Jordan Eller of Forma Life Science Marketing: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful
Address problems early. As a manager, you’re supposed to be a guide and a leader, not an intimidating bully who waits in the shadows for something to go wrong before pouncing. I had a boss who did this to me, and I swore to never do it to my team. I had been incorrectly logging project updates for about 3 months before he finally brought it up during a review, and it felt incredibly unfair. How can someone know if they’re doing something wrong if you don’t explain it to them before it becomes an issue? Try to anticipate potential issues, and address them when they begin to cause problems.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Eller.
Jordan is the Digital Marketing Manager of Forma Life Science Marketing. Jordan has worked in a variety of capacities that required thoughtful and purposeful dialogues with his coworkers, peers, and students. In his free time, he enjoys teaching piano and guitar around the Raleigh, NC area and mixing delicious cocktails for his friends and family.
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?
Thanks for having me! My backstory is pretty unorthodox. I began college as a Piano Performance Major, and ended up graduating with a degree in English (which is only slightly more useful). I immediately moved from Florida to Raleigh, NC, and eventually got a job as a recruiter. I was able to transition to a marketing position at a recruiting company in 2015, and since then I’ve worked with a variety of people and teams across a multitude of industries. All things considered, I’m very pleased with where life has taken me.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Forma has the honor of being one of the oldest and most stable digital marketing agencies in Raleigh. CEO David Chapin founded Forma in 1987 and has since done a stellar job of adapting to the shifting needs and markets in Raleigh and beyond. The #1 thing that makes Forma stand out is our unique application of Archetypes, which are essentially subconscious thought patterns that can be used to differentiate a brand or align employees. For example, our Archetype at Forma is “The Catalyst” because we’re tenacious, engaged experts that cause positive change for our clients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My very first job out of college was an inventory technician at an insurance company. 50 hours a week in a windowless basement fixing laptops and logging printers in a database. It was brutal! At the end of my 90-day probationary period, my boss called me in to congratulate me and offer me a promotion and a significant raise. Instead of accepting the promotion, I compulsively offered my resignation on the spot. It was a valuable lesson in choosing what you’re willing to sacrifice for, and ultimately I decided that this job wasn’t worth it. To my boss’s credit, he took it pretty well!
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?
Oh man, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it’s pretty hilarious now. Within the first 3 weeks of my first proper marketing job, I made a pretty polarizing tweet about the disgraced hedge fund Martin Shkreli from my company’s Twitter account. Within 10 minutes, our Vice President comes storming out of his office and yells “Who did this?”. I meekly raised my hand and got a *very stern talking to* about what kind of content our social media channels should feature. For the record, it was a brilliant tweet!
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Listen to your workers! A common problem I’ve seen in many CEOs is a general disinterest in anything besides revenue. I’ve worked with many business leaders whose only real input is “get it done”. They made no attempt to understand the nature of the project and instead would do routine checkups to see if we were still on track. This could’ve been avoided if they simply took the time to get to know their teams.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I don’t believe a title carries any sort of intrinsic leadership value. Just because someone has a cocobolo-wood desk and a corner office doesn’t mean that they engender a sense of pride and loyalty in their workforce. Leadership is something that has to be demonstrated; it has to be observable. One of the most positive leadership experiences I’ve witnessed is a CEO who schedules weekly one-on-one meetings with individual team members to talk honestly about work, life, and anything else. That simple gesture of “I respect what you have to say, let’s talk” really reinforced the idea that he was invested in his workforce as much as he was invested in the brand he created.
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?
For me, being mindful of the present has helped more than anything. I’m naturally a very anxious person, and it’s always easy for me to focus on what could go wrong (instead of what could go right). That’s why I try to remain as level as possible when faced with challenges or tense situations. I’ve been in situations where I was responsible for launching a new website or marketing initiative for a client and leading a team through every step of the process. I was a new hire at the time and could barely remember my coworker’s names, but I knew that in order to succeed, I had to remain in control of the situation. Repeating the phrase “choose hope over fear” has served me very well in every aspect of life, and I believe it can help others who are struggling as well.
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?
Sure! I’ve been in various iterations of managerial positions since 2015. I started with 0 experience, but I quickly learned the right (and wrong) ways to give feedback. I started by managing a small team of digital marketers, then gradually moved into positions that required me to manage offshore teams in India. I then transitioned to a project manager position where I oversaw roughly 12 different teams for a digital marketing firm. During my time in each of these positions, I learned more about how to effectively communicate and coordinate with team members, and I’m very lucky to have worked with some stellar people over the years.
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?
Honesty is a core differentiator between an “okay leader” and a “great leader”. By being honest with your team, you’re spelling out exactly what your expectations are. This is why being a good communicator is also important. The goal is to have a few “question marks” as possible in the heads of your team. They shouldn’t be guessing at what you need or presuming that their work is up to snuff. By being honest and direct, you’re able to clearly articulate your position without confusing your team.
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.
This is what’s worked for me:
- Be encouraging. Negative reinforcement simply does not work. Do not use a feedback meeting to harangue your team member or vent your frustrations. Help them understand how they’re falling short, and illustrate ways that they could improve. I was working with a developer who consistently missed deadlines on website projects, and I had to discuss it with him. During our talk, we laid out a plan to use a different task-management platform and it resulted in him being much more organized and delivering projects on time.
- Address problems early. As a manager, you’re supposed to be a guide and a leader, not an intimidating bully who waits in the shadows for something to go wrong before pouncing. I had a boss who did this to me, and I swore to never do it to my team. I had been incorrectly logging project updates for about 3 months before he finally brought it up during a review, and it felt incredibly unfair. How can someone know if they’re doing something wrong if you don’t explain it to them before it becomes an issue? Try to anticipate potential issues, and address them when they begin to cause problems.
- Don’t ambush people. It doesn’t matter if you and your team have the greatest relationship in the world, nobody likes getting a Slack message from their boss that says “Do you have 15 minutes?”. This can cause flop sweats in even the most confident workers, especially if you don’t give any context for the meeting. If you’re going to meet, give them plenty of time to prepare and block off time on their calendar. I always have weekly check-ins at the same time every week, which creates a sense of familiarity and comfort.
- Don’t sugarcoat it. This goes hand-in-hand with being honest. You should definitely be sensitive, but when it comes time to appraise someone’s performance, you need to be as direct as possible. Use verifiable examples of where they fell short, explain why they need to improve and guide them towards success. I managed a digital marketing associate who clearly did not like her job, and instead of saying “There are a few things to discuss but it’s nothing major”, I said, “It really seems like you don’t want to be here”. We ended up having a really productive conversation about how the role wasn’t what she thought it would be, and we were able to modify her duties to suit her strengths, resulting in a mutually-beneficial arrangement.
- Be empathetic. Empathy is a critically valuable element with any sort of criticism. If you’re frustrated with someone, it can be tempting to unload on them (pro tip: don’t do this). However, it’s important to remember that your peers are actual human beings, and not simply resources from which your business can extract value. There are very few people out there who *want* to be bad at their job, therefore it stands to reason that if they’re falling short, it’s not something they’re proud of. I had a moment during a check-in where I couldn’t understand why an SEO associate was so far behind on her deliverables. I knew she was brilliant and a hard worker, so I was trying to get to the bottom of why she was struggling. It turned out that her workload was weighing her down, and I was able to reorganize some of her projects so that she would be less overwhelmed. Like I said, it would’ve been easy to just complain about how she can’t meet deadlines, but using the empathetic approach yielded far more productive and positive results.
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?
Giving feedback over email is a risky business. On the plus side, it’s very convenient! It’s much easier to type out your thoughts and send them off before immediately moving onto another project. The downside is that so much of the “human element” is lost over email (or any sort of text). The key to sending effective feedback emails is the *tone* you use. With feedback emails, it’s important to sound like you’re having a conversation, not sending a text. I will always advocate for videochat/phonecalls when giving feedback, but if you absolutely have to send an email, make sure to give your team member an opportunity to respond. Feedback should not be given like a lecture; it should be a dialogue. It requires two active participants. As a leader, you should understand that your perspective is only one slice of the whole situation. Allow them to respond and continue the conversation for as long as it takes until you both reach an understanding.
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’ve learned that the best approach is a regular check-in. I believe that 30 minutes every 2 weeks, or 15 minutes every week, has shown the most positive results. This strategy has several benefits. Firstly, the routine creates an atmosphere of familiarity for both the manager and the team member. Secondly, the regular frequency of the meetings will guarantee that you’ll be able to recap the week(s) and cover everything that happened, positive or otherwise. Finally, the brevity of the meetings means that you both can have a conversation and get back to work with minimal delay or stress.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
Good question! Being a good boss is hard to quantify in concrete terms, but ultimately I’d say a good boss is someone who makes it easier for everyone to do their work, not harder. I’ve had bosses that met the technical definition of being “successful”, but they were despised by their entire workforce and only complicated life for everyone in the building. On the other hand, I’ve had bosses who try to be friends with everyone, but ended up being ineffectual leaders. Every manager is different, but one thing that unites them all is their responsibility to help everyone in their organization succeed. An aligned workforce is a difficult thing to accomplish, but if you take the time to demonstrate your eagerness to help your team, they’ll follow you through any challenge or struggle.
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. :-)
Haha, good question! I would like to see a global shift towards equality for everyone. So much despair is caused by people thinking they’re somehow “better” than someone else, whether it pertains to business or otherwise. Unfortunately, many of these people are the ones creating legislature in order to protect their privileged way of life while continuing to exploit the most vulnerable citizens in our society. At the end of the day, we’re all people trying to live and enjoy life, and nobody has any right to discriminate against someone else because of their paycheck, job title, skin color, or otherwise.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Like I mentioned before, the phrase “Choose hope over fear” has become my official mantra for life. It’s helped me in every situation I can think of, from work, to relationships, to health, to money, and everything in between. It’s essentially an affirmation that I am capable of choosing how I react to the things that happen to me, and when I’m uncertain about something, the most healthy approach is to choose hope over fear.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m a regular contributor to Forma Life Science Marketing’s blog (https://www.formalifesciencemarketing.com/blog/).
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.