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Lisa Schmidt: “Being a great boss is simple”

In this era of multiple communication platforms, I would resist the urge to give feedback in an email; instead, use the email to set up a time to talk and provide enough advance information so your employee comes prepared to the conversation. For instance, you might write: “Myriam, I would like to speak with you […]

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In this era of multiple communication platforms, I would resist the urge to give feedback in an email; instead, use the email to set up a time to talk and provide enough advance information so your employee comes prepared to the conversation. For instance, you might write: “Myriam, I would like to speak with you about the presentation you prepared for the executive team retreat scheduled for next week. When, between now and the end of tomorrow, are you free for a call?”

It is all-too-easy to make things worse through misinterpretation or misunderstanding in an email, and given you can always reach someone over the phone or via video-conferencing, I would strongly encourage this as the way to go. You can’t always get the tone right in writing, which is a huge part of effective communication.


Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Schmidt.

A seasoned coach, speaker and leadership development expert, Lisa helps executives and organizations get clear on what matters, and act with courage to build strategies — along with robust workplace cultures — that have a meaningful and long-lasting impact.

A former speechwriter credited with writing “the Million Dollar speech” for a hospital fundraising campaign, Lisa understands how values, vulnerability and speaking from the heart are critical to leadership, and uses her skills to help leaders shift out of busy-work and into inspiring and catalyzing real change. She is the founder of Worksphere Consulting.


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?

Thanks for asking, Alexandra. I would say the theme of my working life is best articulated by American poet Robert Frost’s line: “taking the road less traveled.”

Briefly, in my early 20s, I earned a degree in biochemistry and nuclear physics. To celebrate, I took what was going to be a two-week trip to London, England, where I ended up staying for four months, dating the lead singer in a punk band, cycling across Europe with nothing more than a change of clothes and a credit card, and eventually returning to Canada to make “trick costumes” for magicians, write poetry and step on stage as a spoken word artist. Suffice it to say, I never did go back to the lab.

However, I did leverage that degree in science, using it in my writing, alternating between contributions to health and wellness magazines, and my other pet interest, reviewing books for literary journals. A bit later, I became a speechwriter for senior leaders in healthcare, primarily focused on reducing stigma for people with mental health and addiction challenges. Somewhere along the way, I went back to school to get an M.Ed. in Organizational Change, plus a professional coaching certification. More recently, I bought a log cabin in the Canadian north where I spend time writing, podcasting and virtually coaching leaders on living and working with courage and vulnerability.

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

While my formal education gave me a solid professional foundation, it was facing my own anxieties about, and resistance to, personal and professional change that gave me a more thorough grasp of the obstacles leaders face when embarking on pathways to growth. Here’s an example:

Earlier in 2020, before COVID19 and issues of racial injustice came to the fore, I launched a podcast on the topic of diversity, inclusion and belonging. My co-host Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman and I wanted to share with listeners what honest, candid and vulnerable conversations about racism, oppression and injustice sounded like. I had participated in quite a bit of unconscious bias training in my career, but it was in ‘doing my own work,’ and exposing my lack of understanding of inequality that allowed me to understand how facing fear and not having answers allows leaders to become powerful catalysts of change and transformation.

Clients seek me out because I know what it’s like to take creative and professional risks. Really, the more I face my own anxieties about and resistance to change, the more I can Illuminate the path for others who want to move beyond fear and being stuck, into understanding and persuasive action.

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

I understood the power of being genuine in the telling of a personal story when a speech I wrote for the CEO of an internationally-renowned psychiatric hospital in Toronto prompted the head of Canada’s largest labor union, in attendance that night, to jump from his seat and pledge a million dollars towards an anti-stigma campaign.

The speech was essentially an impassioned call to action I crafted for the CEO based on his surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. During his recovery, he realized how his time in the hospital was immeasurably different from the patients in his own hospital (one of the lines in the speech was that he was receiving gifts of fruit baskets from visitors, while patients in his own hospital were being called fruit baskets), and in fact, ours was the only hospital in the city without a gift shop. His willingness to express his longing for change was powerful, and working with him on his vision for the future was deeply fulfilling.

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?

When you become a professional coach, you need to stay completely focused on your client, and help shape a conversation that is entirely in service of their goals and aspirations. As a novice, I had a hard time sticking with this important concept, and more than once got so excited about my client’s story that my coaching turned into a tell-me-more type of interview. At the end of one particular session, my client asked: “so when is the article coming out?” I had no idea what they were talking about until it was pointed out to me that I was asking questions better suited to a lifestyle magazine profile than supporting their personal growth. This was a powerful lesson about seeing the immense difference between asking questions to get information vs asking questions to help another person explore their beliefs and surface insights that initiate change.

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

This is an important question, particularly with so many people working indefinitely from home during COVID19. With your permission, I would like to offer some considerations to help CEOs and leaders manage remote employees’ workloads and create the conditions for agreed-upon levels of productivity, with explicit times to disconnect. Here goes:

1. Prepare for the conversation

Every interaction between a leader and an employee benefits from preparation before uttering the first word. Prior to the meeting, a leader should consider the purpose of the conversation and what they want to accomplish, as well as how they want the employee to experience it. In the case of discussing well-being and avoiding burnout, a leader is well served by considering the way they wish to come across. A well-intentioned “How are you spending your time?” can be interpreted as “Justify why I pay you,” for instance.

2. Bring your curiosity

Couch your questions and information-gathering in curiosity. It is all too easy to fall into the advice trap before understanding what your employees are experiencing. For instance, a single parent with toddlers at home and daycares shuttered will have different needs — and may require alternate accommodations — than a person living alone with a tank of goldfish. Consider a fact-finding conversation along the lines of:

  • Given our current situation with COVID19 and your needs, are your current goals and objectives reasonable? If not, how might we make adjustments?
  • What challenges — if any — are you facing working from home (e.g., childcare, a small space with two adults making conference calls)? How might we help you work around them?

3. Collaborate on what “good” looks like

As you learn what is (and isn’t) working for your staff, express your desire for each person to balance between work and other priorities. Work together to design and agree on a workday structure and expectations. There is a difference between working from home as a previously-negotiated arrangement, and being at home during a pandemic, trying to work while managing homeschooling. Also, agree on “office hours”: If you send emails at midnight, let your employee know that there is no expectation to respond until those agreed-upon hours.

4. Offer reassurance

Show your belief that employees are contributing the best they can under unprecedented circumstances. Recognize progress made, and offer your availability to address emerging issues. Notice and recognize what they are getting right.

I would emphasize that effective leaders know this: every time they speak with an employee or a team is a moment to clarify expectations, check for understanding and demonstrate trust. When leaders leave conversations with muddled or conflicting messages, and fail to confirm a strong belief in their people’s desire to contribute, they add to the strain and overwhelm employees already feel, and communicate that it’s never a good idea to step away from their keyboards.

As the last point, I recommend checking in at regular intervals to adjust agreements as days go by and work progresses. If signs of burnout are starting to show, raise concerns immediately, address workload, and insist on a break or a logging-off time. Everything a leader does — or doesn’t do — is the filter through which employees will gauge how to spend their days, and how much they plan to invest their careers with current employers.

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

Leadership is less about what you do and more about the person you become as you build awareness of and manage your own blind spots while catalyzing and bringing to life other people’s potential. There are tens of thousands of books, courses, workshops, webinars and business magazine articles that offer tips and advice on how to be a leader. What is lacking in all this is the simple premise that the best way to become a good leader is to focus on becoming a good person. This means starting from the premise that we all deserve kindness, respect, candor and opportunities to grow, and being consistent in communicating that.

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?

It’s no surprise that the vast majority of us experience heightened anxiety as we enter stressful situations. I feel my heart rate increasing just thinking about difficult things I have had to face at work!

My go-to strategy is reminding myself my feelings are valid, and to trusting I have everything I need (experience, skills, positive regard for others) to perform when the pressure is on.

I suppose it doesn’t hurt that spent my twenties on stage as a spoken word artist and can tell you there is little more nerve-wracking than getting behind the mic to perform a deeply personal piece of writing. As my experience grew, I learned that the vast majority of the time, people want you to succeed and are willing to cut a lot of slack if you show up with a measure of courage and humility. I also know, having worked in healthcare and seen the painful decisions families have to make with a very ill loved one, that most life experiences are not life or death. Having this kind of perspective, and knowing a tough conversation or a high-stakes meeting is not the end of the world, also helps.

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?

For sure. Let me start with a definition of what feedback is and what it’s designed to do:

Feedback is information that lets you know if you are on course with what’s expected from you on what you are working on, the quality and scope of your work, and how you show up as a person in the role. When done properly, the receiver of feedback has information from another person (boss, peer, friend, etc.) that enables them to see a gap in their performance or behavior that they can address.

I have been a director leading teams in a variety of settings. In these roles, I was also responsible for leadership development programs which involved teaching managers how to give feedback. I know from both these experiences the level of discomfort that comes with giving constructive feedback.

This might be a curious example, but the hardest feedback I ever had to give was telling an employee her clothing choices were inappropriate for the workplace. There is a delicate line between providing feedback about something a person is or is not doing while performing the duties of their job, and how they choose to look in representing the department or company. I could have waved the company dress code under her nose and sent her home to change; instead, I initiated a conversation about her overall goals and progress, and we discussed what might be getting in the way of her success. It was in that context that I spoke about what it meant to be professional in the workplace we shared and told her that even if she performed above and beyond expectations — which she regularly did — her clothing choices (beachwear, faded t-shirts) got in the way of me and other leaders seeing her many accomplishments. Knowing I had her back on the important stuff made it easy for her to hear me out and make the needed changes.

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?

The benefits of feedback, whether developmental to help people grow, or recognition to celebrate accomplishment and impact, are well documented: retention, positive organizational reputation, increased levels of engagement and productivity, high customer satisfaction ratings, and on it goes. Feedback is the most effective, and possibly the most under-utilized, non-monetary motivator of positive and sustained positive growth and change. When an employee knows they are doing well and encouraged to sustain that performance, they will want to give discretionary efforts to their work. And for those who receive feedback that helps them grow and learn, and who are supported in adopting new approaches or behaviors, the outcome can be directly tied to advancing the company’s goals.

This is going to sound blunt but here is my advice to leaders: if you know someone could benefit from feedback to address a gap in their performance or behavior, and you refrain from helping them see it and deal with it, you are not a leader. The primary responsibility of leadership is to support and steward the best your employees have to give in service of your organization’s mission. If you don’t take this seriously, and allow employees to underperform because of your lack of willingness to provide clear and actionable feedback, then your performance is the issue, not the employees.

Listen, Alexandra, you and I know there are a lot of false ideas of what it means to be a leader. Some believe they are “finally in control” and will use their power to boss people around. Others don’t see much beyond the boost in title and salary and hide in their offices shielded by gate-keeping assistants. I wish it were not so but absolutely everyone I know has a ‘bad boss” story that underscores how many ineffective leaders are out there.

These are the people responsible for high turnover, low morale and for the countless issues HR professionals deal with on a daily basis. I can’t tell you how many times I have worked with a new leader who started in a managerial role only to discover they have “inherited” the unmanaged performance and behavioral problems on their team due to the inability or unwillingness of the previous leader to address issues. I have a lot of empathy for leaders who find themselves in this situation, yet I also question the culture of an organization that allows leaders to get away with poor people practices that negatively affect the bottom line. Much of my work is in helping organizations get this right.

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.

It can be tricky for sure, but there is a lot a manager can do to get this right.

To start, it is critical that all leaders have an initial position on the feedback they have previously shared that they can refer to. What this looks like, in one-on-one and team meetings, is the leader explaining their role is, in part, to support employees in growing their skills and careers, and that feedback from the leader is about making the employee a stronger performing member of the team. So, my first suggestion is to have this in place long before specific feedback is given grounds a feedback conversation in service of a higher purpose.

Second, as a developer of employee talent and expertise, leaders should also be having regular conversations with employees on the employee’s development goals, and have permission granted from them to offer feedback on how well they are progressing towards these goals.

So, when a leader decides to give feedback, it is done one-on-one, in private and starts with a reminder about their role as someone helping employees learn and grow, and if applicable, link back to the development goals the employee has set for themselves. This way, the feedback is part of a larger conversation on overall performance and career progression aligned with learning and growth, and not on criticizing and fault-finding.

And a caveat: leaders are not in a strong position to offer feedback if they have not initially set performance and behavioral expectations; if they are about to give feedback on something the employee had no way of knowing was expected, the feedback will be received as if “out of left field” and will not do much for the relationship between the leader and the employee.

Third, the best kinds of feedback always start with specific observable behavior, such as:

– “The presentation you gave today to the management team lacked the key information I asked you to provide in the email I sent you on Monday,”; or,

– “When I asked you to show our new employee the photocopy room, you sighed and rolled your eyes.”

is important to start with the facts and not with conclusions about the behavior, or attacks on the employee’s personality. Starting with facts means you are not arguing over what did or did not happen, and avoids the trap of staring with opinion, judgment or a false conclusion which can be argued with.

Once you have a statement of fact, move to the impact of the behavior:

– “This information was critical for the purposes of making an important decision, and when it was missing, it prevented the team from having a fulsome conversation on the alternatives for action, which both you and I were asked about and we fumbled for answers. It made both you and I look unprepared, and also now means extra work to re-do the presentation,”; or,

– “When you acted in that way, it communicated to me that you thought this small request was below you, and it left our new employee with the impression that this kind of behavior is tolerated on our team.”

The reason for sharing the impact is to let the employee connect the dots between what they did (the action) and what it meant (the emotional fall-out).

From here, there are two paths to take (and I will use the eye-rolling example for this): one is to ask for further information…

“So this is what I saw and the impact it had. How do you see this?” or “Help me understand why you did this?” or “What led you to take that action or do that?” or “Is there anything I need to know that would help me see what drove you to do this?”

The other path is to be firm with a reminder about previous agreements (ie: “I have been clear and have affirmed many times that respect on this team is critical to how we work. You will recall that our team had a conversation on non-verbal communication such as eye-rolling being disrespectful…”), and reinforce that you will not accept any reason for why it happened, only a commitment to not repeat it again and an action to complete to make good on the changed behavior (“I would like you to go to the new employee and apologize for the message you sent them.”) And ask for a commitment: “By when will you do this?”

Fourth, leaders need to think of feedback in two dimensions: are you providing feedback on a person’s capability (the technical skill required to do the task) or on the person’s attitude towards the task? This is an important distinction as you would be providing different feedback to an eager novice as opposed to a jaded long-timer. The first set of feedback helps turn potential into proficiency; the latter supports movement from negativity to some degree of engagement.

Lastly, when feedback is given about a trait that someone cannot change (“You blink a lot when you speak and that makes me nervous,”) or starts with judgment or provocative question (“You seem to get lazier as the week progresses,” or “You think calling the CEO by her first name is a smart career move, eh?), you reveal yourself as uncaring and possibly cruel towards the employee, and you activate in others high levels of apathy, disengagement, disenfranchisement or at worst, sabotage.

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?

In this era of multiple communication platforms, I would resist the urge to give feedback in an email; instead, use the email to set up a time to talk and provide enough advance information so your employee comes prepared to the conversation. For instance, you might write: “Myriam, I would like to speak with you about the presentation you prepared for the executive team retreat scheduled for next week. When, between now and the end of tomorrow, are you free for a call?”

It is all-too-easy to make things worse through misinterpretation or misunderstanding in an email, and given you can always reach someone over the phone or via video-conferencing, I would strongly encourage this as the way to go. You can’t always get the tone right in writing, which is a huge part of effective communication.

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 once had the experience of getting feedback at a yearly performance review on something that had been bothering my boss for the previous six months, with him choosing to leave me in the dark about something minor but actionable I could have addressed at the moment. This is not a good practice.

In my view, the sooner to the actual event or incident or behavior that needs attention, the better. The caution on this is to not give developmental feedback to an employee with other people around. Wait to do it in a setting where you and the employee can speak without other people party to your conversation.

I would add there is a difference between giving feedback on a one-off event and a history of similar incidents. In the first case, you address the actual issue as close to the time of the incident as possible; in the latter, your focus is on the pattern of behavior that, in spite of ongoing feedback, continues. This is a different conversation as it is about what is getting in the way of acting on feedback and would happen after a series of performance or behavior lapses.

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

Being a great boss is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. It’s simple in that it involves having a set of values that collectively, are your North Star. These are the principles and beliefs that guide your thinking and shape your behavior in all parts of your life.

Having values is one thing, but it is not necessarily easy to consistently apply these values to how you show up, particularly when tired, stressed, worried, irritated, or insecure. The most powerful thing you can do as a leader is to invest in your own personal growth, starting with self-awareness. The more you know about what makes you tick — and specifically what circumstances set off a reactionary or automatic response in you — the better you will be able to manage your triggers and ground yourself in your values.

The best example I can think to illustrate this is from a time I was facilitating a day-long strategy session for a senior team. As we talked about what we would be celebrating a year from now, the group suddenly shifted into venting about circumstances they claimed were out of their control. One by one, each director expressed deep frustration at not being able to meet targets set by those above them without the opportunity to influence these targets.

I knew I had to create space both for the frustrations to be expressed and, at the same time, redirect the team to where they had agency. I could tell the team leader’s patience was thinning and ws about to say something that might silence the team, so I stepped in to create a pause and indirectly remind him of what mattered most to him: collaboration and consensus.

My words were something to the effect of: “It’s remarkable how much you all trust each other to be able to share your grievances without holding back, particularly with your leader here. This tells me that the quality of the relationships at this table is quite high. I also know that the more time you all spend on what’s getting in the way, you have less time for figuring out how to move forward together which I am guessing might be something you all want to focus on, especially you, Rich.“

Saying this gave the group a bit of time to take a breath, but it also gave Rich, the senior leader at the table, the opportunity to anchor himself back in his core value of collaboration. He was able to move from where I left off, and in a quiet but compelling manner, speak to what he most admired about each person at the table, telling them how he was going to celebrate their collective accomplishments a year on, regardless of whether the targets were met or not. The mood shifted from irritation to enthusiasm, and I was thrilled to witness such a powerful example of seeing his values in action, particularly when he recognized that as his irritation mounted, he had a choice to make about how he was going to show up. It was in pausing that he was able to make the wise decision to fall back on what mattered most to him.

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. 🙂

We deeply underestimate our ability to have a life-changing influence on other people. So many of us believe our contributions don’t matter, or that because we are not famous or are not in formal leadership positions that we cannot shape or influence the world in a positive way. This is the farthest thing from the truth. My movement would be to help people at all stages of life to understand they are each like the wings of a butterfly, and that with the tiniest of flaps, they can create meaning, change and connection throughout their days. Something as simple as smiling at a stranger communicates that the world can be a friendly place, something we long to be reminded of in an era of inequality and uncertainty.

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

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

This quote has resonated with me for years and has shaped how I approach all my interactions. We tend to forget that regardless of what we say or do, each of us has an impact on other people, be it in passing at a grocery store, or with our close friends and family. In other words, we are always role-modeling, be it in a positive or negative way.

I take my presence in other peoples’ lives seriously, so I choose to create feelings of belonging and connection in those I interact with, regardless of circumstances. My father used to say he could tell a lot about a leader by how they treated the cleaning staff at the office. I think that applies in every part of our lives. If you or I want to create a world of caring and connection, we have dozens of opportunities each day to work towards that through the people we interact with.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I can be reached for coaching, consulting and public speaking through my website at www.worksphere.ca. The link to my podcast on diversity, inclusion and belonging is at www.differentpeople.ca.

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

I am so grateful for this opportunity, and for your thoughtful questions. Thanks Alexandra!

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