Create a dialog, don’t give a lecture. A critique should be a two-way conversation, so avoid email if you can. In person is the best way to deliver constructive criticism, but that’s not always possible, especially with Covid-19. The next best thing, of course, is video chat.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marlene Quade.
Marlene, co-owner of Prime Mutual, owns and operates websites in the insurance, finance, and home services space. Prior to starting her own company, she was quickly climbing the corporate ladder and mastering media relations, community relations, and crisis management. Now a serial mompreneur, dedicated community volunteer, equitable landlord, and Airbnb Superhost, she’s been traveling the world and managing teams remotely since launching her first start up in 2008.
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?
After years as a public relations professional in the corporate world and at smaller tech companies, I met my partner in business and in life, Ross. From the time we met, we talked about our entrepreneurial aspirations, traveling the world, and having more time to focus on passion projects. Many rolled their eyes at us, but fast forward to today and we own and operate several lead generation websites, long-term and vacation rentals, and have worked remotely from more than 40 countries and all 50 states.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We lost Ross’ mother to pancreatic cancer shortly before our wedding. This tragedy was jarring for our family and became the impetus for a new venture. We learned just how difficult conversations surrounding death and funeral planning are, but the experience also taught us how much planning in advance alleviates loved ones while they mourn. We wanted to find a way to assist families through this process, so we created Prime Mutual that specializes in final expense insurance. Here, we are committed to helping people secure their legacy with attentive compassion and intentional planning.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was curled up in a beanbag chair with my laptop in a Budapest hostel. I was managing content creators in North Carolina while Ross was in Minneapolis closing on our second rental property. This was a couple years into launching our start up and I had this powerful moment that filled me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It dawned on me just how far we had come. I grew up with a single mother in poverty; needless to say, the gift of travel was not in the family budget. However, I was given determination, gratitude, a strong work ethic, and a deep drive for continual improvement. I took these gifts and applied them to my education, career, and relationships. When I think back to this moment, I’m reminded of my humble beginnings, all the people who helped me along the way, and that everything I still want to accomplish is possible.
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 enjoyed many incredible perks as part of the marketing team at a casino, such as playing in charity golf tournaments, attending black tie events, and luxury box seats at pro sports games. I was given courtside tickets to a NBA game and brought a date I had only seen a few times prior. During the half-time show, the mascot was taking women’s shoes and sliding them on the court. My date laughed, pulled off my pumps, and flung them on the court. He was confronted by security and thought it was hilarious. But I was humiliated and worried about the relationship I had built with my contact.
I addressed the situation with my contact immediately, sent him a thoughtful gift, and worked to maintain the relationship. Now, it’s a blip in our history that we can laugh about. Clearly the lesson here is to fully vet your dates, but let’s go a little deeper. Everyone makes mistakes. Acknowledge them, apologize, learn, and move on with more wisdom. Also, remember that the people you surround yourself with represent you and reflect your values. Know who you are and where you want to go, then find the right travel companions.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Communication is key. Make sure all are on the same page, clear expectations are set, and the tools needed to perform are provided. Then, check in on a personal level so you can understand their challenges and find solutions to support them. Some may be juggling family life while others are feeling isolated. It may be as simple as scheduling zoom meetings during a kid’s nap, planning a virtual happy hour, or team building with a fun WFH photo challenge.
Encourage your team to create a dedicated workspace, maintain a schedule, and set boundaries. It’s tempting to lay in bed with your laptop until noon and continue to work around the clock. This isn’t sustainable or healthy. Advise your team to take short breaks throughout the day and disconnect outside of normal business hours to focus on physical and mental health. And, obviously, don’t intrude on this personal time.
Check in regularly and don’t assume no news is good news. Get feedback to find out what’s working and what needs to change. Be encouraging by sending messages with specific praise, email tips on healthy working from home habits, and most of all, make an extra effort to be positive and find solutions.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is motivating a group of people to work toward achieving a common goal. But really, it’s about investing in individuals and empowering them to grow. Leaders find budding young professionals that are coachable, curious, and ambitious. Then, they figure out how to best help them achieve their goals while contributing to the success of the company. They come from a place of generosity and collaboration with confidence that there are enough opportunities for everyone to advance.
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?
The most basic way to banish anxiety is to prepare and practice. But to nail it, I use positive visualization and remind myself of past successes. I acknowledge my fear, accept that things could go wrong, and remind myself that I can handle it. This turns my nervous energy into enthusiasm. And, I go for a run to get physical jitters out so my mind can better focus.
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?
Since 2008, my spouse and I have been traveling the world while running our company, often remotely. We’ve started multiple online businesses and have purchased several properties that we maintain as long-term and vacation rentals. Over time, we’ve honed our skills to communicate successfully with employees, independent contractors, and business partners. For our online businesses, we work with web developers, designers, and content creators. With our real estate, we work with agents, property managers, and hospitality industry professionals. With each, we must provide honest feedback while maintaining healthy relationships.
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?
This does seem intuitive, so I’d like to discuss how critical this is specifically for women in business. Even today, many women are afraid they’ll be seen as aggressive (e.i. “a bitch”) when they are assertive. Conversely, they fear being regarded as a pushover if they are too nice. This fear is holding women back from the boardroom, equal pay, and countless opportunities. But a balance between the two extremes can be struck and women can successfully give honest, direct feedback while cultivating a positive work environment. This is an absolutely essential skill for women to master in order to take on more leadership roles and advance.
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.
- Create a dialog, don’t give a lecture. A critique should be a two-way conversation, so avoid email if you can. In person is the best way to deliver constructive criticism, but that’s not always possible, especially with Covid-19. The next best thing, of course, is video chat.
- Start the conversation with a sincere compliment before delivering your critique. Recognize that both parts are a gift. The compliment is a gift of confidence. The critique is a gift that allows for growth. When you are able to have tough conversations that work toward a common goal, you gain trust and develop your relationship.
- Lead with empathy and compassion. Look at the issue from their point of view and consider the root of the problem. They are likely aware of it and just need help finding a solution. Ask what areas are a struggle and see if they bring it up. If so, perfect, discuss solutions. If not, be direct, honest, and cite the reason the issue must be addressed.
- Feedback should be helpful advice and an opportunity to grow, not a harsh criticism or an opportunity for you to vent frustrations. Come to the table with potential solutions and actionable advice. Ask for their ideas. Think of how to make ideas work rather than why they won’t be possible.
- Close on a positive note. Emphasize their value to the company and your belief in their abilities. Show that you are confident that they will improve and make sure you are there for support. Plan a time to check in on progress.
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 power of an email is that you can mull over your words and choose them carefully — do so. Start with something friendly and as simple as “How’s your week going?” If applicable, acknowledge that these are difficult times with Covid-19. Then, thank them for their hard work and point out something they have done exceptionally well. This compliment needs to be true and specific.
Then address the areas that need attention. State specifically what the issue is and the reason it must be resolved. Offer solutions, give actionable advice, and ask for their input. Close with a positive message, let them know that you are confident in their ability to make improvements. Tell them when and how you are available to discuss further.
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?
Humans have an innate desire to learn and grow, but we also want to be accepted and respected. These conflicting needs can cause internal discord when it comes to feedback. This is why it’s crucial to find a time when the recipient will be most open and understanding.
In my experience, the best time to give feedback for an ongoing issue or a scheduled review is mid-morning, after the day has gotten started to avoid a rude awakening but before the day has worn out patience. If the critique is about a single performance or action, it’s better to wait a few hours or even a day. This allows time for feelings to be tempered and reflection on the situation for both parties.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
The manager I had in my first public relations position was a great boss. When I started, she built my confidence by giving me low risk assignments and then praised me in front of our team for my accomplishments. She reserved her constructive criticism for private meetings, in which she was always tough but fair. As I developed, she gave me freedom to make decisions and take the lead on projects. She was kind, strong, confident, authentic, compassionate and grounded. She was a great boss and I still try to emulate her to this day.
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. 🙂
Many areas of our public school system are ineffective, inequitable, and outdated. Yet, children have unlimited potential to accomplish incredible things when given the tools and freedom to do so. Magic would happen if the revolutionary teaching methods of Acton Academy, where our daughter attends, were brought into the public school system. Acton’s approach cultivates creativity, grit, and cooperation while encouraging children to fail often when the consequences are nominal. They focus on real world problems while using project based learning, Socratic discussions, and adaptive game based computer programs. Today’s children are growing up acutely aware of the dire challenges our world faces, but I’m confident that they have the ability to solve these problems if not limited by the meager imaginations of adults.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What you do for yourself dies with you when you leave this world; what you do for others lives on forever.” — Sir Ken Robinson
As I get older, and especially as a parent, leaving a legacy is becoming more important and pressing. I think back to the people who have intentionally or unwittingly made huge impacts in my life. They inspire me to do the same for others.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for asking! My partner and I are focused on Prime Mutual, which is committed to helping people find financial solutions to final expenses. You can check us out on Facebook and Twitter or connect with me on LinkedIn.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.