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Julia Karnezis of TopSpot Internet Marketing: “How To Give Honest Feedback Without Being Hurtful”

Be kind. This is a human you’re giving feedback to who has feelings and emotions and goals and dreams. It’s important to be clear but also think of the golden rule. There are ways to deliver tough feedback that doesn’t attack or disrespect someone. Look to motivate someone rather than bring them down.

Give recognition too! Don’t just give feedback when it’s something constructive. Give feedback when it’s positive too. Catch your team doing things right and acknowledge and celebrate it. Don’t forget to recognize the good.

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

Julia Karnezis is the Director of People Experience at TopSpot Internet Marketing. She began at TopSpot in 2011 as an SEO Specialist where she worked directly with customers creating digital marketing strategies. Her digital marketing and analytics background helps her connect with current and future team members at TopSpot, where she oversees recruitment, onboarding, engagement, growth, and learning.

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 backstory is a bit different than many HR professionals. I don’t have an HR degree. In fact, I have a Public Relations degree from the University of Texas. During and after college I worked at advertising agencies. In 2011, the job market led me to TopSpot where I was hired as an SEO Specialist.

I learned everything I could and from everyone I could while in that role. After about two years, I was promoted to Senior SEO Strategist. In that senior position, I started to train new team members because TopSpot was growing. I was meeting with team members to help them develop strategies, but really, I was helping them grow and develop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was that role that began to create a new career path that would lead me to where I am now.

As TopSpot continued to grow, I was promoted to Education Manager where I implemented our first Learning Management System and began designing and organizing a training on a company-wide scale, rather than just one department. I even regularly contributed to the education of our customers through workshops and webinars. I never viewed this role as something within HR, but it was.

In 2019, I was promoted to Director of People Experience and earned my SHRM-CP certification.

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

TopSpot is in the business of creating opportunities for others. We offer search marketing services like SEO, paid search ads, analytics, website design and development, but those are just a means for helping businesses get new opportunities online. There are people in those businesses and it’s never lost on us that those are who we’re helping create opportunities for.

About a year into my time to TopSpot a client of ours was visiting and asked to meet with the entire company. We huddled into our largest conference room. This was a time where we all fit in one conference room — we need an event space now since we’ve grown so much. So, we all came together, and this client began the conversation with “You don’t just build websites, you build dreams.” He described how our marketing services and the website we built him had created opportunities beyond what he could have imagined — helping him reach new sales, open new facilities, and create new jobs. He told stories of how our work impacted his employees directly, making it possible for him to give better benefits and raises; some of his employees were sending their children to college to be the first ones in their family!

I’ll never forget that day. That’s what we have the opportunity to do every day for our customers: grow their businesses in a way that creates opportunities for them and for so many others. And it’s also what we have the opportunity to do for our team members and their families, too.

I’ve worked at big and small agencies. You don’t hear people talk like this in a lot of them. That’s what makes us stand out.

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

During my last semester in college, I was interning at a global PR company, working with well-known clients and people who were much farther along and established in their careers. Most days I had to pinch myself to believe I got that internship.

I sat in an afternoon meeting with the entire Austin office, which was about 20 people, and frankly, I felt I had no business in that room. I felt grateful for a seat at the table and I was there to do nothing more than listen… I just felt lucky to be there.

One of the Senior Account Executives asked for my ideas during a brainstorm. Sensing my hesitation, she stopped the meeting and made it clear that my ideas were just as welcome as everyone else’s and to not let the fact that I was interning stop me from contributing. She told me how the experience gave us differences but our purpose in that meeting was all the same, and that I had as much of a chance as anyone else in the room to have an idea to be used in a campaign.

I think about that day every time a new person starts at TopSpot.

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?

Early in my career, I worked at advertising and public relations agencies where I’d often send reporters and bloggers pitches. I remember one time I secured a big feature and wanted to forward the email to my supervisor, but instead, I replied back to the reporter with something along the lines of “YESSSSS! We got it!” *Facepalm* It was not funny when I realized it. I felt so embarrassed, but it was a big lesson in slowing down and always checking the recipient of an email.

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

It starts with how you treat your team members and remembering we’re all human, working to live for something or someone outside of the office, not living to work. Keeping that top of mind and showing an understanding of that idea is important for a workplace for people to thrive and not experience burnout.

For burnout specifically, having a shared purpose and meaning is really important. We all want to contribute to something good and larger than we are if we can. We want to know our work matters. No matter what your role is, if you can see the value you bring for others or the good you contribute, you’ll be more invested and have less risk of burnout. But it’s something that we all need reminders of; it has to be something that’s a large part of the culture.

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

I would define leadership as motivating yourself and others to achieve a common goal. A lot of people, especially people early in their careers, consider leadership to be something you can only do with experience or a fancy title. But the reality is that if you want to be in leadership, you have to do the verb (lead) to be the noun (leader), and the opportunity is always there with yourself first.

I’ve always loved this list of 10 things that require zero talent. I wish I knew where it originated so I could give a proper source.

  1. Being on time
  2. Work ethic
  3. Effort
  4. Body language
  5. Energy
  6. Attitude
  7. Passion
  8. Being coachable
  9. Doing extra
  10. Being prepared

These are things that we’re all capable of and sometimes they are hard to do consistently. But consistency is the key, which means showing up each day to practice those things and try to be better than the last day. If you focus on leading yourself and help set the example and help others in these areas, you’re probably leading.

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?

Two things:

  1. I’m careful with my self-talk. This is really important mentally. If we’re rough or negative with ourselves internally, we make things a lot harder than they need to be. We demotivate ourselves and get in our own way. If I mess up, I acknowledge it and commit to learning from it, rather than beat myself up about. If things feel challenging, I remind myself that growth is challenging and uncomfortable. What’s on the other side of that is always what I’m working towards.
  2. Exercise. I’ve always been very active, playing softball competitively and for a year in college. So pushing my body and doing hard things physically has always been bigger than fitness for me. There are the obvious benefits of stress relief, but exercise is just as much mental training for me as it is physical training. If I can do hard work physically in the gym or on my Peloton bike, I can do challenging or tough things in other areas of my life too.

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 haven’t always been a manager, but I’ve always created a position for myself in each role I’ve had where coaching and helping others was a part of it. That’s when I feel I’m at my best and enjoy my work the most — through helping people. Giving feedback is a natural part of coaching and helping others.

Growing up playing sports competitively, feedback has been something I’ve always relied upon. It’s how I knew what I was doing well and what I needed to work on, and ultimately what helped me improve. If I wasn’t getting it, I’d ask for it. So, I’ve always understood personally the value of feedback, which has helped me as a manager when giving feedback to others.

When managing a team, your role is essentially helping a group of people be successful in reaching results or an outcome. I don’t think there’s any possible way to be effective in that role or any role without giving and receiving 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?

We all need guidance in some way to grow personally and professionally.

There’s this quote from Sheryl Sandberg that I love: “The people who have taught me the most in my career are the ones who pointed out what I didn’t see.”

That’s the value of feedback. Without feedback or guidance, it’s hard for us to succeed personally. So, when we’re thinking about people we lead, being an effective leader means giving that feedback and guidance to help others succeed. That’s an essential function of being an effective leader. And sometimes that guidance or feedback is hard to hear, but that doesn’t mean we need it any less.

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.

  1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. I don’t think that the main hesitation in giving honest feedback is that it will come off too harsh. Obviously, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings and we want to be respectful and kind. But the tricky part about giving honest, constructive feedback is that it’s uncomfortable as a manager. Which is really selfish for a manager when you think about it because it’s not about the manager, it’s about the team member they are trying to guide and develop. So, my first suggestion is to get over that feeling. You have to give feedback and you can’t hold it in because it’s uncomfortable. Someone’s growth and success are dependent on it.
  2. Be kind. This is a human you’re giving feedback to who has feelings and emotions and goals and dreams. It’s important to be clear but also think of the golden rule. There are ways to deliver tough feedback that doesn’t attack or disrespect someone. Look to motivate someone rather than bring them down.
  3. Give recognition too! Don’t just give feedback when it’s something constructive. Give feedback when it’s positive too. Catch your team doing things right and acknowledge and celebrate it. Don’t forget to recognize the good.
  4. Ask for feedback. If you’re willing to hear feedback from your team, you create an environment where feedback is normal and is safe to give. You have to lead by example.
  5. Build a relationship with your team. If someone knows that you care about them and their success, they are much more open to feedback. In fact, nothing else matters if the person you’re giving feedback to doesn’t know you’re coming from a place of wanting them to succeed.

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 can’t think of a situation where I’d ever recommend giving constructive feedback over email.

Technology is advanced enough that If you have constructive feedback, you can have it face to face through a video call to deliver. Always remember there’s a human on the receiving end of feedback. As you mention, facial expressions and body language are such important cues. What if someone’s body language disagrees with the feedback? Email doesn’t make it possible to pick up on that and lean into that conversation and listen to the other person’s point of view.

Even when someone is remote or in a different time zone, finding a common time to have a conversation through video or the very least a phone call so you can hear tone of voice is necessary. It signals something completely different to the receiver of feedback than an email can and can create shared trust and respect.

I also think recognition and good feedback is important over the phone and video, too. There’s a human excitement that just can’t be conveyed over email genuinely and it can go a long way in motivating people as well.

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?

Giving feedback as soon as possible is important while it’s fresh for you and who you’re working with. That’s generally a good rule of thumb.

An exception to that rule, and this requires emotional intelligence and self-awareness, is if the person receiving feedback is very upset or you’re very upset. If emotions are high, we risk reactions rather than responses.

I’m sure we can all think of a situation whether personally or professionally where our emotions got in the way and something came off in a way we didn’t mean it to or we said something we didn’t intend to. In those cases, I think to an old article from Jason Fried, Founder/CEO of Basecamp, where he talked about giving yourself five minutes to think rather than react. He says, “The faster you react, the less you think. Not always, but often.”

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

I think being a great boss is being a great leader.

The leader I’ve worked with the most over the last few years is, first of all, one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. She’s thoughtful and compassionate, and she leads by viewing everyone as humans first, who have families, career goals, and lives.

She’s also a great example. She doesn’t expect things from other people that she doesn’t expect from herself. She does expect greatness, and she believes whole heartedly that we can achieve it together.

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. :-)

Sounds simple but for everyone to practice and reflect on what’s known as the golden rule more intentionally — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12) A lot of good would come from it.

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

Most of the life lesson quotes I can think of that have impacted how I live have been from Stoics, introduced to me by Ryan Holiday’s books. One of the life lesson quotes or concepts he’s highlighted that’s always stuck with me is about alive time versus dead time, which was introduced to him by another great author, Robert Greene.

Holiday recalls Greene saying: “…while people wait for the right moment, there are two types of time: Dead time — where they are passive and biding and Alive time — where they are learning and acting and getting the most out of every second. Which will this be for you?”

This is always relevant to me. More time is never promised. But I think this is so important right now as we all find ourselves social distancing and having a challenging 2020 in some form or fashion. There’s much that is not within our control during a pandemic, but we can choose what we do with this time by spending it intentionally, whether it’s more time with our family, connecting with someone (virtually) we haven’t in a long time, learning a new skill, or doing something healthy for ourselves.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Sometimes I write on the TopSpot blog:

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



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