“When you lead, you leave the “doing” to others”, Jill Sammak and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

I had my first people leadership experience when I was 25. I have been promoted to lead colleagues who were peers. I’ve had direct reports who were older than me, and I became a team leader in an industry where I had no experience. Each of these leadership opportunities had its own unique challenges, but […]

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I had my first people leadership experience when I was 25. I have been promoted to lead colleagues who were peers. I’ve had direct reports who were older than me, and I became a team leader in an industry where I had no experience. Each of these leadership opportunities had its own unique challenges, but I never let an uncomfortable situation stand in the way of delivering quality feedback in service to developing my team. You can manage a team without giving feedback, but that’s not leadership. Providing feedback is part of enabling your team members’ success.

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

Jill Sammak is the founder of Jill Sammak Coaching and Consulting, LLC. She partners with leaders to build and develop work groups that deliver exceptional results. She blends over 25 years of corporate experience with a deep understanding of psychology and human behavior earned as a practicing psychotherapist and certified professional coach.

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 had 20 years of business experience when I launched a part-time career as a psychotherapist helping people transform their lives. For eight years, I kept my two professional identities separate. (Picture Clark Kent by day and Superman come nightfall.) Then I realized what a powerful combination it would be to blend them. That’s when I started my third career as a leadership and career coach and founded Jill Sammak Coaching and Consulting, LLC.

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

I have a unique trifecta of experience: I worked in corporate settings for over 25 years, so I understand organizational structures and cultures. I am a practicing psychotherapist, so I have deep expertise in human behavior and psychology. And I am a certified professional coach which means I know how to help people find their own answers, so they can achieve lasting change. I honed different skills in each profession. I’ll share a story of how they come together to create the special sauce.

In my role as a psychotherapist, my colleagues and I gathered once a week for 90 minutes to review administrative matters and cases. I’ll never forget my first meeting. It didn’t start on time, and there was no agenda. After about 45 minutes, it went silent, and it stayed that way for what felt like forever. I waited for someone to end the meeting. No one did. Maybe five minutes passed — maybe more — and then someone raised a new topic. Others chimed in, and the room came alive. The conversation was rich and meaty and clarifying, and it never would have happened if we had a strict agenda, or if we adjourned at the first quiet moment.

In my first profession, efficiency and time management were sacrosanct, but it was in my second that I gained an appreciation for the value of space. I learned to respect the quiet moments — the place between ideas — and I encourage business leaders to do the same.

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

I think the most interesting story in my professional life is how I came to my first career transition. It started like any other day. I had a 10 am meeting with a colleague. Before we got down to business, we traded grievances. He wanted to advance more quickly and earn more money. I was frustrated with the politics and bureaucracy and didn’t find the work very rewarding. Verbalizing these truths had an impact on me. If this was how I felt, then what was I doing?

A few hours later I grabbed a sandwich for lunch and a table with a view of the Hudson River to contemplate my future. I realized I’d always been more interested in people than projects and more energized by helping than executing. With that, it came to me: I would become a psychotherapist.

The idea seemed to drop from the sky, but the truth is, it didn’t come from above. It came from inside. It was my own intuition speaking to me because I was finally listening. I had a similar experience when I decided to pursue my professional coaching certification and start my own business.

I work with a lot of professionals who want to make a career transition, but they don’t know what they want to do. While I don’t promise that the answers will come easily, I encourage them to turn down the noise around them and tune into themselves. It really pays off.

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?

The funniest mistake I made was in my first professional job. I was in client service, and I did office hours at the client site a few times a week. I was 22, but I looked like a teenager, so I tried my best to appear more mature in my dress and mannerisms.

I was at the client’s office the Friday before a holiday weekend I was heading out of town to celebrate. I had a long drive ahead of me, and I didn’t want to make it in business attire. It was close to the end of the day, and I didn’t expect anyone would be around, so I popped into the restroom and changed into pink, cut-off sweatpants, a t-shirt, and sneakers. After changing, my plan was to dart down the side stairwell, and out to the parking lot, but I was intercepted by a marketing manager with a question about her product’s sales performance.

The lessons I learned? I never wore cut-off sweatpants and sneakers at the office again, and I stopped making assumptions about how late my colleagues planned to work: even on the Friday of a holiday weekend.

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

I offer three key pieces of advice.

  1. Foster social connections in the workplace: I once worked for a CEO that was annoyed when employees would gather around the water cooler to chat about the season finale of their favorite show. What he didn’t understand is that a sense of belonging and friendships at work not only reduce attrition and lower stress; they also improve performance. In their book No Hard Feelings Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy write, “New Google employees whose managers give them a warm welcome on their first day are more productive nine months down the line.”
  2. Respect the power of breaks: Working around the clock isn’t good for an employee’s health, and it has a negative effect on the quality of their work. Our brains need breaks. A refreshed brain generates more creative solutions. Here’s a quote from Daniel Pink’s book When: “A company that makes productivity-tracking software, says that ‘what the most productive 10% of our users have in common is their ability to take effective breaks.’ High performers, its research concludes, work for fifty-two minutes and then break for seventeen minutes.”
  3. Promote the importance of mental health: Senior leaders have the power to help de-stigmatize seeking mental health support. They can invest in programs and resources and develop a robust communication strategy to ensure employees are aware of the mental health support available to them.

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

Leaders unite people around a common vision, inspire them, and enable them.

On uniting: There are countless organizations with ambitious missions and talented people working towards them, but are they working together?

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle explores the success of Danny Meyer, restauranteur and chief executive officer of the Union Square Hospitality Group. Coyle noted the work of a doctoral student who wrote her dissertation on one of Meyer’s restaurants.

She attributed the success of Meyer’s restaurants to his ability to unite the staff around his vision in a very specific way: through “a clear, simple set of priorities that function as a lighthouse, orienting behavior and providing a path forward to a goal.”

On inspiring: Many so-called leaders lead through fear and intimidation, but no one is inspired by these tactics. We are inspired by those who show up with integrity — those who make hard decisions and put their values ahead of their own gain.

Look at Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 response to the death of six people in Chicago after they ingested Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. Even though the FBI and the FDA advised that Johnson & Johnson only recall products in Chicago, then company president James Burke issued a national recall. In his words, “We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, and patients; to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” In short, he put the company’s vision ahead of its profits.

On enabling: When you lead, you leave the “doing” to others. Leaders ensure that the environment is ripe for doers to do. This can be accomplished by removing obstacles and providing necessary resources. Most importantly, a leader acts like the conductor of an orchestra. In my prior career as a chief of staff, I witnessed my boss play this role artfully.

The company needed to cut costs quickly because there was an unexpected shortfall to financial projections. Each organization was given a target, and they had a few weeks to provide a preliminary plan of where to source the expense reductions. My boss established a set of guiding principles for the decisions and asked all of his vice presidents to prepare their initial ideas with projected savings and a timeline for when the savings would be realized. We then convened in a two-hour meeting where the ideas were discussed. Everyone had a voice. Concerns were raised. Ideas were grouped into categories — those that were the most attractive and least risky to be implemented first. By the end of the meeting, there was a thoughtful, clear, and specific plan to meet the required cost reductions, and it couldn’t have been done without my boss’s leadership — his enablement of his 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?

My father always quoted the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.” I have a paper weight on my desk with those exact words, and I bought one for my brother too. This is how I prepare for a high stakes engagement.

I get very clear about my objectives, and I ask myself some key questions:

  • How do I want stakeholders or meeting participants to feel following my presentation?
  • What do I want them to do?
  • What might get in the way of the desired outcomes?

That is where I start. Then I build an outline and fill in content from there.

I always practice. I allow my mouth to get comfortable saying the words. This is especially important around content that causes any trepidation. The aid of muscle memory can be powerful when we are feeling anxious.

I also give my body what it needs — the right amount of sleep and fuel — and I quiet my mind through conscious breathing.

As a coach, I encourage my clients to think about what their specific needs are. I tell them to ask themselves “What can I do to reduce my anxiety and calm my nerves, so I can be my best?” Once they figure it out, I encourage them to do it.

I went to a training last year. One of the presenters was Kelly Wilson, PhD: a former Professor of Psychology at the University of Mississippi. He starts every training by showing a photo of his wife and telling the audience about how important she is to him. He said it helps to ground him in what’s important, and it quiets his ego.

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 had my first people leadership experience when I was 25. I have been promoted to lead colleagues who were peers. I’ve had direct reports who were older than me, and I became a team leader in an industry where I had no experience. Each of these leadership opportunities had its own unique challenges, but I never let an uncomfortable situation stand in the way of delivering quality feedback in service to developing my team. You can manage a team without giving feedback, but that’s not leadership. Providing feedback is part of enabling your team members’ success.

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?

Imagine being a parent without giving direct and honest feedback. How about if you were supervising a new medical resident? Do we wonder if coaches should give direct and honest feedback to athletes?

If the system is working correctly, the leader has knowledge and expertise that their team doesn’t have yet. It is their job to share it, so team members can improve. And isn’t it better to do that in a clear and transparent manner instead of obscuring the very information you are trying to convey? It’s the difference between driving with a clear windshield versus a foggy one. Let’s put the defroster on.

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.

Check in with yourself first: A leader should examine their own emotions since many people are uneasy when they perceive the possibility of conflict. Discomfort can be a barrier to the task at hand. When I work with clients, I ask them how they feel before they have tough conversations. If they are ill at ease, we talk through it, and we identify ways they can get more comfortable.

Be prepared: Don’t wing a conversation as important as this. At a minimum, outline your key talking points. If you are really committed to getting it right, I recommend a tactic I mentioned earlier: Say the words out loud a few times, so your mouth gets comfortable with them.

Give specific examples: Be as specific as possible by using examples. Check the quality of your messaging by asking yourself what you would do differently if you were the recipient of the feedback. Vague feedback is not actionable which means it can do more harm than good. Why you ask? Read on.

It helps if you care: Neurologists know that “criticism inhibits the brain’s ability to learn,” as written by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in HBR’s “Why Feedback Fails.” It can help if the employee feels that the leader actually cares about them and their development.

Share what’s in it for them: Many team members are striving for promotions and greater responsibilities. An effective way to couch constructive feedback is to link it to how it serves the employee’s goals: not just the leader’s or the organization.

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 don’t recommend giving constructive feedback via email. Negative feedback can do more harm than good, and written communication is a minefield of miscommunication. Leaders may choose to deliver feedback via email because it is more comfortable for them, and that is never a good enough reason.

If it cannot be avoided, I’d recommend two possible checkpoints:

  1. Read the email out loud, so you can hear how it sounds to the ear. It is surprising how different things can sound out loud versus in the darkness of our minds.
  2. Share a draft of the email with a colleague known for their high emotional intelligence and get their feedback. Be sure to protect the identity of the employee, if the person recruited to review the email should not be privy to the information.

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’m going to amend the question slightly and answer not only in regard to critique but also for positive feedback. Be generous. Do it regularly. If you are providing positive feedback, give it soon after the work or behavior you are praising. The act of doing something regularly makes it less scary and progressively more comfortable. Plus, many employees — especially younger employees — prefer regular feedback.

If you are providing developmental feedback, it’s important to get the timing right. Be thoughtful about what the employee has going on in their personal life — if you have any insight — and professional life. For example, do they have a skip level meeting they are feeling stressed about? An hour before would not be a good time to hit them with a critique.

It can be very useful to gauge the employee’s readiness for the conversation by asking them. Avoid setting up the question with anxiety-provoking language. In other words, don’t say: “We need to talk.” Maybe something like this instead, “I’d like to schedule 30 minutes, so we can do a postmortem on yesterday’s presentation. What is a good time for you?”

Finally, make it a common practice to ask your employees to give you feedback each time you deliver a piece of feedback to them. It’s an effective way to signal that you are receptive to their thoughts and opinions, and it helps create reciprocity.

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

A picture immediately comes to mind when I think of a great boss. She was my leader early in my career, and 25 years later, she remains the best boss I’ve ever had.

She was highly committed to developing her team, and she was never too busy to answer questions. She had a line outside of her office like it was the deli counter, but she was never frustrated or exasperated — only patient.

I remember having to go back to her three separate times about a particular concept I was having trouble understanding. I was embarrassed and apologetic. She reminded me that I “got” everything else with ease, and sometimes, we need a little more time with something, and there was no shame in it. She made that easy to believe.

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. 🙂

There is a free course offered by Yale University via Coursera called “The Science of Well-Being.” The course objectives are to increase participants’ happiness and build more productive habits. It debunks myths that lead many to chase after goals that leave them unfulfilled and separated from their values and their loved ones.

I wonder what this world might look like if the information and practices in the class bombarded us the way marketing campaigns do. What if healthcare providers talked to us about these ideas the way they talk to us about healthy diets and exercise. What if the wisdom of this class was shared in training by companies and included as part of formal education, across all cultures, and repeated at different grade levels.

It is true that many people aren’t fortunate enough to have jobs and healthcare and many children are denied the right to an education. It may seem tone-deaf to suggest a movement centered around making the most privileged happier. I see it another way. How powerful would it be to teach people that money and status don’t lead to happiness? If people aligned to their true goals — to meaning and service — and if they were more in touch with their hearts, maybe we’d be pulling together to solve the world’s problems versus pushing apart from one another. As Paul Graham wrote, “Not only do people who do great work never become haters. Haters never do great work.” Imagine how much great work could be done for humanity and our planet if there were no haters.

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

We coaches are focused on helping people find the answers within themselves, so I’ll practice what I preach and share a quote from my four-year old self. My mother told me I used to say, “If you’re going to do it, do it. If you aren’t going to do it, don’t do it.” I’ve lived my life by that quote. I’ve tried to gain a clearer vision of who I am, and what I want, and then take decisive action in the direction of my passions.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I can be found at jillsammak.com.

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

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