Always start by stating your feedback is not reflective of the person themselves — Providing negative feedback runs the risk of sending people into fight or flight, both of which are disastrous in a work environment. To avoid this, start and finish your feedback by clearly articulating that you need to explain more about that greater vision, and that you believe in the person as an individual.
As a part of my series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Strawczynski.
Joshua is an expert in influencing online consumer behavior. Trained by Google and Yahoo! In the early days of search marketing (SEM), Josh helped create the first digital marketing courses for higher education in Australia, and was previously named in the top 30 under 30 Australian business managers. His agency, JMarketing is multi-award winning for creating websites that influence buyer behavior in the B2B & B2C space.
Joshua is the founder and Managing Director of multi-award-winning digital agency JMarketing. He has spent his life formally and informally studying what motivates people, and how to influence their behavior for mutual benefit. In 2013 Josh’s experience was recognized by being awarded the Australian Institute of Managements Top Business Managers award for excellence.
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?
As the owner of an advertising agency in busy metropolitan Melbourne, Australia, I was always rushed, and as a result, my life was not on the trajectory I desired. By most modern metrics, you would say I was successful, financially independent and socially plugged in, and yet I felt trapped, and like the weight of the world was on my quickly tiring shoulders.
My agency was ticking along, but not necessarily growing without me doing 10 times more. Every new contract meant more meetings, deadlines and longer hours I had to work. Sure I had a team, but the demands on my time specifically were huge, and as a result I always felt like I was running from one fire to another, never able to get ahead or build structure for the future.
About 5 years ago I was nearing my wits end. I was exhausted, burnt out and lacking the motivation to continue. I kept thinking about the life I use to have at university, about the fun times and the guy I use to be. I still recall the exact moment, sitting in my lounge room, looking at my P&L statement, I gave myself the chance to reflect, and dared to take a different path.
What I realized was that by slowing down, I could not only achieve the life I wanted, but earn more money in the process. It was a bold plan, but by firing most of the staff and clients, I could have more time to myself without a loss of income. This would give me time to unwind, find myself and think through what I really wanted to achieve.
I took the opportunity and went traveling. First around Asia, then the Middle East, North America, Cuba and finally settled in the Caribbean; all the time running just my best clients remotely. This time traveling re-prioritized things. Over 12 months, I found myself again, gained amazing clarity and built world-class structures. I did everything I should have done originally, and this time expanded globally, restructured the team and grew the profitability of the agency 10x. Nowadays, I run the whole company from a tiny island in the Caribbean. I love waking up every day; I am 10 times more efficiency and live a life I could never have dreamed of before, all by doing less to achieve more.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
JMarketing has made a name for itself in an incredibly competitive field of digital agencies by using motivational psychology to influence consumer behavior. We structure both our advertising, and our award-winning websites to step customers through the buying decision cycle, overcoming objections through deep analysis of the friction and anxiety that has traditionally halted the purchase process. As a result, we have a near 100% record of improving client sales rates without spending a dollar more on advertising.
As an example of this: we helped Sustainable Australia Fund increase their lead generation over 1,000%. The key to achieving this was to understand the psychology of the buyer and simplify the overall message so as to remove any friction to lodging an enquiry. In the highly competitive field of finance, this sort of uplift in enquiry rates is unheard of, and a huge success for the company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Our company was well ahead of the curve on working from home. In 2015 we moved to an entirely remote workforce, sourcing the best employees from across the world. Within a 5-year gap, we now have workers from 16 different countries, all working remotely from the place of their choosing.
The goal of such a drastic change was more than financial. It was driven by the idea of motivating people to enjoy their work. Our team are encouraged to travel and work from interesting places around the world, to dedicate time to their families or achieving other passions. As a result, we have an incredibly loyal, hard-working ‘family’ of a team.
Overseeing this transition, and receiving countless heart-felt messages from team members thanking us for the amazing workplace — that has been the most interesting and rewarding experience.
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?
The first live broadcast TV news segment I was invited to, was a hilarious disaster. The producer of the show had seen a thought-provoking article I’d written and invited me to talk about it. Naively, I assumed the host, Derryn Hinch, would have read the article and was prepared to ask me specific questions. Instead, I learned the truth about live business news, and was thrust into spotlight with a segue that had nothing to do with my topic. As a result, we informally bantered about Uber (nothing to do with the topic) before they quickly realized the interview wasn’t going as planned and cut us off early. I was thereafter labeled ‘the Uber Disruption guys’ and ended up doing countless radio interviews about Uber and AirBNB, which while a fun experience, have little to do with our business.
What I learned is that good management is more than just your team, it’s managing everyone you come into contact with. Clear communication allows you to understand the desires of everyone around you. This knowledge is critical in finding the opportunities to solve problem, deliver exceptional work, and become a valued resource those people know they can rely on.
I also learned that all media is good media. As a result of the subsequent radio interviews, I got to know the Australian Managing Director of Uber, who shared a lot of interesting and useful industry information. Again, the value of clear communication and knowing the motivational drivers of others opened a lot of opportunities.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
There are two key elements to motivating your staff, giving them freedom/autonomy and ensuring their contribution is recognized and appreciated.
Countless studies into motivational drivers have concluded that positive reinforcement is far more effective than money in motivating behavior. At Jmarketing, our managers are charged with privately and publicly recongising staff efforts, both in their work and private lives. On top of this, we send a monthly staff email which discusses what each person has achieved, making sure each person knows they are seen and valued. As a result, I received countless messages of thanks and commitment to the agency. In an industry where turnover is rife, it’s extremely rare for us to lose a staff member.
The second part of employee motivation requires time and a desire to know people on a very human level. You need to understand the underlaying motivational drivers that are important to them. What do they aspire in their lives, and how can you align working for you with achieving that result. A good example of this is the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), a system used by most of the fortune 500 companies. The idea is to remove the impediments that frustrate people in the workplace, and instead empower people to meet their KPIs however they see fit. This might mean only working 1 day a week, missing meetings or using creative solutions. The key is that by empowering people to do things their way, you are giving them freedom, and that’s highly motivating.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is someone who brings people together to achieve a shared goal. This could be within a business context, or within your own community. A leader knows their role is to motivate others by leading from the front, encouraging others to follow and insulating them from fallout.
A great example of leadership was Afroz Shah, a young Indian lawyer from Mumbai. He is responsible for the largest beach clean-up project in the world. Afroz started by dedicating time every day to remove trash from his local beach. His actions were seen by others passing by, and they felt compelled to follow his lead. His positivity and leadership motivated a movement, which to this day has cleaned more than 9000 tonnes of trash. With the use of actions and inspiring positivity, he achieved what normally would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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?’
My meeting preparation is broken into two components, rehersal and meditation. Firstly, in high-stress environments you will always revert to your highest level of preparedness. What this means is prior to the meeting dedicate time to thinking through the issues at hand from every perspective. Prepare your questions, narratives and solutions. Be prepared to test those assumptions in the meeting, and display that you truly appreciate their goals and anxieties. You can only be the solution if you totally understand the problem.
It’s also critical to give yourself time to relax. In a rested state your brain will find solutions to complex problems. Science has shown that your brainwaves move between two states, long (good at problem solving) and short (good at getting lots of tasks done). Long brainwaves occur when you are rested, which is why nearly all fortune 500 company CEOs believe in meditation; it allows them to unlock the potent problem-solving brainwaves.
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?
As a shy kid growing up, I spent a lot of time observing those around me. I studied their reactions, their motivations and their passion. As I grew older, I would experiment, testing different approaches to managing people and evaluating the outcomes. At university I specialized in motivational theory, absorbing the literature of what fueled the most effective management styles.
As my managerial experience-base grew, so did the scale of what I was trying to achieve, from organizing sports games, holidays and parties, and soon my life became coordinating companies, boards of directors and employees. Surprisingly the tactics used for the informal occasions of yesteryear, turned out to be near exactly the same as those used in the business arena. What I discovered, was that at the root of everything, humans are driven by the same underlaying motivations and desires; and influencing those is possible if you take the time to understand the individual themselves.
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?
Clarity is the most critical element of communication, although doing so can be more nuanced than it appears. Through being honest and direct, you help people to share your vision, and understand where they can play a more direct role in achieving it.
Often, you’ll find conflict occurs when you haven’t shared the greater vision of the project. The solution or path a person is taking is directly driven by how aligned they are with the desired outcome. A good manager takes time to paint this bigger picture, explain how everyone’s contributions slot together, and encourage collaboration for the greater fluidity of the project.
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.
Most problem arise from poor communication in the first place. What you will notice about all five of the below tips, is that they revolve around clarity of message from the manager. Words matter, so focus on clear, concise communications, and look at problems that arise as an opportunity to improve your processes for the future, so history doesn’t repeat.
- Always start by stating your feedback is not reflective of the person themselves — Providing negative feedback runs the risk of sending people into fight or flight, both of which are disastrous in a work environment. To avoid this, start and finish your feedback by clearly articulating that you need to explain more about that greater vision, and that you believe in the person as an individual.
- Share the blame personally, humility is disarming — The best managers insulate their team from blame. I always adopt the mantra, that if something was misconstrued, or someone behavior inappropriate, then I need to ask — ‘what could I have done better’? Going into meetings with this mindset allows you to sidestep hurting people’s feelings, and invites them to be part of the solution.
- Collaborate, don’t dictate — Nobody likes being told what to do, so don’t enter a conversation dictating how you want things done. Take the time to paint the bigger picture and encourage your team to offer solutions. Your job is to guide them to find the best solution, and often they will know more about the finer issues at hand than you.
- Prepare questions & actively listen — Understanding ‘why’ things have gone wrong is the critical first step in creating a sustainable, long-term solution. A good manager fights the emotional urges to point out all these failings, and instead phrases a series of questions to better understand the situation. You’ll often find that external issues were at play, as nobody actively tries to do the wrong thing, so why has it occurred?
- Use technology to your advantage — Understand that some people are audial learners, some are visual and we all translate communication differently. As a solution to this, our agency uses a lot of screen-recorded videos. This allows us to communicate about a project in visual detail, showcasing the problems and goals both visually and audibly, which reduces miscommunication. Focus on clearly articulating your message, and you will dramatically reduce accidents and missteps.
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?
Providing feedback over email is more difficult than in person, or via video (our preferred method), but it’s not impossible. What’s important is to keep the employees feelings in mind, and consider what led them to that situation in the first place. When you script your email, call out these possible reasons, and let them know that you would have made the same errors if you were in their situation.
The goal of good email writing is to dissipate the negativity, and get the project/employee back on track with the shared vision. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of ‘point scoring’ with snide remarks or blame. This approach benefits nobody and serves no purpose but to demotivate your team.
Always remember to let the person know you believe in them, you value them and that you are there to support them going forward. You should always position yourself as their advocate and mentor, which will facilitate frictionless communication and collaboration, allowing you to course correct issues proactively, before they become problems.
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?
The best time to address an issue is soon after it has occurred. That said, you do want to allow enough time that nobody is still emotionally charged. The term ‘lets sleep on it’ is better advice than many give it credit for. Providing time for everyone to think through the issue calmly can often lead to positive solutions.
For project-based work, a very powerful tool is giving your team a voice at the conclusion of every project. Invite them to offer feedback on how things could have been done better, and create solutions for similar projects in the future. Many hands make light work, and the more you can involve your team in finding solutions, the stronger your company will be.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss has a long-term outlook and values his team for the people they are. My father, Joe Strawczynski, was the best manager I ever saw. Growing up he always had patience, he never forced his way on me, instead he empowered me to find my own solutions. He was there to pick me up when I failed, and would help me find the learnings in those failures. As a result, I grew up an optimist, self-sufficient and confident in my ability to tackle any problem.
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. 🙂
Empowering people to be their own solution to a problem. Don’t wait for others, but believe in yourself and what you can do. The world’s biggest problems have been solved by men and women just like you, so never accept that others are better than you are. You have all the tools, and an incredible mind. Challenge yourself to solve problems when they arise, and you’ll be amazed how it transforms your life.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t be afraid to swim against the stream”
What this means, is not to be worried about ridicule or being different. Those that achieve are the ones that do things differently. As leaders, our job is insulate others, so they may feel safe to follow our lead.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our JMarketing Agency website: https://jmarketing.agency/
My personal LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/joshstrawczynski/
My personal blog “Finding a better way” https://joshstraw.com/
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.