“You have to set the example” With Adam Sanders

You have to set the example — Creating a culture where honest and direct feedback is valued and expected has to start from the top down. A leader that isn’t open to giving and receiving feedback in this manner is going to have a very difficult time creating a culture that values it. “Do what […]

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You have to set the example — Creating a culture where honest and direct feedback is valued and expected has to start from the top down. A leader that isn’t open to giving and receiving feedback in this manner is going to have a very difficult time creating a culture that values it. “Do what I say, not what I do” is not the mantra of an effective leader.

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

Adam Sanders is the Director of Successful Release, a nationwide organization helping former felons find meaningful employment and financial success. Prior to founding Successful Release he spent a decade working in Marketing and Product Management for major financial technology companies. He also has an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from MSU.

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?

Igrew up in rural Missouri on a family farm raising exotic animals (everything from zebras and monkeys to kangaroos and camels). I learned the value of hard work and discipline from a young age through many hours of labor during the hot summers and freezing winters. It’s also where my training as an entrepreneur began.

My father is a prolific entrepreneur that comes from a long line of entrepreneurs himself. My four siblings and I (one older sister and three younger brothers) were always inspired to seek out and pursue new opportunities. So much so, that four of us now run our own organizations in various industries.

I started my first business when I was fifteen playing the online roleplaying game Everquest. My oldest brother and I would work with various other players to earn in-game currency and then sell it on eBay for real money. My second business started when I was 22 and the real estate market was booming. I worked with real estate investors and brokers across the country buying high-quality private mortgages and selling them to institutional investors.

After the real estate market imploded in the late 2000’s I decided to try corporate life and joined the software company Intuit, famous for its TurboTax and QuickBooks products. Over the next decade I held various positions in finance, marketing, and product management, earned an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and founded two new companies, Successful Release and Growth Linked. Growth Linked is a network of websites providing high quality information to help hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors solve various problems and Successful Release is a nationwide organization focused on helping former felons find financial and career success after prison.

The idea for Successful Release formed starting in 2015 when I was volunteering at San Quentin State Prison. I first began as a Reentry Advisor, helping soon to be released individuals put together a plan for successfully reentering society. After several months advising, and with the help of four current inmates, I created a completely new program teaching 50–60 men a week financial literacy and job preparedness.

Successful Release takes what I learned from spending hundreds of hours at San Quentin State Prison and many other formerly incarcerated individuals to provide valuable information to those in great need of it. Our goal is to provide the information and tools necessary to help ease some of the difficulty that men and women with felony convictions face on a daily basis.

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

Our organization stands out in a couple of important ways. First, we spend a lot of time and effort reaching out to organizations, employers, and individuals that can support our mission of helping former felons find success. We really strive to gather first-hand information and build useful relationships where many other organizations take a more hands-off approach.

Second, we’re building tools and resources that can help people at a scale that isn’t currently possible. There are many organizations out there doing amazing work at the local level. They are helping a ton of people with a wide variety of problems. We’re working to make the jobs of these organizations easier by providing information and tools they wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.

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

My first day teaching financial literacy and job preparedness at San Quentin State Prison was quite the eye opener. I had spent many weeks working with four current inmates putting together the curriculum to ensure that I was teaching valuable information at the right level. Despite that preparation I was in for a number of surprises.

The first thing that surprised me was just how attentive and eager to learn the 50 men I was teaching were. This was supposed to be a group of “hardened felons”, many of whom had been in prison for a decade or longer. While some were still years from release they all paid close attention, took copious notes, and were engaged in our discussions.

The second surprise was the lack of what I would consider basic personal finance and employment knowledge. Many of the men I was teaching had been in and out of prison since their teenage years and never held a job that was on the books. These were often intelligent and curious men that likely would have thrived had they not been brought up in extremely poor and chaotic environments. Despite the obvious intelligence and interest, many had no idea what interest was, how to open a bank account, or what questions you should prepare to answer in a job interview.

Deep in the heart of San Quentin, without a guard in sight, a group of men with radically different backgrounds, races, and ages was able to come together to better each other and prepare for their eventual return to society.

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?

I accidentally sent out thousands of emails to potential customers advertising that we had no idea what we were doing. I was setting up a test for a new email marketing system that we were evaluating. I’d never used it before and wanted to see what an email would look like and if I’d calibrated everything properly. I put together a short test email that basically said “I don’t know what I’m doing but I hope this works!” and sent it to our testing emails. Unfortunately, being very new to the system and a little sleep deprived I sent the test email to our pre-programed email list of thousands of potential customers we were going to use for a full-scale test later in the week!

I learned some valuable lessons here but the most valuable were that paying for expert help can save you a LOT of hassles and always double check who is going to be receiving your emails before you hit send!

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

Employees get burned out because of bad managers. You need to be empowering your management team to do everything they can to avoid employee burnout and push back on you if they think it’s in the best interest of their team. They are going to know better than you how to keep your employees engaged but it’s up to you to give them the power and the resources to do something about it.

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

John Quincy Adams has a great quote about leadership that I really align with:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Much of leadership is inspiring your team to reach their potential toward your collective goals.

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 do a lot of my best thinking after strenuous exercise. I’ve been training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai for many years and find that it’s a fantastic way to clear my mind and focus on difficult problems after a hard training session. This exercise relieves any nervous energy I have and allows me to properly think through my decisions and prepare appropriately for high stakes meetings. The combination of significant preparation and a calm mind allows me to operate at my best.

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 lead an organization spread out around the world. For the past several years I’ve been leading a management team of several professionals who are all over a thousand miles from our headquarters. Being a fully remote team has it’s challenges but it has forced us to be very intentional with our processes for soliciting, compiling, and giving feedback to our employees.

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?

You have to set the example — Creating a culture where honest and direct feedback is valued and expected has to start from the top down. A leader that isn’t open to giving and receiving feedback in this manner is going to have a very difficult time creating a culture that values it. “Do what I say, not what I do” is not the mantra of an effective leader.

Many people are not very good at assessing their own performance — Without giving direct feedback to your organization many of your employees are going to really struggle evaluating themselves. Many professionals’ opinion of their performance essentially boils down to “what does my boss think of me?”. Even if you have established metrics and goals it’s often leadership’s opinion that really matters in terms of promotion, raises, and other rewards for good performance.

You don’t want any end-of-year surprises — Managing expectations throughout the year is essential to having successful end-of-year performance conversations with your team. If there are any big surprises that happen during these conversations it’s almost always due to a manager not effectively giving feedback and managing expectations. Honest and direct feedback given on a regular basis is one of the absolute best methods to maximizing performance and having happy employees at the end of the year.

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.

Always give feedback over a video conference — It’s much easier to misconstrue how harsh feedback is when you don’t see the face of the person giving the feedback.

Include positives with negatives — If the only feedback you give is negative it’s much more likely to seem overly harsh.

Get their side of the story — Feedback seems more harsh when we don’t agree with it. Be sure to get more context and details about the circumstances of your feedback from your employee. There may be a very good reason you don’t know about.

Be as specific as you can be with examples — Vague feedback isn’t very helpful. You need to be as specific as you can be with what you feel they are doing wrong and how they can improve. The more specific and actionable the better.

Work out a follow up plan with them — Working with your employees on how to address any constructive feedback you’ve given them is critical. Your job isn’t just to spot problems, you are in charge because you can help to solve them.

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?

Be very specific — When you don’t have the opportunity to go back-and-forth with someone to ensure they understand your feedback you need to be very specific upfront. It may take more time, but you need to ensure that anyone can read what you wrote and understand your specific constructive criticism.

Overemphasize the severity — Don’t be afraid to repeat just how important or minor a criticism is in your email. Repetition is a very useful tool to use in emails when the reader has no other way of judging the strength of your feelings. Be very clear about how strongly you feel and throw in a few positive comments if you want to ensure it isn’t taken overly harshly.

Don’t try to cover everything— Email isn’t the best medium for constructive criticism but sometimes it’s the only option available. In these situations you can cover everything that is most pressing but you also want to set up some time to have a real-time discussion with the recipient. This will alleviate any pressing need for them to defend themselves via email and allow for the two of you to have a more productive conversation in the future.

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?

Feedback is often best given in the moment, if possible. The closer you are to when the action occurred the more likely it is that your employee will be able to take your critique and successfully relate it back to the action. There will certainly be times when this isn’t possible, such as the middle of a presentation, but sooner is usually better.

You do want to have consistent discussions with your employees where you provide ongoing feedback but giving feedback in the moment as much as possible is ideal.

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

A great boss makes the lives of their employees better. They help them reach their personal and professional goals and improve their overall quality of life. What that is will be different for every employee and it’s up to the boss to figure out what that is and make it happen. Whether it’s helping them advance, find better work-life balance, or teaching them useful skills a great boss works with their team to maximize their quality of life on their 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. 🙂

There is a massive opportunity to improve the justice system and allow for meaningful rehabilitation around the world. There are gigantic issues with the equality of justice received and how our current system is designed more for punishment than rehabilitation. An overhaul of how justice is administered, how convicted criminals are treated, and how we manage the ongoing ramifications of convictions is desperately needed.

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

There is a quote by Aleix Carrel that I think of often and has regularly motivated me both personally and professionally:

“To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor. In order to uncover his true visage he must shatter his own substance with heavy blows of his hammer.”

Change is a difficult and painful process as an individual and as an organization. As I’ve worked to improve myself and create an organization dedicated to help solve huge problems it’s been helpful to think of this quote. When you expect change to be difficult and painful it’s much easier to keep going and actually make progress.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me at successfulrelease.com

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

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