Carla Miller Of Impact Consulting: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Listen — feedback should be a two way conversation. In fact you may even want to start by asking how they felt it went. A coaching approach can be a great way to give feedback. Once you’ve made your point clearly, then ask them what their thoughts are, listen with an open mind and help them to problem solve. Be sure to check that they are leaving the call with the same understanding of expectations going forward as you have.

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

Carla Miller is a women’s leadership coach, speaker and author who works with women to develop their careers and their confidence. She also supports employers to develop and retain their female talent, build their pipeline of female leaders and encourage male allyship.

She is the author of ‘Closing the Influence Gap: A practical guide for women leaders who want to be heard’ and host of the chart-topping Influence & Impact for female leaders podcast.

Find her at www.carlamillertraining.com

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?

My background is in the non-profit sector where I led fundraising teams. I became a manager and then leader relatively young and I experienced a lot of self-doubt and imposter feelings. I worked incredibly hard to prove to myself and everyone else that I deserved to be there and put a huge amount of pressure on myself.

After having my own coach who really helped me deal with my overworking and perfectionism issues, I retrained as a coach. That was 14 years ago and, at the beginning, I combined coaching with interim leadership roles including CEO of a small charity for babies with heart problems and Managing Director at a leading non-profit recruitment consultancy.

I have been coaching managers and leaders since then, helping others to avoid some of the pitfalls I faced and sharing how the influencing skills I learnt made a huge difference to my career. For the past few years I’ve focused on supporting women in the workplace through my podcast, recent book and running leadership programs, confidence courses and male allyship workshops.

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

There are a lot of leadership coaches out there but the women I work with tell me that my ‘radical honesty’ approach makes them feel like I understand what they are going through. Too often leaders and indeed leadership coaches, feel they have to be perfect but I believe that we can be imperfect and still be great leaders, and I like to model that for my clients.

I keep it very real on my social media, sharing the ups and downs as honestly as I can. I recently shared a post on LinkedIn about how I build my work around my son even though that can be challenging sometimes. It had over 35k views and 500+ likes because it is much more human and relatable than a top tips post. I’m a big fan of taking a very human approach to leadership and creating a safe space where women can share what they are going through and feel less alone in that.

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

When I went to my university careers advisor and said I wanted to work in a non-profit, they laughed and said there were no jobs doing that. I ignored them and two years later I was working at a non-profit doing something I’d never heard of called ‘fundraising’. It turned out to be a hugely rewarding 20 year career where I spent my time cheering at marathons, pitching in corporate boardrooms, hosting celebrities at gala dinners and meeting some incredible people. I ended up helping to raise over £20 million for good causes and now I give talks at universities on fundraising as a 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?

I was about to start a role that involved managing celebrity relationships for a charity when I was at a charity football event and someone introduced me to a famous British actor. I wasn’t expecting that so my mind went totally blank and all I could think of to say was “I really admire your work”. He literally rolled his eyes at me and turned away! I didn’t hold out much hope for my future celebrity interactions but I leant to have some stock questions to ask when nerves struck and to remember that celebrities are people too. I ended up spending a very entertaining evening sat between two famous British sportsmen a few weeks later and haven’t been starstruck since.

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

Create a culture where it is okay to say no to work that isn’t a priority or is overloading people. In the business world, we are addicted to productivity and doing more and it is really taking its toll on employees. Employees don’t need yoga classes and ping pong tables, they need to be able to do a good job without breaking themselves in the process and feel valued doing it. You can’t say you value people and then overload them with so many tasks that their mental health and personal life suffers. That culture starts from the top and I encourage CEOs and leaders to take a more sustainable approach and stop asking too much of their employees.

Make your employees feel valued and they are more likely to stay. That will look different for everyone so it is important to have a conversation and find out what makes someone feel valued and motivated and equally, what makes them feel less valued or unmotivated.

Get a coach and work through your own blind spots and the ways you may be negatively impacting others. Even the best of leaders have blind spots — weaknesses or unhelpful ways of communicating that we are not conscious of. It can be really hard to look for and address those but it will make such a positive impact on your team.

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

For me, leadership is about creating a culture where others can thrive and be the best they can be. It’s not about having all the answers but about asking great questions and truly listening. I believe the best leaders have ‘cognitive flexibility’ which includes the ability to take perspectives very different to your own, to suspend judgment and see a different side to the issue before you make a decision.

As a manager I thought that I always had to be right and have all the answers. When I started leading bigger teams and managing people who were specialists in areas that were new to me I soon realized that I had to change my leadership approach and switch to asking more questions. My leadership style shifted and I used more coaching techniques and took the pressure off myself to always know the right thing to do.

That cognitive flexibility — the ability to flex your thinking to respond to the situation you find yourself in — is particularly useful in times of change and flux when you are facing completely new scenarios and your past experience can’t guide you.

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 find that going for a walk in nature every day helps to regulate my nervous system and keep overwhelm at bay. I really notice that I feel more tense when I don’t create the space for that.

Ahead of a big meeting I always take a moment to ask myself:

  • What do I want to achieve from this meeting?
  • How do I want to be perceived?

The first question allows me to go into the meeting focused and the second helps me to filter my communication so that I’m also building my reputation in the meeting.

Whenever I have to go into a challenging meeting, I imagine myself putting on my Cloak of Authority and claiming the authority that comes with my job title. Studies tell us that tools like this — alongside affirmations and power posing — add to our sense of self-efficacy and allow us to feel more in control. Putting on my Cloak of Authority makes me feel empowered and helps me to stick to what I plan to say instead of wimping out for fear of judgment. My body language is different, my voice is lower, my speech is slower and I am able to sit with any uncomfortable silences.

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 leading teams for the past 25 years in organizations large and small. As a Fundraising & Marketing Director, I often led teams which were under-resourced and had challenging targets but were full of passion for the cause. That could make giving feedback hard as emotions were high and we were asking a lot of people. I learnt that creating psychological safety for your team and in your one to one relationships with your reports is the bedrock of being able to give (and receive) honest and direct feedback. If someone knows that you care about them and the organization and want to treat people well they will be more receptive to feedback.

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?

Newer managers often hold back on giving feedback because it feels uncomfortable and they want to be liked. Feedback is how people improve but whilst it can be simple to give feedback on a piece of work, it often feels tougher to give feedback on behavior. You might find yourself watering it down to the point where they have no idea what you are really saying. Or showering them with too much praise to make up for it. That ends up being confusing and you are not serving your colleague as problems often escalate if they are not properly addressed.

In my first manager role, I wanted to be liked and be ‘nicer’ than some of the managers I’d had in the past. I gave lots of praise and when there were performance issues with an employee, I thought I had addressed them but nothing changed. I was being so nice and vague that she didn’t take my feedback seriously and it resulted in her employment being ended. That was a huge and painful learning point for me and in hindsight, honest and direct feedback could have prevented that particular ending.

Feedback, handled well, also says that you care. You care about that person’s development. You care about the work they do. You take time to help them improve because you value them. I quite like the phrase ‘feeding forward’ as that sums up how positive and constructive feedback can actually be. It isn’t about shaming people for making mistakes, it is about learning for the future.

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.

Giving feedback to remote employees is similar to doing it in-person but it is harder to read someone’s reaction so you need to ask more questions about their thoughts and feelings.

  1. Ask them for permission before giving feedback and check that they are in a place to hear it — no-one wants to be blindsided by a list of things they have done wrong! Let someone know that you would like to debrief a situation, discuss it or provide some feedback and ask if they are open to that. Then agree on a time to do it. Be sure to explain the purpose of the feedback too so they understand the context and what you are trying to achieve by giving it.
  2. Check your own bias — we all have unconscious bias and our expectations of people may be shaped by that. Black women are often labeled as aggressive for the same behaviors that white women receive no negative feedback on. We also need to make sure that the feedback we give is fair and not based on our own privilege. As a white male, it may be easier to speak up in meetings than it would be for the only woman or the only person of color in the room, as not feeling a sense of belonging makes it harder to raise challenging points.
  3. Be as specific as you can. Women are often given more vague feedback such as ”You need to be more confident” whilst men are given more specific and actionable feedback that prepares them for leadership. It would be much more useful to describe what confident would look like in that situation e.g. “You can raise dissenting points, we value your input” or “I would have loved to have heard your viewpoint on that particular point”.
  4. Here is a simple tool for giving feedback to a team member who needs to change their behavior in some way.

Behavior: This is the behavior which is causing issues.

Consequence: This is why it isn’t helpful.

Action: This is how I would like you to act instead.

For example… “You’ve been consistently arriving late for online meetings over the past month. This holds up the meeting which impacts the other people in the room. I’d like you to arrive on time for meetings going forward.”

I like this tool because often people giving feedback forget to cover one of these points and the recipient walks away not sure exactly what they’ve done wrong (which can make them feel unsafe), doesn’t understand why it is an issue (which can make them feel bullied) or isn’t clear how they could do it differently (which can make them feel demotivated).

If their attitude and work is otherwise good you can put the feedback in that context by setting the scene and then highlight good behavior and performance when you see it. You might start by saying “Generally I’m really pleased with how you’re performing (give an example or two) but there is one area that is causing some concern which I’d like to talk through with you.”

If they generally need a bit of motivation to improve, then make sure your feedback doesn’t get lost amongst all the vague praise you don’t really mean. You might want to start by saying “I’d like to talk about areas for improvement in your performance” so they immediately understand that this is a serious conversation. If they don’t understand that then they may not make the changes that could turnaround their performance. They won’t thank you for that later when you are not confirming them in post or are performance-managing them.

5. Listen — feedback should be a two way conversation. In fact you may even want to start by asking how they felt it went. A coaching approach can be a great way to give feedback. Once you’ve made your point clearly, then ask them what their thoughts are, listen with an open mind and help them to problem solve. Be sure to check that they are leaving the call with the same understanding of expectations going forward as you have.

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?

It is much harder to give feedback over email and it is more likely to escalate the situation. If the feedback is about behavior rather than a piece of work, I would always encourage a leader to use a meeting, video call or phone call if possible. By email you may need to soften your language, reread the email a few times with a focus on tone and frame it as a conversation. I would consider starting with a coaching approach and asking them how they felt it went.

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 on a particular incident needs to be timely but that should be balanced with allowing any strong emotions to pass. If you are feeling annoyed or your colleague is spiraling because they have made a mistake, then you are unlikely to deliver feedback effectively and they will be unable to hear it. So check your emotions are in equilibrium and then ask your colleague when would be a good time to provide some feedback. Make yourself available — if they know there is an issue and they have to wait days to find out more, they are likely to worry about it.

Ideally you want to create a growth mindset culture where you are regularly giving feedback that helps people develop and celebrates their strengths. You also want failure and mistakes to be seen as a positive part of continuous improvement. You can build this into your regular catch ups and make it a two way process where you also seek feedback from your team on how you can better support them. Modeling and receiving feedback is a really powerful way to lead.

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

A great boss is someone who understands the impact they have on others and can create psychological safety in their team. I’ve seen people who are driven, intelligent and inspiring who were not great bosses because some of their interactions with their team had a really negative impact. It only takes one moment of shaming someone and making them feel “less than” because they are different from you to undo all the other positive leadership traits you may have.

A great boss will ask the questions that have answers that are challenging to hear such as “What do I do that makes your job harder?” and “What do you need from me?”. And they will listen, with an open mind without being defensive or gaslighting the other person. Then they take that and learn from it, adapting their behavior to create an environment where everyone can thrive.

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. :-)

I’d love to see more people embracing difference and being curious about it rather than seeing it as threatening. In the workplace we have people with so many different experiences, backgrounds and ways of thinking, and it would truly enrich our daily working lives if we created workplaces that celebrated those.

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

“Perfection is overrated”.

For years I thought that I was doing well in my career because I worked so hard and held myself to such high standards. It took working with a coach to help me realize that those strategies were causing me as much harm as they were good.

Yes, I was getting great results. But overworking and perfectionism were causing me to exhaust myself and to emotionally overinvest in work to the point where I took everything personally. My identity had become so entwined with my work and performance that I didn’t really know who I was without my job title. I was stressed out, trying to control things that were out of my control and unable to gain perspective on challenging situations.

My coach asked me “What would happen if you didn’t try and be perfect at everything?”

When I first heard that question, I almost hyperventilated at the idea of not trying to be perfect. I thought to myself ‘Why would you not want to be perfect or as good as you possibly can be? Why would you not want to give your all, all the time?’

But when I reflected, I realized that the reason I was trying to be perfect was to feel good enough.

I had never articulated it to myself before that moment, but at a subconscious level I believed that the quality of my work was directly linked to my value as a person.

When we try to be perfect, we fear being seen as who we really are. But to make genuine connections with people and to be loved for who we are, we need to show others the real us. That is as relevant in work and leadership as it is in personal relationships. We want leaders who are relatable and human, who understand when we make mistakes because they’ve also made their own fair share.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me by searching Carla Miller on LinkedIn or thisiscarlamiller on Instagram where I share insights around leadership and career development for women at any level. You can also listen to my podcast Influence & Impact for female leaders on any major podcast player and buy my book ‘Closing the Influence Gap: A practical guide for women leaders who want to be heard’ at any bookstore.

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

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market