“Managing People Better” with Leigh Steere

Schedule a video call so you can see the employee’s facial expressions during the discussion. When requesting the meeting, keep the invitation neutral. For example: “While the details of the project are still fresh in my mind, I have a couple of concerns that I want discuss and get your input on. When can we […]

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Schedule a video call so you can see the employee’s facial expressions during the discussion. When requesting the meeting, keep the invitation neutral. For example: “While the details of the project are still fresh in my mind, I have a couple of concerns that I want discuss and get your input on. When can we do a Zoom call?”

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

Leigh is a thought leader in the field of people management and fostering workplace creativity. In 2007, she co-founded Managing People Better, LLC, with retired Hewitt CEO Peter Friedes. Together, they’ve helped managers on six continents evaluate the impact of management style on relationships and results.

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?

In2004, one of my clients was receiving negative feedback about an executive, but the feedback was too vague to be actionable. They asked if I knew anyone who could serve as an executive shadow to get a better “read” on the situation and how to coach this particular senior manager.

Peter Friedes came to mind. I had worked at his firm Hewitt Associates a decade prior. Though I never reported to him directly, I’d had enough exposure to be really impressed with his management style and approach to coaching.

He was not interested in the executive shadow opportunity but said, “I wrote a book a couple years ago that may be helpful in this situation. Would you like me to send you a copy?”

The 2R Manager soon arrived in the mail and the content was on-point with my client’s need. The more I read, the more excited I became about the concepts in the book.

Peter was thinking about taking the book to a second edition and wondered if I had any suggestions for improvement. I responded with some questions, observations and ideas. He replied, asking if I would like to team with him to take the material forward. Instead of a second edition book, we created a software tool to help managers become more effective and launched Managing People Better, LLC.

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

Managers get straight-talk feedback from us that they are unlikely to hear elsewhere.

Our research suggests that around 90 percent of people managers have one or more behaviors that are not serving them well. Here are some common examples:

  • Micromanaging can cause employees to feel suffocated.
  • Some managers avoid having performance conversations, because they don’t want to be perceived as mean.
  • Managers with project responsibilities sometimes focus on their individual deliverables to the point of ignoring their employees’ needs.

We help managers identify issues like these and provide guidance on what to adjust in order to improve relationships with employees, as well as business results.

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

The story that sticks with me most happened two years after graduating from college. It was my first object lesson in “Know Your Audience.”

My job back then involved selling insurance products to employers. The role also entailed meeting with employee groups to explain their benefits and how to use them. One such meeting took place at a logging camp. We met outdoors, with employees sitting on the ground, rocks or logs.

A few minutes into the session, it was clear that I did not have my audience’s attention. They were looking off into the trees or staring at their boots. I stopped and asked if anyone had questions. After a long, awkward silence, a man tentatively raised his hand and mumbled, “Ma’am, what is a percent?”

A lump formed in my throat and my heart was racing. I had been rattling off information on coinsurance and deductibles. All of our written materials assumed readers would know the term “percent.” I took a deep breath, grabbed 10 pebbles from the ground, lined them up and said, “Pretend this is one dollar of money. If a trip to the doctor costs one dollar, we pay eight parts of the dollar and you pay only two parts.”

This situation taught me to ask, “What does my customer really need?” This question is core to my work.

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?

One summer during college, I managed rentals and reservations for a rafting company. A gal called to make a reservation for “Triple A.” I wrote “AAA” on the reservation, assuming it was the American Automobile Association.

As we soon found out, my assumption was completely off-target. One of those A’s stood for “Amputees.” The whole group had lower-extremity disabilities, which make rafting more challenging and require extra safety measures such as additional raft guides.

We and our guests had a great experience that day, but my mistake cost our company money. Our pricing had not incorporated the additional raft guides. I learned to ask more questions, including, “What assumptions am I making?” and “How will I confirm my assumptions are correct?”

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

Employees take their cues from the C-suite about what behaviors are valued in the organization. Helping your workforce avoid burnout begins with you. If they see you leaving at 5 p.m. to attend your child’s soccer game, they will feel more comfortable doing the same.

Conversely, if the staff sees you working during your vacation, they may feel uncomfortable taking time off to recharge.

I encourage organizational leaders to maintain a regular schedule that incorporates sufficient sleep, healthy meals at regular times and exercise. Model this for your employees. When you and your workforce are rested and healthy, you will have more energy and resilience for tackling each day’s business challenges.

Further, model an electronics-free time every day. Demonstrate that it’s O.K. to unplug. For example, turn off the computer and phone for dinner and don’t check them again until the next day. Spend the electronics-free time connecting with family and friends, pursuing hobbies and engaging in self-care.

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

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between a “leader” and a “people manager.” Many organizations use these terms interchangeably, but they are not the same.

A leader articulates a vision and inspires others to move toward that vision.

A people manager inspires and equips employees to do great work.

It is possible to be good at both roles simultaneously. But there are also many examples of great leaders who are terrible people managers and vice versa.

Many great leaders have no people management responsibilities at all. For example, someone who leads a protest is encouraging a group to speak out as one voice against an injustice. A thought leader invites people to think in a new direction. Leaders have the ability to articulate a vision and paint a picture of possibility. A brand new, fresh-out-of-college employee can be an exceptional leader.

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?

My most important stress-relief strategy is to build “space” into my schedule. Rather than booking back-to-back commitments, I reserve blocks of time for reflection, analysis, preparation and rehearsal. No one can be “on” 24/7.

It is healthy to take time for family, friends, faith, exercise, hobbies and reading. Some of my best ideas and decisions emerge when I am engaged in relaxing activities completely unrelated to work.

I recently heard an interview with CEO David Wolf. He said, “Don’t confuse activity with progress. Focus on what truly matters.” His quote concisely captures my stress management philosophy.

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 had three people management roles in my career. I quickly discovered how hard it is to manage people effectively. How do you give feedback in a way that uplifts and encourages? How do you confront counter-productive behaviors in a constructive way?

In my work with Managing People Better, LLC, we’ve gained insights on these questions through employee feedback studies and other research.

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?

Employees need feedback in order to learn and grow professionally. They need to know what they are doing right and what needs adjustment…what to do more of and what to do less of. Your feedback can help employees become more efficient, deliver higher quality work and communicate more effectively.

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.

Before sharing suggestions, I think it’s important to distinguish between types of feedback. What is the nature of the issue? Did the employee make a mistake on a project? Does a worker have a bad habit that’s interfering with team performance? Has someone violated company policy? Different issues call for different types of conversations.

If an employee has made a mistake on a project, consider these five steps:

  1. Schedule a video call so you can see the employee’s facial expressions during the discussion. When requesting the meeting, keep the invitation neutral. For example: “While the details of the project are still fresh in my mind, I have a couple of concerns that I want discuss and get your input on. When can we do a Zoom call?”
  2. Start the conversation by asking questions: “From your vantage point, what worked well on the project and what areas didn’t go as smoothly as you would have liked?” In some cases, employees are hyperaware of their mistakes and are already beating themselves up over the shortcomings. A question like this will help you gauge what type of coaching is needed.
  3. Explore the employee’s thought process: “Walk me through how you selected this course of action.” There’s a good chance you’ll agree with one or more elements of the explanation.
  4. Acknowledge the points of agreement, then draw out the employee’s thoughts on the factors they didn’t mention: “I agree with your assessment of A, B and C. How did you weigh D, E, and F when deciding your course of action?” A question like this can help you identify where an employee may need more training.
  5. Provide an assignment: “On our next project, let’s brainstorm about D, E, and F before you finalize your course of action.”

“Benefit of the doubt” was a key cultural tenet at Hewitt Associates when Peter Friedes was CEO. Until you have evidence otherwise, it’s helpful to assume there’s a good reason for an employee’s performance shortcoming.

Here’s an example: We had a customer service representative with a reputation for being cool, calm and collected, even if customers were cussing at her. So, it was completely out of character when she started yelling at people in the office. I called her into a conference room and said, “This isn’t like you. What’s up?” After a stony silence, she finally disclosed that she and her kids were experiencing abuse at home. Her husband had threatened retribution if she told anyone.

The best practice for sensitive, serious conversations is to meet in-person. If this is not possible due to COVID-19 constraints or if the employee is not geographically co-located, I recommend consulting your human resources department for help to map out a course of action.

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 recommend against using email for feedback that is corrective in nature. An in-person meeting is best.

However, with many people working remotely because of COVID-19, this may not be possible. The second best option: schedule a video conference so you have some visual cues to gauge how the employee is receiving the feedback. A video call also allows for back-and-forth discussion and troubleshooting.

During this time of COVID-19, many employees are under extreme stress. A spouse may have lost a job. Kids may be underfoot due to school and childcare closures. Some families are facing housing insecurity or health scares. And a growing number of people are experiencing mental health challenges. For these reasons, it is important to think through how and when to have a performance conversation.

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?

Giving feedback in real-time is ideal, while the details are fresh in both your mind and the employee’s. There is one caveat: only deliver feedback when you are emotionally neutral. If you are angry, anxious, frustrated or experiencing other negative emotions, it’s hard to have a constructive discussion. Take a personal “time out” to cool off before offering critique.

Employees need regular feedback. Instead of artificially deciding a frequency, make a point to sit down with the employee at the end of each project — or the end of each milestone — to review what worked well and things to do differently next time.

If more than two weeks have gone by since last communicating about a project, schedule a quick check-in with the employee. If you are satisfied with the person’s performance, say so: “It’s been a couple weeks since we last touched base. From my perspective, everything seems to be going smoothly. Do you have any items that you’d like to meet about?”

New employees need more frequent check-ins — at least once a day for the first week and at least once a week thereafter for the first three months.

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

Great bosses help their employees shine. They are servant leaders who equip employees to perform to their fullest potential. Effective people managers get great work done through others.

Managing People Better’s co-founder Peter Friedes identified two fundamental skill sets that all good managers have: Relating (which involves asking, listening, including, coaching, and encouraging) and Requiring (which encompasses results-oriented behaviors — setting expectations, focusing on goals, insisting on excellence, setting appropriate controls, asserting views and confronting problems).A great boss is adept at both skill sets and understands when to use each skill (and in what amount).

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. 🙂

In addition to the pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, we have a pandemic of isolation in the U.S. I would like to see a Connection movement, where every adult chooses a person in the community who needs fellowship. We each reach out proactively and regularly to provide that fellowship. This could involve regular visits to a senior citizen living alone, or playing basketball with a teen in your neighborhood whose single mom is stretched thin by working two jobs, or befriending a neighbor who just moved here from out-of-state and doesn’t know anyone yet. When we connect with people of different ages, different skin colors and different worldviews, our sense of community and possibility grows.

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

My favorite quote comes from the science fiction book Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card:

“You can’t rule out the impossible, because you never know which of your assumptions about what is possible might turn out to be false.”

This quote sums up my belief that every problem has a potential solution. There is a difference between “difficult” and “impossible.” The word “impossible” represents the decision to close a door — to stop inquiry rather than persevere.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow us on Twitter @Manage_Better, where we post food for thought on a variety of people management topics.

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

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