Ashley Porciuncula: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Determine what the core issue is. It’s easy to know when something’s not right, but before putting that on the shoulders of someone else, we need to ask some questions. Exactly how and where have they underperformed? How does this compare to their peers? Are consistent standards being set? Could there be any internal biases in […]

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Determine what the core issue is. It’s easy to know when something’s not right, but before putting that on the shoulders of someone else, we need to ask some questions. Exactly how and where have they underperformed? How does this compare to their peers? Are consistent standards being set? Could there be any internal biases in play? What are the potential consequences of this unwanted behaviour continuing?

Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Porciuncula.

Ashley is a fractional Chief Product Officer (CPO) and consultant. She works with new tech startups to design successful digital products and create go-to-market strategies. She is also a certified mentor and coach who helps her clients build healthy management styles and create positive company cultures.

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?

Thanks for inviting me! I had a strong interest in graphic design and coding when I was a teenager and created web pages for fun, like so many of us did in the early 2000s. By the time I was ready to start my career, I knew that tech was where I wanted to be. I became a self-taught developer, working in Silicon Valley. From there, I moved to Paris to help co-found a digital department within the health industry. I spent several years managing software teams and eventually decided to become a freelancer in London, where I believed I could help a wider variety of people.

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

I mostly work with very early startups, so we’re constantly trying to do more in less time. This requires me to take an intensive approach, which involves looking at the business from multiple angles, asking a lot of questions, and challenging preconceptions to get to the bottom of what we’re doing and why.

One of my first consulting clients was a prime example of why this direct approach works. Through the course of our 6-month programme, we completely pivoted the product offering from a social network to an education platform. This repositioning was a big change and opened up so many more opportunities for building a community. It was all a result of asking the same key questions, over and over again:

  • What are we trying to solve?
  • What are we confident that we know?
  • How do we know those things?
  • What else do we need to learn?

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

A recent client of mine needed to build a development team, design the first version of their app, and release it to the public. The catch? They were already behind and had an important investor meeting coming up, which meant they needed it all in 45 days! Those types of projects are my favourite because they give me the opportunity to inspire people to do incredible things. I love challenges that require me to question my beliefs and push my own boundaries.

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?

Going back to the start of my career, my first few weeks as a junior developer could have gone better, to say the least. I wanted to impress and, in my misguided attempt at that, I didn’t ask enough questions. That resulted in making some silly mistakes in the code and taking longer to accomplish tasks than I should have. Thank goodness for code reviews and being able to roll back commits! I definitely had a lot to learn about working within a large system and, more importantly, allowing myself to admit when I didn’t know something. I learned that it’s okay to ask questions, and even experts Google things.

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

Burnout is much more dangerous than many people realise. It lies to you and makes you doubt your talents and the value you bring. It’s not just being tired, it takes control at a much deeper level. It’s also notoriously difficult to recognise and resolve after it starts, so prevention is key. Severe cases of burnout can last years.

Boundaries are a big key to avoiding it. This means taking time off, saying no to some requests, signing out of Slack, etc. As managers, we must lead by example in this. It is an ethical responsibility for managers to anticipate burnout, put practices in place to prevent it, and set healthy performance expectations.

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

I think the most important thing to remember about the concept of leadership is that it’s a position of service, above all. It’s about making sure that the people who are under your umbrella have the guidance, tools, and support they need to do their best work. Everybody wants to feel accomplished at the end of the day. It’s human nature. As leaders, it’s up to us to bring out the best of people, through that natural desire, and make sure that our teams have what they need to do their best work.

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?

Personally, I know that if I’m physically healthy and comfortable, my mind will be able to focus on where it needs to be. It’s my way of eliminating distraction. Before going into a workshop or meeting, I make sure that I’ve eaten properly, I’m hydrated, and I’m wearing something that I feel comfortable and confident in. It sounds simple, but those basic needs being taken care of make all the difference.

If I have time, I try to take a short walk before going to meetings or making important decisions. A moment of quiet goes a long way. I sometimes grab my headphones and listen to a set of audio recordings which help me centre my mind on whatever the topic at hand is, whether that’s making product decisions, interviewing customers, mentoring an employee, etc. I initially made these recordings for myself, but I’m working on producing them for the public because I find that taking the time to reflect on these concepts is very beneficial.

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 been managing individuals and teams for over 10 years, across organizations of all sizes. I now work as a Fractional Executive and startup consultant, which allows me to work with multiple early startups at a time, helping them define their communication and management styles and set positive precedents from the start.

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?

Trust is key in any relationship, whether it’s professional or personal. I often say, “If I never say No then no one can trust my Yes.” People are smart, and if we’ve hired well then the people working for us are exceptionally so! A lack of authenticity or a manipulative approach will be obvious to them. If our communications don’t come off consistently genuine and positive, then feedback will not be seen that way either. When we receive feedback, we first have to determine if the person giving it is someone whose opinion we value on the topic. As managers, we need to make sure that we are trusted and our input is seen as valuable if we expect our feedback to be taken on board.

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.

Determine what the core issue is. It’s easy to know when something’s not right, but before putting that on the shoulders of someone else, we need to ask some questions. Exactly how and where have they underperformed? How does this compare to their peers? Are consistent standards being set? Could there be any internal biases in play? What are the potential consequences of this unwanted behaviour continuing?

Consider the reasons they may be underperforming. Has it always been this way? Has it changed recently? What circumstances are you aware of which might be contributing to the problem? It’s unlikely that they don’t recognise, in some way, that they are underperforming, so we need to approach the problem as an opportunity to help, rather than push them back into line. With remote work, especially when they may not have anticipated having to work remotely due to COVID, they may be struggling to adjust or are balancing more family obligations. We need to be prepared to truly listen to the reasons and circumstances that are contributing to their underperformance.

Ask yourself exactly how you want them to improve. For feedback to be valid, it needs to come with some kind of expectation of improvement that is measurable and achievable. You want them to keep this expectation in front of them as a North Star in the period following your discussion. To do that, they need to know exactly what’s expected of them, and when it’s expected by. Without that, it’s not feedback, it’s just complaining.

Start the conversation positively. I’m not a fan of what’s referred to as the Sh*t Sandwich (compliment, complaint, compliment) because I think it makes people wary of receiving compliments, as they’ll always be bracing for something negative. However, it’s still important to start the conversation positively. Be clear that there is some feedback you would like to provide, you are confident that the situation can be resolved, and you’re willing to provide the support they need to succeed.

Follow up. After outlining a clear expectation of what you need to improve, and a deadline for it to happen by, you will want to make sure that it actually occurs. There will be times when you’ve done everything you can and multiple attempts to correct the course of an employee hasn’t worked. However, until you reach that point, make sure that there is clarity of what’s expected of them, every step of the way.

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?

The basics are very similar to giving feedback in person, but it’s even more important to be concise over email. Too many words can obscure what you’re trying to get across and can confuse the person receiving the feedback, even to the point where they don’t know what’s expected from them. While I try to avoid it, there have been a few times when I’ve had to give difficult feedback over Slack or email. I read and adjusted my wording on those messages about nine times before sending! Take the time to look at your words from the perspective of the person reading them, and challenge yourself to be more clear.

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?

My short answer is: As soon as the dust settles! If the feedback is the result of some major incident, your first priority needs to be resolving the problem and helping the people affected by it. Going into an emergency meeting and announcing, “We might lose our biggest client because of you!” isn’t feedback, and it’s certainly not the best way to make sure that they’re focused on fixing the problem. Once the fires are all out, ask for a moment to discuss what they believe went wrong, and where they would like to improve. You’ll likely find that they already know most of what you were going to say, and all you need to do is have an open conversation about it.

For less urgent matters, regular 1-to-1 meetings are the best way to catch performance issues early, before they become larger problems. Prioritising these meetings gives you the ability to make small correctional changes along the way. The best way to make sure you don’t end up miles off track is to fix it pleasantly when you’ve only strayed a few feet.

Let’s not forget positive feedback, too! We need to give praise where it’s due, as frequently as possible. Try to find opportunities to build your team up, so that encouraging conversations with you are what they expect.

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

A great boss believes the best of the people they are managing. They see it as their job to empower them to bring their A Game to the table. They’re constantly asking what they can do to make others’ jobs easier, more achievable, and more enjoyable because they know that a team that has those things will naturally perform better than one without them.

One of my managers early in my career had this gloriously nonchalant attitude. I always knew that quality work was expected of me, but I didn’t feel pressured to deliver more than I was capable of. I felt trusted, and given the space that I needed. If I wasn’t sure if my approach to a problem was the right one, she didn’t just give me the answers, but instead helped me discover them for myself.

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. 🙂

The biggest positive change we can make as a society is to cultivate more empathy. This includes the people we work with, as well as our community. We interact better, we create more useful things, and we put more positivity back into the world when we are surrounded by people who want what’s best for us. So much of management comes down to displaying real empathy.

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

I’m writing this while distancing for COVID, so at the moment my favourite quote is, “You’re doing fine.”

There were so many occasions I look back on when I struggled with imposter syndrome or feeling pressure to be “better” than I was. The world constantly shows us manipulated stories of what others have accomplished, and it can make us feel like we should be more than we are. I’ve learned that no matter how much we grow, there will always be something else ahead, so we have to learn to resist the pressure and let ourselves feel Fine.

Reader, you’re doing fine. I promise.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me on Twitter @ashleymarinep or on LinkedIn. Let’s stay in touch!

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

Thank you!

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