“How To Give Honest Feedback” With John Andrew

When the team culture is so strong and coaching oriented, giving feedback doesn’t feel as personal or needs to be met defensively if it’s for the sake of moving the mission forward. There’s a deep understanding that we’re all on the same team, working on the same goals. If people aren’t 100% on board, it […]

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When the team culture is so strong and coaching oriented, giving feedback doesn’t feel as personal or needs to be met defensively if it’s for the sake of moving the mission forward. There’s a deep understanding that we’re all on the same team, working on the same goals. If people aren’t 100% on board, it usually comes out in the first few months, and we have a few choices to make. Those who stay, they add so much to the culture, and when everyone on the team is a solid player, the team can trust that others are pulling just as hard as they are. The excitement of working on projects is palpable. It’s not uncommon for people who get back from a week vacation mention how much they missed connecting with the team.

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

John is a Master Certified Coach who runs Coach Training EDU, a life coach training organization accredited by the International Coach Federation (ICF). He’s the author of six books, a former writer for Newsweek, and a frequent keynote speaker at conferences back when meeting in large groups in person was a thing.

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?

Istarted my career as a high school Latin teacher. I majored in ancient Greek and Latin in college and found the only job I was trained to do: teach others those same dead languages. I loved it. And I loved working with students.

Soon after I found life coaching. Or rather, life coaching found me. My college sweetheart and current partner, Amois, attended a workshop on life coaching and later enrolled in an official training program. We were 23. We were young and in love. We had big dreams and a shared trust. She started her coaching practice while I volunteered to be a practice client for her classmates in her training. My first introduction to life coaching was from the client side. Even after my first session with a coach-in-training I knew that coaching would change my life. I remember thinking at the time that I wish I had these kinds of conversations even sooner in my life.

When I went back to my classroom, I realized that so many of the core coaching concepts were missing entirely from the usual curriculum, such as the dive into a deeper awareness of one’s unique collection of perspectives, habits of self-talk, and assumptions on what defines success. The academic world prepares young people with knowledge of academic subjects, which is useful. However, academia almost completely ignores cultivating creativity, leadership and being proactive, understanding how to receive and give feedback, much of the work that you and your guests address in these interviews.

And I was in the right place at the right time. I had the support of the school’s principal to bring in whatever coaching concept I wanted into my classroom as long as I still covered Latin. I had the perfect laboratory for these concepts at my fingertips. Out of those years of trying out different life coaching concepts with teenagers, I created the Academic Life Coaching program. A series of a little over 30 exercises that help young people step into personal leadership and flourish.

That was the mid-2000’s. Since then my organization, Coach Training EDU, has grown in leaps and bounds. We currently train over 300 life coaches a year. I wrote for Newsweek in an ongoing blog on education for a year. I’ve written five books, and currently work with universities and organizations throughout the world. One of our largest projects is with the University of Oklahoma, where we’ve trained over 60 faculty and advisers to be certified Academic Life Coaches. And Coach Training EDU is currently in the process of becoming a recognized vocational school through the US Department of Education. It will be the first life coach training organization specializing in Academic Life Coaching, Wellness and Executive coaching to do so.

Where I see the future of life coaching in education going: at some point in the next decade academic life coaching will be required training for teachers, equipping teachers to address with confidence a student’s inner world, empowering them to find and tap into inner (and outer) resources to spark a cycle of flourishing. So many recent studies from positive psychology and life coaching are pointing how effective life coaching really is. The numbers are impressive and the science is robust. Change is coming. It’s a matter of when and who blazes the way.

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

Every single person in the organization, from the CEO to our financial administrator, is life coach trained and certified life coach. We have developed a coaching culture where we share perspectives and actively lean into personal and professional growth. And we’ve been working remote for over four years. We have such close bonds, even though many people have never actually met in person. It’s wild to feel so connected and in tune with people from literally all over the planet working on a common cause.

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

Recently, Amois and I lived with our three children in an RV for 15 months, traveling the US and seeing people we’ve worked closely with for years but have never met in person. It was a 35’ 5th wheel. 🙂

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?

About halfway through my first official coach training session, my client hung up on me. I was that bad. Granted, I only had two days of training, but still, she hung up. Five minutes later we got reconnected, and I finished out ok. But it was rough. Definitely questioned whether I was on the right path, but because I knew how impactful this work was from being a client, I kept going.

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

Connect with your peers. And get an executive and life coach. 🙂

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

Leadership is clarifying a vision and working together with a team to accomplish it.

What it means for our team and organization: finding people who align with the vision, know their own strengths and areas where they are brilliant, and find where they add value best in the organization. As a team, we give everyone extreme freedom to find their role within the team and bring themselves, their passion, brilliance, and strengths to the table. When a group of people operate from such an understanding and have a structure of accountability with each other, magic happens.

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 ride my mountain bike a few times a week. I live about a 10 minute drive from some sweet trails with aggressive jump lines. No matter what else is happening, when I ride my attention gets intensely focused. The flow state is all encompassing. It’s my secret sauce.

One time I had a call with a university thinking about sending over 20 people through the training. The only time they could meet was right in the middle of my usual riding time. I brought a tripod and button-down shirt in my backpack and knew a spot on the trail I could find reception. It was one of the best calls of my life. The university joined. I felt so alive and every time I ride past that point in the trail I smile.

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?

Amois and I have been leading a team for over 12 years. Throughout that time, we’ve worked with dozens of employees and contractors. For those who pass their initial three month review, we have an extremely high annual retention rate over 90%. A big part of that is bringing in people who either have been life coach trained or want to be life coach trained and share a common mission to work hard for social good.

When the team culture is so strong and coaching oriented, giving feedback doesn’t feel as personal or needs to be met defensively if it’s for the sake of moving the mission forward. There’s a deep understanding that we’re all on the same team, working on the same goals. If people aren’t 100% on board, it usually comes out in the first few months, and we have a few choices to make. Those who stay, they add so much to the culture, and when everyone on the team is a solid player, the team can trust that others are pulling just as hard as they are. The excitement of working on projects is palpable. It’s not uncommon for people who get back from a week vacation mention how much they missed connecting with the team.

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?

Things can get off course very quickly without direct feedback. It’s fairly obvious to the rest of the team when one player isn’t actually working, and if the leader lets that slide or condones poor work, the rest of the team knows that too. Leadership and feedback don’t exist in a vacuum. Feedback isn’t only for the person receiving it. It matters to the whole team that it’s given with respect and that it’s generally kind but also on target. Such much trust gets built or erodes based on the quality of the feedback and its delivery.

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.

Yes, giving honest feedback that doesn’t come across as too harsh can be tricky. I realize when answering this question how much I rely on life coaching skills when I give feedback. Here are the ideas that come to mind:

  1. In life coaching, we actively and directly design how we want to give and receive feedback. We literally design with our employees best practices in receiving and giving feedback based on the concepts in their coach training course. So much value is created in directly addressing the way that we give feedback as well as perspectives and useful ways to receive feedback.
  2. And it’s OK if someone doesn’t fit with our team or doesn’t want to be in a team culture that gives and receives feedback often. Working on our team requires a dedication and openness to actively seek after ways to become better. It’s not for everyone. But for those who get onboard, it’s amazing to work together on projects knowing that everyone is open to growth.
  3. Keep the employees growth front of mind. If I give feedback from the perspective of their growth, not my benefit or getting the work right, it goes better. People feel the difference between connecting and really caring about their growth versus someone trying to get what they want out of you.
  4. Show them specific different actions to take or outcomes you’re looking for in the future. You can’t change the past and it’s not useful to spend much time in shame. Future oriented feedback is helpful.
  5. It’s not personal. Yet people can grow so much personally if they are open to feedback.

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 don’t. I avoid email when giving constructive 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?

I think the sooner the better. I don’t think the time is as important as the setting and other factors, such as how much can I empathize and really see their performance from their perspective. If I can really step into their shoes for a minute, that’s the perspective I aim for to make decisions on when, how, and what to tell someone even if the message is pointed.

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

I’m not sure I’m a great boss. I strive to be. 🙂

And I’m so fortunately to be married to and to work closely with Amois. We give each other feedback all the time. And we trust each other and actively ask each other for feedback. We’re extremely lucky. She’s an amazing boss. I see her work with people to truly maximize their skillsets. It’s why she’s the CEO.

I was struggling once on a zoom call and she walks in the office. (We work in the guest house behind our home.) She hears a little, enough to know what the conversation was about. I cover my mouth with my hand, put the zoom call on mute, and ask Amois, “Help! What do I do?”

She feeds me the perfect line. Something along the lines of “Remember the mission of what we’re up to.” And at that time, it was exactly what I needed to hear. It changed the course of that crucial conversation, which allowed a few projects to continue without a hitch. Truly, that one conversation saved three months of languishing and instead sparked a flurry of successful outcomes for us.

Working with her is like watching a true master as work. You can feel the love and care she has for people.

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. 🙂

My personal and professional movement: for every educator and administrator to be a trained and certified academic life coach. Imagine a world where everyone working with young people were equipped with a skillset to acknowledge and cultivate character strengths and empower others to flourish. That’s the vision. That’s what we’re working for. And that’s what’s starting to happen.

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

In 2014 I was a keynote speaker for the first International Coach Federation (ICF) conference in Dubai. On the slate was also Marshall Goldsmith, one of my heroes in the field. Along with a dozen other presenters and attendees who couldn’t sleep due to jet lag, I found myself in a late night leadership coaching session with Marshall. He worked over each person one at a time, drawing out character traits, giving pointed feedback, designing actions based on profound insights. It was like watching someone out of a movie to watch Marshall pinpoint one of the most important elements of your life and give you a life changing insight out of a hat.

I had been familiar with Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work in self-theories popularly known as Mindsets, but that night took my understanding to a whole new level. That night with Marshall Goldsmith in Dubai and my biggest takeaway from the evening: No matter who, where, how, why, or what, the only response necessary to feedback is ‘thank you.’

Even if you know it already and have spent a whole week working on a revision that exactly addresses the feedback someone is saying, avoid “I knew that.” It’s so much cleaner to simply say, “Thank you.”

Even if you don’t agree with it and it’s wildly off-base. “Thank you.” And move on. You don’t owe an explanation. You don’t owe them a promise to follow their advice.

Even if the person telling you does the same thing constantly. “Thank you.” And move on.

Even if it’s the best advice ever. “Thank you” still does the trick to start sharing gratitude.

No matter the situation, “thank you” is a solid go to.

It’s also a signal Amois and I use when we’re saturated with ideas. We know to lay off the comments when the other says, “Thank you for your feedback.” 🙂

How can our readers further follow your work online?


We’re in it to change the world. For real. Thanks for the questions. I truly appreciate the opportunity to share.

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

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