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Cheryl Chester: “Leadership is an art”

Generally, the best time for feedback is soon after a specific performance has occurred. However, if the feedback is focused on performance that was not successful, I recommend that the leader waits for a day or two for the employee to reflect on what happened and why.As a leader, the more you commit to creating […]

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Generally, the best time for feedback is soon after a specific performance has occurred. However, if the feedback is focused on performance that was not successful, I recommend that the leader waits for a day or two for the employee to reflect on what happened and why.

As a leader, the more you commit to creating a development culture, the more continuous feedback you want to provide. Best practice organizations have now begun replacing the formal, yearly performance review with required monthly feedback and coaching sessions for each employee. This ensures no surprise feedback at yearend reviews and not waiting to address development needs.


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

Cheryl’s 25+ year career as a human resource professional is focused in the areas of leadership and organizational development. She has held leadership and organizational development positions in multiple industries, ranging from financial services to utilities. Cheryl is Practice Leader/ Organizational Effectiveness with KardasLarson, an HR Consulting firm based in Glastonbury, CT.


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?

One of my first corporate positions, following graduate school, was as the Director of Career Services and Placement for a major university. It was during my time there that I first became aware of the impact of a well-planned career decision and how few students really had one. Typically, such decisions were made based on admiration for others in such careers or curiosity. Very seldom were they based on an individual’s strengths, aptitudes, or inspirations. In fact, this was me! My family were excellent musicians, so I choose a career as a music teacher. Once I began teaching, I realized that I really enjoyed it, but could not see myself working my entire career in this position. Besides, my musical ability was somewhat limited. I needed to carve out a path for further career development. So, for me, my backstory is focused on how important development is for each of us and how little time most of us dedicate to this process. This has been my focus for the last twenty-five years as a Practice Leader in Organizational Development.

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

I am affiliated with a Human Resources consultant group comprised of senior-level Human Resource professionals all of whom bring specialized expertise to the company. Human Resources is a very complex discipline that requires both tactical and strategic acumen. KardasLarson has key talent representing the many areas of HR, including Compensation, Recruiting, Training and Development and Organizational Effectiveness. Our client portfolio includes both large corporations who call on us for special projects such as for Employee Engagement surveys or updated Compensation Market Analysis and small not for profits and municipalities who do not have the internal HR resources to complete tasks such as updated Job Descriptions or Employee Handbooks.

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

I am not sure that it is the most interesting, but it has remained with me as a key ”lesson learned”. As a Training and Development Director in a large financial institution, my manager scheduled a meeting with me to deliver my first performance review, having just completed one year of work. At the end of that review meeting, he proudly announced that he had evaluated me as a “3” performer, on a 1–5 scale where 5 was Exceptional, but had gotten permission to go out of salary increase guidelines for this level of performance and was giving me a higher salary increase. While I was thankful for his effort, I took the opportunity to provide him with a better understanding of what motivates me. I told him that I would have much preferred a “4” rating and less of a salary increase. My key motivator was verbal recognition for a job well done and his was monetary recognition. We can never assume that what motivates us motivates others, especially in this multi-generational workforce.

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?

Again, this was less funny than impactful. The joke was definitely on me. During a quarterly meeting of the Training and Development staff, each of the managers recognized key performance accomplishments. I chose to recognize a young woman whom I had hired a year earlier. She had exceptional design skills and had just completed an extraordinarily successful pilot of a Change Management program she had developed. As I announced her reward to the entire staff, complete with a gift certificate and a dozen long stem roses, her facial expression became very strained and I knew this was not working as I had intended it to. I learned (much too late) that her culture is one in which outward individual attention is considered bragging and insensitive to others. So, another “lessons learned”; know your employees individually and don’t assume that “one size fits all”.

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

Be their advocate by knowing what their strengths, development needs and motivators are. Provide them with continuous coaching and feedback.

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

To me, Leadership is an art. It is a commitment to supporting others to be their best. In a highly effective team, I feel that the Leader is not noticeable and yields his/her positional power to the employees.

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?

I find that the more thorough my preparation, the less stress I feel. For example, in a high stakes Board meeting a few years ago, I met with each Board member individually to understand their individual issues and concerns. As a result, I was not blindsided during the meeting.

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 have managed teams for most of my career and have found that, if you are skilled at coaching and feedback, employees are eager to engage in discussions with you about their performance and development.

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 feel that the ultimate success for a leader is in the development of his/her team so that each is experienced as key talent to be acknowledged and retained. This only occurs when the leader has committed to a culture of continuous feedback and coaching.

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.

Before I do, let me respond to the term “constructive criticism”. I believe there is no such thing. If your intent is criticism, it will never be experienced as constructive! If your intent is specific feedback meant to further increase the employee’s self-awareness and development, then following are my suggestions:

  1. Only share specific, fact-based feedback.
  2. Prepare your employee for the feedback by scheduled a meeting for this purpose and ask that he/she come prepared to address the specific performance.
  3. Begin by asking for the employee’s feedback on his/her own performance.
  4. Provide your feedback in the spirit of collaboration with an employee.
  5. Establish an agreement with the employee on his/her actions to further address the discussed performance.

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 do not feel that email is an effective vehicle for constructive feedback. You can send an email to let the employee know that you would like to discuss specific performance with him/her. In this email, always reaffirm the positive intent of this discussion and that you will schedule a Zoom meeting for this discussion.

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?

Generally, the best time for feedback is soon after a specific performance has occurred. However, if the feedback is focused on performance that was not successful, I recommend that the leader waits for a day or two for the employee to reflect on what happened and why.

As a leader, the more you commit to creating a development culture, the more continuous feedback you want to provide. Best practice organizations have now begun replacing the formal, yearly performance review with required monthly feedback and coaching sessions for each employee. This ensures no surprise feedback at yearend reviews and not waiting to address development needs.

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

To me, a great boss is someone who commits to each of his/her employees being the best. One technique that one of my managers applied that I found very helpful to my development was that he always encouraged me to come to him with issues/concerns and required that, with those issues and concerns, I come prepared with some possible solutions. This is a great empowerment tool for employees.

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. 🙂

That’s a tough one. I think, especially in today’s environment, that a true movement of equality is essential to our moving forward for good. That’s a tall order and I feel it could begin by flattening organizational hierarchy, providing quality education to all students, and acknowledging that entitlement will never create good.

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

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but, rather, the presence of Justice.”

— Martin Luther King

The relevancy of this quote for me is that, while conflict is often not pleasant, it is essential to authentic understanding.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.kardaslarson.com

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

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