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“My first advice is DON’T. ” With Steve Campbell

My first advice is DON’T. Lean into the old, but reliable, stats about how much communication gets lost when people aren’t face-to-face. Technology has become a friend here. While videoconference tools will never replace the humanity of an in-person meeting, they can at least allow you to pick up on non-verbal cues, as well as […]

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My first advice is DON’T. Lean into the old, but reliable, stats about how much communication gets lost when people aren’t face-to-face. Technology has become a friend here. While videoconference tools will never replace the humanity of an in-person meeting, they can at least allow you to pick up on non-verbal cues, as well as the level of energy and type of energy in the conversation.

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

Steve is the Founder and CEO of pro-voke, a business strategy firm which helps organizations set direction, drive change, and keep people engaged in what’s most important to their organization. Steve brings a spirited perspective on how businesses can perform to their peak potential. He cuts to the chase, brings a gritty optimism, and surfaces the real truth in challenges and opportunities.

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?

Ilaunched pro-voke after more than thirty years at Delhaize Group, where I held various executive roles both domestically and globally. A lot of my work was around leading and championing strategic change management and company culture. I had begun to think that there are a lot of organizations out there that could really benefit from the type of work I was doing, so it was in 2013 that I finally decided to “hang up a shingle” and create pro-voke. We’re not exactly a marketing company or a branding company. I’d say that we best operate at the intersection where culture, branding, and strategy come together. Our accounts include all kinds of companies across all kinds of industries, from small businesses to large corporations.

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

I really believe that we take a different approach to our work than others in related fields. At pro-voke, we lean heavily into our own brand attributes — CURRENT, STRAIGHTFORWARD, WAIST-DEEP, THOUGHTFUL, AESTHETIC, and UNAPOLOGETIC — in all we do. We actively avoid thick PowerPoint decks and longwinded dialogues. We’ve been on that side of the table and we appreciate how much our clients value their time. We have a true knack for keeping things simple, surfacing and synthesizing the most important conversations, and then helping companies move their best work forward.

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

At one point in my late thirties, I was absolutely convinced that I was in my dream job. Then, a chance to move to another part of the United States was presented to me. I took it, and was amazed at how much “new” there was to know. The same thing happened a few years later when I was given the opportunity to work more globally, and the learning and unlearning began anew. It happened again in founding pro-voke; all of those experiences provided the kindling that allowed me to become a late-blooming entrepreneur. I’ve had some “why didn’t I do this sooner” moments, but not a week goes by that I don’t appreciate something that I heard or learned or experienced along the way.

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

Keep track of your own level of sacrifice and your own level of renewal. Keep asking: what have I done for myself lately? It will support a healthy mindset and help you maintain a solid, true sense of self. Know that, regardless of whether the work is knee-deep in anxiety or neck-deep in adrenaline, it takes lots of energy. You need to fuel your energy to stay fit. Also, keep in mind that most everyone is watching you, taking cues from you, and writing chapters about how they experience you. Leaders have a great responsibility and an even greater opportunity here.

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

The best leaders I’ve known have had more than just a vision of a desirable future. They have been able to create a pull for others to see themselves in that future. I love the old adage that goes something like this: show people a picture of Camelot, let them see that they have a home in it, and they will weather any storms and swamps to get there.

I was proud to work with a team of people who, after a hurricane in Florida, committed to being the first retailer to reopen its doors; no detailed critical path and no 60-page deck of pros and cons. It was a belief that it could be achieved and it was an organization that had genuine belief in the leaders at the helm. Cranes, generators, and pallets of water found their way to the site. And even more important, hundreds of employees showed up wanting to be part of the effort. Through lots of sad tears, happy tears, and mostly tears of determination, it happened.

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?

Most of what I do lacks a “day is done” sense of completion, so I have begun to create some outside-of-work punctuation for myself. No major scorecards, but some goals toward which I’ve applied a surprisingly strong discipline. I’m back on the rower and tracking times and distances with goals in mind. I’m also being deliberate about connections with family and friends.

At the same time, I’m doing some things entirely for sheer enjoyment. I learned this lesson the hard way. I decided to do a 500-mile Camino across Spain a few years back. My thinking was way too goal-oriented. I was the first on the trail in the morning, the first to get to the day’s checkpoints, and the first to unload my backpack. A Scottish priest pulled me aside on day four and said, What are you trying to win here? Have you looked around at all? Have you wandered a bit off course on purpose? Have you had any memorable conversations along the way? I walked differently the next day. I occasionally have to remind myself, but I hope I’m still walking a bit differently now.

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 was quite fortunate to grow up in an organization (Hannaford Bros. Co., a supermarket company in the Northeast) which was deeply invested in being a learning company. Development was encouraged. Cross-functional skill building flourished. Ideas were encouraged, challenged and supported. Good ones were allowed to grow, and not-so-good ones were respectfully autopsied for lessons learned. A true sense of “discuss, debate, decide, and move on” existed. The phrase “humble teacher, proud learner” became a bit of a soundbite that spoke to the core of how people behaved.

This environment can only be sustained and grown by establishing a foundation of trust, engagement, and a sense that everyone who wants to will have the chance to make a valuable contribution. Those conditions require people to be adept and comfortable sharing their individual perspectives. Hearty disagreement is encouraged as a means to surface the best thinking, but care is taken to not take the challenge as a personal or professional affront.

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?

I believe that most every professional shows up at the office wanting to do a good job. I think there are very few people who go to work saying, I wonder how I can mess things up for today? With that as a baseline, it follows that people would appreciate the chance to hear from others.

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.

Breathe and pace yourself. Don’t rush through difficult conversations. Quickly “pulling off the Band-Aid of feedback” often results in meaningful insight getting lost. Take the right time to get the right message across.

Check for understanding. Make sure that you’re in tune with the head, heart, and gut of the individual. Be sure that the most important intentions are resulting in the most meaningful impacts.

Say what you mean. Stay away from development veneers and platitudes. Be constructively direct. There’s a right balance of leadership grace and leadership grit that the best leaders bring to the table here. It requires practice.

Define the climb. Let people know how big the performance or development is that they’re confronting. Given a sense of scale or magnitude, they will be able to better equip themselves for making things happen without packing too little or packing too much for the trek.

“Short-rope” the first next steps. Stay connected. Follow up with encouragement. Recognize the small wins. Reinforce accountability and look for ways to show and clear the way to success.

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.

My first advice is DON’T. Lean into the old, but reliable, stats about how much communication gets lost when people aren’t face-to-face. Technology has become a friend here. While videoconference tools will never replace the humanity of an in-person meeting, they can at least allow you to pick up on non-verbal cues, as well as the level of energy and type of energy in the conversation.

When required to deliver feedback via email, I’m reminded of a great idea a former colleague once shared with me over coffee. Consider an email like a share of stock. Upon reading it, is it something you’d BUY (great insight), HOLD (give its merit some consideration), or SELL (not meaningful). In which bucket would you want the emails you write to land?

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

In a remote world, language is illuminated. It’s even more important to be careful and care-filled, thoughtful and thought-filled. I’ve actually coached people to imagine someone getting ready to deliver feedback by handing the receiver a T-shirt with a particular word on it. How would it feel to wear this? By creating this image, the need to reframe becomes more visceral, reframing takes place, and different language is considered.

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 remember the early buzzworthy days of giving and receiving feedback. It was kind of like living in the Wild West of words. Someone would approach a colleague and say, I’ve got some feedback for you. Often, the other person would fire right back and say “Great, because I’ve got some feedback for you, too!”

Hopefully, we’ve come a long way since then. We’re smarter when it comes to knowing when to deliver feedback in the moment versus taking a pause to frame up and measure our thinking. I’ll never forget a wise person pulling me aside to say, “very little feedback needs to happen today that cannot wait until tomorrow.” If someone is in danger or a 911 response is required, go for it. Otherwise, remember that sleeping on your thinking often allows for a more objective, centered approach to delivering feedback.

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

I’ve been fortunate to work for more than a couple of bosses who truly lifted my thinking. Sometimes, it was through their personal vision and willingness to let me explore and experiment with new stuff. Other times, it was because they were wonderful, willing devil’s advocates, continually stretching my thinking without challenging me as a person or creating unneeded distress.

Great bosses are also great simplifiers. Once, I was really burdened about a big decision to take on a new role in a different part of the country. I brought a sheet of literally 40 or so pros and cons into his office and shared them with him. He listened, sat back in his chair, and simply said, “When do you pack up and leave?” I did exactly that two weeks later, and felt his support from thousands of miles away as if he were still in the same building.

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 we bat away the concept of regret too quickly. Our worlds are so busy with multiple priorities and multiple tugs as we continually wrestle with urgency and uncertainty. We don’t create enough pause to say, “In my head, heart, and soul, will I regret doing this? Will I regret NOT doing this?” You don’t have to pull over to the side of the road for every single choice, but for the big ones, take the time to breath and remind yourself that the long-term view is really key.

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

I used to love watching Nick News on Nickelodeon. My favorite journalist working there at the time, Linda Ellerbee, said something that I’ll never forget: “Ask questions. Let your ignorance shine. People will like it and you will learn.” I’m also known for being pretty quick-witted. Amidst all of the applause for my way with words, a great mentor of mine pulled me aside once and said, “Keep in mind that you’ll always want to be a second-rate cynic and a first-rate idealist.” I’ll always be hugely appreciative to her for that remark.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d point people to our company website (www.pro-voke.co), where we paint a picture of some of the work we do and how we do it. We take care to simplify the complex in some of the most difficult work that organizations navigate. To hear my individual leadership voice, as well as those of my colleagues, we’ve also recently started a blog section (pro-voke Space) where we tackle various business topics, leadership approaches, and strategic viewpoints. As an example, I have a short piece on there about how great it would be if leaders said what was really on their minds. Our pro-voke LinkedIn page is a second-stop option, where you’ll find periodic updates, posts, and shares. And, you can always reach out to us, or me, right through our company page.

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

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