“How to give productive feedback.” with Richard Huttner

All feedback of the “You didn’t do this right” variety just makes people angry (with the main exception of failure to follow protocols, like how a remote team member should log in; everyone knows you have to get algorithms like this right.). Rather than hearing “You made a mistake,” the team member usually hears, “I am a […]

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All feedback of the “You didn’t do this right” variety just makes people angry (with the main exception of failure to follow protocols, like how a remote team member should log in; everyone knows you have to get algorithms like this right.). Rather than hearing “You made a mistake,” the team member usually hears, “I am a mistake.”

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rich Huttner. Rich has been a serial entrepreneur and CEO of four companies. After graduating Stanford Business School, he began his career in book and magazine publishing, eventually rising to CEO of such diverse magazine companies as Baby Talk and Senior Golfer. In 2000, he began a second career in leadership and management skills training. Over 300 middle-level and senior managers have attended his Successful Manager workshops. He is the author of The Universal Management Principle Workbook: How to Motivate Your Team Better.

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?

One of my first senior jobs was Vice President Marketing at a leading diary publisher. But, I wasn’t enjoying it because I didn’t like my boss. I wanted to strike out on my own. “Why not reach out to venture capital firms?” a friend suggested. “They back aspiring entrepreneurs like you.” So, I contacted every venture capitalist east of the Mississippi advertising my “superior managerial services.”

To my pleasant surprise, several responded. Within two months, I had become CEO of Baby Talk, America’s oldest baby magazine, and I had an equity stake in it. Over the next four years, my team grew the publication’s circulation and advertising revenue 20% a year while launching three more parenting publications We then successfully sold the company to Time Warner, and I was on my entrepreneurial way.

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

Today, I focus on leadership training through my company, Successful Manager. I teachmanagers delegation, empowerment, communication, goal-setting, rewards, job enrichment, ethics, emotional intelligence, transformational leadership, and the power of the team. I always stress how important it is for them to care about every team member.

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

For many serial entrepreneurs, the exit strategy is to sell the company, an exciting, but nevertheless a laborious and fretful process. This was indeed the case when I sold Baby Talk to Time Warner. I had to spend a month assembling due diligence information like, “List your top 25 advertisers and their spending over the last 5 years,” and “What percentage of your readership is expectant parents?” I felt like I was on an endurance run, every lap bringing me just a little closer to completing the sale.

But, years later, I had the opposite experience. I sold another company, a Crestcom leadership franchise, through a broker who simply called me one day to tell me he had just gotten off the phone with a guy who’d made a full-price cash offer. The deal was done in a week, and I spent the next happy six months training him while collecting my accounts receivable. I felt I was blessed.

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?

Baby Talk magazine had a monthly print run of 1,200,000 copies, huge. One day, at about that time of the month when millions of our magazine signatures would be spinning off press, I was in a meeting with my executive team.

My admin knocked on the door and came in to tell me someone from the magazine printer was on the phone. He needed to talk with me right away. “Please tell him that I’m sorry, but we’re in a meeting. Unless the roof has fallen in, I’ll call him back as soon as the meeting’s over.”

The admin returned shortly, “Actually,” she informed me, “The roof on the printing plant has just collapsed from snow overload; and our print run has been wiped out.” I took the call.

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

The greatest source of burnout is stress. The causes can be overwork, lack of support, miscommunication, doused expectations, lack of resources or training, physical fatigue — you name it. To reduce stress, managers need to provide team members with guidance and support, give extra help when needed, and coach and mentor. It sure helps if leaders put things in perspective and maintain a sense of humor, too. Unless there are bodies on the ground, a motivated, capable team can get through almost anything. Team members should principally experience the good stress of meeting challenges together.

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

Leadership, in my view, means setting the team on a productive path and caring about the team members walking down it. Here’s an example:

When I was in the Army as a young lieutenant, I went on a practice patrol. Our instructor ordered our group to cut a rough path through thick woods to get to our objective. This puzzled me because a paved road ran right next to us.

I asked about this, and the instructor explained, “My goal is to keep everyone safe. The enemy may have booby trapped the road or fixed mortars on it. We go through the woods, as tough as that may be, everyone stays safe.”

This was an important leadership lesson. As Teddy Roosevelt reputedly said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Therefore, team leaders must put team members first. I’ll give you my example. When I was heading a publishing division of American Express — another stop on my career path — I hired a senior editor to develop a new Food & Wine recipe card program.

Right from the start, I told her how important her work would be and that I fully trusted her to develop an outstanding recipe series. I supported her hiring a small staff and arranged for her team to have use of a fully-equipped test kitchen. Periodically, I checked in with her to ask if there was anything I could do to help her, attended the food tastings she arranged, and let her know how excited I was about her team’s work.

When I left American Express to take the helm of another company, she told me, “Rich “I am so sorry you are leaving. No boss ever cared about me and my success as much as you did. You’re the best boss I ever had.”

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?

The way I get ready for a high stakes meeting is to prepare well in advance. I want to be ready the day before the meeting so I have time to relax. Early on the meeting day, I may do a 15-minute refresher, but I trust my earlier preparation and rest period to enable me to perform at my best.

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’ve managed middle and senior level teams for thirty years. In my early days , I tended to be a “Mr. Nice Guy” — empower, help, resource, praise. As long as the team was playing well and heading in the right direction, I thought we were in the best shape we could be.

There were, of course, times when things didn’t go so well. One manager I supervised at American Express was in charge of a flight guide that was losing $1 M a year. I questioned him about it. “We do lose this amount annually,” he said, “but I have been told not to worry about it. American Express is a big company, Rich. This is just a blip, and travelers like our product. So, I keep things going along their merry way.”

His casual approach put me off. He seemed a pretty smart guy who wasn’t working up to his potential. In a very direct and critical way I replied, “That explanation is not acceptable to me. Come back in one month’s time with a well-thought-out plan to turn this business around.”

I thought this blunt reaction would light a fire under him. When a month went by and he had not come back to me with a plan, I was upset and had to let him go. His parting words were, “By your earlier judgmental attitude, I figured you’d fire me anyway, so I just didn’t bother to try.”

Truthfully, I felt disappointed in both of us. How might I have tried to help him to our mutual advantage? Could I have talked to him in a more understanding manner that he would have positively responded to?

Fortunately, the story did have a happy ending. I found a more capable and committed leader, we developed a winning strategy, and two years later, she had led the magazine to a $1M a year profit.

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?

Team members want and need feedback of all types to improve and to feel valued, to feel a sense of progress. This keeps team members motivated. Positive feedback is always welcome, of course, but constructive criticism is often the more helpful. Team members need to know how others view their behavior.

By its nature, however, constructive criticism has risks. Such honest feedback too easily elicits a team member’s “fight or flight” response. The team member is likely to become angry, overwhelmed, or fearful, all of which mitigate against wanting to change.

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. All feedback of the “You didn’t do this right” variety just makes people angry (with the main exception of failure to follow protocols, like how a remote team member should log in; everyone knows you have to get algorithms like this right.). Rather than hearing “You made a mistake,” the team member usually hears, “I am a mistake.”
  2. What is especially injurious is a manager’s belief that he or she is in the right. Research shows that a manager’s judgment is often just one person’s opinion. Have you ever noticed how different managers judge the same team member? “Oh, his personality would be terrific in sales.” You’re kidding; I can’t stand him.” Her decision-making is mature.” “Really, she’s old school in my view,” etc.
  3. For this reason, companies that want to give team members a fair, more accurate review use 360 feedback measurements. Such surveys gather information from many people, including managers, peers and reports to identify common themes.
  4. Thus, managers should approach giving direct feedback cautiously and with humility. To be sure they are being “a good person,” as a nod to diplomacy, or to reduce their own anxiety, managers often fall back on the time-honored “Oreo sandwich” (“You are a great team member, but you did this specific thing wrong; you are still a great team member).
    Unfortunately, more often than not the team member only hears the but part.
  5. A more effective approach is for a manager to speak from an “I” standpoint. “This is what I observed, this is how I reacted, this is what I might have done in this situation.” Such a manner of speaking recognizes that there are no universally-accepted standards of behavior. Especially with remote employees, how can a manager really be sure of knowing everything that might have impacted the team member’s behavior — family pressures, young children at home, poor internet service, and so on?
    Let me give an example of this “I” approach. Sarah is managing Don, a lab assistant who is taking care of two groups of rats. He mistakenly puts rats from the experimental group in the control group’s cage, thus compromising the experiment. Don is a diligent worker, but sometimes, as this example shows, he is just not careful enough. How best for Sarah to give him constructive feedback? She might call in Don for a one-on-one meeting and go the standard route, first complimenting him for being a good team member, then admonishing him for his recent careless mistake and advising him to be more careful in the future, and finally complementing him to build him back up. It’s more than likely the real message Don gets is that he screwed up. Suppose Sarah were to simply tell Don this story?

“Don, naturally the mixing up of the lab rats concerns me So, let me share this with you. When I was a young lab assistant right out of graduate school, after working late one night, I mistakenly put the key to the lab under the door instead of under the doormat outside the door. The next morning, no one could get into the lab. I found this out when I was in the dentist chair, having taken the morning off, and one of my team members had frantically tracked me down to ask if I had taken the key with me, or would she have to call a locksmith?”.

That’s the way I learned about attention to detail. Please put your key under the doormat.”

Isn’t that a better way to have handled this situation? In giving honest feedback by talking by about her own experience, Sarah would more than likely have said all she needed to.

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 almost never give constructive feedback through email, especially when I’m angry or depressed. Email is too prone to misinterpretation. Especially when a team member is working remotely, it’s best to call or meet on video chat. Take the time to prepare what you want to say and to deliver your message in the just the right helpful tone. You can correct any misinterpretation on the spot.

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?

First, before giving feedback, make sure you’re calm.

Second, don’t sweat the small stuff. No one’s perfect. Reserve your constructive feedback for significant occasions so it will have more impact.

Third, as I’ve said, carefully compose what you want to say. If you plan to cite examples, make sure either you’ve witnessed the offending behavior or have indisputable evidence of it. Avoid hearsay.

Fourth, practice your delivery so you are speaking in a relaxed, confident manner.

Lastly, remember your feedback is, research shows, only one person’s opinion. Avoid saying “This is what you did wrong.”

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

A great boss lays out a vision for the team and asks for team member input to improve it (“Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.”). The “great boss” then encourages and supports team members in executing the vision. She delegates effectively, coaches and mentors, leads from the front, manages task progress and execution, and always demonstrates caring.

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 think there ought to be a coaching organization that would make available at a very low cost experienced leaders who could confidentially mentor younger managers. Almost every manager could benefit from having a coach, but few companies can afford this service. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a national mentoring society that offered managers coaching and mentoring scholarships?

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

My mother used to say, “This, too, shall pass.” Right now, I’m repeating it in relation to COVID-19. But, I bring it in for all adversity.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is www.successful-manager.com. This site describes my leadership workshops. I’m also the host of the podcast, “CEO Lessons in Leadership,” website www.ceoleadership.biz.

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

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