“Frame your feedback” With Ben Aston

Frame your feedback as a challenge for you both to solve together. Make it about working together and offer your support. For example, rather than saying “I have some feedback, here’s what I think about x, y, and z, and here’s why” and then leaving it at that, ask the employee “what do you think?” […]

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Frame your feedback as a challenge for you both to solve together. Make it about working together and offer your support. For example, rather than saying “I have some feedback, here’s what I think about x, y, and z, and here’s why” and then leaving it at that, ask the employee “what do you think?” or “do you have any ideas for changing x, y, or z?” For remote employees, it’s important to be explicit about this. In face-to-face conversations, you can often pause and wait and your employees will understand that you are giving them a chance to speak.

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

Ben Aston is CEO of Black + White Zebra, an indie media company. He’s a digital project manager turned entrepreneur. After the launch of The Digital Project Manager in 2011, an online community for project managers, Ben launched Black + White Zebra, a company with the goal of helping people and organizations succeed, and having fun doing it.

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?

Since the early days of Netscape Navigator and dial up internet, I’ve always had an interest in the possibilities of the digital and online world. By the age of 15 I had launched quite a few (mostly unsuccessful) websites, but it got me excited about the power and potential of online publishing and community.

I fell into project management a bit accidentally at Dare, a digital agency based in the UK, and I spent a lot of time building my career in project management. I launched The Digital Project Manager in 2011 with the goal of trying to spare others some of the pain I had when first starting out in the industry.

The Digital Project Manager (The DPM) became my side-hustle while I was working full-time as a project manager. I’d risen up the ranks in the agency world to become VP of Client Services, but still loved to stay up late writing and building the digital project management community. By 2018, I was suffering from burnout and ready to leave behind agency leadership. I realized, I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. I had been recently diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and my son had just been born with a congenital heart defect (which he died from last year just before his second birthday).

So perhaps it wasn’t a good time to leave my stable full-time job, but I wanted to build something that I cared about. I took a week off, then handed in my notice. I wanted to take my side hustle seriously and build a community at The DPM for people who manage projects — to help people succeed, and get confident, connected, and skilled. We’ve turned a passion and a blog into a thriving business helping digital project managers succeed.

I built Black + White Zebra on the success of The Digital Project Manager and on the realization that just because things are serious doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Black + White Zebra is fundamentally about creating content and community to help other people and their organizations succeed. And it works. Despite the challenges, we’ve continued to grow the team, our revenue, and perhaps most importantly, the amount of fun you can have doing it.

We’re now launching new communities for HRQuality AssuranceCustomer ExperienceProduct Management, and Ecommerce, and I’ve just launched a new project, the Indie Media Club, a community for digital media leaders passionate about content and community.

But more importantly, I’m doing something I truly love. Helping people deliver better projects — starting, managing, and controlling them through to delivery — is massively rewarding. Having people love what you do and appreciate it is incredible! It’s making a big difference for people.

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

We’re making serious things fun. Many things that most people think need to be boring and serious don’t have to be. We’re finding ways to deliver training and education through the context of community and making it fun and useful.

My favourite thing about The Digital Project Manager is the unique community of digital project managers that we have in our membership. We recently launched a community forum where we’re finding new ways to engage our members and find out what they have to say — on project management, about us, about our content, and more. So it’s great to see the wide range of perspectives and see that engagement.

At Black + White Zebra, I’ve tried to build a culture where there’s a balance of serious and fun. So even though we’re still focused on achieving our goals and finding the right metrics and tactics for measuring and achieving those goals, we’re having a lot of fun doing that.

And I think the other part of the fun element is the culture of experimentation we have there, where maybe you have a great idea for a new tactic to increase traffic or clicks. So you test it, and it doesn’t work. Then we say, okay, what’s next? What can we try next to achieve that goal?

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

Before my career really started, I was in one of those internships where they run it like Pop Idol — picking people off one by one — at an ad agency. After 3 months, I didn’t get the job. On my way out, they asked me what my dream job would be, if I could do anything.

I said I’d be in a boy band.

They said they didn’t think I was serious enough — although it wasn’t entirely due to my boy band aspirations. They also thought I had my finger in too many pies, which I guess came across as me not fully knowing what I wanted out of a career.

But that conversation led to a great insight — I wasn’t undecided or unsure. I just love variety. This realization has driven me to have fun in my pursuit of entrepreneurship. Although I’ve never quite made it into a boy band.

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?

Probably my funniest mistake was when I’d landed my first proper job at an agency. I’d been working there nearly a year and mustered up the courage to ask my boss for a pay raise.

I emailed my boss and popped out to run some errands. When I returned, everyone was laughing, whooping, and shouting encouragement at me. I didn’t really understand why until I got back to my desk and realized I had accidentally emailed the entire company asking my boss for a pay raise.

She wasn’t impressed. But it worked. It forced a conversation that otherwise would never have happened.

I learned having tricky conversations is never as bad as you think it’s going to be!

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

Having experienced burnout myself, I think preventing burnout starts with doing the right work. So often we get drawn into busy work that isn’t impactul even though it can feel urgent. Avoiding burnout starts with focusing on the right things — the things that will have the biggest impact on ultimately achieving your goals.

That means some things get deprioritized and some things don’t get done, and that’s ok.

Beyond that, I want my team to feel healthy and looked after. I think it’s important to help your employees stay healthy, which for me has meant giving employees health benefits and time off. We give 25 days paid annual leave, and give bonuses if they take a two week break. I want my employees to feel rested, and like it’s ok to take a proper break. I think it’s also healthy for the organization to learn how to operate without them, which can help develop and optimize processes as a helpful by-product.

It’s also important to help employees develop their skills so that they become better — I like to sponsor as much training as employees want, and as a minimum, mandate that at least one day a month be spent on training. It helps develop mastery and also helps inject fresh ideas and thinking into the organization.

I think these are just some of the things that help the team enjoy their work and help the organization thrive.

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

Leadership is a clear vision of where you need to get to, a plan for getting there, and support for the team on the journey.

As the leader, I clarify the ‘What’, and set the destination by setting quarterly strategic goals. I’ve already defined the ‘Who’ in recruiting the right team for the job. We collaborate together to ideate on ‘How’ — which involves developing and evaluating the tactics required to reach those goals.

It’s important that in this process the team has a degree of autonomy so they have ownership of how they’re going to deliver. My job as the leader is to unblock and support the execution of those tactics by providing the resources and support to enable the team to do their best work.

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?

Exercise is important. Taking time out of the zone, whether you’re preparing for a meeting or a decision, really helps clear your mind so you can focus when you have to get back in the zone. When I’m travelling, I’ll always rent a bike and go for a late night bike ride around the city.

I used to travel quite a bit to Washington D.C. and it’s one of my favourite cities to do this. At night, whizzing around the monuments and destinations like the White House and the Capitol Building is great fun. Sweating is a great stress reliever!

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 started managing teams as a project manager; it’s an interesting team management role because while you’re responsible for the output, you’re not responsible for line managing the individuals on the team. This was actually great training for leading and managing without exerting authority (because I had none)!

Managing and providing feedback in this context typically requires a less confrontational and more supportive approach. I do this by asking lots of questions. Ideally you want to help the person you’re trying to provide feedback to, to come to the realization themself that something isn’t quite right. I’d then agree vehemently with them whenever they said something that would help us course correct. This gentle course correction through questioning can be very effective!

Now as a media entrepreneur, I’ve got a team of people at Black + White Zebra to manage. As the team has grown at Black + White Zebra, I’ve been able to draw on my previous experiences giving feedback but the scale on which I’m giving feedback has grown. Now, instead of giving feedback at the project level to help guide the team, I’m guiding them at an organizational level, towards my vision for Black + White Zebra.

In this context, I’m able to be more direct (which is more efficient) and build the giving and taking of feedback into our process and culture. It provides the checks and balances we need to move forward productively.

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?

Fundamentally, I think it’s about getting and being better. And direct feedback helps people do that. It enables your team to adjust and make positive changes quickly. It gives them a chance to improve and be better.

It’s important to normalize failure. It’s ok to mess up if you don’t mess up the same way again. If we become adept at recognizing it and calling it out, we can then use it as a learning tool for what not to do next time. Without direct and honest feedback, we can miss important learning opportunities.

It also helps to build trust with your team. It shows you care. People tend to appreciate honest and direct feedback where you aren’t skirting around the issue. Your team will respect you for being upfront about it.

It’s also a good opportunity to demonstrate to your team and your employees that you value their perspective and input. If you care enough to give them constructive feedback and support them, your team will see that and take it as a sign that they are valued and that you want to help them succeed.

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.

Firstly, make sure you’re providing feedback over a video call so you can read each other’s body language. Don’t try and do this by email. Simply let them know a little ahead of time that you want to chat, and name the issue you want to discuss — you don’t want to take them completely by surprise. Try and have this discussion soon after the issue occurs; it’s best if it’s fresh in everyone’s minds.

Clarity of messaging is important. So make sure you’re clear about what the issue is, have clear examples of that issue, and be clear about how you think it needs to be addressed. Don’t dress it up — be as plain, straightforward, and simple as possible.

You don’t want to leave room for the employee to misinterpret it as more negative or harsher than you intended. You definitely don’t want to use anything like sarcasm to get your point across.

Remember to ask the employee about their thought process or reasoning behind what they did. It’s important to understand their motivations and perspective, and with remote employees, this might not be as clear to you as it would with an in-office employee. For example, you might say something like, “Hey I wanted to chat about __. I have some thoughts, but first I want to hear how you went about it.”

It’s important to make it a dialogue. Make sure you get your point across, but allow your employee to get theirs across too. This will also make it easier to explain your own reasoning behind the feedback you’re giving. This tactic is great for all employees, but especially for remote employees, as the more you discuss, the clearer your meaning will be. If a remote employee initially misunderstands your feedback, they have a chance to ask follow up questions to make sure they understand, and you can clarify your meaning.

Try to provide rationale or examples within your feedback. If, for example, you didn’t like a piece of writing they completed, it’s not productive to just tell them you didn’t like it and to change it. What didn’t you like about it, and why? Be specific — was it the language, the sentence structure, the overall concept, the topic, a particular paragraph?

Frame your feedback as a challenge for you both to solve together. Make it about working together and offer your support. For example, rather than saying “I have some feedback, here’s what I think about x, y, and z, and here’s why” and then leaving it at that, ask the employee “what do you think?” or “do you have any ideas for changing x, y, or z?” For remote employees, it’s important to be explicit about this. In face-to-face conversations, you can often pause and wait and your employees will understand that you are giving them a chance to speak.

Be sure to follow up afterwards with an email. Outline what you discussed, the issue, and actions for how you’re going to remediate it. And make sure you ask them to confirm that they understand and are aligned with next steps and actions.

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?

Don’t try and provide important feedback over email. Jump on a video call as quickly as you can.

Providing feedback should never be a one-way monologue, but a dialogue. By email, you’ll spend a long time trying to craft a message that would be much better delivered as feedback within a discussion.

But if you’re initiating that conversation over email, keep it short, keep it direct, and find a way to turn it into a discussion. You need to hear their perspective and make sure that they’re properly hearing and understanding what you’re saying and not saying — things can easily be misinterpreted.

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?

In an ideal scenario, I believe it’s best to give employees feedback as soon as possible. A regular cadence of check-ins can facilitate this so I’m a big fan of weekly one-on-one meetings where feedback is expected, forthcoming, and regular. This ensures that whatever you are discussing is fresh in both your mind and the employee’s mind. You won’t be mixing up any details. And they have the opportunity to put things right before they escalate into bigger issues.

Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but sooner is always better. As bosses, we want to give them the opportunity to course correct and remedy as early and often as possible. That way they’ll improve fast and we’ll benefit from their improved approach.

The only case where I would advise waiting to provide feedback to the employee is if you or the employee is upset or angry. In those scenarios, it’s best to wait until emotions have cooled or tensions have subsided a little bit. You don’t want to ever provide an emotional response, or make a bad situation worse by aggravating it.

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

As Daniel Pink outlines in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, people want mastery, autonomy, and purpose. This is his framework for what motivates people. In terms of what makes a great boss, I believe it’s giving your employees these things. Not only will they feel motivated, they’ll be inspired to do their best work while feeling valued and rewarded.

On top of that, I also think being a great boss means helping everyone be better and supporting them in that. Give people clear, unambiguous feedback and direction. Be clear about what you want and what your expectations are, and then hold them to those expectations.

This intersection of caring personally and challenging directly is incredibly helpful in supporting employee development. Kim Scott calls this Radical Candor. It’s challenging directly, and telling people in caring, non-judgmental language when their work isn’t hitting the bar and is falling short.

This might sound a bit harsh and not very nice. But we’ve got to be willing to upset people. We’ve got to be willing to challenge directly for the greater good — for them and ultimately our projects. We’re usually reluctant to do this — even though it’s our job — because telling people they’re not doing a good job doesn’t sound very nice or kind, right? In fact, it can feel rude!

But more than that, it’s our moral obligation. John Stuart Mill says, in On Liberty, “The source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being namely, that his errors are corrigible. The whole strength and value of human judgement depends on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong.”

For many of us though, we’re scared. We’re worried about our teams getting defensive, or angry, or just not liking us!

We’re worried about the aftermath — becoming estranged from those we lead. And that fear stops us from giving the truth people are hungry for.

We need to be brave and adopt a bigger perspective.

Challenging people pisses them off. But challenging people is the way you can help them improve, and when you’re leading the team, it’s one of the best ways to show you care. It’s serving them and helping them be better!

We can be great leaders by pushing aside our discomfort and angst and delivering tough messages. We need to tell people directly (and in private) things like; ‘Hey, when you kept on looking at your phone when we were presenting to the client today, it kind of made it seem like you didn’t want to be there.’

Or ‘When you keep coming in late, and leaving early, it makes me feel like you don’t care about the deadline that we’ve got to hit on Friday.’

If your feedback is in their best interest, they will know it. Even if hearing it pinches, they will still “get” your caring intent. This direct challenge approach works if and when we care personally for our team — and they know it. It’s when our teams know that we’ve got their best interests at heart that they are better able to accept what we’re suggesting.

I also love the concept of catching people doing things right — from the book “The One Minute Manager” — rather than catching them doing something wrong, and celebrating that.

To have good relationships with your team, you’ve got to care about others as human beings. It’s not just business; it is personal. So we need to give recognition and praise for good work, and correction and guidance when it doesn’t hit the mark, all while caring for our team.

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. 🙂

A movement for entrepreneurship that fundamentally makes the world a better place. Beyond not exploiting or being ethical, the movement would find ways to make business bless people and renew culture rather than exploit it. Making money doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

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

You only live once, make it count. In the past few years, I’ve had a few personal challenges — my brother in law died, my mother in law died, my son, as I mentioned, and my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis.

Life on earth is fleeting and temporary, so you have to pace yourself, but living well matters. And part of that for me is doing work that I really enjoy and love.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow my latest digital media project on the Indie Media Club website, find out more about our community for people leading projects at The Digital Project Manager, find out about our company ethos at Black + White Zebra, and my personal website, BenAston.com.

Feel free to connect with me and reach out on LinkedIn as well!

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

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