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Shawn Johal of Elevation: “Make it a two-way street”

Make it a two-way street: This is probably the toughest suggestion for most leaders. We have been traditionally taught that leaders provide feedback to their team members. But this can be done differently. I have encouraged my team to give me honest feedback about my communication style and overall performance. By being open to getting […]

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Make it a two-way street: This is probably the toughest suggestion for most leaders. We have been traditionally taught that leaders provide feedback to their team members. But this can be done differently. I have encouraged my team to give me honest feedback about my communication style and overall performance. By being open to getting honest and direct feedback on the other end, it opens up the door to much better discussions! But it takes some getting used to and ego must be removed from the equation for sure


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

Shawn co-founded DALS Lighting, an LED lighting business, in 2009. He implemented the Scaling Up Growth System and led the company to 3X its revenues well into the 8-figures. Shawn went on to found Elevation, a business growth coaching & consulting firm, working with entrepreneurs & their teams to help accelerate their growth — while helping them find personal balance and happiness.


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 my career in the corporate world working for Rubbermaid. Starting out as a sales rep, I quickly became District Manager for Canada. During my years there, I was given numerous opportunities to grow my leadership skills. I often attended Leadership Development Training programs that gave me the necessary skills to become the bets leader possible, even at a young age. In 2004, I joined a fast-growing public family business in the lighting industry that we grew to 50M. Unfortunately, the 2008 recession along with certain questionable business decisions led to a major meltdown of the business and we couldn’t survive. My brother-in-law and I mustered up the courage to buy back the assets of 3 visions and start from scratch. We launched DALS Lighting in 2009, and have grown this well into the 8 figures with 50 employees. Two years ago, I launched a Coaching and Leadership Development firm called Elevation to help other entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

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

By far, the biggest reason our company stands out is our dedication to provide an exceptional customer experience. We go above and beyond for our customers every single day. As an example, we recently had a very important product launch with a key client. The goods were delayed, and we made the decision to invest several thousands of dollars to fly the goods in to hit the requested launch date. Our client was blow away by this level of service and commitment.

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

For me, the most interesting story is having met the former president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk. Through the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, we were invited to an event in London where the former president spoke of his time in office, his relationship with Nelson Mandela and the struggles he faced to fight racism. As an immigrant myself, this truly hit home and made me realize how lucky I am to be living in North America.

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?

There are many to choose from! I would say the funniest mistake was working with an important new client and going through then entire sales pitch, calling them by the wrong name. I pride myself on the way I treat customers. At one point, the customer looked at me and said “My name is Jeff, not Carl.”. I was flabbergasted and embarrassed. We laughed it off and eventually they became a key account for us.

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

First, find a coach with a system to help you grow. There are many great ones out there. We used the Scaling Up Methodology in our own business with a coach and it changed the very way we do business. This allowed us to grow approximately 20% per year consistently. It also gave us an external perspective from someone who worked with firms even larger form us. Next, I would strongly encourage CEOs to build a disciplined schedule with Morning and Evening routines that protect their energy. Always be sure to start your day with meditation and visualization, not by looking at your phone. Write a journal. Delegate. Make “stress reduction” your mission and stick to it. Finally, I strongly recommend CEOs join peer groups such as EO, YPO or TECH. Through these groups, they will meet like-minded entrepreneurs and will be able to share experiences. In many ways, it is similar to having a personal board of directors.

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

For me, Leadership is all about Character. Will you do what you say you will do? Will you show up every day and lead by example? Will you take the time to listen to others and use an open mind and an open heart to solve issues? There are many types of Leaders. I believe a combination of integrity, humility, inspiration and action make up the most important traits. My mentor, Warren Rustand, is an amazing example. When he speaks to you, he makes you feel like you are the only person in the room. He is never distracted, always willing to listen and help. You can always trust what he says, knowing he does so from the heart with your best interest in mind — always!

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 am obsessed with this topic! My number one tool is Visualization Meditation. This is the act of visualizing in a meditative state those outcomes you are looking for. This works by setting a clear intention + associating a clear emotion that you want to feel. You have to believe this has already occurred as the mind doesn’t know the difference between what has happened and what will happen. Bringing emotions to the forefront is not easy. But once you figure it out, it is a game changer. I have visualized most of my successes well in advance. Another massive tool is pre-paving conversations. This is the art of determining in advance how a difficult conversation will go. Actually seeing this in your mind and playing out the positive way that interaction will end. It is a very powerful technique and remove stress from most situations.

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 been managing teams since I am 12 in many ways. I was captain of my competitive soccer teams form that age onwards, year after year. It is similar to managing teams in the professional world. The first step is setting very clear outcomes. I use a technique where we will build a vision of what success looks like for the team member in 6 months and in 12 months. We will write the exact success outcomes out together, ensuring we agree. It is similar to writing a story, as if those goals have already been accomplished. It is incredibly clear for the team member what they need to accomplish this way. It also sets the tone for the feedback loop. When you can refer back to the success metrics, it is much easier to have an objective POV. The second tool I use is the Values vs, Productivity chart. Is the team member living the company core values and taking their execution to the next level? Are both at the highest level? If not, what is the issue. Where do they need to improve on the next quarter? Combining success outcomes + metrics with the Values + Productivity ax sets the stage for highly engaging feedback and the opportunity to avoid subjectivity and emotional reactions.

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?

Team members need to know where they stand. When a leader creates an ambiguous atmosphere, it will inevitably lead to confusion and a lack of communication. It is essential to give transparent and erect feedback for several reasons:

  • It will create an open culture where team members will fully understand expectations and outcomes.
  • In turn, these same team members will feel ready at all time to share their own POVs on important topics, fostering better communication.
  • Teamwork will immediately improve as everyone will know they can talk openly with others about issues.
  • Strong trust will be built between the leader and team member because honest and direct feedback will eliminate the avoidance of big discussions which happens so often in organizations.

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.

  1. Schedule it: It is always best to schedule weekly 1–1 meetings with remote team members that are designed for these types of discussions. With my team, we have a daily huddle (7 minutes) and a weekly recap meeting every Friday (30 minutes) where the key projects from the week will be discussed. This is the best time for direct feedback. IT is the right time and place, and everyone comes prepared.
  2. Don’t harp on the details: There is nothing worst than a constant micro-manager. Feedback is a necessary tool in the development process. But being overly critical on every single point will cause animosity. Pick your battles. Don’t get caught up on the small stuff. My first boss micromanaged everything I did. He called me at 7:01am and at 6:59pm every single weekday just o keep me on my toes. This caused frustration and a lack of trust.
  3. Celebrate the wins: Part of giving feedback is framing it the right way. Surely your team member has wins along the way. Be sure to celebrate the wins as much or more than spend time on feedback. This is not to say you should be using wins to hide the areas of improvement. But it is important to provide positive feedback when it is due also. I start every meeting with my team members by giving a shoutout to the wins we had in the past week. IT fosters the right type of culture for us to then also be in a position to discuss the tougher issues.
  4. Choose your tools wisely: In this crazy remote world, I have found mixing up the tools of communication actually helps the way we speak with each other. Find out with your remote team member if they have zoom fatigue. Perhaps when it comes to critical discussions, you may want to us the good old phone! It can sometimes be easier to speak that way. One of my team members (an introvert) really struggles with zoom meetings. She much prefers getting on the phone and our discussions are so much better that way.
  5. Make it a two-way street: This is probably the toughest suggestion for most leaders. We have been traditionally taught that leaders provide feedback to their team members. But this can be done differently. I have encouraged my team to give me honest feedback about my communication style and overall performance. By being open to getting honest and direct feedback on the other end, it opens up the door to much better discussions! But it takes some getting used to and ego must be removed from the equation for sure

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 believe this is going to be as efficient as the relationship that has been built. If you have a strong relationship with the team member, email communication can be a great way to send feedback. But if there is a lack of trust from the start, email will only make things worse. I always like to ensure my messaging is clear and precise. I am not a fan of long emails. For me, email communication needs to be direct and to the point. I also always try to give solutions with the feedback. Ways the team member can improve. And I always leave the door open for the team member to come back with any questions or concerns they may have.

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?

This needs to be pre-established with the team member. I see two ways of doing this. Either there is a 1–1 meeting this is set ins tone every single week where both the positive and areas of improvement can be discussed. Or from day one, it is clearly established that critical feedback will be provided live and, on the spot, to avoid any lingering issues dragging on. As long as this is clear for everyone involved, both strategies can work very well.

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

A great boss inspires you to be better every single day. They provide the right mix of guidance and direction, while allowing space for growth. A great boss will also allow a team member to make mistakes and to learn from them, knowing that it is only through trial and error that an individual can truly take the next step in their career. The bets boss I ever had always used one key sentence with me: “If you think it will work, try it.” He always gave me the opportunity to try out my ideas. When things didn’t work out, he would take the time to analyze the reasons for the failure and use them constructively to help me develop as a leader. One time, I was convinced a new product needed to be launched in our market. My boss wasn’t as convinced, but he gave me the leeway to try it. It totally failed. I was beyond embarrassed, dreading the conversation I was going to have with this inspiring leader. HE shrugged it off, explaining how I would now know what to do the next time a similar opportunity presented itself. I left the meeting knowing I had made a mistake, but with the confidence to be better next time.

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. 🙂

HAPPINESS FIRST! I pend my days with other leaders and so many people are stressed out! I am on a mission to make people realize it doesn’t have to be this way. You can choose happiness first. You can decide to take care of reducing your stress and being the best version of yourself. When we take care of ourselves first, the rest follows .

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

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” -Maya Angelou

I have made it a point to always trust others from day one. I take the mentality that trust is granted, please don’t break it. When we lead with trust and confidence, it often leads to positive interactions. This has certainly ben the case in my life. Very rarely have I been disappointed by people. I have been in a privileged position to meet wonderfully inspiring individuals form every walk of life. I will always trust first, ask questions later. I believe it is the bets way to go about living our lives!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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

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