Preparation — The first suggestion is to be prepared. If you know that you were going to have a performance conversation related to a developmental opportunity, you must be prepared. Take time in advance to gather all relevant data needed to have a clear, compelling picture of the performance. Also, be prepared to adjust the conversation to meet the needs of the employee. People tend to respond differently to developmental versus positive feedback. You will likely know your employees well, so be prepared to adjust your style, as needed, to respond in ways that keep the conversation headed in the right direction.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sheree Bryant Sekou.
Dr. Sheree Bryant Sekou is a client-focused organizational and leadership consultant with in-depth experience in the design and delivery of leadership development, sales, service, and technical training programs. She is the owner of Sheree Sekou Consulting, a global learning and development firm, and author of What A Difference A Change Makes! As a coach and leadership expert, Dr. Sheree’s work is grounded in a strengths-based philosophy of searching for the best in individuals and organizations.
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?
Thanks so much for having me. Growing up in the rural South, I loved school, and teachers were some of my favorite human beings on earth. They had a huge impact on my life. Little did I know that my love for teachers and learning would spark within me a passion for teaching. And little did I know that I would end up teaching adults! I am happy to say that I am a teacher, or as we call it in the corporate learning settings, a “facilitator” of learning experiences for leaders and learners from all over the world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company, Sheree Sekou Consulting, stands out because we offer a beautiful blend of the platinum rule — -treating people the way they want to be treated and fostering appreciative inquiry. Our innovative method involves a deliberate search for the good in people and organizations. We approach every customer with the assumption that there is something inherently good happening in their organization and we aim to leverage the power of good to create positive change for the organization and people they serve. Excavating the good in the company and leveraging that good as a foundation for creating positive change are our core differentiators. We begin with good and continue our consulting journey from there. We desire the best growth for our clients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I recall one incident that falls in the category of “imposter syndrome”, which is discussed at length in leadership studies, particularly involving women in leadership. I was working with a manufacturing company and with a group of leaders of the production side of the business. There was not one woman in this leadership group, and we were meeting over the course of eight weeks for training. I remember feeling self-doubt set in, acknowledging that I was selected, but wondering if I was the right/best person to lead this group of leaders and develop their leadership skills. I also remember wondering: why are we still in this scenario — where we don’t have any women in the room and how will I be treated? I moved through the negative self-talk and pulled up my courage pants and made it through. It was a blast! At the end of the session, one of the senior leaders thanked me for the experience and I confessed that I was nervous taking on the assignment. He looked at me and said, “we’re just a bunch of rednecks” and expressed his appreciation for the learning experience. I was not sure how to take his comment, but I knew he meant well. As I reflect on this experience, it shows me that we, regardless of color, gender, and creed, are all people, with hopes, strengths, and opportunities to learn and grow. Leadership development is a people business. We talk about human resources and human capital, and it is all about people. Sure, we have a lot of differences and we also have a lot in common, but if we can move beyond differences, we can learn and grow from one another. During those eight weeks, we learned a lot from one another and I can honestly say I had a new level of respect for them and the work they do. A huge part of leading, learning and growing is having the courage to say “yes” and to go into places and spaces where people do not look like me and stand in my power as a leader. When I have been chosen to serve a group of leaders, I no longerallow fears, stares, or uncomfortable looks to cause me to run away. Instead, I have learned to build trusting relationships over time, so we can learn and grow from each other.
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?
Most of the funniest stories or mistakes I have made are related to the crazy hoops that I have gone through to try to push my body to stay up longer than normal. Earlier in my career, when I was working on my doctoral program, we lived in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands full-time. For three years, every other weekend, I commuted from St. Thomas to San Francisco. I was commuting to the University of San Francisco for weekend classes. In the fall semester, there is a four-hour time difference between San Francisco and the Virgin Islands. I would often land in San Francisco on Friday evenings and start class about ten o’clock St. Thomas time and I would be absolutely delirious! I would try drinking coffee. I don’t drink soda but I tried drinking Jolt and 5-hour energy — basically anything I could get my hands on. Let’s just say I’d end up falling asleep in class, sometime mid-sentence, because sleep would take over. It seems silly now but I just figured I could go on and on without sleep. Today I realize that there really is no substitute for sleep. Sleep is probably the best gift I can give myself, if I want to be present and show up well.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
The best advice I have for CEO’s, business leaders and individual contributors is to lead yourself by taking good care of yourself. If you want to avoid burnout, make sure you are getting a good night’s rest. Take care of your basics so you can show up well and whole as a leader because when we show up well and whole, then we can serve from our overflow. We can serve from the best parts of ourselves versus showing up as a fraction of ourselves. Another advantage of showing up well and whole is that you provide an example to others — clients, customers, colleagues, and members of your organization — of well-balanced leadership. When you come to work and you are well, you give others permission to do the same. I also highly recommend disconnecting from work and personal electronic devices for at least one full day each week so you can plug in and connect to family, hobbies, people, and spiritual practices. This break will allow you to feel replenished and renewed. Leaders do not have to be perfect but they must be well and have the capacity to lead.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
True leadership is possessing the skills and will to bring out the best in others for the good of the organization. To lead well, you must possess the capabilities and competencies to do the job effectively, and you must have a heart or willingness to lead. Leadership involves caring for others in ways that bring out the best traits, genius, and tendencies of members of an organization, even when they can’t see this in themselves. Passion is not the same as preparation. If I have a passion and a heart to lead, that may get me going but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to be effective. For example if I’m a leader who is passionate about leading and taking my organizations to the next level, but I’m not too great at communicating or resolving conflict, I have got to be willing to elevate those competencies so I can be a more effective leader.
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?
Absolutely! I have a specific formula that I have developed several years ago to prepare myself before speaking at an engagement or any other high stakes leadership training event. I refer to it as the P.F.S. Formula. The “P” stands for preparation. No matter how many times I have delivered a speaking topic or leadership workshop, I always prepare for the nuances or differences for that client and audience. Nothing can take the place of being prepared because it increases my confidence. The “F” is for fuel. I eat differently when I have a full-day workshop because I know I need to maintain my energy level for the duration of the day. Some years ago, one of my coaches shared her examples of how she travelled with food so she left nothing to chance. I make sure I have my plant-based protein shakes and salads with lean protein so that I am agile and ready for the day. Last but certainly not least, the “S” is for sleep. Sometimes I feel like I’m a sleep evangelist because I can’t say enough about it. When I am well-rested, I show up so much better and I can connect with people more authentically because I am relaxed and calm.
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 have over 20 years of progressive leadership and learning experience. I began at a relatively young age, serving as a member of the Air National Guard. Later, I progressed to a leader of adult educators, and then I grew to become a leader of sales and marketing executives at Marriott international and beyond. Today, my work involves serving as facilitator of leadership development programs and a coach to leaders at all levels, in a wide variety of sectors. A critical part of my work is helping leaders communicate in ways that built trust, bring out the best in people, and catalyze change. None of this can be accomplished without providing effective feedback.
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 would say, it is not intuitive at all. First, it is important to give honest and direct feedback because leaders must have their fingers on the pulse of how their organizations and groups are doing. Likewise, your employees must understand how they are doing. Failing to provide feedback on strengths as well and areas of improvement would be doing a disservice to your employees and the organization. Next, when leaders get busy and they have high performers, they often neglect to tell them what they are doing well. Leaders must go the extra mile, sharing feedback on what made their performance outstanding. In fact, I believe leaders must regularly and explicitly tell their direct reports what they did well and the impact it had on the organization. Empowered with this information, these employees will clearly know the behaviors they need to repeat to continue the good performance. Lastly, when people are under performing, leaders must be courageous enough to have those conversations as well. They must be willing to tell people what they missed and share feedback on how poor performance impacted the teams and organization. Leaders must be clear and honest, but they don’t have to be brutally honest. There is no reason to be harsh or inhumane. Leaders must care enough about the person, the organization, and customers to show the person where he/she missed the mark. Leaders must help the under-performing person think through what can be done differently, which behavior to be improved, and how to get back on track. No one wants to get to the end of the year and have a conversation about performance and be surprised. Whether formal or informal, these conversations should occur regularly and should include a balanced review of what people are doing well or the specific behaviors they are excelling at and what people need to change to improve their success individually, and for the collective of the organization.
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.
The first suggestion is to be prepared. If you know that you were going to have a performance conversation related to a developmental opportunity, you must be prepared. Take time in advance to gather all relevant data needed to have a clear, compelling picture of the performance. Also, be prepared to adjust the conversation to meet the needs of the employee. People tend to respond differently to developmental versus positive feedback. You will likely know your employees well, so be prepared to adjust your style, as needed, to respond in ways that keep the conversation headed in the right direction.
Listening and empathy are critical in performance conversations. Many people come into performance conversations on edge, due to having had poor experiences with poorly delivered feedback in the past. Many leaders are not effective at providing feedback due to their inability to consider all the factors contributing to poor performance. Be sure to allow space to listen to what may be impacting the person’s ability to work well and what you might say to offer consideration and empathy, even if you don’t agree. For example, if this person is new to the remote working environment and you see that there has been a recent decline in performance, be ready to demonstrate consideration and understanding of the additional time it often takes to adjust to getting work done in a remote environment. Provide an opportunity to listen to challenges and perspectives on what is impacting performance. Listen to show consideration and respect, even when you don’t agree.
Another way to avoid coming off too harshly is to share a balanced picture of the person’s performance. Share what your employee is doing well and areas of improvement, versus only speaking of the improvement opportunities. This will require a little bit of extra effort on the leaders part, because you’ve got to have your arms wrapped around the objective performance data so you can clearly and definitely discuss what the employee is doing well and where and why he needs to improve. Painting a balanced picture helps avoid coming across with unnecessary harshness because it enables you to share your perspective of the employee’s performance, based on operational and behavioral data, and it lays the foundation for an unbiased conversation on performance improvement.
#4 Offer support
After painting a clear, balanced picture of the employee’s performance, how it is impacting the team, organization, and/or customers, you should offer support by asking your employee to share feedback for improving performance. After your employee has shared feedback, ask what support is needed from you to improve? In many cases, some people need some time to consider what support they need most. Remember, this conversation may be taking them off guard, especially if they were not aware of their performance challenges or not accustomed to receiving developmental feedback. Offering support to all employees in need of improvement lets them know they are not alone and you care about their success. The support they need may not be from you. It may come from someone else in the organization or another subject matter expert. When they know you are there to serve as an advocate for success, it makes the improvement conversation more palatable.
#5 Plan of action
Finally, you will want to have an agreed-upon plan of action. It can be lengthy or very brief, with bullet points to summarize the conversation. It must highlight key milestones related to making improvements and dates for follow up meetings to affirm and confirm progress. When things get busy, leaders may forget to follow up so be sure to schedule meetings in advance to check in and celebrate positive changes or assist and adjust the plan, as needed.
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.
I do not recommend giving constructive feedback via email. Email is one of the most frequently used forms of workplace communication. However, is it not the most effective platform to communicate when you are giving constructive or developmental feedback. I would recommend scheduling a video conference meeting or phone call to discuss the developmental feedback. The research shows that approximately 80% of communication is non-verbal. This means expressions, tones and other nonverbals may be undetectable via email. Or worse, inadvertently, they leave room for miscommunication. Make the necessary adjustments, even across time zones, so you can have these important conversations in the best environment possible.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Make the time to have this conversation via phone or video conference. While I realize leaders are busier than ever, maintaining relationships of trust, consideration, and respect are more important now than ever before. Constructive criticism and developmental feedback are best given via phone call or video conference. When email is the only option, triple check your feedback and/or have a trusted colleague review it to ensure there are no words or phrases that might get in the way of your messaging. When in doubt, compose and review the email, step away and do not send. Then, review it again the following day, with a fresh set of eyes. Switch your perspective to that of the person receiving the feedback and be on the lookout for nuances in language and anything that might trigger defense mechanism in the person receiving 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?
In my experience, feedback should be timely. Timely means different things to different people. I recommend having regularly scheduled meetings to discuss performance. When meetings are scheduled regularly, the foundation is laid for discussing how things are going and identifying areas of improvement. If something egregious happens in between the regularly scheduled meetings, you must move to address it immediately and involve your HR Business Partners, if necessary. For example, issues like safety violations, sexual-harassment or theft need to be addressed as soon as possible. If you are having monthly meetings with your direct reports, you should be able to handle most situations. It is important to give the person time to improve behavior before your next meeting. If there is sufficient time for the employee to begin making improvement, you should be in good shape. I am an advocate for regularly scheduled meetings with direct reports as well as maintaining an open-door policy. Regularly scheduled meetings help to build a culture of feedback in your organization. People will expect to have regular conversations with leaders about performance, work, and home life, including time to share their dreams and aspirations.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
I would define a great boss as one who listens well and who cares deeply about people. I once worked for a leader who instilled the practice of “unfiltered dialogue”. This practice gave each of us permission to speak freely, and without fear of retribution, if we remained respectful. It allowed us to speak freely when things were going well and speak up when things were not going well. She knew we could see things that she could not see. Also, she valued our input, even when we saw things differently. Open, inclusive communication is the best way to celebrate diversity and catalyze innovation. In my experience, this separates good from great leadership. Frank, honest communication, based on mutual respect, coupled with commitment to inclusion, are the fundamentals of great leadership.
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. 🙂
If I could inspire a movement, it would definitely be one focused on catalyzing positive change. I’ve actually written a book about it called What a Difference a Change Makes! The premise of the movement and the book is quite simple: if there is an area of your life or our world that you know requires change, you have the right and the responsibility to change it for the better. This movement would afford people opportunities to tap into their power to create positive change for themselves and our world. Armed with its convictions and commitment to positive change, the movement will foster ripple effects of positive change to be felt around the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love and live by a quote by Shirley Chisholm that says, “I am and will always be a catalyst for change”. This quote is particularly meaningful to me because it is something that I felt since I was a child. Any time I heard of injustice or something that didn’t seem fair, I immediately felt as though I wanted to try, in some big or small way, to make it better. I believe each of us, in big and small ways, are catalysts for positive change and the quote from Shirley Chisholm really serves as my internal GPS for the work I do as a leader, the way I run my business, and how I interact with clients and partners. At the beginning and end of the day, it is all about catalyzing positive change in individuals and the organizations in which they serve.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can learn more about my work and follow me on social media by visiting my website: shereesekouconsulting.com
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.