“Create the Right Atmosphere” with Sheila Murphy

Create the Right Atmosphere. A leader must foster an atmosphere where employees, including themselves, welcome constructive feedback. You need to build an environment where all of your associates know that you believe self- development is a critical focus for everyone, including you. You must emphasize that self-improvement development is crucial to you personally because you […]

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Create the Right Atmosphere. A leader must foster an atmosphere where employees, including themselves, welcome constructive feedback. You need to build an environment where all of your associates know that you believe self- development is a critical focus for everyone, including you. You must emphasize that self-improvement development is crucial to you personally because you want to be better leaders and have fulfilling and exciting careers. You must ask for and thank people for their feedback on yourself and be self-aware enough to include that information when working on your skills.

Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Murphy of Focus Forward Consulting.

Sheila Murphy the CEO of Focus Forward Consulting, who after 24 years a senior executive at a Fortune 50 launched her own career and business development coaching and consulting firm. Sheila lifts leaders, lawyers and legal organizations to reach their full potential.

After 20 years in corporate America and law firms, Sheila is pursuing her passion for helping others reach their full potential. Sheila is CEO and President of Focus Forward Consulting LLC and Chief Learning & Talent Officer of WOMN LLC, where she lifts lawyers, leaders and legal organizations to achieve their career and business goals.

In 2018, Sheila retired as Senior Vice President and Associate General Counsel at MetLife. Sheila served as an executive sponsor to MetLife’s U.S. Women’s Business Network, co-chaired the Legal Affair’s Academy providing developmental opportunities to legal and compliance professionals worldwide and served as a member of its U.S. Task Force on diversity

Sheila is a member of the Boards of Directors of National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). Sheila serves on the advisory board of Transforming Women’s Leadership in Law and co-chairs the CARE’s Women’s Network of New York. Previously, she was a member of the Board for Read Alliance and PowerPlay, NYC. Sheila received from Corporate Counsel and Inhouse Counsel the Women, Influence, Power in Law, Lifetime Achievement. Women’s Venture Fund awarded Sheila the highest Leaf Award. She was named a Most Influential Irish Woman by the Irish Voice, a Leading Women Lawyer in NYC by Crain’s New York, a Business 100 honoree by Irish America and one of 250 Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs by Databird Journal. Sheila also has received the Benchmark Litigation In-house Award at the Americas Women in Business Awards, the Virginia S. Mueller Outstanding Member Award from NAWL and a First Chair award for hard work, innovation and significant contributions to the legal community.

Sheila is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she served on the Comparative Labor Law Journal and the School of Management at the State University of New York at Binghamton where she graduated magna cum laude. Sheila earned her Associate Certified Coach and Certified Professional Co-Active Coach from the International Coaching Federation and the Co-Active Leadership Institute, respectively. Sheila is a frequent speaker on talent, and business development, leadership and diversity.

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?

During the 2008 economic crisis, I was in senior management in corporate America, and I witnessed many women losing their jobs and titles and taking hits to their compensation. While much of this may have related to unconscious bias, it was also clear that many of these individuals had not invested actively in cultivating their careers and networks and so it took them time to bounce back. I was infuriated — so while still working on my corporate job, I began also focusing more on developing people and their careers. I found helping people with their careers very fulfilling that I realized that this was a passion that I wanted to pursue as a career.

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

At Focus Forward, I understand that every person is unique, and there is no cookie-cutter approach to designing the career or life that you want. I meet the person where they and their desires are. I partnered with clients who have a laser focus on business development or operating in a new role or position themselves that next promotion and others — who just want to earn enough to cover expenses- to fulfill other passions and interests. It is a judgment-free zone that only focuses on moving you forward on the career and life that will bring you joy. My clients have commented they love the personalized approach to their careers and lives.

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

When MetLife hired me — my manager, Don, did not ask for or obtain the required approval from his supervisor, Alan. I walk into my first meeting, and Alan introduces himself to me and asks me where I work. I tell him, and Alan says that “Sheila, I don’t know you, and as head of the Department, I should have approved your hiring.” I felt my heart drop to the floor and that my corporate career was going to be short-lived. Through hard working and relationship building despite this awkward start, Alan becomes an advocate of mine. While Alan and I laughed about this later — I did not find it so humorous at the time.

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?

When I first started at a lower level in a corporation, I made an off-hand comment to a C-Suite executive on something that we could do better. I forgot that I commented when a few days later, the C-Suite Executive summons me to his office. I had no clue why I was there, and to be honest, I was a little worried that I had done something wrong. That wasn’t the case. The executive wanted to dig deeper into the issue and wanted me to work with my management to implement a solution. I learned from this that true leaders — understand and appreciate that good ideas come from all levels — — and leaders to listen and are always focused on improvement.

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

You want to lead by example — during the pandemic, it is very easy to have boundaries between work and personal time blurred as many are working from home. You think what is the big deal if I work so much. Leaders must talk to their teams about the benefits of taking breaks and vacations and finding moments for self-care, and they also need to lead by example and do it themselves.

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

Leadership is about harnessing and developing your team’s talent and ideas by educating, engaging, and empowering them to accomplish great things. A confident leader if she has educated, engaged, and empowered her team knows the solutions they come up with will be more impactful and effective than she could have developed independently. I have to admit this is now and then hard as a leader. I remember once a team I was working with came to me with an initiative, and I was leery about how it would work. But I decided to let the team run with it, and I got to admit, I was wrong — it was one of our biggest successes.

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 first thing I tell everyone to prepare, prepare, and prepare. Being super prepared — takes the edge off. I have even had other leaders speak to my teams about their preparation process to understand what it takes. Second, step away from it — what works for me is a long walk or a workout — — and then when I come back, I am calm and, more importantly, giving my brain a break — I see things more transparent and even see connections and approaches I didn’t before. For example, I took a long walk before a big presentation I was giving. I came back and changed the whole introduction. People who had seen me rehearse with the old introduction — came up to me and said, wow — that was so much better. If I had not given my mind the time off to allow my mind to work in the background — I would not have developed the more impactful opening.

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 was at a Fortune 50 company, as a senior executive, where I led diverse teams of varying sizes. While there, I gained a reputation for being a talent and team developer. Members of my groups have gone to become successful executives and leaders themselves both at the organization I worked and others.

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?

Being an effective leader means helping your team grow to their full potential, and if you are not giving them honest and direct feedback — you are not fulfilling that mission. People need to understand their strengths and opportunities to work towards the careers they deserve. When you create strong, diverse teams — you have more creative and productive people working towards the company’s goals and objectives.

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.

1) Create the Right Atmosphere. A leader must foster an atmosphere where employees, including themselves, welcome constructive feedback. You need to build an environment where all of your associates know that you believe self- development is a critical focus for everyone, including you. You must emphasize that self-improvement development is crucial to you personally because you want to be better leaders and have fulfilling and exciting careers. You must ask for and thank people for their feedback on yourself and be self-aware enough to include that information when working on your skills.

You also have to demonstrate that you care about their development — this means investing time in each person. Creating this culture starts with having conversations with individuals about their aspirations and plans to achieve them and provide coaching and advice to make that a reality. You will emphasize that their success is your success and that you will help them on this journey. You should also be clear that for this to happen, you have to be able to provide them with direct and actionable feedback to further both their personal goals and that the company’s and their goal.

For remote employees, this takes more time — — because you need to build up more trust. While I always had individual updates with my team — I made sure to have more with those who are remote. I also looked for specific development opportunities in which they could participate. Often distant people are not thought of for these opportunities. For example, for a team member on the West Coast, I found a management training program for her. To build trust — you need to have relationships with people and show you are there for them. Once you have this trust and set the parameters, You have better positioned remote employees to listen to and act on constructive feedback.

2) Focus on the Behavior. When you have a feedback conversation — you should set this context and remind the employee that the discussion is to aid them in improving their performance and aspirations — and that this is about behaviors and skills and not them as a person. If there is any positive feedback, start with that and then move under to constructive criticism. For both the positive and development feedback, you need to clearly explain what behaviors and skills impacted and what that impact was. For example, Sue, you nailed the issues at hand, and by setting them out at the beginning of the project — everyone understood the goals or Sue when you miss deadlines and threaten late nights every week — the team becomes very disengaged, and the project lags.

You will then ask them if they understand the concern or need more clarification. If the person is in the right mindset, you can begin then (or schedule a time later ) to start the coaching and developing a plan.

3) Coach the Behavior. When the person understands the feedback, you need to coach them through it. You ask them open-ended questions to have them take ownership of changing the behavior. Example of open questions include:

· What is the impact on the project, the team, or the business partner?

· What would it be like if we take a different course?

· How do you think it would change the project if we focused more on economics?

Remote people may have less access to “watercooler” conversations- so you may need to have more discussions on building strategic relationships and how to navigate the politics or the organization. They also may not have comparative context — so comments such as you need to be “more strategic” may need hard comparators. For example, you will need to tell them what more strategic conversations sound like in your business.

You want the employee to take the laboring oar in deciding how to tackle the issue. The conversation should not be you telling them what to do. You can make suggestions — but the employee should be the main person strategizing about the improvements. At the end of the conversation, you and the employee should agree to a plan to improve the behavior.

4) Not Once and Done. Changing behaviors does not happen over time. Make sure to have regular check-ins with your employee on this behavior to ensure that they are on track and if they are not that you are there to help and support them. Regular check-ins are most important for remote employees. You do not want them to be out of sight — out of mind.

5) Celebrate Change. Change is hard — especially behaviors that have become habits or coping mechanisms. We must recognize improvement and celebrate it when someone is successful in taking feedback and making improvements. Recognition again is especially important for remote employees — who feel more disconnected. Make it a point in an update or an email to recognize and celebrate when they have accomplished.

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?

If someone is in front of you, you can see how they hear and react to the input. Being there in person or by phone or Zoom allows you to process much of the nuances of tone, facial expressions, and body language. But not when someone is remote. My first reaction is to don’t give feedback, if possible, over email or messaging. Recipients of feedbacks in emails can often misunderstand the context and the language, and if you don’t see or hear it happening, you cannot address it. If at all possible, have a video or phone call — you will be able to hear or see the disconnects and will be able to shape the conversation more positively.

If you must send an email — start by saying that you wished that you could be discussing in person but cannot because of x and that you would like to schedule a time to talk. Then if possible, you should point out what the person has done well and the positive impact that has had. You then ask the employee what he should do differently — making sure it is about the behavior — and not the person and the effect that the action is having on the project. You should always follow up with scheduling a time to discuss it in person. If the person responds in a curt matter — hold off emailing back and instead get the time on the calendar — there are no winners in email wars.

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?

There is no one answer as to the best time to give feedback — generally, it should be close to the behavior occurring. You can provide the insights at a routine update or a special one. You need to assess the circumstances and how open the person will be to feedback. If the person realizes there was an issue and is upset or beating themselves up — you may want to give a day or two to be in the proper mindset for the feedback and focus on going forward.

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

A great boss sees your strengths, believes in you (even when you don’t) s and encourages your development. I had a wonderful boss, Teresa, for several years. One time, I talked to her about my progress. I had a list of about 27 items- I thought I needed to work on to get to the next level. She said if there were 27 items, we would be having a different conversation. Together, we narrowed the list to two areas of improvement to focus on and came up with the plan and resources to further my development.

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. 🙂

I would like people to inspire every girl to have the opportunity to be educated and know her worth. Educating women and girls has tremendous benefits to individuals, families, and communities. For this reason, I work with CARE, a not for profit that has an emphasis on this. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, much of the progress we have made with women and girl’s education and empowerment may be eradicated. That is why we must continue to focus on it.

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

I love the Winston Churchill quote:

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

To me, this signifies that we are all works and progress and can improve not matter our title, status, and age. It also means that we can learn from our failures and mistakes — and move on. Many of my peers at a certain level- not even that senior — thought they knew it all — and did not continue to work on their skills — this was a career mistake. We can always learn and grow.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter at @SheilaMurphy_, LinkedIn at SheilaMurphy333 and my website: www.Focus-Forward-Consulting.Com

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

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