Be clear about your feedback goal. Ask yourself, specifically what do you want your employee to stop, start or do differently? Unless you know what you want, you can’t ask for it. Importantly, this step requires that you understand your own motives for sharing the critique. The purpose is to help your employee do better. It isn’t for you to let off steam or get something off your chest. Those expressions are better kept to yourself.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ephraim Schachter.
Ephraim Schachter, President of Schachter Consulting, helps CEOs, CXOs and their teams prepare for — and thrive in — their leadership roles, through his executive coaching services. He’s also the author of the CSuite Accelerator Executive Leadership Curriculum™, an online resource for aspiring executives.”
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?
Professionally, I was something of a late bloomer. A college Business major, I worked in commercial real estate for a few years after graduation. I was looking for something that felt more like me, so I attended Law School. I practiced with a commercial litigation firm for about five years. I loved counseling clients, but still something was missing. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that I was more interested in our clients as organizations of people coming together to produce things and make things happen, than as parties to a dispute.
I’d already completed a graduate degree and my wife and I had two kids and a mortgage, so returning to school for a PhD in Organizational Development wasn’t realistic. In a sense, we had to refuel the plane while it was in the air. I needed to learn on the job and on my own this time.
I went to work for a terrific Midwestern training, development and assessment firm. There, I intensively immersed myself in the leadership, team and individual effectiveness solutions we provided organizations. During this time, I also tore into every relevant book I could get my hands on.
I was then recruited to the leadership development practice of a global change management consultancy. They were world class and I felt lucky for how much I learned from them. It was clear to me I’d found my calling in executive coaching. I hung up my own shingle just about 19 years ago.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In my years of coaching executives and senior leaders, I’d come across every manner of Leadership Development model, program and process. There was great support for how to make the important transition from individual contributor to people manager. The code I hadn’t seen cracked was how to go from talented leader to executive.
The result was Darwinian. Some leaders with natural talents and abilities distinguished themselves as high-performing execs. Unfortunately, some execs with strong professional talents demonstrated big gaps in their leadership abilities. Even more regrettably, many good people of high potential were being overlooked and not groomed into executive roles.
I designed the CSuite Accelerator™ process to help CEOs, CXOs and their teams to prepare for executive roles and thrive once in them. It’s a critical need, which in my opinion, remains mostly underserved. The work we do is to help them learn to wield influence, build profile, and ready their promotability.
Here’s a story of a nearly dismissed accountant who was promoted twice in four years to North America CFO.
My client “Jonathan” was a proven professional at a Fortune 500 Healthcare company. Starting as an accountant for one of the “Big 6,” he went in-house and grew over his 20 years with the company with promotions into more advanced and bigger jobs, most recently becoming SVP, Assistant Accounting Officer for the corporate Finance organization.
Jonathan was whip-smart and clear thinking. He was talented at defining, resourcing and implementing his vision for his role. A first-rate technical expert, what really distinguished him was his drive to produce results. A real straight shooter, he prided himself on being “above office politics.”
Jonathan was stunned when he received a harsh annual performance evaluation. Despite over-delivering on targets, he was demonstrating career-limiting behavior. Namely, he was perceived as leading though intimidation. “My Way or the Highway.” Disinclined to challenge his overbearing behavior, colleagues tended to give in or avoid him.
Jonathan worked with us to wield more influence by mastering skills in two areas: building rapport and adding value. By rapport, I mean the ability to strike and keep a real and trust-building connection with colleagues, as opposed to being seen by them as a threat to their own goals. Jonathan learned techniques to connect and get in flow at an unconscious neurological level.
We helped him add value by listening and framing win-win solutions to help colleagues achieve their agendas while he served his.
He rebuilt his profile by learning to navigate the organization, developing broad and deep knowledge of stakeholders and how the dynamics work at and near the top of the company. He learned to tailor his approaches to their behaviors, needs and characteristics.
Finally, he readied his promotability. From the performance evaluation, it was clear the CAO saw Jonathan as more of a risk than an asset. We worked to turn him into Jonathan’s advocate by repositioning Jonathan as an easy and useful colleague.
Jonathan worked the plan hard. After six months we ran a 360. It showed a dramatic increase in the organization’s perception of him as a collaborative colleague and leader material. His boss, the CAO called him “a changed man.” Jonathan was promoted into CFO job he had his eye on in one of the smaller business units. Building on these new behaviors, three and a half years later, he got the nod to step into the role of EVP/CFO, North America.
As you can imagine, this has been deeply gratifying for everyone involved.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the fun parts of appearing on panels and at conferences is you get to meet and speak with interesting people from a variety of fields. One of my favorite happy accidents was sharing a ride from a speaking venue back to the airport with a former Head of the FBI and CIA and a 9/11 Commission member, where we opined on a Supreme Court justice vacancy. It was fascinating to hear from insiders in a private conversation. That said, this wasn’t the most interesting thing that happened since I started my career.
It was the words of a thought leader I once heard speak that interested me the most. Peter Block, the Founder of Designed Learning and well known for authoring the bestselling Flawless Consulting, was asked by a Chief Human Resources Officer of a global company how he’d recommend changing its corporate culture. She described this as the main charge within her new role. Peter replied, “You can’t change the culture,” and paused, then adding, “but you can change the room. The one you’re in.”
This floored me. I still get chills remembering the moment. It’s so easy to feel daunted by all the work necessary to improve our work and civic institutions. Heck, even our families and communities are complicated systems. But, surely, we can have an impact in each “room we’re in.” We can be the person we want to be and project the values we want to project in each conversation, each meeting, each interaction. Ideally, others will be moved and model that behavior in their next “room.” This is how the critical mass of positive change happens. What an empowering eye-opener.
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?
An event happened to me early in my solo career that upended my thinking and taught me to forever challenge assumptions. Maybe, most importantly, my own. Funny? Maybe, tragicomic.
Close to two decades ago, I left a global change management consultancy to open up my own shop. I had a few small projects I was working. I believed that to really penetrate, it was critical to demonstrate to the marketplace that that I had my own “Point-of-View” about organizational development. Something comparable to those of the big consultancies. In short, I needed to produce a brilliant, comprehensive and sleek deck to prove that I could dance with the big kids.
I set to work on my manifesto and burned the midnight oil for about six weeks. I obsessed over every comma and arrow. I had a professional design firm produce the visuals. I couldn’t wait to present it to a mentor of mine for feedback. He was a big deal in the industry and I deeply admired him and his accomplishments.
Sitting across from him, I received a big reaction … just not the one I was expecting. Instead of pouring over every nuance and breaking out in a big smile, he flipped through the deck hurriedly and slid it back across the table to me. It was as if he didn’t want to touch it any longer than necessary. “Well?” I cautiously asked. He replied, “You can’t do all this. You’re a little guy pretending to be a big guy. This deck is for McKinsey, not a small shop.”
Then he said the words that altered the course of my career: “If you can’t hide it, feature it.” He explained that rather than trying to convince people to work with us despite our being small, that they should give us the work because we’re small. People today would refer to that as “leaning in.”
At his suggestion, I inventoried a list of client benefits related to my firm’s size. That was easy … I was less expensive, more nimble, easier to deploy and more accountable. I threw out the manifesto and wrote up a simple one-pager. Almost immediately, client business flourished.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
In my view, it’s truly up to an organization’s CEOs and top tiers of leadership to help their employees thrive and avoid burnout. This is because it is Leadership’s words and deeds that drive expectations and behavior. They can do so by following a three-step approach we’ll call, “Project, Connect, Protect.”
First, let’s consider why people burn out. It’s when our reserves of energy, enthusiasm and abundance are depleted. The stuff that propels us dwindles down when we don’t receive enough fulfilment, satisfaction and joy from our work. It’s like the proverbial bank account. You want your people to stay in the black and the line trending up!
The first step is for CXO’s and senior leaders to project the emotional states they want to spread. Happiness, calm, confidence and strength. If you look like you’re in a good mood because things are going well this will reassure your employees. They will believe you and take your cues.
Second, look for opportunities to connect through one-on-one and small group interactions that are personal. Overcommunicate about company strategy and status. Talk about shared values. Create opportunities for employees to connect with each other, even virtually. Help people find purpose in the work, as individuals.
Finally, protect your employees from burning out by preempting it in the first place. This might seem counter-intuitive, but don’t reward non-stop work. Don’t expect fewer people to do more of the work for very long. The only thing worse than reductions in force during business downturns, is when managers expect the remaining shell-shocked employees to now do others’ work. It reminds me of the old parody, “layoffs will continue until morale improves.” Instead, reward work/life balance. Protect your people through difficult and depleting times.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Indeed, many people have given a lot of thought to this topic. The last time I checked, Amazon produced over 100,000 hits on the search, “Leadership Books.” I’ve arrived at my definition as a function of my twenty-plus years of working with and learning from scores of terrific (and some, not-so-terrific) leaders. Here it is, distilled:
“Leadership is getting valuable things done through others who benefit from following you.”
Let’s unpack the five distinct components:
1) Valuable things.
Leaders articulate a compelling vision of a desired future. One that improves on where we are now. Moreover, they are able to stake out the key strategies that will help us move in that direction together.
2) Getting done.
Leaders are there to execute and drive results. To make important promises and deliver on them.
3) Through others.
Leaders lead people. They amplify their efforts through an organization. They build benches of people to manage. They set the culture.
4) Who follow you.
Leaders wield influence, ideally through example of character and moral authority. They project confidence in the mission and faith in the future.
5) Who benefit from following you.
Leaders never self-deal. Rather, they represent others to bring about collective wins. Leaders make sure to reward and recognize people in ways they find meaningful.
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?
We all experience that kind of stress. It’s a biological response preparing us for an imminent threat. Regrettably, our body’s protocol is better designed for escaping a hungry bear than for anticipating an important business interaction, the former being literally life-threatening. Your heart speeding up to pump lots of blood to your muscles is not a great feeling when you enter a populated boardroom.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that by understanding this, you can avoid concern when those feelings predictably arise. There are many ways people manage it. Here are some of the ones that work for me, before, during and after the interaction.
Before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk or decision, I overprepare. This boosts my confidence that I will present clear thinking and won’t be thrown by something unexpected. I identify my objectives for the interaction. My legal training taught me to anticipate others’ concerns and prepare responses ahead of time. When drafting a motion or brief, an attorney outlines — and perhaps, even write out — the opponent’s brief first. What arguments will they articulate? How will you persuasively counter? This is a good practice adapted to any field.
As the interaction begins, I acknowledge the predictable physical feelings that arise and remind myself that this just proves my body works correctly. I shift my focus to get outside of my head and into the mix. Whether in a small group or before a large audience, I will look for individuals with whom to strike a quick rapport, mirroring their energy and affect. If I am delivering a talk, I will have memorized the first 45 seconds of my remarks. The nervous energy dissipates as I begin to speak and I see, feel and hear the audience enjoy what I’m sharing.
After the interaction, I try to dwell in the positive feeling to anchor it. The neuroscientists say that the neurons that fire together wire together. I want to build an ongoing positive association with these interactions to diminish anxiety the next time.
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 help CEOs, CXOs and their teams prepare for — and thrive in — their leadership roles. I have been teaching organizational leaders across industries, nonprofits and academia about leading teams and giving feedback for over twenty years. I’d estimate that through direct coaching, live events and online learning, my thinking and approaches to feedback have touched thousands of leaders and executives.
In 2014 I received an award from HR.com’s Leadership 500 Excellence Awards for my proprietary feedback process.
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?
First, it’s about results. As I mention in my definition of Leadership back in my response to Question 6, to be effective, a leader needs to get stuff done through people. Period. If you can’t amplify organizational results through others, you’re not leading.
What does that mean practically? A leader needs to set clear expectations, oversee implementation, and hold people accountable for their work and results. Honest and direct feedback is the mechanism to deliver that accountability. It’s how a leader offers course corrections, providing oversight without micromanaging. This is also true for reinforcing positive behavior, where the leader spells out what the employee did that was effective and useful.
Second, leaders are responsible for nurturing talent. Effective leaders teach up-and-comers how to be effective professional managers. Moreover, they transmit and reinforce the organization’s DNA — It’s values and culture — to their successors. This doesn’t happen by accident. It comes from the consistent, skillful delivery of honest and direct feedback.
Third, leaders are responsible for the retention of top talent. High performers always have options. They are known in their respective industries and field frequent calls from recruiters gauging their restlessness. Delivering honest and direct feedback demonstrates interest, caring and investment. It builds loyalty and connection to the leader and to the organization. As I frequently tell my coachees, “give your stars the proper care and feeding or they will soon become your competitor’s stars.”
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.
My first two suggestions address adopting the proper mindset for delivering criticism that is truly constructive. My observation from over two decades of coaching is that most leaders are uncomfortable delivering negative feedback. Consequently, many deliver it ineffectively. They can be abrupt, incomplete and unclear. Others avoid it entirely, leaving issues to fester. These problems are compounded when an employee is remote. The key is for the leader to be purposeful, confident and look forward to the feedback-giving opportunity.
1. Be clear about your feedback goal.
Ask yourself, specifically what do you want your employee to stop, start or do differently? Unless you know what you want, you can’t ask for it. Importantly, this step requires that you understand your own motives for sharing the critique. The purpose is to help your employee do better. It isn’t for you to let off steam or get something off your chest. Those expressions are better kept to yourself.
2. Adapt the four key feedback roles to a remote work environment.
I frequently speak of the four roles leaders assume when delivering feedback. As “Content Master,” to be on top of the message you wish to land. As “Midwife,” to build trust, empathy and acceptance. As “Sherpa,” to guide the feedback recipient to understanding. And as “Facilitator,” to keep the discussion on track. When remote, the importance of the first two roles is amplified. Building trust and delivering a simple, uncluttered message is paramount.
The remaining suggestions address the nuts and bolts of delivering the constructive criticism to a remote employee.
3. Pick the richest communication medium available.
Since you are remote, you want to make the interaction as human as possible. If you and this person used to just pop into each other’s office with a small issue, they are now feeling less connected. The feedback might hurt more. Doing it over video is almost as good as being in the same room. Otherwise, connect by phone. We’ll discuss email critiques in another question.
4. Set the tone and expectations early.
The way you begin the discussion can signal your frame of mind to your employee. So, do it deliberately. After the niceties, affirm them and state your reason for the discussion: “Nice work, Jane. I’m offering my thoughts as a small course correction …” Or, “John, this is a great start. I want to offer some suggestions that would take [the work product] from a ‘B’ to an ‘A’.” If you deliver a message like this with a warm tone, it makes it clear that the conversation is safe.
5. Welcome them into your thought process.
Having to guess at what your boss wants is stressful, particularly when you’re physically separated. A purpose of feedback is to professionally develop your employee and not just make a onetime correction. So, after setting tone and expectations, be clear about what you want and share your thinking. “Our goal for this proposal is to differentiate us. Let’s add a few more distinctions. For example, …” Or, “We really want this committee I’ve assigned you to head, to consider UX first. So, why not add an agenda item to …”
6. Seize a coaching opportunity.
I’m adding a sixth suggestion to consider. What happens when your direct report misses the mark by a wider margin? Being overly directive with feedback may get the task performed well, but fail to develop the employee. If we are patient, we can amplify the feedback opportunity into a coaching interaction, and elicit the course correction(s) through them. That process would follow four steps and look like this:
a) Objectives. Ask, “What are your objectives for this stakeholder, for this project, for this meeting?” “What kinds of outcomes are you looking for?” This is the problem definition stage.
b) Alternatives. Once they can articulate the Objectives, ask, “What are your Alternatives to achieve those Objectives?” Get a few on the table.
c) Pros & Cons. Once they’ve identified a couple of alternatives, have them tell you the Pros and Cons for each. Go through each of them. This adds rigor to the process and helps them problem solve.
d) Decision. And, finally, ask for a Decision. Ask them for a commitment. “What are you going to do now? By when?” Let them know that you’re looking forward to hearing about it at your next one-on-one.
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’m not a big fan of delivering constructive feedback over email. One objective for leaders is to favor management practices that are the most effective. As you cited in the question, emailed remarks can lack sufficient nuance. Sometimes, misunderstandings and hurt feelings that arise from phrases open to multiple interpretations can take longer to untangle and resolve than an upfront five-minute phone call.
I’d recommend applying the following test. Think about a direct relationship between the severity of the message and the richness of the communication medium. In other words, a minor nit like a typo or word choice error might be fine for email correction. Confronting an employee over repeatedly missed financial targets will probably warrant a video meeting.
To prevent sounding too critical or harsh when delivering minor constructive feedback over email, make sure to contextualize upfront. Be clear that the issue you are raising is worth mentioning, but not hugely significant. Also, be breezy and conversational in your tone. That will communicate appropriate informality.
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?
Yes, timing matters. Let’s distinguish between feedback tied to a specific incident and feedback in the formal course of a leader and direct report’s interaction.
When it’s tied to a specific incident, a useful feedback opportunity can have a shelf-life. I’ve had many coaching sessions in which leaders describe some frustrating employee misstep, but acknowledge they would feel funny bringing up something that happened more than a few days prior. They sense that their direct report may feel uncomfortable that their boss sat on a negative impression of them for so long. The leaders don’t want to project the false impression they are tallying a list. So, to avoid getting stuck this way, try to deliver tough feedback tied to a specific incident within one to three days.
Let’s contrast that with feedback in the formal course of a leader’s interaction with a direct report. I encourage my coachees to have weekly one-on-one meetings with each direct report, even if those meetings are brief. The benefits of these interactions are that they offer an informal and comfortable way to address small course corrections. I call them calibrations. In these instances, any critique can be delivered as a small matter and before it metastasizes into a larger issue.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
It should be everyone’s aspiration to be a great boss. Could you imagine a better way to be described by a bunch of great and dear former employees attending your retirement party? What a work life well lived!
At a foundational level, a great boss comes from a mentality of abundance. They see unlimited opportunity for shared successes, rather than competition for scarce rewards. A great boss treats you as a resource, tapping your wisdom and capabilities. They see you as a partner, like a true peer leader. Moreover, they welcome you in as a confidant, being real and human with you, within the appropriate bounds of business. Finally, a great boss will proudly step up as your advocate, getting actively involved in your career, even if it means spending political capital to do so.
I’ve had the good fortune of coaching “David,” during his roles as Chief Administrative Officer and then Chief Operating Officer of a consumer products company. David exemplifies how to be a great boss. To illustrate, here’s a handful of actual verbatim quotes from 360-degree feedback interviews I conducted two years ago with his direct reports. They speak volumes.
• “David doesn’t micromanage me. I’m given latitude and the freedom I need to overlay my judgment and do it my way. He takes pride in building a team and letting them do their thing and take credit for the work as a whole. He understands that his team excelling looks good on him.”
• “David is concerned about others. He doesn’t forget people under him. Makes sure everyone’s included. Tries to get everyone to feel like they are needed and fit in.”
• “Integrity. Honesty. Ethical standards. When dealing with complicated strategic analysis in decisions, David has a compass to do the right thing.”
• “There’s probably no one in the company who enjoys more loyalty than David. Lots of people get out of bed and want to do a good job because of David. I know a lot of people feel that way. They trust David.”
• “He’s proactive with my development. A great mentor. He thinks long term. What am I trying to get out of my career? He’s thoughtful about how I’m doing in achieving my goals.”
This is what a great boss sounds like.
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. 🙂
Wow, that’s an exciting proposition! I would love to inspire what will now be known as the “Empty-Vessel Listening” movement. The idea is that whenever anyone speaks, we empty our minds to truly take in and understand what others are saying before evaluating it.
We seem mired in an era where people are so divided. We form strongly held beliefs and seek others who agree. We then get reinforcement through social media. Unfortunately, it’s a short distance between “I’m right and they’re wrong” to “I’m good and they’re bad.” This isn’t just intellectually lazy. It’s also downright dangerous. Once someone is “bad,” we’re justified in hatred and worse.
I used to teach a class in conflict management. There, participants would learn to how to communicate to: (a) reduce the likelihood of conflict; (b) diffuse existing conflict; and © re-route it to pursue shared goals. Always, the first step is Empty-Vessel Listening. The essence of this practice is to understand that listening is a gathering activity. It isn’t simply waiting to speak. It isn’t hole-poking. It isn’t response-preparation. It’s gathering.
The best way to gather is to empty our minds. Dump our bucket of needs, truths and judgments and just gather up what they are saying. Test our understanding with them. Try to get at their underlying motivations by asking questions like, “why is that important to you?” Affirm them as a human being. After that, evaluate and constructively challenge.
Steven Covey famously advised us to seek first to understand and then to be understood. I believe if this became a common practice we could get great things done together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Our family moved from Toronto, Canada to South Florida when I was nine years old. When my parents enrolled me in my new school, they asked what I could do to prepare over the summer for an easy transition. I studied a book of ethical maxims from the Rabbinic Jewish tradition and particularly connected with some advice offered over two millennia ago.
“Appoint for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a companion, and judge all people with the scale weighted in their favor.” Said another way, always seek to learn, form deep and meaningful connections to share life’s wonders and challenges, and come with an open heart, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.
It’s been relevant throughout my life. To me, this quote has always been about resisting arrogance and defensiveness and, instead, striving for better understanding. It’s about listening more than speaking. It’s about appreciating the gifts and responsibilities of companionship, living with and learning from others. While it’s a simple directive to understand, living up to it is an ongoing process.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit our website: http://csuiteaccelerator.com/
Connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ephraimschachter/
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.