Frame any feedback as “impact feedback.” That is, say “this is the impact that had on the system of our team.” This is incredibly helpful because it depersonalizes the situation, and thus helps to move us out of our amygdala (that part of our brain that says fight! Or flight! When confronted) and into the prefrontal cortex — that part of our brain that helps us to process what’s going on. So the less personal we can make feedback, the less alerting it is to the receiver, and makes them less defensive and more open.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carmen Westbrook.
Carmen is the CEO and co-founder of Aina Giving, the premiere leadership development company nurturing mother leadership. As a diplomat, military spouse, six-year stay at home mom, marathoner, and entrepreneur, Carmen knows the ins and outs of leading a balanced, fulfilled life while also accomplishing the goals and dreams life has handed our way. Carmen is trained as a co-active leadership coach and developer, and has trained governments, international aid organizations, and mothers worldwide, and is currently planning to move to her fifth continent (Africa!) with her husband of 17 years, three wonderful children, and one fluffy dog.
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?
Yes! I started my journey as a military spouse and nonprofit manager in North Carolina. After only a few years of moving up those ranks, I found myself pregnant — and realized that the next step in my career path was as a full-time mother. And THAT was a leadership experience, let me tell you. After working in that field 24/7 for roughly six years, I moved on to government contractor, leadership trainer, and executive coach. I now combine all of these skillsets by training mothers, government leaders, and vulnerable populations in leadership and community development.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think that our ability to use tools and skillsets from every area of leadership and apply them to individual and community development makes us quite unique. For example — in response to the covid shutdowns, we began a coaching program where we united trained coaches from government, corporation, and organizational leadership with the vulnerable mothers we were working with in Kenya. This project has already been incredibly fruitful, not only in breaking down some of the assumptions and barriers held between classes, religions, countries, and races, but also in growing the individual and community leadership of some of the people that are most in need of economic support.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Well…that’s probably when I actually started my own company. After having worked in nonprofit leadership and military leadership (as an unpaid, volunteer government contractor) for almost a decade, I approached an international aid organization looking for help with the ebola crisis and offered them my services. However, because my resume stated that I had been “just a mom” for the past seven years, they deemed me unqualified and just told me to give them money. This, for me, was a wakeup call on how much the developed world society needs in terms of restructuring on the mother leader role. For example, in developing nations, mothers receive the most investment and international aid dollars, because it is known from countless studies that they are the leaders that develop the future. Yet in the developed world, mothers receive negative incentives for taking on that role. It was definitely a moment of awakening for me, and a call to action in shifting that mindset paradigm.
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?
Oh my goodness, can I tell you mistakes. My co-founder and I used to joke about how our business was an ugly baby, and we just didn’t know it. I think the biggest mistake I made was making a decision about our product line and sticking with it, no matter what the analytics told us. I was convinced that I knew better than the customers…and that was definitely a mistake. I have learned since then to listen to our people, listen to what they need the most, and adjust our offerings to meet them where they are.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I would advise making their teams into a family. Families can sometimes stink…and they also stick together out of love. Something my mom used to always say — love is inefficient. And it works in the long run. So in order to avoid that short term burnout, focusing on the long-term gains of just loving each other, no matter what, has been really important for us.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership, for me, is realizing that we have been given a mission every day…and we are responsible for making it happen. I think too often we can point at others and say “it’s their fault my life is like this!” or “it’s because I live in this place that things aren’t working out.” I’ve definitely been there…and pragmatically speaking, it just doesn’t really work to go through life that way. In my experience, when each of us can approach life as a wonderful adventure and we’re the leader going on that quest, the best things actually happen.
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 go for a run or a swim almost every single day. I think that our physical health cannot be undervalued here — it plays into our emotional, mental, and spiritual health so much. So whenever I go into a day — which is often full of high stakes meetings and decisions — I start with about one hour of quiet time and one hour of exercise. That centers me for anything that comes for the rest of the day.
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?
So I not only work with military leaders around the world, I also work with some of the most vulnerable populations. And when working with them, it is imperative to give them feedback on how they’re doing — because feedback is what helps us to grow, and leadership development is all about growth. So I am daily pushed to manage these team dynamics situations in a variety of settings…and of course I also have my own team at Aina.
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?
Feedback is something that we as a society don’t do very effectively. Think about your grandma. My grandma was always stuffing cookies at me and telling me to eat more of her beef stroganoff. So that was her way of giving me the feedback of “you, Carmen, are an amazing beam of light in this world, and I love you with all of my heart and will always be here as your guardian angel.” However…this is not really how I understood that dynamic until I became much more developed myself — I thought grandma just thought I was a fatso and she was trying to fill me up. Seriously. So effective feedback — be it with our children, our spouses, our teams, or even between nations — it’s imperative so people actually know what parts are working, and what parts just aren’t.
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! Here are five tips:
1) Frame any feedback as “impact feedback.” That is, say “this is the impact that had on the system of our team.” This is incredibly helpful because it depersonalizes the situation, and thus helps to move us out of our amygdala (that part of our brain that says fight! Or flight! When confronted) and into the prefrontal cortex — that part of our brain that helps us to process what’s going on. So the less personal we can make feedback, the less alerting it is to the receiver, and makes them less defensive and more open. An example: when my teenage son walks into the room and says “I don’t want to make dinner!” in a whiney, slightly aggressive voice, I will take a deep breath, pause for a moment, and say “that had the impact of making me want to throw you out the window. I’m guessing the impact you wanted to make was to enter into a discussion about who’s making dinner? If so, the impact didn’t match what you intended — so perhaps another way? I do this with my team members via one-on-one meetings on zoom, as negative impact feedback is best done individually.
2) Mirror their actions and/or voice back to them. It can be REALLY hard to step outside of ourselves, so when someone that we know and trust can show us how it actually sounded and/or was received, it’s really helpful. So, using that example above, I could have also simply mimicked it back to my son — his posture, his tone of voice, the word order that he used — and just act as that mirror on the wall to him. And then usually I laugh (humor helps to soften the emotional tenor) and ask him what he thinks about that? This is something that I also do on one-on-one meetings in zoom with my team members. As leaders, I believe we often shy away from this because it can feel childish…and it’s something that I value SO MUCH when my team members can do this in service to me as well.
3) Use the 80/20 rule. 80% of our interactions with our teams must be positive, with 20% being corrective. So it’s imperative to give 80% POSITIVE feedback (i.e. I really appreciate this about you), and then only 20% being that “maybe we could adjust this” feedback. If you’re not at that ratio and you want to give the corrective type — bite your tongue. You’ll have time to do it later. An example: I intentionally feed this positive feedback into my team members whenever I am with them — e.g. “I really appreciate and value how you show up on time to all of our meetings. It is an incredibly valuable skill set, and it makes me feel valued myself, and also peaceful knowing that you will always be there.” This type of positive feedback is also incredibly helpful when done in front of the whole team, and can shift the culture of a team from negative to positive just by the CEO or parent feeding that in intentionally and demonstrating the 80/20 rule.
4) Be completely non-judgemental inside. People can feel our feelings on the inside. If I’m feeling judgemental of an employee — they know. So fix our own feelings before going into a corrective feedback situation. This — this takes time inside of ourselves. When I need a quick fix, I’ll go to curiosity (curiosity is the antidote to judgement). So if I’m feeling like “WHY DIDN’T MY MARKETING PERSON DO MORE WORK THIS WEEK! WHAT ARE THEY DOING, SITTING ON THEIR LAURELS AND TAKING UP THE COMPANY MONEY???” I’ll sense that judgement, hear that thought process going on in my head, and switch it internally to “I wonder why it feels like my marketing person isn’t working as hard as they have in the past? Are there issues at home? Am I just not seeing all of the good work she’s doing behind the scenes? How can I know more about that behind the scenes work, and possibly more about her life? I’m going to ask her about that.” — and then I approach the opening of the next meeting with her with that mode and curiosity, and then thread in some impact feedback later (“I was feeling like you weren’t doing enough, when in fact I just didn’t know all of your good work! So the impact of not getting those updates was a feeling of apathy…how can we work together on that?)
5) Be vulnerable and use narrative coaching. Tell your own story about how you messed that up in your life (which, by the way, is how you know it doesn’t work — that’s how learning goes). Be open and honest and vulnerable, and they will be as well. For example — I can tell my marketing person that I have been there with my clients, and then couldn’t understand why they didn’t renew our contracts? After we had clearly done such amazing work for them! And I couldn’t understand what was going on until someone took the time to invest in me and my growth and help me to understand my impact by not keeping my clients in the loop. This vulnerability — that clearly I mess things up as a leader, too — helps to make it ok for my team members to continue making independent decisions, instead of constantly turning to me to do it all for them.
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?
Honestly — I pretty much don’t do negative feedback over email, just because of that issue. I will send videos or voice recordings to my team for negative feedback…that’s how I get around that issue. So, my answer to this is: Use the most modern technology systems and send it via voice message or video. I will just record those on my phone and send them via whatsapp or email.
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 give positive feedback immediately, negative feedback after a breathing space. Often the emotions are too high when we give it back immediately, and that can direct all of that energy into a negative space. It’s best when we can move to a place of calm and peace when given negative feedback. In terms of set intervals — I have weekly meetings with each of my team members, and I follow the 80/20 rule. Maintaining a positive culture is truly key to effective teams.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
I think great bosses are people that care more about the relationships than the task at hand. I and my husband have worked for and with military leaders that got an incredible amount accomplished, and looked great on their own reviews — but all of their underlings decided to leave the military and that leader burned out later because they had no support structure (and found no long-term success). We’ve also worked with and for leaders that seem to not have gotten much done…and who are now generals in the highest places that we still maintain relationships with, and help support in any way we can. Life is long. Knowing that the relationships we create are much more important than today’s calendar is, in my experience, what actually creates great bosses and long-term 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. 🙂
Moms need to be valued and paid for their contributions to society. If every mother realized that she was actually the most influential leader on earth, and that what she was doing was changing the world…I’d grab my margarita and start rocking on that front porch swing with the victory sign behind me. Somewhere, this year, the next president or prime minister has been born. How are we doing with that, my friends?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? Be the kind of woman that, when your feet hit the ground in the morning, the Devil says “oh crap, she’s up!”
Taking on the big dogs can feel daunting and never-ending. Good to realize they feel the same way 😉
How can our readers further follow your work online? You can follow us on all of the platforms @ainagiving, and learn more about our programs and get involved world-change retreats at AinaGiving.com
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.