Merge Gupta-Sunderji of ‘Turning Managers Into Leaders’: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful
Be specific. Offer facts, not opinions. The key is to give your employee enough information so that they know what they need to start, stop, or continue doing. For example, “You weren’t collaborative enough” is an opinion. But “You didn’t include at least one person from each stakeholder group” is a fact. Now, your employee knows how s/he can be more collaborative i.e. by including at least one person from each stakeholder group.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Merge Gupta-Sunderji.
Merge is the principal of Turning Managers Into Leaders, the leadership development consultancy she founded in 2002. Through one-on-one mentoring, large group training, and keynotes/workshops at conferences, she gives people specific and practical skills to become better communicators and leaders. In addition to being a regular columnist for Canada’s The Globe and Mail, she also blogs frequently at www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.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?
I actually began my career as a professional accountant! That may sound odd, but the leap from accountant to leadership development consultant isn’t quite as enormous as you might think. When I started my first job as an accountant straight out of university, I got promoted to a supervisory position within a couple of years. And that’s when I discovered that the skills that made me successful as a knowledge expert were in fact almost opposite to what it would take for me to become an exceptional leader. So I began my journey to understand and learn more about what separated adequate managers from exceptional leaders. Along the way I watched many people with fantastic track records get promoted to the positions of supervisor or manager. And then flounder and falter because they erroneously assumed that if they just continued to do what they had done in the past, they would continue to be successful in their new roles. The irony of course is that this formula was a recipe for failure. They just didn’t understand that the transition from manager to leader required a completely different skill set, and no one took the time to mentor and coach them otherwise. Fourteen years later, this is what eventually prompted me to leave my established career as an accountant in a large multinational corporation to start my own leadership development consultancy. I just knew that these managers could become better leaders, if only someone would teach them how, if only someone would make their problems and the solutions relevant to them and their situations. The rest, as they say, is history 😊.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My focus, from the very beginning when I first started my consultancy, was to give people relevant, practical how-to skills that they could actually use in their day-to-day leadership responsibilities, and implement the very next day if necessary. Our clients tell us that I am (as compared to others who offer similar services) relatable and relevant. I’ve been there. I’ve walked in their shoes as a front-line supervisor, a mid-level manager, and a C-suite executive. So I get it! I know their frustrations, their challenges, and the roadblocks they face. Many others consultants in this space come from academic backgrounds or from the social sciences; and they have scads of researched empirical data to back up what they talk about. My strength is that I can bridge the two worlds — I have “feet-on-the-ground” experience and because of that I can make the academic research relevant and practical, and translate it into strategies and tactics that leaders can actually use.
A significant component of my practice is one-on-one mentoring of high-potential leaders. And it is a powerful relationship because I can relate to what they are seeing, and hearing, and doing. Here’s an example. One of the leaders I was mentoring had an ongoing situation with an employee who wasn’t performing up to expectations. Every two weeks we’d meet, and together we’d discuss and script out the conversation he planned to have with his staff member. Because I had a first-hand understanding of what his challenges were, he valued this discussion. And then two weeks later, at our next meeting, he’d report back on how it went, and we’d talk over and script out what he would say or do next. It was this consistent follow-up over a period of several weeks that eventually led to a resolution of this employee performance problem.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have a couple, one more serious (but a pivotal moment for me) and the second, humorous.
First, the pivotal one. When I took the entrepreneurial plunge to start my leadership development consultancy in 2002, I had by that time spent 14 years at a single large corporation. As a result, almost my entire business network was in one place. At the time, I did not realize the importance of building business relationships that spanned industries and companies. So when I went out on my own in 2002, I naively thought that the phone would be ringing off the hook, and that clients would be flocking to my door; after all, I had what they needed, right? Wrong. The biggest and most interesting personal insight for me was that I needed to learn how to “sell”, to convince others that they needed what I had to offer. I had no inkling when I first started that I would work harder than I ever had before.
Second, the funny story. In my early years, I took on some contract work with a large training organization, delivering one-day leadership development seminars to big groups of people in cities across Canada and the United States. This was a sizeable company, putting on an average of 50 programs a day across the country, all managed by a central events planning team at their head office. When the planners reserved venues for these seminars, they rarely did site visits; they usually made their bookings with venue staff over the telephone. I arrived one evening at a city in California and checked into a hotel which was around the corner from the venue for a training seminar the next day. My first clue that something was not right should have been the crazy loud music in the neighborhood that went on into the wee hours of the morning. I thought nothing of it at the time though (other than being tired from an almost sleepless night), and the next morning arrived bright and early at my venue. Only to discover that … it was actually a club. Not just a club, but a strip club!!! There was a central stage, and red vinyl booths around the stage that had enough seating for 80 people. Each red vinyl booth had a single low-hanging light fixture. And yes, in case you are wondering, there were poles on the stage!! Turns out that the entrepreneurial owner of this club thought it would be a good idea for the facility to be used during the unoccupied daylight hours, and had reached out to the training company with a well-priced offer. The planner there had obviously not asked the right questions, and here I was, now about to deliver a full day training for first-time leaders in a strip club! After both I and my participants got over the initial shock, we actually had some fun with it. Somehow a lot of my teaching points that day managed to include a reference to one of the poles ☺. I did contact the meeting planner later and let him know not to ever book this particular venue again, at least not for a leadership development seminar!
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?
Funny now, but very embarrassing when it happened. Many years ago, when I first started my leadership development consultancy, I was training a large group of approximately 80 leaders (from a variety of organizations) in Ottawa ON, Canada’s capital. I was teaching the concept of “active listening” and one of the homework exercises I gave to the group was to find a boring television or radio station and then force themselves to “actively listen” for five minutes. I then went on to suggest that they should try CPAC, the Canadian Parliamentary Channel (which is the equivalent to the American C-SPAN) that broadcasts debates in the House of Commons. Three people over on one side of the conference room started giggling and snickering, ultimately dissolving into uncontrollable laughter. I paused, and asked “What did I say that was so funny?” One of them pointed at a fourth person and sputtered, “She’s the programming director for CPAC.” Yikes, I was embarrassed! In hindsight of course, I should have known better. I was in the nation’s capital after all, so the odds were high that I’d have someone from CPAC in my training room. Big lesson learned, one that I have been very conscientious about since then: research your audience, research your audience, research your audience!
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Ask probing questions, and listen to the answers. It’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure that the work environment does not contribute to the detriment of an employee’s health — whether physical, mental or emotional. That means that as leaders, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of our organization, our people. What are they feeling? Are they getting the resources they need? Are they enthused by their work, or disengaged? The only way to get answers to these questions, is to ask. And it isn’t good enough to simply ask “Are you okay?” Because the answer will almost always be “Yes.” So leaders need to go deeper. They need to ask more specific questions, and then ask follow-up questions to the initial questions. Once you get to truth, then ask your employees for possible solutions. What could we do to make things better? What can we change? What should we start doing? Or stop doing?
Really cool bonus: when you help employees build physical, mental and emotional resilience, you create a highly-engaged workforce.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
This one is easy, it’s actually the foundation of my company “Turning Managers Into Leaders”.
Management is what you do, leadership is how you do it.
Every capable manager I’ve ever met knows what to do — the tasks, the deliverables, the milestones; they’ve got to-do lists that run for ever, and they are superbly proficient at checking things off these lists. But it takes a leader to harness the energy and potential in others, so they can complete tasks and deliver outcomes. Leaders have conversations; they build morale; they mobilize others to get things done. And they do it through coaching and building their staff, creating a positive climate that encourages decision-making, and by empowering others to take action. Managers are about getting things done, leaders are about getting things done through others.
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?
Positive self-talk is critical. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else? I don’t mean that you should be arrogant. But if you don’t believe that the outcome of your meeting, talk or decision is going to be positive, then why even bother? I’m also not saying that positive self-talk will always achieve success, but your mindset makes a huge difference. I can tell you that the opposite is true though — if you don’t believe that your result is going to be positive then it very likely (make that almost certainly) won’t!
The biggest life-changing example I can share is when I chose to leave my thriving corporate career to start my own consultancy from scratch. My family and friends thought I was crazy! I even had one well-meaning friend pull me aside to let me know that my decision was causing a great deal of stress for my spouse. And in truth, I questioned my own sanity many times, particularly in the early years. But I firmly believe that if I wasn’t prepared to believe in myself, then why should anyone else? I used other people’s doubts and cynicism to ignite the fire in my belly that propelled me forward. I had something to prove, and that became the fuel that energized me.
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. My experience comes from three sources. One, I’ve been there. I spent fourteen years in a large multinational corporation, twelve of which were managing teams. I;’ e lived through the employee who is constantly tardy, the one who doesn’t pull his weight, and the other one that doesn’t’ get along with her coworkers. I’ve had to stop myself from refereeing arguments between team members; I’ve had to think of creative ways to get everyone to play well with each other in the sandbox, and I’ve had that uncomfortable conversation about body odour with a staff member. Underlying all of this is the critical skill of giving feedback to an employee that is not only heard, but acted on. So I get it!
Two, I’ve spent the last 18 years conducting first-hand research, talking to tens of thousands of leaders in organizations around the world, all of whom struggle with the conundrum of how to give feedback to their employees that will result in positive outcomes. As a result, I’ve been able to observe best practices, and assess how well certain approaches work in certain situations.
Three, I’ve also spent the last 18 years conducting secondary research — scouring academic literature to summarize what is known about leading people, giving feedback, motivating exceptional performance. There is an immense amount of empirical and anecdotal data available, and there is more every day; my role is to make it accessible and relevant to the leaders I work with.
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?
Coaching and developing people is one of the most important responsibilities for a leader. And employees cannot grow and progress without specific, clear, and timely information about what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. Think about it: if you don’t know which of your behaviors and actions are working well, then you will not know that you need to replicate them. And if you don’t know what behaviors and actions are ineffective or dysfunctional, you run the very real risk of repeating them, to your detriment. Sure, giving negative feedback is challenging, but there is no other way to help your employees improve and advance. And ironically, giving positive feedback is relatively easy, but many managers don’t do that either, only because they don’t make the time. They get busy with other priorities, and sadly, they lose out on a great opportunity to teach and build goodwill.
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.
The going-in assumption in giving constructive criticism is that your goal is to help the employee be more successful. With that in mind, there really is no significant difference in giving constructive criticism to a remote employee versus one that is physically present in front of you. The only thing to remember is that visual and auditory cues play an important role in delivering the message, so whenever possible, do this with remote employees over live video streaming, or as a second choice, over the telephone. With that as a foundation, here are five best practices to incorporate into what you have to say to your employee:
- Be specific. Offer facts, not opinions. The key is to give your employee enough information so that they know what they need to start, stop, or continue doing. For example, “You weren’t collaborative enough” is an opinion. But “You didn’t include at least one person from each stakeholder group” is a fact. Now, your employee knows how s/he can be more collaborative i.e. by including at least one person from each stakeholder group.
- Be timely. This is where I invoke Merge’s Rule — you must give feedback (positive or negative) right away, or within 24 hours of you finding out about the situation or event. More on this later.
- Have a dialogue. Constructive criticism should never be a one-way process, it needs to be a conversation. If you truly want your employee to change their behavior and actions, then you need to let them offer explanations, ask clarifying questions, and probably most important, be engaged. Often, we don’t dialogue because we are afraid that it will put us on the defensive. But if you do it right, it shouldn’t, particularly if you stick to facts and not opinions.
- Use LB/NT. The most common reason leaders shy away from giving negative feedback is because they fear that it may demoralize the employee. Which is ironic, because without feedback on what is going well, and what isn’t, you are actually setting your employee up to fail. So I teach the LB/NT method to leaders as a way to offer negative feedback while still being motivating. LB/NT stands for Liked Best/Next Time. Here’s how it works: “What I liked best about the presentation you gave this morning is that you clearly went to a lot of effort to gather data. Next time, I think your presentation would be even more powerful if you summarized your recommendations in one slide, and then offered the data as a supplementary document to whoever asks for it.” If you haven’t already gathered, the negative feedback that I wanted to give was that the morning’s presentation was far too detailed and many people drifted off during the meeting. But the LB/NT method lets me convey the same information, but in a motivating manner.
- End the conversation on a positive and supportive note. Your employee needs to know that you have his/her best interests at heart, despite the feedback being negative. So it’s important to close by emphasizing the positive. “I’m glad we had this discussion, I want you to succeed” or “I appreciate that you’re putting so much effort into this project. These few changes will make your impact even greater”. You get the idea.
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?
So as I mentioned earlier, email (or any sort of written communication) is most definitely not the best way to give negative feedback to an employee. But if for some reason, you have no choice, then I have two suggestions.
First, focus on the problem, not the person. So “Let’s find a way to streamline how our customers get their invoices” versus “You need to get those invoices out faster”.
Second, stay future-focused, nor past-focused. So “I’d like to discuss possible solutions to get our customers invoiced faster” rather than “Why have you been delaying the invoicing to customers?”
Again, you get the idea.
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?
The best time to give feedback on a situation or specific incident, positive or negative? So glad you asked. As I referred to earlier, I invoke Merge’s Rule: As soon as it happens, or within 24 hours of you becoming aware of the event. Notice that I didn’t say “As soon as possible.” That’s because in real-life “As soon as possible” translates to “As soon as I can possibly get to it”, which usually means “Never”. The reality is that most leaders are juggling many priorities, so if you don’t invoke Merge’s Rule, it simply just doesn’t happen. And getting feedback once a quarter, or even worse, annually, is useless if you actually want to effect a change in behavior or action.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
Well, I’ve already referred to this earlier, but here it is again. Great leaders get things done through others. They have conversations; they build morale; they mobilize others to get things done. And they do all of it through coaching and building their staff, by creating a positive environment that encourages decision-making, and by empowering others to take action.
My most memorable story comes from my own experiences. When I think back to the many bosses I had when I worked at a large multinational, several clearly stand out, some because they were awesome, and others because they were awful. And upon thinking back I can clearly see two of them in my mind’s eye — the one who was the best and the one who was the worst. And not surprisingly, their approaches were diametrically opposite to one another. Rob, the awesome boss, never told me what to do, he asked what I thought should be done, and then he let me do it. When things worked out spectacularly, he always made it a point to acknowledge and praise. And when things went south, he never once blamed or scolded, but he always asked what, with the benefit of hindsight, I thought I should have done differently. And he always made it safe for me to speak the truth. Scott, the awful boss, paid very little (if any) attention to what I thought, and almost always told me what to do. In fact, I quickly learned that it was more efficient to simply stop offering input. When things went well, he took all the credit. And when things failed miserably, he would call me into his office and shout, turn red in the face, and them suggest that it was something I did that caused the problem.
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. :-)
By now, I don’t think it will surprise to hear that my passion is to turn lousy managers into exceptional leaders. There are so many people in organizations today who are slogging through their workdays, hating it because their immediate supervisor sucks the big one! But the irony is that many of these so-called lousy managers truly want to do better, they just don’t know how; they haven’t understood that leadership requires a different skill set. So, the movement I would like to inspire is the common and widespread comprehension that when you are promoted from a technical or expertise-drive role into a leadership role, you are actually changing occupations. It’s an entirely different job, which means that you need to develop a whole new different set of skills.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from American scientist W. Edwards Deming who said: Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.
When you think about it, all major changes in world history have occurred when people were no longer comfortable in their circumstances, and they made a decision to push beyond the present. I made that decision (albeit on a much smaller scale) when I left my well-paid corporate career to start Turning Managers Into Leaders, and it was because I knew that I needed to push beyond my present. I am well aware that the reason I continue to be relevant and helpful to my clients is because I am constantly learning, checking in with leaders as to what their issues are, and seeking out possible solutions for them. Continuous learning is also what I teach the leaders I work with — that if they’re not willing to continue to push themselves outside their comfort zones — and learn — then they too will stagnate, and ultimately become irrelevant to their customers, employees, and stakeholders.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I write a regular column for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. It runs every fourth Monday in their online and print editions. In addition, I publish a monthly newsletter that goes out to all our subscribers. And I blog frequently, at least once a week, sometimes more often. All these resources are accessible through my website at www.TurningManagersIntooLeaders.com.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.