“How To Be Honest with Feedback.” With John Prejean

Use humor, when appropriate. For example, make a joke or use sarcasm, though not at your employee’s expense. Or if humor isn’t your style, maintain the tone, mood, and attitude your team knows your for. Feedback doesn’t need to be loaded with the negativity so many of us associate with it. It can feel like any […]

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Use humor, when appropriate. For example, make a joke or use sarcasm, though not at your employee’s expense. Or if humor isn’t your style, maintain the tone, mood, and attitude your team knows your for. Feedback doesn’t need to be loaded with the negativity so many of us associate with it. It can feel like any other conversation.

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

John Prejean is the CEO of Guardian Computer, an IT support and service company based in New Orleans, Louisiana. John co-founded the company with his wife, Jean, in 1996 after having worked many years in the IT industry. John’s areas of expertise include IT due diligence and business assessments, project management, data security, application integration, Mac and Apple, Microsoft Exchange, and Microsoft Domain Services/Active Directory.

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?

Sure thing! Shortly after college, I was working at Chevron, transferring around under the IT umbrella just to get experience in the many parts of the IT profession. My last transfer was to the Unix admin group, which was significantly different from my world of Microsoft. At Chevron, the Unix system was heavily customized by a Unix savant, so I was learning his scripted commands rather than actual Unix. From time to time, I would slip back to work on PC projects that others wouldn’t or couldn’t do. It’s where I felt most comfortable and passionate.

Jean (my wife and the President of Guardian Computer) also worked at Chevron and was hired only a few weeks after me. When she was interviewed, I was told they obviously hired the wrong Prejean! Not long after I started with the Unix group, Jean was given a position in the database group as an Oracle database administrator. She was quite excited about getting this coveted spot.

A couple of years into our Chevron careers came our first child. We had an in-home sitter and all went well, but once our second child arrived, she felt like it was a bit much. So, after a few more tries with other sitters, we decided one of us needed to leave Chevron to care for the boys. After making a call to a friend who worked for an independent oil company, I kept busy as an independent contractor while staying home with the boys.

As the kids got older, I worked during their school hours and naps, and sometimes in the evenings when Jean was home. Later on, when we officially started our company, Jean used these years as inspiration for our name, because I was more “Guardian” than “Computer.”

As the amount of work grew, Jean had the bright idea of getting college students to come assist during the day. We had two Tulane students working on their master’s degrees who cycled in and out when they were not in class. It was the best of both worlds. I was able to get work done and monitor the care of the kids.

Every couple of months, a new client would contact me for support. To this day, our client base grows by word of mouth. I was afraid the phone would stop ringing one day, but that still hasn’t happened!

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

Simply put, we care more. Let me give you an example.

One time, I found out a cousin and his family were going to attend a high school football playoff game about 40 minutes away on an upcoming Friday evening. I decided to also attend, since I had not seen them in a couple of years. I packed up my older son, Ryan, and headed to the game. We made it to the stadium and situated ourselves in the crowded bleachers next to my cousin.

We couldn’t have been there 10 minutes when my phone rang. It was a client north of the lake, which was an hour away. He was panicked. His company was a 24-hour messaging service, and his servers were down. All of his automation and record keeping systems were down. His staff was using pen and paper.

Ryan and I jumped back into the car and headed toward home, and Jean met me halfway to take Ryan. I then headed to the client.

Shortly after arriving, I found a critical hardware component in the server — the RAID controller — had failed. We were able to contact the vendor and get a replacement part expedited for next-morning delivery. I did as much as I could to prepare for the next morning.

Then, the client and I pulled cushions from a couch and a few chairs to make a couple of makeshift beds on the floor of his office. We proceeded to get a terrible night’s sleep!

The part arrived the next morning and, fortunately, it did work. However, the RAID configuration of the drives was lost. That meant everything on those drives was also gone. I reloaded the Windows Server operating system, reconfigured all services, reinstalled the software, and restored the data. When I left that afternoon, it was business as usual.

The client later sold his business and went to work for two other companies before retiring. He would tell his new employers that he only needed two things: his whiteboard and John Prejean. Both companies became clients.

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

Back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina neared, many of our clients prepared to evacuate. At that time, most companies hosted their own email by running Microsoft Exchange on a local server. Cloud services had not yet arrived. So, with servers in their trunks, they headed out.

As clients arrived at their destinations, they would contact me to walk them through getting their servers connected and email back online. Most of their destinations had pretty lousy internet access. But what made things even more difficult was the fact that I couldn’t make or receive calls on my cell phone. Even though I was in Memphis, TN, my 504 area code couldn’t be reached with all the towers down in New Orleans.

So, I performed a task not well-known for the time: I sent a text message. And I wasn’t alone in this. Clients hadn’t texted before this either.

The first text message many of them received was my name, along with the phone number to my hotel and my room number. I was successful in getting every server back online and adapting alongside my clients.

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’d say the funniest mistake I made was bending over to connect a cable to a client’s computer with her toy poodle near me. He clamped down on my nose and left me bandaged for a couple of weeks!

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

Pretty early on, we acquired a ping pong table and a dart board. We encourage our employees to take breaks from work to do something fun. This goes along well with our preference to keep the work environment loose, but with reasonable expectations.

We do not expect nor want 8 billable hours every day from every employee. We’ve also always had a stocked refrigerator with different types of soft drinks and a cabinet of snacks. Currently, we also have two office dogs that expect treats from every employee.

To fellow CEOs and business leaders, give your employees small perks whenever you can. The better you can provide for your employees, the better they will provide for you. Trust me, the little things go a long way.

In addition, we care about our employees’ continued education, and so do they. As often as we can, we send employees to training classes. It’s a great change of pace and scenery for a week, as well as an opportunity to be rejuvenated with new, exciting ideas.

We follow up after these classes, seminars, and conferences with a tips-and-tricks meeting for the employee to share what they learned. In this way, we’re not just educating one employee, but the whole company.

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

I think “leadership” can be defined in a number of ways. First, it means leading by example. There’s nothing I would ask my employees to do or learn that I wouldn’t first.

Leadership means communicating effectively. In every aspect of my work, I take care to understand my directives to ensure that they’re not only clear to me, but to others as well. Most of the time, that’s keeping things as simple as they can be.

Leadership means listening. For every employee who walks into work, I make it clear to them from the beginning that I have an open-door policy. They can come to me with any concerns or issues, and I’ll listen and do everything in my power to make a change that allows them to be more comfortable and productive.

Leadership means understanding goals and direction. Similar to leading by example, I won’t ever assign a project or expect my employees to perform a task without first understanding it fully myself. And if I don’t perfectly understand it, I’ll work with them to do so, while allowing them to show me what knowledge they have that I lack.

Leadership means motivating through encouragement, not by fear. It’s probably safe to say that, at some point in all of our lives, we’ve had to work under unfavorable management. There’s no worse feeling than thinking you’re being watched or that you might screw up. I pay attention to my employees’ work closely, and I make sure they know when they’re doing something right. As often as I can, any changes I’d like them to make are articulated through constructive criticism.

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?

I think it’s a perfect balance of preparation and knowing the audience. Being well-prepared means knowing every single point that I need to hit. Knowing the audience means being fluid enough to appeal to them through something other than the information, like connecting with them through humor or relatable anecdotes.

Before any meeting or talk, I practice the speech with employees. Our professional relationships are based in trust and equality. So they’re more than willing to help by identifying what I’m doing right and what I need to work on.

Finally, the best stress relief is spending time with my dog. There’s nothing better!

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?

Positive feedback is the easy part. I’m fortunate to work with an amazing group of talented people, and talking to them about what’s going well with their work is easy and rewarding. Just don’t lose sight of the importance of highlighting the positives. Fixing problems is crucial, but so is reinforcing good habits and work.

Constructive feedback is a bit harder. One thing I can say is that I always start and end a discussion with what they’re doing well. Somewhere in the middle, I bring up where they can improve.

I always try to treat these moments as teaching moments. I identify what they did and explain how it should have been done with detailed reasons why. I never simply tell them it’s “wrong” and leave them with that. That’s unfair and unnecessary.

In fact, negative feedback might be the “easiest,” because I simply don’t give it! There’s nothing productive or constructive about negative feedback — not to the employee, not to me, and not to the company.

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?

Honesty is incredibly important with both clients and employees. Without trust, there is no respect and no relationship. Employees will not follow someone they don’t respect. If you don’t have a relationship with both clients and employees, you can’t expect to keep either of them around for very long.

Although exhausting, it was much easier when I was a one-man show. I was consistent and knew every client system from top to bottom. With a team, the feedback has to be honest and constructive to ensure consistency for the clients.

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 humor, when appropriate. For example, make a joke or use sarcasm, though not at your employee’s expense. Or if humor isn’t your style, maintain the tone, mood, and attitude your team knows your for. Feedback doesn’t need to be loaded with the negativity so many of us associate with it. It can feel like any other conversation.
  2. Make sure they know they’re not in trouble. For example, you could explain what you’d like them to take away from your feedback, so its purpose is clear. You can also explain how they can implement it, both in the current situation and in the future. Feedback should never be about pointing fingers — it should always be about how they can grow as a professional.
  3. Give positive feedback, too. As I mentioned earlier, make sure they know what they’re doing right in addition to what they need to work on. For instance, you might point out another part of what they did that was correct or done particularly well. You want an environment that’s encouraging, not punitive.
  4. Treat feedback as a teaching moment. For example, I always identify what they did and explain how it should have been done with detailed reasons why. Never simply tell them it’s “wrong” and leave them with that. In order for them to learn, you have to be willing to teach.
  5. Be aware of etiquette for remote communication. This one might be the trickiest, but consider how your feedback will be received over video call, audio call, or email as opposed to in person. Your body language, for instance, is no longer part of the equation, so make sure your tone is especially clear.

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 a fairly sarcastic person. Much of my humor is sarcasm. I often use it to my advantage when providing constructive criticism.

My people know I don’t have a mean bone in my body. If I start an email with humor, it sets the whole tone of the message. They immediately know I’m not mad and their job is not in jeopardy. Like I said earlier, it’s a teaching opportunity.

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?

It should be almost immediate. If an incident raises your blood pressure or makes you angry, take a walk to the vending machine for some peanut M&Ms. Those always help. Then, take the time to address the issue while it’s most relevant.

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

Listen! Get your employees’ input on everything, and implement it as much as you can. When you choose not to implement something, make sure they know that you truly considered their perspectives and feedback, and explain why you went with a different decision. This helps build trust and transparency in your team.

I love my team. I would do anything for them. I’ve paid for personal things like family dinners, part of a house down payment, dental work, and a divorce. I provided a bedroom for my employee and her child during the initial stages of her divorce. I took my biggest LSU fan to his first game at LSU stadium when they played their biggest rival, Alabama.

This is my family. They are all treated with the utmost respect. They all bring different skills to the team that make us whole. We are all technical, and technical people are often quirky. No one is being judged in our environment. They know I have their backs. If clients are disrespectful, we address the issue. We have terminated relationships with clients because of how they treated my employees.

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. 🙂

Treat everyone with respect. If you truly respect and empathize with those around you, then you will also understand how fortunate you are in life.

Understand that many may have worked just as hard or even harder than you, but didn’t achieve the same level of success. Ask yourself how you can help those less fortunate than you and open yourself up to assisting them if the opportunity ever arises.

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

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.

My original goal was to be the best IT person I could possibly be. As I began to add employees, I realized how much I enjoyed teaching everything I learned. All of my employees came to Guardian with a limited skillset. Some had no technical experience, but were eager to learn. I love getting difficult “how-to” questions from my folks.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find us on our website at gcit.net and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. We’ve also got a great blog where we share our insights about IT. Check out one of our latest posts about the top 10 computer security threats to business IT this year!

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

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