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“Focus on one issue per email”, With Nelson Phillips and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

…It is also about building a culture where the importance of a balance between work and life is respected and where health and wellbeing of everyone is a key organizational goal. This means not rewarding overwork, not expecting continuous heroic effort, and not glorifying workaholism. It also means not being a workaholic oneself. While the […]

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…It is also about building a culture where the importance of a balance between work and life is respected and where health and wellbeing of everyone is a key organizational goal. This means not rewarding overwork, not expecting continuous heroic effort, and not glorifying workaholism. It also means not being a workaholic oneself. While the seductive nature of an ethic of overwork is undeniable in the corporate world, it is not sustainable or ethical.


As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nelson Phillips.

Nelson Phillips is Professor of Innovation and Strategy at Imperial College Business School in London, UK. His research interests cut across strategy, innovation, and leadership, and he has published widely for both academics and practitioners.


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?

I am originally from Western Canada where I grew up on a farm near the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. As a teenager, I became increasingly fascinated with technology and ended up doing my first degree in computer engineering. After working for a few years as a computer programmer, I realized that while computers were fascinating, the really interesting stuff happened where computers and people came together. I have been focusing on the impact of technology on people and people on technology ever since!

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

Imperial College Business School is a really interesting place if you are interested in technology and business. Imperial College is a science and technology university and the business school reflects that with its focus on analytics, technology, and innovation. So, it is perfect place for me to study and teach about leadership, strategy and organizations with a technology flavor.

The recent work by Imperial College researchers on modelling the coronavirus pandemic and searching for a vaccine is a case in point. As the business school of Imperial College, we have many projects underway looking at the business implications of the pandemic from an economic point of view as well as looking at how innovation and entrepreneurship can help beat the disease as well as power our economic recovery. The combination of business and technology is incredibly powerful and highly relevant to existing companies, governments and entrepreneurs.

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

I think the most interesting thing that I have done since beginning my career is working on the ELITE programme with the London Stock Exchange. The ELITE programme is an accelerator for small, high growth companies to help them grow even faster. One thing that is clear in the UK is that while we are good at starting new ventures, we aren’t that good at growing them. The London Stock Exchange wanted to do something about this and asked the Business School to help build and deliver a challenging programme to help small firms grow faster. Working on this programme for the last 5 years has been fascinating and I have learned a tremendous amount about how to accelerate the growth of companies and about UK ecosystem that supports growing companies. It has been a real privilege being involved in this programme.

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 think funniest mistakes are often not that funny at the time. One of those for me was booking a ticket to the wrong San Jose. I was supposed to be going to San Jose, Costa Rica and ended up finding myself checking in for a flight to San Jose, California! Luckily I noticed before boarding and was able to convince American Airlines to reroute me to the right country!

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

This is a very good question. First, I think employees are less prone to burnout and more likely to thrive when they feel like they play an important role in the organization and when they have a sense of the purpose of the organization that can give their work meaning. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “If you know the why, you can live any how.” Put slightly less poetically, a sense of purpose can go a long way to helping employees thrive.

Second, it is also about building a culture where the importance of a balance between work and life is respected and where health and wellbeing of everyone is a key organizational goal. This means not rewarding overwork, not expecting continuous heroic effort, and not glorifying workaholism. It also means not being a workaholic oneself. While the seductive nature of an ethic of overwork is undeniable in the corporate world, it is not sustainable or ethical.

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

For me, leadership is about influencing others towards shared goals. Leadership is not, therefore, necessarily about formal position or being recognized as a leader. But it is always about creating movement and change in a direction that if positive for organization and its members. Satya Nadella at Microsoft is one of my favorite leaders right now. He has created huge change at Microsoft taking an enormous company in a new direction while also making organizational members feel excited, empowered and like they are critically important to the success of the company. This is really the true measure of a leader: a person who can create positive change and bring people along in a way that makes them feel empowered and involved. Or even better, that the change was their idea in the first place!

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?

For me, there is no magic recipe. If I am feeling stressed at work about a decision or a meeting, a short break for a cup of tea is good and a walk outside even better. I think getting up from your desk and not focusing on the problem at hand gives your body and your mind a chance to rest and prepare. My office is in South Kensington a short walk from Hyde Park. If I really need to clear my head, there is nothing as good as walking into the park and wandering among the horse chestnut trees. It really puts everything into perspective!

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?

For me, giving positive feedback was always my strong preference. But positive feedback only goes so far and learning to give effective negative feedback was a personal development goal for a long time. I have gotten much better at it although I find that the best balance with most reports is two or three bits of positive feedback for every bit of negative feedback. I have to remind myself that it is fine to effusive with positive feedback but I also need to be one third as effusive with constructive negative feedback. What I have to avoid (and the biggest mistake that leaders make with feedback) is a person who feels like they are not getting any feedback. No feedback is dispiriting and undermines potentially great employees.

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 think giving feedback is one of the basic building blocks of leadership. Positive feedback helps people to know when they have done well and motivates them to do more of whatever they did while negative feedback helps them to understand when they have gone wrong. Both are important and, unfortunately, different leaders often find one or both difficult.

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. Use concrete examples and avoid generalizations. Don’t say “you always” or “you never” as the person only has to think of one counterexample to be able to reject your feedback as inaccurate.
  2. Talk about what happened and the consequences that you are aware of (“when you interrupt Mary repeatedly she stops contributing”).
  3. Do not assume you know why someone did something. Don’t talk about motivations or what was happening inside their head. Don’t say “you don’t care about Mary’s input” or “you are doing this to irritate me”. You don’t know that.
  4. Focus on one issue per email. Don’t overload the person with negative feedback but keep your email focused and balanced.
  5. If you can, attach a video where you explain what is in your email. A video provides much more richness and clarity.

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?

This is an excellent question. Feedback over email is tricky as positive feedback can sound like sarcasm and negative feedback can easily sound to harsh. So, try to avoid giving feedback by email if at all possible. This is particularly true if you do not have a positive, trusting relationship with the person you are giving feedback. If you have no choice but to provide feedback by email, make sure to keep things simple, direct and provide concrete examples wherever possible. It will also be necessary to be more directive in terms of what they should do differently when giving negative feedback than I would usually suggest being. As it isn’t a conversation, it needs to be a clear evaluation of performance and suggestions for improvement.

One suggestion I might make is not to send an email at all. Why not record a video? It isn’t very difficult to do and a short video summarizing the feedback will make the feedback much richer and give much more nuance to the feedback.

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?

Good question. The important thing about timing and negative feedback is to judge whether the person is in a position to deal with the feedback. If they are feeling bad or angry it may be impossible for them to process negative feedback at that moment and positive feedback, or even praise, may be the most helpful thing to hear from a boss. There will be time to give negative feedback once they have recovered. And no boss should ever give feedback when they are frustrated or angry. That is a very good way to move from negative feedback to conflict and damage that will be difficult to repair.

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

Being a great boss means creating a context where a team can reach shared goals while simultaneously providing for the development needs and reflecting the differences of individuals. Shared success while feeling valued as an individual is the secret sauce that makes a boss great and makes the best employees want to work for that great boss.

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

I think I would have to say that “never waste a good crisis” has been a bit of a motto lately. I think this works for individuals, organizations, and countries! When things are in crisis, it’s a great time to rethink how you want them arranged when they settle back into place. So right now, there is a great opportunity for us as individuals, organizational members and citizens to think about what we want to be new when we get back to our “new normal”.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They are welcome to look me up on Linkedin. That is the best place to hear about what I am up to. They can find me at:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nelson-phillips-561a041

They can also find me on my webpage here:

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/people/n.phillips

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

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