“Alignment is essential. ” With Phil Garrison

Alignment is essential. It’s a leader’s job to make sure the team understands the vision and priorities, as well as the expectations. If I fail at that, we’re not working toward the same goals and will certainly not produce the results we need. As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback […]

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Alignment is essential. It’s a leader’s job to make sure the team understands the vision and priorities, as well as the expectations. If I fail at that, we’re not working toward the same goals and will certainly not produce the results we need.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Garrison.

As Vice President, Human Resources, Phil leads all aspects of human resources management for Discovery Health Partners, including talent acquisition, talent management, learning and development, and culture and employee engagement. Phil’s experience encompasses leading and managing all facets of HR across a variety of industries, including management consulting, technology, financial services and healthcare. Phil is passionate about helping organizations succeed through leadership development and driving a culture of accountability.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I fell into Human Resources in a very non-traditional HR role. Out of college, I landed my first professional job in a consulting firm where I was responsible for assigning consultants to projects. Although I was part of the HR function, I really sat at the intersection of talent management and operations. This was critical because the firm was growing rapidly and we needed to balance making sure employees had the skills required to deliver for our clients with developing people quickly by giving them the right assignments and new on-the-job experiences. If we failed to prepare individuals for their next promotion, we wouldn’t have enough managers to manage all the new hires we were planning to bring onboard. So, it wasn’t just about creating an opportunity for the employees, it was about the strategic balance between providing opportunities for growth to the employees while developing people to fuel the growth of the company.

For me, this experience really solidified HR’s business role in preparing and developing individuals so they can take on bigger assignments within the organization. To this day, this strong connection between talent management and operations remains a big influence on how I approach HR. I love being part of organizations where talent drives the growth of the company and how quickly we can move.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Discovery is extremely results-focused, and we put a premium on getting things done. Our culture is built around an accountability model where we work through obstacles with a “see it, own it, solve it, and do it” approach. Adopting this model has helped employees think about what they need to do as far as identifying obstacles, what’s really going on, and what actions they need to take to achieve results.

We have four Key Results for 2020 and everyone in the company knows how their day-to-day responsibilities directly contribute to achieving each one. Employees even created an elevator speech that states how they contribute to each Key Result. It’s a very grounded model in terms of making sure everyone understands what they do to help us achieve our goals.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I call this a “case of mistaken identity.” I brought a situation to my then CEO’s attention where accusations were made against an individual. The CEO was adamant that that individual had to go, no questions asked — from the CEO’s perspective it was very black and white. However, as we continued our discussion, we discovered we were talking about two different people who shared the same name. With that realization, the CEO had an entirely different reaction and became much more flexible and understanding. What struck me most was how the CEO reinterpreted the facts to better fit the new context. It ultimately helped me appreciate that the facts are the facts, but considering the context is important because it may suggest a different course of action, and that’s ok. Just be careful not to cloud the facts to fit the context.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This is minor, but it still impacts me today. I distinctly recall getting a call from my boss. I didn’t realize he was on a speaker phone in a room full of people, and I made a comment that wasn’t ideal for the entire audience. I remember thinking “What have I done?!” It wasn’t horrible, but that experience really stuck with me. The lesson learned is that I am acutely aware of my audience, and I’m sensitive to how and when I share information with them.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

For me, it’s two things. The first is to recognize and appreciate employees. It’s free and incredibly powerful. Just take a minute to notice what employees are doing and show them your appreciation. Even a simple thank you can go a long way, as long as it’s sincere and genuine.

The second is to be flexible. Empower and trust your teams to figure out the best way that works for them to get things done while balancing all the priorities going on in their lives. I’ve found that when you empower and trust people, they will deliver. You need to be clear about what is expected, but by giving people flexibility and latitude, you’ll build greater alignment, loyalty, and staying power in the long term.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

There are many components to leadership, but for me the most important aspects are influencing others to support your ideas, and inspiring others to help you achieve your vision. In my opinion, these are also among the most challenging. They require you to connect with people and bring them toward something, which is very different than moving yourself in a different direction.

Influence is often necessary to move in new directions. Leaders can’t mandate that someone change their mind or believe in something. Individuals choose for themselves, and all a leader can do is present a compelling reason, story, or vision and hope to influence or inspire someone to support them.

The best analysis and arguments are useless if you can’t get mindshare. Influence is critical in getting other leaders’ attention so they can consider a new idea or approach. And by leveraging your personal capital and credibility to influence others to be open to something, leaders can start the dialogue and set the stage for a fact-based analysis to determine if the idea is worth pursuing.

Of course, all the other elements of good leadership are necessary, but if you are successful at influencing and inspiring, you will be a successful leader. They are underappreciated skills and valuable leadership tools, and that’s why they are included in our leadership development program.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

For me, preparation relieves stress. I play out different scenarios in my mind so I feel like I know what to expect from a situation. I also use self-talk to remind myself that “I’ve got this.” It doesn’t always play out the way I envisioned it, but thinking about how it might go reduces my stress.

For example, when COVID hit, Discovery hosted a webinar for our clients so we could share our experience and “lessons learned” about managing a remote workforce. Since I led our own remote workforce initiative, I know what made us successful, but I still prepared my talking points and laid out the story I wanted to tell. Just knowing I had a plan and was prepared put me at ease going into the webinar, and I barely even looked at my notes!

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I’ve managed several teams throughout my career and delivered countless formal performance reviews, and here’s what I’ve learned about giving feedback:

  • Alignment is essential. It’s a leader’s job to make sure the team understands the vision and priorities, as well as the expectations. If I fail at that, we’re not working toward the same goals and will certainly not produce the results we need.
  • Feedback is an ongoing conversation. I compare it to sprints in the Agile development methodology. Continuous dialogue, where you reiterate expectations and check progress on the solutions being developed, is essential to ensure we’re on the right track. I probably over-communicate with my teams, but I’d rather do that than the alternative of not communicating enough.
  • Real feedback is achieved when there’s trust between two people. Your team needs to believe that you always have their best interests in mind. Part of how you develop that trust is to be vulnerable. Share your mistakes with your team, and don’t feel you have to be perfect!
  • Lastly, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This way you won’t avoid uncomfortable conversations or situations that could help others be successful. I had to experience this a few times before I learned to acknowledge that discomfort will exist and it’s just part of the situation.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

I believe that giving feedback is actually a gift to employees, and very powerful for them. Without direct and honest feedback, employees are at a disadvantage because they can’t see where they need to improve. Giving honest feedback, especially from someone in a leadership role, shows people that you care and are invested in their success. Leaders should also model the behavior and ask for feedback from their employees.

A big part of Discovery’s accountability model is asking for and giving feedback. We encourage employees to ask for specific feedback, and often that request opens up a dialog that leads to better communication throughout the organization.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

  • Start with building trust early on, before any conversations take place. Get to know your employees and that will give you a solid foundation for having difficult conversations.
  • Be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Accepting that you might feel uncomfortable will set the stage for hitting the points directly. Avoiding discomfort usually means avoiding the conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable. When you understand that, and prepare yourself to feel uncomfortable, you can focus on the message that needs to be delivered.
  • Write down the points you need to cover and be direct. The worst outcome is getting through a difficult and likely uncomfortable conversation and having the employee be unclear about what’s not working and what needs to change. You just have to do it — make a short list with each point and the key message you want to share. Then you can add the right words around it during the conversation, but make sure your notes are clear and unambiguous to keep you focused.
  • Use video whenever possible to pick up on non-verbal cues that are an important part of the conversation. Seeing the person usually improves the communication, because when you can’t see someone it’s easy to dehumanize the situation. We always want to treat people as individual, sensitive humans, no matter what the message.
  • Be appreciative. Acknowledge the good things and let the employee know you appreciate them, their contributions, and the value they bring. It’s not contradictory to offer appreciation and support on one hand and constructive feedback on the other. In fact, acknowledging what’s working lends credibility to your message about what’s not. You are viewed as having a balanced perspective.
  • Listen and ask for clarification to ensure your message was heard; follow up in a few days to check on the employee’s progress. The objective isn’t to deliver the message; the true goal is to ensure the message is heard! Check to make sure what you wanted to communicate was, in fact, what they heard.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I recommend that you don’t use email if at all possible because different communication styles can increase the chances of a misunderstanding. Phones still work! A phone or in-person conversation is preferable because it offers an invaluable two-way dialogue. You can follow-up the conversation with a brief email that summarizes the points discussed.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

In general, it’s better to give feedback sooner rather than letting something linger. Especially when someone asks you for feedback, it’s imperative to give it immediately in order to build trust and maintain transparency. It’s also important to be honest — don’t imply things are fine now and then drop several concerns on someone at a later time.

Another good time for feedback is during common touchpoints, like a weekly one-on-one meeting or during a project debrief. That said, giving feedback is situational and you should always consider the current circumstances and the outcome you want. For example, if you’re in the middle of a time-sensitive project and feedback is essential to the project outcome, then have the conversation immediately. But if the feedback can wait without jeopardizing the project, schedule a time to talk when things are less stressful.

Don’t wait for the annual review to provide specific feedback. Leaders should be having ongoing dialog with employees throughout the year, so the annual review discussion should be pretty boring and bring very little that’s new to the table.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

My idea of a great boss is someone who is:

  • Available and accessible; makes time for employees
  • Supportive
  • Trusted; establishes a rapport with others
  • Transparent
  • Appreciative.

All of the above add up to being respected. Without respect, your hands are tied when it comes to leading your teams. Respect is earned by developing relationships with people. And once that genuine relationship is formed, it’s surprising what your team and employees will do to help you accomplish your vision.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could help more people to be patient, understanding, tolerant and empathetic, I feel that would make a real difference. We’re not always good at tolerating others, and that would help change the dynamic of supporting each other. As a leader you understand how you influence others, and these types of qualities end up permeating our leadership culture.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This isn’t a quote, but it’s a philosophy that has guided me through life. “Work hard and do the right thing and all else will fall into place.” Then, let your results create your opportunities.

Something I’ve also been working on is to ask for what you want. It’s important to make your needs and wants known.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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