ve been trying out new recipes from the internet and improving my cooking & baking skills. All I will say is that these golden Oreo toasted marshmallow cheesecake bars are to die for! At the end of the day, if you have something to look forward to and you’ve completed your plan for the day, you won’t feel guilty about putting the laptop away.

Soooo yummy!

As part of your plan, scheduling breaks is also key. You aren’t in the office, so you aren’t being interrupted when people come to your cube or walk in your office. One of the things that has helped me tremendously is guided meditation. I use the calm app on my phone and have been using their signature guided meditation during a ten-minute break from work. Quick tip! If like me you have an iWatch, check the results of your heart rate before and after! It’s astounding.

2. You don’t need to walk outside to get your steps in

I’ve been scheduling a “steps” break during my working day. It gets me away from my laptop giving my eyes a break and gets me moving. At this point, I should probably tell you that I have an upstairs apartment. My front door is on the ground level and there is one flight of stairs to my living quarters. Luckily, all of the steps are inside my apartment… So, I put some energizing music on and I literally walk up and down the steps in my apartment for about 10 minutes. The first day was brutal and actually more energetic than I expected!  There are 14 steps from my front door to the top of the stairs. I’ll let you imagine how many steps that is over a ten-minute period… A few days into the new regime, I’m actually feeling healthier and proud that I can sustain the exercise for my 10-minute break. My goal is 5,000 steps per day including just walking around the house etc. I’m proud to say, I’m achieving it easily now.

Not the most interesting set of stairs, I know, but the music makes it entertaining!

3. Your work area should be a separate area.

The first day, I worked from my dining table. I have a monitor screen on there and it just made sense. After sitting on the dining chairs for a few hours, I realized just how uncomfortable and non-ergonomic they are. I also realized I spent the day munching on food. Not surprising since the dining table is normally where I eat. My brain associates the table with food. Day 2, I dug out my desk chair from the garage and brought it up stairs. I made a mini-office for myself in the apartment. My favorite Starbucks / Starfleet mug is there, filled to the brim with Earl Grey tea and my comfy slippers are on my feet, keeping them toasty and warm. I also dug out my travel mouse, so that I wasn’t using the trackpad on the laptop. Not only did my back thank me, but it also made it easier to separate work from home and maintain a healthy balance. When on a break or getting lunch, I leave the work area. Before starting my day, I make a drink, get breakfast etc., before entering it. Having a seperate space has really helped to create some boundaries as well as help me work more efficiently. What have you included in your home work area?

Earl Grey… Mmmmm

And that’s it. There’s probably more to learn, but in the spirit of giving and positivity, I thought I’d write what I’ve learned so far and maybe learn from others when you comment!  You might also want to check out this first post in a series of 3 articles from Forbes on work life balance!  Great reading… 6 tips for better work life balance

Stay safe, protect your loved ones and best wishes to all in these difficult times.

Alesandra Blakeston


Do the words you use shape your reality?

I’m a big advocate for coaching and for developing yourself. I’m forever telling people that I am on a journey and usually very proud of that! That being said, one of the recent exercises I went through with my coach threw me for a loop. She asked me to look at my word choice and to try reframing it. When I asked why, always my favorite question, she said that my word choice could be shaping my reality and preventing me from even trying to change. It was a difficult concept for my mind to get around, so we actually spent quite a bit of time on the exercise. At first, I didn’t see how changing a word or two would make that much difference to what I was trying to say – or worse trying to do. After all, it was the truth, wasn’t it? After working on it for several weeks now, I can honestly say that I do.

I would say things like, “I’m not that person,” or “That’s just not me” or even worse “I’ve never been good at that.” Very black and white, very definitive, with no room for change. With the help of my coach, I’ve reworded what I was trying to say and said instead, “Up until now, I haven’t had the opportunity to do that,” or “Previously, I wasn’t able to do that.” Writing the two versions of the phrases, I can see quite clearly that in the first version there is no possibility, and worse a solidification of a belief system that may or may not still serve me. The second version on the other hand, is headed toward another possibility and perhaps someday in the not-so-distant future, I could be that person. It’s a small change in words, but the difference in the attitude and thinking, at least for me, is profound.

It seems very obvious now, that by asking yourself and others to think about who they could be next keeps us from falling into the trap of believing we have arrived, and that keeps us living in a world of possibilities instead of protecting and defending the current reality.

To finish, I’d like to challenge you. Do the words you use shape your reality? Are you standing still and limiting yourself with your word choice?

Hope this helps!

Alesandra Blakeston

A delegation method that actually works

When I reflect on my leadership style, many things come to mind. While I try to coach and delegate, I tend to be more on the directive side. I try to lead by example, walk the talk etc., and often go further than the extra mile. I tend to be very practical and I prefer to stay at the higher level rather than get bogged down in the detail.

All of that being said, I’ve been challenged recently to look at how I delegate and how I empower the people around me. As a trained facilitator, I know that on many occasions, I will simply step into the facilitator role when I want to coach. I’ll ask questions and be supportive, rather than telling people what to do. It comes very naturally to me having spent many years facilitating workshops. But when asked what methodology have I found to be the most effective, I had to stop and think.

Over the years, I’ve learned quite a few tools for coaching and empowering teams. Some are obviously more complicated than others; some are only effective under certain conditions. Is there even one tool that I would say was the best, the most useful, the easiest? Not an easy question to answer.

After much contemplation, I whittled my potential answers down to a shortlist of three. How did I do it? I asked myself the following questions…

  • Which tool(s) were easy to learn and implement?
  • Which tool(s) could be adapted to the different leadership styles?
  • Which tool(s) worked regardless of the person being coached?
  • Which tool(s) had the best results?
  • Which tool(s) were I most comfortable with?

Once I’d done that, how to choose from the top 3? Well, when in doubt, keep it simple. Therefore, I give to you, The GROW model by Sir John Whitmore. If you already know the method, you’ll note I’ve added to it in the picture below. It’s how I connected to it, so it’s how I deliver it… You can also find more information from the founders here:

When I think about the various people I’ve mentored over the years, I’ve noticed one very important thing. The best workers tend to love to solve problems – and they hate being micromanaged. If I gave someone a task, they would do the task and no more. If I gave them a problem, they would solve it. I think that’s why I like the GROW model. It lends itself to problem solving.

Of course, when you’re in execution mode, you naturally think in terms of critical tasks, but good delegation requires you to think in terms of outcomes. What is the GOAL? Please note, when empowering teams, your goal might not be the one your team would choose. So you have to be willing to debate the problem and what it would look like when fixed. As an example, let’s imagine that a customer needs a delivery expedited. Some would say the goal would be to expedite the delivery as much as possible. You could argue though, that the goal would be to manufacture and deliver the product to the customer without additional costs being incurred. You could also argue that as long as the customer gets what they need before the crunch date, then that is the goal. The difference between them is perspective. Exploring the different perspectives and establishing the expected goal is crucial to ensuring that everyone gets what they need and that the end result is what you are expecting.

Of course, sometimes you can’t define the goal without truly understanding the current REALITY. Depending on the person you are delegating to this can take many different forms. Some need to reflect and consider, diving in the detail of the problem before feeling comfortable discussing goals. Others might need a more social approach, debating and questioning the different aspects of the current situation together. Either way, making sure that the person you’re delegating to truly understands the issue and all of its ramifications is key!

Options, Options, OPTIONS. I’m going to be honest and say this is the part that I like. If your team member is struggling with this, then questions really do help. Remember all options are acceptable. There are no wrong ideas!

  • What else could you do?
  • What are the options?
  • What has already been tried?
  • Have you encountered something similar and how did it work out?

Finally, you need to get commitment. This is the WILL to take the problem to the finish line. You can even help them to map out the action plan, or ask them to show you the plan. Again, questions can help here.

  • What resources do you need
  • How will you know it is complete?
  • What is your first step?
  • What is the timeframe we are looking at?

So, what do you think? Sounds easy, right? Without empowered teams, you have a bunch of robots who don’t know what to do when you aren’t there. You’ll end up doing the lion’s share of the work and you will be unable to scale up or grow your business. Obviously there are other methods for delegating, and you may not agree with my favorite, but at the very lest, I hope this blog has made you stop and think on how you delegate and on how you and your teams are going to be successful.

Hope this helps!

Alesandra Blakeston

Change in all its glory

The last couple of years I have been heavily involved in Change Management. Not just from a management point of view, but from an implementation point of view and while it hasn’t changed my mind about change (I’m one of the few people on the planet who enjoy it), my work has brought home a few interesting points that I’d like to share with you! While none of it is rocket science, these three points have made a huge difference in the project I have been working on.

Change is difficult, we all know that, but if you try to implement a change without first taking into account the culture, you are destined to fail. As a Brit, working in the US, culture is one of the first things that I see, especially when it is different to my own. That being said, seeing differences in culture is not the same as understanding them. If you can’t meet the people where they live, you’ll never be able to get buy in for a change or be able to understand the difficulties and fears facing the people you want to influence. Obviously when you are planning a change, you put together a strategy, you list the detractors and the risks, you list the benefits and the reasons for change etc. Without a true understanding of the culture though, your strategy will be missing vital elements. You’ll have blind spots and unexpected resistance because you didn’t walk a mile in the shoes of the personnel affected.

The second thing I noticed was interesting to me, because at first it didn’t make sense. I was taught that when implementing a change to start with the top management. Get their buy-in first and then work down. If the management team isn’t on board, your plan won’t get off the ground. All of this is true. And yet, while implementing this most recent change I noticed a disconnect between the different layers on site. As a result, I worked with the lower levels of the teams and got stakeholders involved at the bottom, rather than pushing the change from the top. When the lower levels don’t feel as though they have a voice, giving them one and having them involved from the beginning of a change can be really empowering.

And finally, having a strategy and a plan is obviously vital, and yet being unwilling to deviate from the plan, not being flexible enough to bend with the wind, can cause its own problems. A perfect example of this was how we segregated the teams. We planned to have four teams, each one representing a different section of the customer base. All of the analysis we’d done suggested this model would be ideal and the skills / talents of the people involved seemed to match this plan perfectly. Fast forward six months into the change and we’ve merged two of the teams into one. Why? What seemed perfect on paper never really materialized and certainly didn’t give us the results we needed. It put additional stress on the team and frankly wasn’t worth the heartache it was causing. In short, you can do all of the analysis in the world but you have to be willing to ditch your perfect plan in the face of reality. Humility goes a long way in change management!

I’m sure there are other lessons I could share, but I wanted to put down on paper a few short notes that really hit home and made the last couple of years interesting to say the least! Hope it helps!!

Alesandra Blakeston

change 2

How to create a BCG matrix in Excel

Having used this type of chart a lot recently, I thought it was time I had a decent version in Excel.  In case you are not aware a BCG matrix, also known as a growth-share matrix is a management planning tool.  It is used to portray a company’s / SBU’s product portfolio on a quadrant showing relative market share (horizontal axis) and speed of market growth (vertical axis).  It basically shows you the potential of your company’s products.

A BCG matrix is basically a bubble chart with a few tweaks.  When complete, it should look something like this:

BCG matrix

You can download my sample chart here.

Step 1: Set up your data

To be able to plot a BCG matrix successfully, you need the following data: market growth,market share, market share of the largest competitor, and relative market share.  You can calculate the last by dividing the market share / market share of the largest competitor for example:


A sample data table might look like this:

BCG data

Step 2: Create a bubble chart

Highlight the first three columns of your table, in my case cells A1:C6. Then click on Insert > Other Chart > Bubble Chart.

insert bubble chartYour bubble chart will look something like this:

bubble chartYou can then delete the title, legend and horizontal gridlines by clicking on them and pressing the delete key.

Step 3: Convert the chart to a BCG matrix

Right click on the x axis and then choose “Select Data”.  In the pop up menu that appears, click on the “Edit” button.

select data

You have to change the series X values.  Highlight the Relative Market Share values.  In this example we need to change it from column A to column E.

Edit X series values

It should say:

='BCG Matrix'!$E$2:$E$6

Your BCG Matrix chart will update. Now, all of the values should be correct.

Adjusted X axis

Right click on the X axis and then choose format axis.

format X axis

Select “Values in reverse order”.  Then change where the “Vertical axis crosses” to have an Axis value of 2.  This value will change depend upon your data.

Without closing the formatting pop up menu box, click on the Y axis.  You can then adjust the minimum and maximum values to “0” and “4”.  The Axis value this time should be 0.2.  Again, this value will change dependent on the data added.

format Y axis

You can also change the number format using the Number tab to “Number” with 2 decimal places.


You can then press the close button.  Your chart should now look like this:
complete BCG matrix

Step 4: Format the BCG Matrix

So in my example, I created some custom pictures to use as fills for the different bubbles: a star, a cow, a dog and a question mark.

custom bubbles

The bubble in the left upper quadrant is the star.  Once you’ve created your star picture, click on it and press Ctrl+C.  Then, click on the bubble twice and press Ctrl+V.  The bubble should then update with the picture.  repeat the process for the other bubbles.  The left lower quadrant is for the cow picture.  The right upper quadrant contains the question mark bubbles, the right lower quadrant contains the dog bubbles.

The final touch is to add data labels.  Ensure all of the bubbles are selected (click off the chart and then click once on the series).  Then click on Chart Tools > Layout > Data labels > Right.  The chart will show the values of the chart.  To change the data labels so that they show the product names, click on one of the data labels twice (slowly). Then click inside the function test entry field and type the cell reference that shows the name of the product.

edit data label

Step 6: Add the coloured background

Click on Insert > Shapes > Rectangle and draw a rectangle over the top of one of the quadrants.  Format the rectangle as you wish. Repeat until you have a different colour for each quadrant.  Select all four, by clicking on them while the shift key is held down.  Then right click and press “Group”.  Then with the group still selected click on Drawing Tools > Format > Send Backward > Send to Back.

Your chart should now look like this:

BCG matrix

And that’s it!  You can download the sample worksheet here.

+Alesandra Blakeston

Innovation and fast cars

I saw a great post this weekend, “How we fly: Aircraft as Career Metaphors” by Venkat and it got me thinking about Innovation programs.  How does your innovation program handle behind the wheel?  Do you have a couple of Lamborghinis in your innovation garage, or are you a Herbie fan?  Is speed important to you, the way your program appears on the outside or are you more concerned with long term results?

Incidentally, my personal view is that you need a fleet of vehicles – no one size fits all!  That being said, what vehicles would you budget for?

+Alesandra Blakeston

Lamborghinis: You have one or two superstars in your innovation garage.  They have speed and agility, but lack capacity and are expensive to run

Tanks: You have a couple of heavy hitter teams that have won some major battles, but unfortunately the rest of your teams are following behind on foot

Public Transportation: You have a fleet of fast moving buses that build consensus, take everyone along for the ride and create real momentum

Herbie: You are the proud owner of an award winning innovation program.  Not only do you win the race with style and panache, you add unique value

Rolls Royce: Your program is beautiful to look at, but can’t keep up in this era of change as fast as change. Lacks capacity, speed and agility

Police Service: Are you constantly trying to enforce your innovation program, making sure that everyone follows the rules?
Police Service: Are you busy enforcing the rules in your program?  Your vehicles are fast, and ready for action, but do your teams want to be involved?

Sixties hippy van:  Seen as far fatched and out there, you have the capability to bring others along,
Sixties hippy van: A bit out there, you have the capability to bring others along, but somehow the message isn’t being accepted by all. It’s slow and not agile

Motorbike: Fast and agile, the bikes can go off road as well as weaving through dense traffic.
Motorbike: Fast. agile and powerful, bikes can go off road or weave through dense traffic.  Unfortunately, they also lack capacity & have a tendency to crash

Ford Focus: Fast, easy to park and agile, so why doesn’t everyone buy one?  Are they distinctive?  Do they add unique value?  Can they build consensus?


The Future of Work

Just loving the bold bright design of this SlideShare by SprintBiz:

In addition to the great design, it has some really powerful messages:

  • When we go to work, we look for meaning; for autonomy; for recognition and affirmation.
  • And yes, for fun.
  • Only when you’ve hired the right people… Then – and only then – can you think about how to deploy new technology and to reinvent work
    • New collaboration tools can turbo-charge your teams.
    • New data, analytics and tracking tools can make you smarter.
    • Better tech can improve every process.
  • Change.  How well can you pivot?
  • Competition.  If they zig, can you zag?
  • Complexity.  Who will be the first to lighten up and simplify?
  • [It] always comes down to how well you engage your people.

What do you think?  Do you agree? +Alesandra Blakeston

5 ways to effectively probe to prevent misunderstandings

Are you good at listening and questioning?  How would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?  The sad fact is that most of us think we are good at questioning, when really the majority only listen long enough to be able to formulate an answer.  Then, when we are questioning we only go deep enough to appear interested or to validate what we think we already know.

I’m preparing some exercises for a training session on facilitation, which will of course, include listening and probing.  It made me re-evaluate my own skills, so I thought I would share some of my insights with you.  Of course, anyone who’s tried to improve their listening, questioning and probing skills will have heard phrases like “Tell me more,” and “Can you give me an example” which can be used to help dig a little deeper.  But how do you know when you’ve probed enough?


I just finished reading “Taking Responsibility for Receiving Intended Information: Clarification Tactics,” a chapter in Dr. Richard Halley‘s book, Listening Models and Procedures.  In it he says that the burden of understanding is shared between the speaker and the listener.  He gives a long list of techniques to help you probe and question, but here are my favourite five!

1. Discover and understand any hidden objectives

When speaking with someone, you might realise that they have an axe to grind.  If you are not careful, it can derail your whole conversation and prevent you from reaching an understanding.  Also, if someone has a hidden goal, it can be hard to get that person to focus on the question you want answered.  Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, saying something about it can sometimes help the person focus more on your information needs. For instance, you might say, “The reason I approached you was _____________, but it seems you would like to talk about ____________.”  This will then allow the person time to voice their feelings and then you can bring the subject back to the matter at hand.

2. Ask for specifics

Reduce ambiguity, by asking for a specific description of what the speaker is trying to convey.  It reduces the chance of misunderstanding and add depth to the discussion.  For instance, “I really appreciated the way the manager took me to one side after the meeting, and took the time to listen to what I had to say” gives us a lot more information than “I spoke with the manager.  It went well.”  When you hear a phrase that is really general, ask a probing question to discover more, “So what exactly was it about ___________ that makes you say that?”  Or “I’d appreciate it if you could expand a little more on this.  What was it about specifically?”  Of course, even when they’ve given you more detail, you can continue to probe until you’ve exhausted the subject and there is no room for misinterpretation.


3. Try to find what something is not

Usually we are trying to understand what something is, but it is also useful to understand what it is no.  You might be able to eliminate categories of options and avoid misinterpretations in this way, especially when someone is having a hard time expressing themselves.  Phrases like “So, it’s not that it was horrible or anything?” will help to identify a mediocre experience.

4. Be aware of your assumptions

This is difficult.  We all have internal biases that can cause us to make false assumptions.  As listeners though, it is important to be sensitive to our biases and to check out any assumptions we have made.  When one customer tells you that they had a bad experience with a product, and you’ve heard from another customer that they also had a bad experience it could be natural to assume that they had the same experience.  Check the assumptions at the door and continue to probe to ensure you have the correct understanding.  It also works with people.  When someone is being quiet and retiring, don’t assume they have nothing to say.   Instead ask, “How about you?  I bet you have something to add to what the others have said.”


5. Ask the speaker to review

We can easily miss words or misinterpret what is said.  Asking the participant to review their comments, even if we think we know what they said, gives both the speaker and the listener a chance to add more clarity to what was said.  You might say, “I know you’ve already explained that once but it would help me really understand if you could go over it one more time.”  They will naturally use different words, and this can lead to more insights.  You can also weave earlier comments into your questions to make the speaker review what they have said in another way.  It also shows that you were listening and processing what they said and the speaker does not need to recontextualize their comment.  They can then pick up where they laid off – another way of probing deeper with the subsequent response.

What questions do you use to probe and dig deeper?  Let me know!

+Alesandra Blakeston