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“How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful” With Steve Herz

I have found managing people to be relatively easy. Maybe it’s because we work in a field that so many people want to enter — we have attracted very good people who are self-motivated and eager to learn And over the years we have developed such a strong feedback culture it’s become part of the […]

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I have found managing people to be relatively easy. Maybe it’s because we work in a field that so many people want to enter — we have attracted very good people who are self-motivated and eager to learn And over the years we have developed such a strong feedback culture it’s become part of the fabric. When people know you care about them, they’re open to hearing your feedback. Plus, we’ve had a bunch of people over the years leave our business and some left the industry altogether. I remain close with nearly every one of them — and our current people know that my interest in their future isn’t conditional on them remaining in my employ. It creates a different kind of trust and closeness that lends well to a feedback culture.

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

Steve Herz is President of The Montag Group, a sports and entertainment talent and marketing consultancy. He is also a career advisor to CEOs, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and young professionals. He’s the author of DON’T TAKE YES FOR AN ANSWER: Using Authority, Warmth, and Energy to Get Exceptional Results (Harper Business, 2020).

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 out as a lawyer and while in law school in 1990 was told by the managing partner of the summer associate program at a midtown NYC firm that I just didn’t have what it took to succeed in the law. I took his tough love and pivoted to the talent business and got my first job about six months out of law school working for a fledgling start up where I cold called the owner. About a year later, I was hired at a bigger firm and the rest is history.

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

We have an extremely open family atmosphere. Feedback is constant and goes in a dizzying 360 degree direction or in reverse depending on the day or the moment. People feel comfortable and confident speaking their mind. I remember one time about 10 years ago, where I was so passionate about encouraging and demanding dissent, that one of my longtime colleagues Gideon Cohen and I were in a near shouting match when another person said “you guys are actually in agreement. Gideon sort of laughed at that when he realized it but I actually got even more frustrated by the consent! I’ve come to understand that agreement is okay if it’s genuine.

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

In November 1995, I was unhappy in my job working for a boutique agency and woke up one morning with a cold. Feeling lethargic and down, I impulsively called my boss and quit. He was stunned. After I hung up, I realized how shortsighted I had been. The next morning, I felt better and went across the street to the brand-new Reebok sports club gym that opened. I got in the elevator and a large portly man walked in. I recognized him from a conference a few months earlier. I introduced myself and immediately went into an unrehearsed sales pitch on why this 66-year-old well-known TV news agent should partner with this recently unemployed 29-year-old aspiring sports TV agent in a new business. He was either stunned or impressed but he turned to me as he walked out of the elevator and said, “here’s my card, be at my office tomorrow at 8am.” We formed a partnership that lasted just a few years, but it was Alfred Geller who was the catalyst for so much of what has driven me in the talent business.

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?

It’s only funny in retrospect. My first employee when I started my business in 1996 was a recent college graduate named Lowell Taub. Lowell went to Cornell and was very smart and ambitious. But in those first few months he didn’t seem committed to being excellent — you could chalk it up to someone just out of college who was happy to be socializing in the big city. One day he made a mistake in an email (which was brand new then) and I lost my cool on him and told him that I could hire anyone off the street that could do his job. It was delivered in a harsh unforgiving tone. To his credit, Lowell took it well and became an incredibly invaluable guy who has gone on to do great things in his career outside our company. We remain close friends and hardly a time goes by when we see each other that he doesn’t tease me about that day. The lesson I learned was to speak to people in a manner that I wanted to be spoken to. I grew up in an era where yelling and screaming were typical. After that, I don’t recall ever yelling at an employee since. You can still make your point without demeaning someone.

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

Treat people with respect and be willing to cross that bridge from boss/employee to friend. If your employees are going to take advantage of your goodwill because of that — they are not the right people for your company. Incentivize people to understand that their success should be their primary focus and align your own business goals as best as possible with that individual success. Many leaders have that equation in reverse. Also — be sure your company has a purpose and the people doing that work are connected to that purpose and feel committed to that pursuit. Working for a paycheck as your primary motivation will not allow for someone to thrive long term.

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

Leadership is many things, but three rise to the top for me. First, recruitment. A business is only as good as it’s people and its culture. A leader is one person, and one person will never be as effective as someone who can build a great team — that team starts with finding the best people who are attracted to work with you. Second, retention — recruiting great people is most valuable when your company grows in tandem with their growth — and that’s a long-term game. If you recruit but can’t retain, your company will be mired in mediocrity and also be a revolving door. The third component is development — it’s very aligned with retention. Good people leave jobs because they feel stale and like they aren’t growing. It’s your job as a leader to create a platform and a culture for development. Before I merged my agency with The Montag Group, we were seven people; four have worked with us for over 15 years, and five of the seven have never had another job.

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?

At 54, with an established business and two kids and especially now during Covid, things don’t seem nearly as high stakes as they used to. I think if you enjoy your work and the industry (as I truly do) you end up reading so much about the kinds of meetings and talks that you’re amply prepared. That’s been one of the unexpected benefits of the merger. We are now roughly 20 people and we have multiple slack channels. All day long there are conversations about articles, industry trends and news stories. I have conversations and social interactions outside work with so many colleagues. There’s been such a blurring of the lines. Knowing that we are all so vested and excited about our industry is a kind of permanent stress relief. Earlier in my career, I did get overly stressed and developed a habit of working out every morning. I have probably not missed a workout in over 20 years. Even during the pandemic, I bought a used Arc Trainer and have used it every day. But one time, I was so stressed for an important meeting where a client was making a big pitch at an ad agency that I dressed up in my best suit and tie and overcoat and when we got to the agency, I realized that I forgot to put on my suit jacket. The entire day I kept that heavy wool overcoat on. People kept encouraging me to take it off but I told them I had a cold and had the chills!

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 found managing people to be relatively easy. Maybe it’s because we work in a field that so many people want to enter — we have attracted very good people who are self-motivated and eager to learn And over the years we have developed such a strong feedback culture it’s become part of the fabric. When people know you care about them, they’re open to hearing your feedback. Plus, we’ve had a bunch of people over the years leave our business and some left the industry altogether. I remain close with nearly every one of them — and our current people know that my interest in their future isn’t conditional on them remaining in my employ. It creates a different kind of trust and closeness that lends well to a feedback culture.

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?

Because the world will eventually reveal itself. If you have a weakness that I don’t try to help you improve upon, someone else will exploit it. It could be a competitor, a client or even someone on your team. And when people don’t improve, they end up plateauing and they will become frustrated and that’s not good for you and especially not for them.

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.

At the risk of improperly answering your question, there is one thing that is most important beyond anything else. Build a trusting relationship with that person by communicating your interest in their development. If you have that foundation in place, it allows you to give that feedback. I don’t think that giving remote feedback is any more difficult than face-to-face once that relationship is established. For me, it’s binary: if you have that trust you can say almost anything and it’ll be received constructively; and if you don’t have that trust, then almost nothing you say will be received well. For me, there aren’t really five particular ways to give criticism. It’s really dependent on the person you are dealing with…you have to understand what makes the person tick and how they will best respond to that criticism. I’ve had employees that would get angry with me if I gave them feedback in roundabout way — they’d snap at me and say something to the effect “don’t manage me. Just give it to me straight.” And in the end they were right — they wanted that unvarnished truth. And others preferred what one of my friends inelegantly calls the “shit sandwich” which is the compliment followed by the criticism and ending on a relatively high note of another piece of praise. In my book, I refer to myself as a social assassin, one who generally lays waste to the niceties of politeness. Luckily, my colleagues know that I care about them and new people are quickly indoctrinated into my way of thinking. I never yell at them or talk in a mean fashion. It’ll be more like a “come on x, you know you’re better than this,” then we’ll both smile and laugh and dig into the issue.

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 would not suggest giving feedback over email for the exact reason you suggested unless it’s limited to a very narrow issue and you’re giving feedback on that specific action where it won’t cross over into something the person can take personally.

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 tend to answer a lot of questions with the words “it depends,” and here — it depends. Every person and situation is different. Life is not an exact science and the best bosses understand the nature of the art of timing. If someone makes a major mistake and you know they’re dealing with some health or personal issue, do not discuss it. I think you have to develop a feel for the situation. And really live by the “it depends” mantra.

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

A great boss is someone who cares about his employees so much that they know you’ll always have their best interests at heart even when those interests become uncoupled. About 10 years ago, we had a great young agent named Ari Mark. After about five years with us, just as he was hitting his stride and building his client base, he asked me to have breakfast. He told me that his dream job was to work at the NBA and that he got an offer (unsolicited) through a family friend. He asked me “as my boss, what do you think I should do?” And before I could answer he said, “as my friend what do you think I should do.” I told him that the boss wanted him to stay but the friend couldn’t do that in good conscience. He thrived at the NBA and is now an executive for the Miami Dolphins back in his hometown. We remain close friends and I’m proud of his success.

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. 🙂

I WISH that the idea of my book, Don’t Take Yes for an Answer, would take root in every sphere, including politics. If we could have everyone become their own contrarian and really try to poke a hole in their own arguments, I believe we would not be in this societal echo chamber. It is sad that so many people are addicted to confirming their own beliefs and biases and can’t even subject themselves to the slightest bit of questioning.

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

“Work smarter. Not harder.” I think working smarter for me means being attached to a higher purpose and trying to find meaning in my work and bring meaning to others. Some people judge themselves by the amount of time they spend in the office and how many hours they clock. I don’t want to be one of these people. Judge me by the value I create in a qualitative sense.

How can our readers further follow your work online? www.stevenherz.com

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

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