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“Leaders — lean in and own the feedback”, With Maria Cartagena and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

A great boss brings out the best in their teams and builds real connections. They identify and help their team play to their strengths, support their development path and provide feedback. They build trust, provide opportunities to support their growth. They have the respect of their team because they’re not above doing what needs to […]

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A great boss brings out the best in their teams and builds real connections. They identify and help their team play to their strengths, support their development path and provide feedback. They build trust, provide opportunities to support their growth. They have the respect of their team because they’re not above doing what needs to get done to help their team deliver their work. They work fearlessly and when they fail, they are honest and share with the team the learnings.


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

Maria is the Senior Vice President, People Operations at Kira Systems where she is responsible for the overall people strategy, including scaling the team, cultivating a performance-driven engagement culture and delivering a great employee experience. With over 20 years of experience, Maria has held several people leadership roles within award-winning global companies. She is passionate about driving the importance of culture and its connection to productivity and high-performance teams.


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?

I originally got my start temping for a number of companies in an effort to earn enough money to pay for my tuition because I was reluctant to take on a lot of student loans. The agency I was temping for eventually hired me internally to do administrative work. This grew to temporary placements, and then permanent placements with some really great companies. I was young, still finishing school and all of my contacts were suddenly the heads of HR/People teams at well known large companies. I used that leverage as an opportunity to learn, and then transitioned from external talent acquisition to working in-house at a company in their campus recruitment department. I was doing a political science degree and originally thought I was going to go into law. I didn’t even know what Human Resources was, but found the discussions/learnings with my contacts so interesting that I changed course. I’ve now been in HR for over twenty years. After having spent my time in larger 10K+ person companies (tech, healthcare, publishing), I fell into a tech start-up many years ago and haven’t looked back since. It’s been good to me!

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

Noah Waisberg, one of our two founders, got in touch with me during a reference call for an employee that had worked with me previously that he was going to hire. At the time he joked that at some point they would also need a People leader. I didn’t think much of it because I was working somewhere else and was happy. But it was hard to resist. The more I got to know Kira Systems as a company, the more interested I became. They had an incredible growth story and yet, were a virtually unknown player at that time in the Toronto tech community even though they probably had the most successful financial story. It was a real opportunity to help them grow and put them on the map as an employer of choice.

I love that both founders are still with the company and are extremely product and mission driven. I also loved that they had a bootstrap story, because it really meant that the company had humble beginnings.

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

When you’re in HR, you see everything — the good, the bad and — unfortunately — the ugly. There certainly has been no shortage of investigations that could provide salacious content, but no matter what it is, there is always something to learn from any situation.

Between tech booms, when things for tech were slow, I worked in a healthcare setting at a large top-tier hospital for four years about twenty years ago. During my time there, we lived through another health epidemic — SARS. All of healthcare was in a real crisis at that point with employees quarantining and getting sick, so redeployment of staff was key. All HR programs were put on hold and were redeployed to other critical functions at the hospital including quarantine tracking, helping with scheduling. In my case, I was made a security supervisor and managed security over nights at the hospital while the building was basically in lock down. At one point, I received word that a parent had contacted the CEO of the hospital to warn us that she was planning to bring her child to the hospital for an appointment and that they had a severe allergy to latex (airborne) and the last time they visited, her child went into anaphylaxis coming off the elevator from the parking garage. Knowing that they were coming, it was my job to ensure that all patient areas and other parts of the hospital were swept for latex. This is not a small thing to do at a large hospital. Truthfully, I remember thinking — is this request even reasonable? How can I possibly guarantee that no one will reintroduce the latex before they arrive? How do they go to the mall? I’m not proud to admit that I was only thinking about the inconvenience to me and the hospital. When the family arrived, I was surprised to see that this mother had not one, but two physically and mentally disabled children that both had this allergy. I immediately was ashamed of myself — how selfish could I be? It must have been really hard to move through normal motions of life with her family and try to protect them at every move. How does one family end up with so much struggle? We created a safe “path” for them through the environment, I kept them company while they were there, brought them snacks and lunch. Basically provided personal support to make sure they could get through their visit.

It occurred to me that the hospital didn’t even question the need to support this one family and insisted that we do the work to ensure their safety. This was a real lesson that has stuck with me and influenced my leadership ever since. Broken down, I can frame it as these lessons: a) have empathy for others and what they’re going through; b) showing personal support can make a real difference in someone’s life; c) experience matters; d) pride in your company’s decisions goes along way in engagement; and e) find a way — which happens to be a Kira Systems value!

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?

I’ve been lucky enough to work for companies that fail forward and value the importance of learning from mistakes. I truthfully can’t recall a moment from early on in my career at this point, but I’m sure they were there.

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

Wellness and development programs that focus on employee well-being and their progress tend to be low priority and they shouldn’t be. It’s the last thing companies tend to invest in and the first thing that is cut during tough times, which is a mistake. Investing early will help recruit better employees, create deeper commitment and engagement and cost companies less in turnover. It will also help them to focus on productive aspects of their role and that has a positive impact on their mindset and outlook.

That being said, the reality for many companies that early on is that they may not be able to invest a lot of money into these programs. Ultimately, don’t let this stop you from investing in ways that you can afford. Work with your People team and get creative. It costs nothing to have a culture of support and to be an example of a supportive leader. Taking healthy breaks and encouraging employees to do the same, supporting employee needs (whether it be because of health or family responsibilities) and encouraging self-care by setting limits and boundaries (healthy work schedules and workloads) all cost nothing but go a long way — especially in our current world. Employees won’t forget how you showed up to support them.

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

I look at leadership as both a science and an art. There are plenty of studies that help guide us on human behaviour, how to make evidence-driven decisions, plenty of rules (in terms of regulations, employment laws, etc.) and business plans to follow. All of these make up the science; they are really important and part of the job. There is an art to it as well — finding creative ways to motivate a group of people to achieve their goals, to act and accomplish. Teams have unique characteristics and simply telling them what they need to do will not drive results. What you’ve done in the past may not work now or with a different team. Leaders have to artfully evolve and learn from their teams and find what works best for them. Being a leader is more than managing — it is about having vision, communicating effectively, building trust and respect and inspiring others to do their best work.

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?

For me, preparation is key. I do my presentation in advance, practice, and write notes to myself. I’ll often get feedback from others to see what questions they ask me so I’m prepared for the unknown. There is no shame in showing your team that you want to be prepared and want their help and being open this way helps to establish trust and a normal cadence of feedback — both ways. When your team sees that you can take feedback, they will be more willing to be open to receiving feedback. Ultimately, my mind is most calm when I know that I’ve got this and I’ve prepared well.

Additionally, get a good night’s sleep! I’m not always good at this one, but I have really made an effort to improve it. In the past, I’ve been a bit of an adrenaline junkie and would go weeks with only four hours of sleep at night. There was a point where I realized, not only is this not healthy and I’m not setting a good example for my team, but I was just simply not putting my best foot forward. I was forgetful, didn’t think on my feet as well, missed details that were important, had a shorter attention span and would not be as articulate as I would have liked. It was like I was just checking a box and getting it done, rather than delivering an impactful presentation. That is definitely not the message I want to signal unintentionally — so sleep. If I’m having trouble sleeping, I do something really calming like baking. It’s therapeutic for me. I find baking will help me shut my brain off from work and focus on what I’m doing so that my muffins don’t turn out flat, or my cookies burn. Most people know that I often do my best thinking while baking and often joke that they can tell where I am in a project or initiative if I suddenly start taking lots of baked goods into the office.

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 believe that setting the stage and psychological safety starts with building a positive relationship with your team. Feedback is so much easier to deliver when there is trust. There are opportunities to build trust in every 1:1, making sure you don’t blindside your team, supporting them when they need you and that you share what you can to make them feel involved and engaged in decision making.

Feedback is a two-way street. It’s equally as important for my team to know that they can give me feedback. We trust each other in a manager/employee relationship, but we also have a high level of trust on our team that stems from open, consistent communication. Feedback is also received better when a team member knows that you are there to help them grow and get better, not to take them down. Using language such as ‘If I could offer’ or ‘I want to give you some ideas for next time’ creates a bridge between you and the team member and ensures that they do not feel attacked.

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?

As far as I’m concerned, it’s your main function as a leader. Getting results and delivering for your company are obviously important, but without honest and direct feedback, it’s much harder to achieve. As mentioned previously, most of what leaders are required to do is motivate others to achieve. This requires you to communicate and inspire. Without feedback, you may end up with a final product or result but it may not be up to standard or exactly to scope. It may not even get accomplished. A big part of motivating others comes from engaging them and helping them bring their best to any initiative. Unless all of your employees are perfect and have ESP (the ability to guess what is needed), there is no way to do this without honest and direct feedback.

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.

We recently invested in a leadership program through a Toronto-based company called gDR for our internal leaders and this is essentially what they teach.

  1. Know your employee. Hopefully you’ve built a relationship with your employee and have learned how they like to receive feedback already. But if you’re not sure, ask and tap into your design-thinking on how you could provide feedback best to each employee as their needs are unique. As an example, our leaders went through an exercise where we asked every employee at Kira Systems to develop their personal “owner’s manual” where they share how they like to communicate, receive feedback and the terms under which they work best. We’ve posted them publicly — including those from our Executive team. It’s good to show vulnerability but also to cut out the learning curve for leaders on how best to work with others. As an example, some of our employees have notified us that they’d like a heads up that their manager is going to provide them with feedback and would prefer a clear agenda so that they’re not blind-sided and can prepare for the discussion.
  2. Timing is key. Every company has their own cadence, but generally, be frequent and timely with it. There is nothing worse than hearing months after the fact about something you did wrong or could have done better. This is a sure-fire way to make an employee feel defensive. Even if you have an annual performance process at your company, there are plenty of opportunities to provide feedback to your employees during 1:1s, team meetings or after a presentation. As a side note, I think it’s great when companies are able to align their feedback cycles with their brand. I read once that Nike (fittingly) used sports analogies to their feedback cycles: “on the field”, “on the sidelines” and “in the locker room” to describe immediate on-the-spot feedback, feedback immediately following a presentation or long-term performance coaching that may happen in a more formal setting. I encourage teams to find their cadence and if you can, really align it to your culture and brand so it becomes a norm for your team.
  3. Leaders — lean in and own the feedback. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway. Make sure it is you, as their leader, that provides the majority of their feedback. Practice makes perfect and frequency helps to build trust, but more importantly, there is nothing worse than your employee hearing about something through someone who is not their leader. Not being direct causes trust and vulnerability issues and ultimately, a lack of respect. Try giving feedback to someone who doesn’t respect you — I promise, it’s a losing battle! Equally avoid using phrases like “even though I’ve not observed this, so and so said…” Let’s call it what it is — you’re abdicating your responsibility as a leader to provide feedback. Own it, be direct, think about what you’re going to say (see SBI below) and don’t make giving feedback someone else’s problem. They report to you and are your responsibility.
  4. SBI-it all day! Situation. Behaviour. Impact. For those of you who aren’t aware of this structure, it’s basically gold in the feedback world. By really thinking through your feedback and structuring your conversation to explain your intentions, the situation, what the behaviour observed was and what the impact of that behaviour was, it will provide context, keep things clear, organized and most importantly factual. Avoid judgement, opinions, unhelpful commentary or absolutes. The last thing you want is for your feedback session to be misunderstood by the employee. The intention is for them to grow and learn from the situation. Not ‘SBI-ing’ it may cause employees to default to an emotional response which can cause your conversation to go sideways.
  5. Maybe add an S to the SBI! Offer Support. When an employee knows that you are in it with them and are here to work through it with them, they are more likely to listen and learn. Listen to their perspective on the situation, clarify any questions they have, help them understand or find ways on how they could handle it differently next time, work through suggestions on how you can help them “fix” something. These things are the difference between managing and coaching. Coaching makes employees feel supported, less defensive and open to suggestions on how they can improve.
  6. Finally, always do this face-to-face. Even in our current Zoom-driven world, conversations of importance should always be personal. Just because an employee is remote doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same treatment as someone who would normally be in the office. It also signals that this conversation is important and you respect them enough to give them the time it deserves. Given our current situation, I think that empathy for our full-time remote team members who have always worked this way has increased — from both their managers and their peers.

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?

As I’ve mentioned, I do believe that feedback should be delivered face-to-face, even if this means over Zoom. Starting your day with an email full of feedback isn’t fun — especially if it’s hard feedback. There is so much that is lost in written communication and it can easily be misunderstood (in terms of tone, etc.) and I really don’t recommend it. Employees also generally tend to see written feedback as documentation that may go in their file and it could escalate a situation even if it wasn’t intended.

That being said, if your culture and cadence with your employees allows for written feedback, I would make sure you spell out the same things you would face-to-face: appropriately name the email in the subject line with (ex. Feedback on your recent client meeting) so that the employee knows what they are about to read, apologize in advance for not doing this face to face, use SBI to share your feedback while being careful with punctuation, and balance empathy and directness. Finally, offer the employee some time to digest and suggest that you meet face-to-face chat whenever they would like to chat further. Delivering initial feedback via email should always be followed by a conversation. I would never default to providing feedback via email over meeting face-to-face as a regular thing unless your employee’s “owners manual” says that they prefer this cadence so that they can digest and prepare.

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?

There is no general rule here — the reality is…it depends on the person and the situation. As I’ve mentioned previously, best practice is frequent and timely. I’ve also suggested that there are different timings for different types of feedback. I think most companies, if they make this a priority, generally have at least four different cadences:

  1. On-the-spot: this is generally immediately after an observed behaviour;
  2. Event-based: this doesn’t need to be negative, but it could be feedback after a deliverable is met, project is finally launched or presentation is given — talking through how it went makes the feedback timely and helps to set a continual improvement mindset by reviewing how could be done differently next time (positive or negative);
  3. Coaching: the cadence is really dependent on your company culture — could be quarterly, semi-annual or annual. These conversations should be developmental in nature and really focused on helping the employee reach their personal development goals. These are opportunities to talk through gaps and what they need to do to fill them to get to the next step, identify projects/training that will help get them there; and
  4. Performance: again, timing here is dependent on your company culture — quarterly, 
    semi-annual or annual. Generally this is a “year in review” of all of the employees’ accomplishments and areas of improvement. Ideally, you’ve spent plenty of time on this throughout the year and ideally there is nothing surprising to the employee.

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

A great boss brings out the best in their teams and builds real connections. They identify and help their team play to their strengths, support their development path and provide feedback. They build trust, provide opportunities to support their growth. They have the respect of their team because they’re not above doing what needs to get done to help their team deliver their work. They work fearlessly and when they fail, they are honest and share with the team the learnings. They are generous with their time and knowledge. Personally, I like to ensure that my team knows I am available no matter what they need — even if that means helping to stock the office kitchen fridge or getting packages ready for an event. My experience and expertise doesn’t put me above helping in any situation.

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 group of peers in the Toronto HR community often talk about the idea of if we all took on one mentee, it would make such a difference in the life of an emerging HR professional. There are so many skills that are learned on the job and through years of experience and exposure. Some things simply cannot be taught in a classroom setting. Ultimately, sharing knowledge is one of the most powerful things we can do to lift up professionals and new leaders.

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

Maya Angelou said: “Believe people when they show you who they are the first time.” I tend to be loyal to a fault and will give people more chances than I should. I think it’s because I have trouble accepting that they may not be who I want them to be. I now pay more attention to the signals people send and believe them. It saves a lot of time and wasted emotion.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow Kira Systems on Linkedin, Twitter or Instagram, and they can find me directly on Twitter or Linkedin.

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