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“Always give constructive feedback” With J. Kevin McHugh

Always give constructive feedback (often code for negative feedback) in private whenever possible. Wait until after the meeting is over. Give praise in public. It’s old wisdom that still applies today.You can get in touch with the importance of this by thinking about a time you or someone else was got dressed down in front […]

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Always give constructive feedback (often code for negative feedback) in private whenever possible. Wait until after the meeting is over. Give praise in public. It’s old wisdom that still applies today.
You can get in touch with the importance of this by thinking about a time you or someone else was got dressed down in front of other people. How did that feel? It’s always embarrassing at the least, and potentially more seriously damaging. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes helps you connect with how you should approach them.

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

J. Kevin McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, an executive coaching and team development firm that improves organizational performance by coaching leaders to develop emotional intelligence, conflict resolution capabilities, and how to optimize trust, honesty, and appropriate vulnerability. He is the host of the leadership podcast Sheer Clarity and has been a guest lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, Weatherhead School of Management. He also served as a board director for Jack Cooper Transport and volunteers as a board member of a prison ministry.

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?

My parents stressed hard work and making money. When I was 9 years old, I cut lawns and shoveled snow. At 11, I delivered daily newspapers at 5:30 am, then went to school. Weekends were spent caddying, and when I turned 16, I began working in supermarkets to pay expenses through college. My early career jobs were in sales and marketing roles. I became the president of an office furniture company at 33. My intense drive to increase the top and bottom lines also drove me to understand how to engage and motivate people. I became a leadership junkie and remain one today. I was so driven to be in control of my destiny that I usually became difficult as an employee. I challenged everything. Without the capital to own controlling interest in a startup or existing business, I turned to consulting and coaching at age 36. That was in 1990. I never looked back.

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

When I was a president, I joined the Young Presidents Organization and participated in a Forum. Early in my consulting, I became a facilitator/trainer of Forum groups for YPO and traveled the world as a Forum expert. As a result, I have spent 30 years with more than 3,000 CEOs trying to teach and encourage transparency and appropriate vulnerability. Not many coaches have that depth of experience. This led to numerous coaching opportunities. I have several clients where I’ve been coaching the entire executive leadership team, individually and collectively, for more than decade.

One of my favorite stories was told to me by a client CEO. At a board meeting, a director was reviewing professional fees and noticed “executive coaching”. She asked, “and what happens with coaching that benefits our company?” He thought for a second, and said, “I measure his value more by all the stuff that hasn’t happened to distract us from executing our mission.” She nodded and moved on to the next topic.

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

In February 2002, my wife was battling a recurrence of ovarian cancer that started in 1999. We were in Florida at a small beach hotel where we, and her family, had gone every year since we met in high school. It was now 32 years later. I did not know it, but she was dying. Friends sent a nurse and a social worker to visit when I described her condition. We arrived Tuesday. On Thursday, the nurse told me the news and that she had only days to live. I frantically got my 3 college-age kids to Florida from Ohio on Friday. She died Saturday morning while we were all there. During the chaos of it all, a good friend and colleague called me and said “I have sent a bellman to get your calendar. I’ll take care of reaching out to your clients with scheduled events. Don’t worry about a thing.” Most events were YPO Forum training sessions and rescheduling 8–10 CEO’s for each one would be impossible. Jim was at the funeral and told me things were handled for the next 2 months. In April, Jim asked me if I had sent invoices for the events I missed. He had organized several other facilitators to cover for me. I told him I assumed they would each send their own invoices. He said, “Kevin, they covered for you because they care about you. It was intended that you would collect the billing for yourself.” Tears followed. From that, I learned that high achievers, while busy performing, are sending great energy outwards. In the process, they unintentionally block whatever goodness might flow towards them. They often fail to feel the care and love coming in their direction. I had to learn to receive love. It’s no wonder burnout is so prevalent in high achievers.

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?

I was less than 6 months into my new job in Ohio when I got a tip the owner was going to fire me. It was the 5th time I moved my family in 12 years. “It just wasn’t working out.” It forced me to start my own firm. One year later, I burned through my small IRA account and maxed out a few credit cards. I had about 2 months of living expenses in the bank. No new business was on the books. I poured this out to Larry, a business associate, over lunch and what he said shocked me. “McHugh you have got to be prepared to go to zero.” I never heard another thing he said. I was wondering what my wife would say. When I told her, she said, “Ok, whatever you need to do. I’m with you.” We squeaked through that year and the next until I got some traction. A few years later, I saw Larry at a social gathering and interrupted him talking with a small group. I publicly proclaimed my deep gratitude for Larry’s powerful words of wisdom that changed my life. When I finished, he was quiet for a moment, then laughed as he explained, “McHugh, I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. I told you, you can’t EVER let yourself get to zero.” Oops…

The lesson: Sometimes the calling of your heart is strong enough to drown out what the conventional world has to say. You ignore it. You will hear what you need to hear and do exactly what you need to do. It is a core element in my coaching. Some leaders need to learn how to access what their heart has to say when setting a course of action or facing a huge challenge. It is the foundation for true conviction. This quote from Eleanor Roosevelt sums it up: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

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

I like keeping things simple and try to follow the rule of threes. Whether it’s setting a vision, communicating concepts and ideas, setting goals, improving a process, or giving feedback — try to limit it to 3 items. It’s easy to share, and easy to remember. For CEOs I recommend three areas to focus on:

Trust, Honesty, and Appropriate Vulnerability

Each of these has its own depth and complexity. Trust includes both competencies and character. A super smart, competent player with low character can wreak havoc on a team. Trust must be reciprocal. Does it run both ways? Once trust is breached it’s hard to get it back. Honesty is layered too. Am I honest with myself? Am I honest with others? Are others safe to be honest with me? How do I know for sure? Appropriate vulnerability is the hardest to master and is plays a huge role activating Trust and Honesty. The CEO is still a human and should let it show. Vulnerability includes letting others into the source of your thinking and more importantly, how you are feeling.

I find these three areas of focus open so many doorways to understanding the truth and facing reality in every situation the business must address. Operating in concert, trust, honesty and appropriate vulnerability create a caring, thriving culture that can run hard, mitigate politics, root out toxic performers, and avoid burnout because everyone has your back.

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

Henry Kissinger defined it succinctly: “A leader’s task is to get people from where they are to where they have not been.” That works for me to define “WHAT” leadership is. What is more challenging is the “HOW” a leader goes about it. Style, approach, values, and emotional intelligence determine a leader’s effectiveness. These combine to provide a unique energy signature. The most successful leaders I have seen have shaped this energy into what I call “Leadership By Attraction.” Here’s how I define it. When people meet you, there is something about you that makes them naturally feel:

Instantly at ease.

Drawn toward you immediately.

You have a calm, caring, peaceful demeanor, but are strong, especially in crisis.

They can be consistently open, honest and transparent with you.

There is never a hidden agenda or the need to guess how you feel.

They can challenge and disagree with you as there is no fear of impatience, defensiveness or retribution.

Great respect and admiration for the way you treat others, no matter where they fall on the power or socio-economic scale.

You possess strength, confidence and conviction without being egotistical.

You are clearly a person who cares and values everyone.

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?

Today, the pace of work we attempt to keep makes us schedule our meetings with people back to back. We hang up from one call and dial the next. We rush a key decision. There is little time to breathe, relax, and reset ourselves. The first tip is STOP doing that. Build 10–15 minutes of space between meetings. Even 5 minutes of deep breathing will work wonders. STOP jamming the calendar and running so fast you have no time between sessions. The same goes for making big decisions — make time to think. Say it to the team. “Let me sleep on it.” is a perfectly legitimate response.

I have a ritual prior to every decision, or meeting with people — whether it is high stakes and stressful or not. My ritual is to pray. Others call it meditation, centering or being mindful — these work too. I pray. My Higher Power is from a Christian world view whereby I believe every encounter with another human is a chance for me to care about them deeply. To love them where they are. This is my primary purpose. My big decisions always affect others and I ask God for discernment and wisdom, and to position my heart to help and consider others. When I show up like that, the energy sets a tone that is quickly felt by the people affected. Instead of an impersonal transaction with me focused on getting what I want, it turns into a safe place for the other person to be honest about what they want. When I am helping others succeed, my success comes naturally, sometimes in ways I couldn’t predict. I am no saint and fail at this often. So I keep trying.

Here’s what I found relieves stress in a nutshell: Practice caring first about the outcomes of others. Focus on sensing their needs with both your mind and heart. Then get to the business at hand. I suggest to clients that every meeting start with 15 minutes of people sharing their answer to a simple question: “What’s been going on in your life that makes you smile, and what’s going on that has you concerned?”

Finally, one last option to handle stressful decisions and meetings is to say the most famous prayer is the world. It can be used in most circumstances without causing offense — the Serenity Prayer. God (as you understand it), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I do recall a time when these tips helped me help someone else. The CEO asked me to coach a new Client Service VP. He was causing quite a disruption. A recent reorg required him to give up some big clients with whom he had long term relationships. The new person handling them was not going about it in a way that he approved of. His old relationships would call to complain. Instead of collaborating and calmly reassuring clients through the transition, he was getting stressed to the max and criticizing the other VP. On our first call, I was in the zone, using the tips above. I am glad I was. He ranted for 20 minutes and volunteered how much he resented that I was even called in to help. When he was done, all I could say was, “It sounds terrible, I really want to help. It must be hard to hand off clients you have worked so hard to serve, especially if you feel the service quality you provided is being compromised. Tell me more and give me a chance. I care about you and the stress you are under with this situation. We can talk about practical solutions later but tell me more about you and why this change has brought about such powerful emotion.” He was quiet long enough to make me think I was not going to be invited to help. When he spoke, the first thing he said was, “Why should I trust you?” I explained the rules of confidentiality as a coach for the company’s leaders. Everyone knew about going into the vault. I reassured him he could ask other executives who had the same question when I started with them years ago. We’ve never had a breach. Then I shared what I believed. “Whatever you want to call it, fate, destiny, coincidence, random chance, or divine intervention, I believe you are in my life for a reason. That reason is to care about you. Period. I have lots of experience and skills and I know I can help you. But caring is the beginning point. At that’s where we got to work on the real issues. As they often do, stories of childhood wounds and challenging circumstances growing up, had created deeply rooted emotional triggers. I listened to his story. He connected the dots himself.

I am certain that, had I jammed this call into a busy schedule, focused on getting him to calm down so I could please the CEO, and rushed him through tactical solutions to the problem, I would have never gotten to what really helped him. The resolution of this one situation opened the door to lasting changes for one person, which now ripples out to the benefit of countless others.

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?

It started when I was 19 and working the night crew stocking shelves in a supermarket. The supervisor was going to be out for a week and the manager said, “McHugh, you’re in charge.” My first experience giving feedback was, “Dude, you can’t sleep until your work is done.” Later in my career, as a sales manager over 8 field salespeople, I fought hard to get the owners to make changes to improve their compensation program. That set the stage to hold them accountable. Feedback for any sales teams is easier than other functions — you just look at the scoreboard. During my time as president, my team consisted of 5 direct reports and again, our financial performance was plain as day for feedback. The other part of my leadership role was setting the tone for the culture and addressing leadership and communication styles that were problematic. I got feedback too. We had a firm conduct a survey of employees and executives. I got hammered about being impatient and intimidating. When I sat with my leadership team and the consultant and heard the news, I remember saying, “that’s (expletive deleted), my door is always open.” The consultant said, “and how many people feel safe to walk through it every day?” He showed me the sign I had hung on the wall — “Don’t come in with a problem without 3 great solutions”. Busted. I still am impatient and have improved reducing the intimidation factor. I recently took on the role as Chair of Trustees for a prison ministry and told the board at our first meeting what I know about myself. I pleaded with them to raise a hand the moment less attractive leadership qualities show up. Less than an hour later, I was pushing through the agenda and everyone raised their hand in unison. We had quite a laugh.

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 be an effective leader?

  1. No one gets better at what they do without feedback. It is critical for personal and professional growth.
  2. When done well, even if it is difficult, it sends a clear message: My boss cares about me.
  3. Honest and direct feedback is a teaching opportunity for both the giver and the receiver. It activates development of your empathy muscles.
  4. Everyone knows the phrase: “The Elephant in the Room”. Honesty is the only way to remove it.
  5. Performance and productivity improve when people are not afraid to be honest. Hidden agendas and unspoken tensions slow people, teams, and entire companies down.
  6. Without honesty you can’t address problems because you don’t know they exist.
  7. Honesty in the culture is the best fertilizer to encourage innovation. New ideas and process improvement thrive where honesty is present.
  8. As a leader, do you want people to tell you if you have spinach in your teeth? As a leader you need to invite feedback from above, across, and below the org chart.
  9. Every leader benefits when his or her brand reputation includes the trait of honesty.

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.

I do not differentiate between remote and face to face with tough feedback. The suggestions work the same:

  1. Start first with checking your own motives and emotions. Ask yourself WHY am I giving this feedback and WHAT emotions am I feeling? Getting clear internally changes everything about when and how to give feedback. It might often result in just letting it go. When it comes from a place a genuine caring, the odds of success go up dramatically.
    You can learn a lot about yourself by following this practice. I have known this for a long time, but it got crystal clear when I met and married Mary after my first wife died. We were 50 when we met on a blind date and got married 15 months later. We are happily married now for 16 years. I got the most important feedback from our relationship when it wasn’t working. I did a lot of work on myself to understand my emotions. I own them. She has learned about hers and owns her part. Breakdowns led to breakthroughs. Our skills at self-management have brought us to great happiness.
  2. Always give constructive feedback (often code for negative feedback) in private whenever possible. Wait until after the meeting is over. Give praise in public. It’s old wisdom that still applies today.
    You can get in touch with the importance of this by thinking about a time you or someone else was got dressed down in front of other people. How did that feel? It’s always embarrassing at the least, and potentially more seriously damaging. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes helps you connect with how you should approach them.
  3. This one sounds corny, but it works. I don’t’ know when and where I heard it, but it stuck. It’s called “the love sandwich”. Put the constructive feedback between two pieces of positive, affirming feedback.
    I have personal experience with this one. At a 3-day workshop with other facilitators, the leader, a Stanford professor, took me aside. “Kevin, I love your passion when you share ideas, wish to disagree or comment, I noticed, you are quick to interrupt forcefully. You project a lot of power, but also it also projects impatience. When you want to interject, instead of pushing yourself into the discussion, raise your hand for a second or two. Then put it down and wait. We need your energy, especially when we are wandering off track.” I tried it. Sure enough, when my colleagues were talking circles and we needed a decision to move on, I raised my hand briefly and put it down. It took a few minutes, then one of the other attendees, said, “I saw Kevin’s hand go up, I’d like to hear from him.” Talk about magic!
  4. As mentioned in #3 above, when you offer the negative criticism, always provide examples. Follow that with suggestions about trying a different way. Offer options about how to overcome the problem. Wonder out loud with the person. “What would you think about trying this… Conclude with letting the person talk for a while. You must give them a chance to respond. If someone seems to get defensive, give them a chance to talk it out. Acknowledge it. Notice it. Ask about it. This often returns the dialogue to a calmer tone.
  5. Finally, ask the person to summarize the conversation and inquire how they are feeling about it. If it is serious enough or a repetitive problem, record it in writing. I often ask the person to sleep on it and to write an email with their own synopsis. It’s a great way to see if they got it and it also commits the conversation to writing which is important if the problem leads ultimately to the need for termination. Having a written record is a powerful HR best practice.

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?

At the risk of being a smart aleck, the answer is simple for me. If it is critical — Don’t do it. Pick up the phone, or better yet, set up a video call so you can see each other. I worked with a CEO who was notorious for sending late night, long-winded emails filled with negative commentary. Not only was he sending it by email, but it was copied to way too many people. His brand was greatly tarnished by this. I instituted a quick fix. For a few weeks, he sent them to me first. The next day we walked through each one. This process over a few weeks revealed much more about what was really going on with him. Later, at an all hands meeting, he apologized publicly and stopped doing it.

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?

As to timing your feedback, it all depends. As a general rule, providing it in the moment is best, at the point of impact. It also depends on your relational capital. When mutual trust and respect are well established, it is a lot easier to be in a continuous feedback loop.

When an issue is more serious, it is best to set a specific time for discussion. It should be a private location and free from distractions and interruption. Here is the most important skill a leader needs: Know your people as individuals first. Since there is a judgment to be made about the level of seriousness, the competent leader gauges seriousness based on what they believe is commensurate with the other person’s perception of seriousness — not the leaders. Many bosses misjudge seriousness to the person. Behavioral assessments like DiSC, for example, will offer insights about other people’s sensitivities. The leader might make a quick offhand remark, sometimes sarcastically, about a mistake without taking into account the person receiving it. Some employees do not take even the slightest criticism well.

One of my clients has a super high-performance claims adjuster whose reputation for sweating the details was a legend in the department. Her reputation for quality was through the roof. Unfortunately, she was sensitive to criticism and was often reminded about it. Which only exacerbated the problem. It should come as no surprise that her performance and attention to detail correlate directly to being sensitive to criticism. I coached her boss to appreciate this and to change her approach.

Finally, feedback should be daily. Even a quick line in an email like, “nice job” works wonders. I worked for a boss who told me if had to wait for my annual performance review to know how I was doing, he wasn’t doing his job.

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

As I mentioned above, I use the phrase “Leadership by Attraction.” It’s about moving from push energy to pull energy. A great boss would be someone who makes others feel:

  • Instantly at ease, safe and comfortable.
  • Drawn towards you. You can be trusted, and people sense there is no need to be on guard.
  • You project a calm, collected and peaceful demeanor. Especially in crisis.
  • You are consistently open, honest, transparent.
  • You have no hidden agenda. They never have to guess or wonder what you are thinking or feeling.
  • You can be challenged and disagreed with because there is no fear of retribution.
  • Respect and admiration for the way you treat others.
  • You apply your intellect, knowledge, skill and experience for the good of others.
  • You project strength, confidence and conviction without feeling the LBA is egotistical.
  • You are deeply interested in them personally and professionally and with helping them succeed, even at their own expense.
  • You are seen as strong-willed yet completely humble.

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.

Commit to understanding yourself at the deepest possible level. Get busy raising your self-awareness. The Emotional Intelligence model is usually represented as a pyramid. Self-Awareness is first, at the base. It’s the foundation for the others. Next is Self-Regulation, followed by Social Awareness, then Social or Relational Regulation/Management.

Studies have confirmed over and over again how higher EQ correlates to higher leadership effectiveness and success. The problem is that you must start at the foundation and get connected with yourself. This is not a simple process. It includes looking at your past. Your upbringing. Your challenges of childhood. Some childhood experiences are hard to revisit or understand. It is a journey of self-discovery that lasts a lifetime. Making peace with yourself frees you to truly love others where they are. The positive energy from this will make you stand out as a leader.

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

“You spot it — You got it!” (anonymous)

This is my go-to for remaining connected to myself and for self-reflection. Whenever I find myself having a quick, visceral and judgmental reaction to the way another person is behaving, it is a great reminder of who I am and what triggers me emotionally.

I was bullied in 8th grade and afraid of the tough guys who threatened me and others in the schoolyard. When I see it happening, I learned to resist the urge to do something harsh about it right then and there. I’ve learned to love them first. Not easy if it’s really egregious.

“We have no hope for a better past.” (from the rooms of AA)

It is a quick way to let go of the often-paralyzing shame or embarrassment that follows from making big mistakes, especially in relationships with others. Make amends, seek forgiveness, and move on.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website: https://jkevinmchugh.com

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

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