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Susan Power: “Inspired leadership is like blowing air over a flame to make it grow”

It is best to give feedback immediately after an incident so that history is recent in everyone’s minds and to best cement the learning and future behavior change. It is always a shame to waste a “coachable moment” and there is never a better time to coach than in the present. The risk of waiting […]

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It is best to give feedback immediately after an incident so that history is recent in everyone’s minds and to best cement the learning and future behavior change. It is always a shame to waste a “coachable moment” and there is never a better time to coach than in the present. The risk of waiting is that memories fade, it takes people by surprise when you bring it up out of the blue, and by providing feedback right after the incident it avoids ruminating about it after the fact. Feedback discussions are still worthwhile to have at regular intervals such as quarterly discussions. These are typically higher-level discussions where performance against goals is discussed, and barriers faced are raised with a plan to overcome.


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

Susan Power believes in Simon Sinek’s quote: “the more you inspire, the more people inspire you.” She owns and operates a leadership coaching consultancy based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, PowerUp Leadership that coaches new people managers and emerging leaders who work in professional services and technology firms. Susan sold her first business in 2016, and she is the proud mother of two boys (William and James, ages 10 and 7).


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?

Years ago, I started off with a theatre/acting degree from Acadia University and then decided to have a business degree in my back pocket. My first business was actually starting up and operating a university theatre troupe, the Poets and Madman, which five of my friends and students and I operated as a summer business. I got serious about entrepreneurship after building and selling a human resources consultancy (Higher Talent) in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I love working with business owners and coaching employees to help organizations Multiply Leaders to Grow. Each day I know I am successful if I have had fun and enjoyed the day. I believe that when we take ourselves too seriously as leaders it impedes employee growth.

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

PowerUp Leadership is very committed to our core value of community development. Each year we award a scholarship to an Emerging Leader that consists of a 3.5K dollars coaching package to coach a young professional. It is so gratifying to coach a professional at the front end of their career because I remember what a shift it is to go from full-time university students to the professional world. 2020 will be PowerUp Leadership’s third year offering this scholarship. My company stands out based on our approach to working with leaders. It is a very candid, collaborative process, and once I have established trust with a coaching client, I ask the tough questions that result in insight and mindset transformation. One time I was on a coaching call, and the client, who was a single mother, started crying and said that the coaching helped her ask her boss for more money resulting in a 15% increase to her annual salary. She was successful in getting the outcome she wanted but she attributed her growth during coaching to finding it within herself to ask in a confident way where she believed she deserved an increase. I love days like that when my clients share their successes, it fills me up inside.

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

One of my professional relationships with a longstanding client, mentor, and now friend started in an elevator at a Women’s Entrepreneurial Conference at We Connect in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The two of us were strangers in an elevator, and I pitched my services to her. Shortly afterward, she became a client, and now when I travel to Toronto, she invites me to stay at her house, and I bring lobster from Atlantic Canada. It makes me smile when I think of this elevator ride because I vividly recall my hesitance and initial fear to make my pitch. Now I realize that if I had stayed silent and failed to take a risk, I never would have formed this connection.

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 was first starting and building my confidence as a young professional, I remember leaving voicemails and listening and rerecording the voicemail a few times until I thought it sounded acceptable. One time there was a technical glitch where the prospective client received all seven versions of the same voicemail one after another. A few years later when they told me the story, I decided right then and there that from that day onwards all voicemail recordings would be a one-time recording regardless of what came out of my mouth.

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

The advice that I would give to CEOs and business leaders would be not to take themselves so seriously. While I understand the work matters, at the end of the day, life and business is a big game. The perspective that you bring to each interaction is infectious to other employees, and if you take yourself or the work too seriously you will burn yourself out as well as everyone around you. Take vacation time, prioritize time with family and friends, otherwise, it does not matter how successful you become because you will have no one to share it with.

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

Leadership involves inspiring others. Inspired leadership is like blowing air over a flame to make it grow. All human beings have the potential to do remarkable things, sometimes they just need a leader to see this potential first to make it grow. One time I was on a plane for work, and I felt like I had nothing to contribute to an upcoming period review meeting, and my leader sent me an email that outlined everything I had accomplished in the role to-date. I had that email on my phone on my lap during the meeting as a “cheat sheet” but more than anything it was the feeling recognized that gave me the confidence to feel like I was making a contribution to the team.

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?

Meditation and exercise are 100% the best ways that I release and relieve stress. When I have a fully booked day of coaching calls, I will always start the day with a guided meditation for 15 minutes followed by a run or spin class before settling into the day. This helps me be present for the conversation and bring my best self to the client. Before making this a regular practice, I would feel my attention span fading, so I was not serving the client to my full capability. It is now very much a habit to start my day by fueling myself first so I can best coach and advise my clients.

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?

Once I had the experience of having to give difficult feedback to a team member who was having a lot of friction with his team members. His peers were complaining that he was being very sarcastic, and some team members felt disrespected by his “jokes” and comments. He took the feedback to heart and adjusted how he communicated. It was not a perfect recovery as there were a few incidents a few months later. However, it was encouraging to see he modified his behavior to improve. My lesson was that behavior is always driven by mindset. This individual had low self-awareness as to how his comments were being received by his peers. His underlying insecurities were causing him to use humor and sarcasm in how he communicated, and change was not lasting as the underlying mindset shifts did not happen to cause long-lasting behavior change.

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?

A leader’s job is to help their team members grow, and one of the best ways to do this is to provide honest and candid feedback. When a leader fails to provide candid feedback, they are providing a disservice to their team. It is much more respectful and truthful to provide feedback and the opportunity for the team member to respond and improve. Perception is reality, and often misperception happens because we have incomplete information. When a team member does is not given feedback, they do not have an opportunity to respond to the feedback and improve. They may have more information to offer the leader, or it may be an opportunity for the team member to ask for the support they need to be successful. Most often, it is a blind spot and once the team member is aware of it, they can shift behaviors to yield more successful results.

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.

My five tips include:

  1. Start by asking the employee for feedback on how you can better support them in their role as their leader. By opening the door to asking for feedback, it can remove barriers that the employee may have about receiving feedback themselves. It can break down walls by starting the conversation by asking the employee if they have any feedback on what you did well and where you can improve. This was something that I did with direct reports before sharing feedback for them that I wanted to deliver. When asking for feedback as their leader, it was refreshing to receive some really insightful feedback that helped me deliver more value to the team. Additionally, this approach helps the employee lean into receiving the feedback themselves when I then proceeded to ask them if I could offer them some feedback on their performance.
  2. When working remotely, it is more challenging to pick up subtle changes in body language over video and phone. This makes it even more critical to give feedback in a manner that does not cause the other person to “brace for impact”. By asking the individual if they are open to receiving some feedbackthis shows sensitivity as whether they are in the right mindset to receive the feedback. It also prepares the individual to receive it, so it does not catch them off-guard. For instance, once I had to talk to a client about constantly joining Zoom meetings late and the impact that it had on the rest of the team. I started off the conversation asking the client if she was in the right frame of mind to receive feedback, she responded by saying how much she was struggling with lack of childcare support due to COVID-19 and balancing childcare with getting her work completed. We had a completely different conversation based on her voicing this challenge. We re-prioritized her role on the project and found flexible ways to make the situation work better for her as the client. The team’s concern about her tardiness joining meetings was brought up at the end but not until the root cause and emotional struggle of the pandemic was first addressed.
  3. Another strategy that can be effective depending on the nature of feedback is when the manager shows some vulnerability and offers an example of a failure from their career or a lesson learned that was a difficult growing experience for them. It humanizes the leader and demonstrates to the employee that we all are on this leadership journey together. Early in my career, I was receiving feedback from a VP that I needed to be more detail-oriented (not my natural strength). The feedback completely deflated me, and he must have noticed the expression on my face as he then shared a failure that he had in an earlier role he was in and the impact it had on him. It made me feel less down on receiving this hard feedback from the VP of the group and I felt like he understood how hard it was to be on the receiving end of this type of feedback. The impact of him sharing this example from his own career made me more motivated to step up my game to focus on the details of each work product. I felt like he acknowledged my efforts and was gently pointing me in the right direction.
  4. When giving constructive feedback, it is really important to prepare for the meeting in advance and not just “wing it”. By thinking through some specific examples of where expectations were not met, this ensures the feedback provided is not just generalities. It is important to make it clear what you are asking the individual to do differently. Once I had to give feedback to a direct report to stop taking calls and working on his laptop during the weekly team meeting. I asked him at the end of the team meeting if I could have a one-on-one conversation with him. I had three examples of separate occasions when this behavior occurred, and why it signaled disrespect to the team. When we discussed it after the meeting, the employee had a different view of the situation and thought he was adding value by multi-tasking to serve the business and did not realize it was disrupting the flow of the team meeting and signaling the team was a lower priority. By bringing this issue to his attention, he stopped taking calls during the meeting and stopped working on his laptop during the meeting.
  5. Consider whether there are any resources you can provide the employee that will assist them in actioning the feedback. Sometimes an external coach, a mentor, an article, or an online training resource can be helpful to support the employee to make the necessary mindset and behavior shifts to action the feedback. There is nothing more unhelpful then when feedback is delivered to an employee and the leader does not offer any supporting resources. When I joined a new employer and role, the company automatically paired me up with a mentor/buddy who had previously been in my role for eight years. He would drop by to my office to check in on how I was adjusting during the first six months and offer suggestions that worked well for him when he was in the role. It was reassuring to have a friendly coworker (at my job level) to speak with who checked in and understood the role well enough to offer meaningful suggestions.

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?

My approach for a sensitive email is to refrain from sending it right away until I have an opportunity to step away and revisit it later in the day or the next day. This allows me to look at the email with fresh eyes and make any tweaks before sending that I may miss the first time through. Also, I think it is better to deliver feedback live over the phone, if possible, so it is rare that I use email as the medium for delivering feedback. If is absolutely necessary, such as forwarding negative feedback from a customer, then I will conclude the message with an offer to further discuss over the phone.

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?

It is best to give feedback immediately after an incident so that history is recent in everyone’s minds and to best cement the learning and future behavior change. It is always a shame to waste a “coachable moment” and there is never a better time to coach than in the present. The risk of waiting is that memories fade, it takes people by surprise when you bring it up out of the blue, and by providing feedback right after the incident it avoids ruminating about it after the fact. Feedback discussions are still worthwhile to have at regular intervals such as quarterly discussions. These are typically higher-level discussions where performance against goals is discussed, and barriers faced are raised with a plan to overcome.

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

A great boss is an “inspired leader”. Inspired leadership is like blowing air over a flame to make it grow. A great boss is a rare thing and something that stays with you for the rest of your life. Inspired leadership has a domino effect, and through osmosis, you start to lead and emulate the mindset and behaviors role modeled to you by your great boss. One inspired leader that I worked with was a great boss because he would constantly ask me questions about whatever I was working on that would get me thinking about the problem in ways that I had not yet uncovered. On one occasion, it motivated me to continue to peel back the layers for a turnover analysis project that really stepped up the quality of the presentation and analysis. What I loved about it, was that he did not tell me what to do, but just asked some insightful questions that guided me in the right direction. It was far more motivating and inspiring that telling me where my work fell short and empowering me to improve my work product on my own terms.

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. 🙂

My inspired movement would be to have organizations start to publicly report on an aggregated measure of their company’s inspired leadership effectiveness index based on 360-degree results. It would be a quantitative measure that tracked how well people leaders coached, mentored, and developed their people. This measure would track if leaders role-modeled the company values in what they say and do each day. By increasing transparency on how leaders perform as inspired leaders, this visibility would ideally propel more people leaders to pay closer attention and invest more time, money and energy developing their people.

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

“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world and there’s still going to be someone who hates peaches.”

– Dita Von Teese

Once I heard this quote on the Tim Ferris Podcast with his guest Dita Von Teese, and it really resonated with me. It has reminded me to really be my authentic self. You cannot please everyone, and at least by being yourself, you will know that the people you are attracting into your life are those that you truly resonate with. Plus, it is a great reminder not to beat yourself up too much when things do not work out as you will never win everyone over.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Your readers to sign up for my monthly newsletter on my website at: http://www.powerupleadership.ca

They can also check out the Inspired Leadership Podcast at: https://anchor.fm/inspired-leadership. On this podcast, my co-host Tyler Bayley and I interview leaders from all industries on what is inspired leadership and how organizations can create more of it in their workplaces and communities.

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

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