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“Sandwich Technique” With Frederick Shelton

As far as specific techniques, I joined Toastmasters International decades ago, and they taught me an effective way to give constructive criticism. When evaluating a speech, they recommend the “Sandwich Technique”.You start with a genuine compliment. Then you offer the constructive criticism and finally you end with another genuine compliment. This ensures they learn without […]

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As far as specific techniques, I joined Toastmasters International decades ago, and they taught me an effective way to give constructive criticism. When evaluating a speech, they recommend the “Sandwich Technique”.

You start with a genuine compliment. Then you offer the constructive criticism and finally you end with another genuine compliment. This ensures they learn without feeling unnecessarily negative or resentful.

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

Frederick. Shelton started out as a homeless teen and rose through various ranks in both small and large corporations. He is now CEO of Shelton & Steele (www.sheltonsteele.com), a legal search and consulting firm that has specialized in virtual law firms and remote lawyering. He has been recognized by military bases, various charities and homeless shelters for his philanthropic endeavors.

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 started out as a homeless teen and never had the chance to get my high school diploma. I started my career in sales and was determined to work my way up. I knew my lack of education would be an impediment to my long term success, so I read every book, listened to every book on tape (yes, it was that long ago!), attended every motivational seminar and also studied used textbooks on “dry” material such as Business Writing & Communication. I went from sales to management and then into executive recruiting. Eventually, I started my own firm but to this day, take my self-education very seriously. I spend at least 5–10 hours a week studying business journals as well as anything I can find on business innovation, cybersecurity, fintech etc.

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

We’ve broken the traditional business model in our profession and taken “People before profits” to a new level. If you go to our “Client” page, you’ll see that we tell the clients who pay us, that they are not our first priority.

While other firms shoot resumes everywhere and just hope something sticks. Our reputation has been built on the fact that we’re willing to walk away from six figure commissions, if making the deal would not be in the best interest of the attorney with whom we were working.
For example, we worked with a partner in 2019 and after meeting our best clients, it became obvious he just wasn’t going to be comfortable in a virtual firm. He had it very good at his current firm so a traditional law firm wouldn’t offer any advantage to him.

I discussed it with the recruiter, and even though a $500,000 commission was on the line, we agreed we needed to tell him to stay put. He called me in April of 2020 and informed me that he had been working from home for two months. The fact that we were so genuinely concerned about his well-being had stuck with him. After working from home for two months due to Covid, he decided to have us coordinate his move to our client and we made the deal!

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

For years, after leaving Corporate America and a horrid divorce, I decided to enjoy the “chill solopreneur” lifestyle. I worked 25–35 hours a week and made six figures.

Then 2020 came along. I read about recruiters in my LinkedIn groups, who were literally wiped out. Hospitality, Retail etc. all took a thrashing.

I made what most people would consider a horrible business decision. I Decided to create competition for myself . Lawyers were essential in all fifty states and I had the advantage of 25 years of experience. So I put together business starter kits for anyone who wanted to transition into legal recruiting from recruiting in other fields. The kits included five pages of legal terms that would be important to know, sample contracts, a list of the 500 largest law firms in America and their websites, instructions on how to build candidate databases for free, and even my basic scripts for beginners.

I posted on social media, that I would provide these kits to anybody who wanted them, add no charge and with no obligation whatsoever. I ended up sending out over 200 of these starter kits.

Many of the people who received them, contacted me repeatedly asking if they could work for me directly. At first, I declined but several people were quite persistent. Eventually I decided to at least review their resumes. They ranged from seasoned recruiters, to summa cum laude graduates to a couple of MBA’s, one of whom is a combat veteran pilot and the current reigning Mrs. Nevada!

I hired several of them, as well as another admin. As a result, my business has scaled both in size and revenues. Additionally, with their help and guidance, I launched a new firm legal temp agency in August, that will be profitable by the end of September. I’m having more fun and feeling a greater sense of purpose and gratification than ever in my career.

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 I started my business, I underestimated how much money I would need to have in my savings. I think that’s one of the most common mistakes new business owners make. I literally got down too my last $12.00 in the bank when al potential client I’d pitched , sent me a $20,000 retainer. In 1996, that was all the money in the world!

I was excited about the search and had started working on it, when two weeks later, the managing partner called me to let me know that the firm had dissolved!
There had been a lot of political infighting going on at that firm, and because no one wanted to reveal their hand, they paid my retainer so that everything seemed like business as usual. I had no idea what to do and could not have been more relieved when the partner explained that he knew I would not be refunding the retainer.

If it had not been for that strange series of events, I doubt that I would be in business today!

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

The most important factor when it comes to burnout is self-awareness. Burnout is insidious. Especially if you love your work. I have been the victim of burnout on several occasions. The telltale signs are easy enough to spot. You miss things, you make mistakes, you lose your focus and clarity. When you see these things beginning to happen, it’s important to unplug and walk away. Get in the sun, on the ocean or out to nature. Trust others to take the reigns for a few days or longer while you recharge. It will be well worth it.

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

Leadership is training and mentoring your people so well, they could leave and start their own company — but being so much valuable to them, that they choose not to do so.

For example, questions are almost never asked at our firm. Here’s why:

People who ask questions, get answers and move on. My people are required to provide me or their supervisor with their Analysis & Recommendations on anything about which they have a question. So instead of saying

“Do you think I should submit this attorney to the huge mega-lawyer firm or to the small, thirty attorney firm?”

they will provide the following recommendation:

“This attorney values freedom and quality of life more than anything. Therefore, I recommend our 30-lawyer client.”

If they’re right, it builds confidence and they learn from their success. If they’re wrong, I praise them for the effort and explain why the other client might be better — which still results faster learning and a greater impact on memory.

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’m somewhat eccentric, in this regard. Sometimes, I just over prepare — as if there is such a thing. We live in a time when literally everything you could want to know, is at your fingertips. If you want stress, don’t prepare. If you want confidence, prepare more than all of your competitors do. If it’s important enough, I’ll prepare two hours, for a ten-minute call.

I also do yoga or free form martial arts practice or ride my bike for a half hour to let off stress. Sometimes at night, I play Madden 2008 on my PS2 or Diablo 2 on my 1998 Dell Insperon with Windows XP!

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?

Bad bosses all have one thing in common: They think they’re good bosses. They justify their decisions and interactions with others.

This is a good compass, when it comes to giving feedback. If you feel proud of the way you handled the often difficult situation of giving honest feedback, you’re a leader.
If you need to justify how you handled such situations, you’re not.

I’ll cover more below but when I give feedback to my people, they’ll sometimes fee guilt or remorse — which is appropriate in certain circumstances, sometimes feel relief and always feel like they’ve learned something.

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 have a saying:

“No one grew mentally or spiritually because they had it so easy.”

Without our mistakes and struggles, our embarrassment and tribulations, we don’t grow as people or professionals. Additionally, if you don’t give your people honest feedback about their mistakes, they are likely to repeat them. This can cause a loss of morale or revenues.

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.

First things first: Get on video. Emails are easily misinterpreted because you can’t hear the voice, the inflection, the nuance. Phone calls are better but you still can’t see a smile or facial gestures which show concern and compassion.

As mentioned, I am nothing if not a bibliophile. One of the first books I read on management had this quote in it:

Honesty without compassion, is cruelty.

That’s one reason going to video is so important.

As far as specific techniques, I joined Toastmasters International decades ago, and they taught me an effective way to give constructive criticism. When evaluating a speech, they recommend the “Sandwich Technique”.

You start with a genuine compliment. Then you offer the constructive criticism and finally you end with another genuine compliment. This ensures they learn without feeling unnecessarily negative or resentful.

I don’t use this all the time because if I did, every time I gave an employee a compliment, they would be waiting for criticism! I use this most often with minor mistakes.

Another technique I use is The Hotseat. I explain what they’ve done and what the costs or implications are. Then I ask them this:

“I want you to take a minute and put yourself in my position. If you were the boss, what would you do here?”

I did this once with a new recruiter who made a mistake that could have cost my firm $200,000.

I made it crystal clear that the consequences could have been devastating. Then I asked her what she would do. She was near tears, when she said that she would fire the person who made that mistake. I replied

“Fire you? There is no WAY I can fire you now! I just spent six figures training you and I need you to go earn that back for me!”

Then when she saw me laughing, she started laughing too. Relief washed over her. We recovered the deal, by the way.

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 read emails out loud to someone else. That’s really the easiest way. It’s amazing how different an email sounds when you do this.

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?

Honestly, I don’t think there is a rule. Everyone is different. With some people, I’ll wait until the end of the day and they’ll appreciate that. Others would resent that I made them wait all day. It’s idiosyncratic, so I play it by ear.

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

I’ve had a lot of bad bosses. Usually this was because of their ego. They couldn’t dare let someone have an idea that was better than their way of doing things. I constantly remind my people that all of us are always smarter than any of us — and that includes me.
My people are smarter than me. In one way or ten ways, they have “Flat Tire Knowledge” (see below) that I don’t have. So I make sure they know that our firm is a place where they can approach the boss and say “I can do this better!”.

One other thing about being a great boss, is the ability to see the potential in people, that others don’t see. More importantly, to be able to extract that potential from them.

For example, Ayven Dodd was an “At-Risk Youth” and a high school friend of my daughter. He hadn’t spoken a word to anyone outside his mom, sister and one or two friends, for over a year. He was considered uneducable and the school district wasn’t going to let him into high school. But I could see the intellect behind those angry eyes of his.

I took him on as an intern and mentee. Over the years, I dragged him into Toastmaster Meetings, required him to read business and motivational books, and mentored him. He is now twenty one years old and consults with Ivy League Law School graduates every day. He is my most successful recruiter, my Executive Vice President, and makes well into the six figures. He has the genuine respect and admiration of everyone at our firm, especially me. I’m very proud of 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 give money out of every dollar we earn to charity. We are Benevolent Capitalists. As we make more, we give more. Every single person in our firm, volunteers their time, treasure and energy to worthwhile causes. IF every company were like this, the world would be a better place.

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

“The key to success is having Flat Tire Knowledge. If a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant and a mechanic are in a car that gets a flat tire, whose knowledge is the most valuable? The Mechanic’s. Whatever your business, be the person who has Flat Tire Knowledge.”

I made that up years ago and it still applies today. I decided years ago that virtual would be the next big business trend in the law. This was slowly being confirmed and I was recognized and occasionally quoted in Forbes, Bloomberg etc, on the subject of virtual lawyering. Eventually, I became the best known, non-attorney expert on the subject. Then COVID came along and well, I’ll let you do the math as to how that has affected the value of my brand.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The Street Smart Law Blog

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

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