The Three Golden Rules of Feedback

I was speaking to my executive coach the other day and we had a great discussion of feedback.  I’m going to adapt what she said into some pithy advice for managers on how to give feedback.

Here are the three golden rules of feedback

  • It has to be honest
  • It has to be kind
  • It has to be timely

Honest Feedback

When you give someone feedback it has to be authentic.  It has to be what you really feel.  It can’t be candy coated.  It has to be what you honestly feel about the situation, tempered by the humility that you may not necessary be “right” — or that right and wrong may not even have meaning in a given situation.

Example:  “I felt disrespected when you arrived late at my meeting.”

I provided a concrete situation in which something happened; I am not generalizing or pattern-matching.  I indicated a specific behavior that I observed.  I described the impact on me — how I felt about it (which is fairly incontrovertible) — without trying to speculate why you did it or what you intended.

This form of feedback is called situation-behavior-impact, and it’s a great template for giving honest feedback.

While awesome, it’s quite hard to do and (given how things went when I’ve been trained on it) seems to come naturally to few people.  While I would never claim to be a great SBI feedback-giver, I nevertheless continue to aspire to be one –because it does work.

Always be honest.

Kind Feedback

While not something I’m necessarily known for, I love my coach’s second rule of feedback.  If you’re like me, the honest part of feedback isn’t hard.  Example:

That’s the worst proposal I’ve ever seen.  You never said what you wanted to do, what it would cost, or why we should do it.  Other than omitting the three key elements of a proposal it was great.

(Or, as Larry Ellison was reputed to have often said:  “That’s the stupidest f**king idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” sometimes rather amazingly followed by, “Say it again!”)

While “honest” comes naturally to me, I really like the “kind” principle.  I stand behind the vast majority of feedback I’ve given over the years.  It’s always been honest and usually been accurate.  I’ve been unafraid to put hard issues on the table that other managers were afraid to confront.  I am proud that I have helped people identify and eliminate issues that would have otherwise limited them and/or developed strengths that helped propel them.

But I am equally certain that I could almost always have found a better way of expressing my feedback had I known about and applied the kind principle.

Being kind forces the feedback giver to focus not just on the validity of his/her feedback, but on the appropriate timing and expression of it.  It provides a second, important test — particularly for well-intentioned managers too blunt for their own good.

To be clear, being kind doesn’t mean avoiding hard issues or candy-coating conversations.  It does mean that you should challenge yourself, even during very difficult conversations, to find a way to communicate such that the other person leaves feeling respected and with their dignity intact.

Even the ultimate hard conversation — terminating someone — can be conducted in a way that leaves feeling respected as a person and with their dignity intact.  While many fearful mangers bungle termination into a personal tear-down, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Before a comment-outcry develops, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the King of kind feedback.  I am, however, going to work on it for three reasons:

  • It’s nicer.  I’d like people to want to work for me because of my feedback — not despite it.
  • It’s a challenge — that will make me a better manager.
  • It’s more effective — I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people spend more time reacting to how I said something than I what I said.

You can generate big distractions and waste hours by giving feedback without adequate consideration for its impact on the recipient.  It’s far more effective to think up front for 30 minutes about both what to say and how to say it than to hastily offer feedback only to spend hours in damage control afterwards, simply working your way back to zero on the relationship — with most of the actual feedback long-forgotten in the process.  It happens.  I’ve been there.

Always be kind.  (Hey, I’m working on it.)

Timely Feedback

The last rule is that feedback needs to be timely.  Feedback, like sushi, does not get better with age.

Timeliness matters for several reasons:

  • Both sides are in a better position to discuss recent events than ancient history.  Memories fade and the best feedback is usually quite specific.
  • Letting feedback get old tends to bottle up anger or dissatisfaction on the part of the giver.  The manager might start treating someone differently — e.g., being curt, assigning core projects to others — without them having any understanding of what’s going on.
  • Delaying feedback often leads to “pattern matching,” where instead of discussing specific situations (e.g., when you were late to my staff meeting on Tuesday) the giver generalizes to patterns (e.g., you are always late to my staff meetings) which wrecks the SBI process and results in factual disputes (e.g., no I’m not) instead of impact discussions (e.g., it made me feel disrespected).

Being timely doesn’t mean delivering a real-time stream of constant criticism.  (I’ve tried that too and it doesn’t work.)  Nor does it mean confronting hot issues immediately when tempers may still be high.  But it does mean giving feedback within a timeframe when memories are still fresh and when the recipient doesn’t feel like “why did you wait so long to tell me this?”

Finally, if you’re going to start giving periodic constructive feedback you better get ready to give a lot more positive feedback if you want to preserve the overall quality of the relationship.  Research shows that the ideal ratio of praise to criticism is 5 to 1.  This applies not only at work, but also at home —lasting marriages have a 5 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism while marriages ending in divorce have a 0.7 to 1 ratio.

I better go buy some flowers on the way home tonight.  I love you guys.

Always be timely.

How I Got One Marketing VP Job: A Quick Lesson

I think great learning can come from studying what cost your predecessor his/her job (on the assumption they weren’t promoted out of it onto greener pastures).  While such matters are invariably complex (“oh, there were a lot of factors, boss relationship, objectives attainment, sales confidence, …”), if you poke around hard enough you can almost always find a high-level, simple explanation of what went wrong (“in the end, it all came down to this.”)

Studying those simple explanations can teach you a lot.

How I Got One Product Marketing Job

I remember my first day at the company.  It was two weeks before my official start date, but I was invited to attend the quarterly business review, so I did.  The team was great.  The company was doing well.  The vibe was positive.

Then the marketing guy stood up to deliver his quarterly update.  The crowd turned aggressive.  They hit the presenter with rapid-fire questions.  He appeared off-balance, under-attack, and at times a bit deer-in-the-headlights.  It wasn’t pretty to watch.

I remember thinking that no matter what happens here, I don’t want to be that guy.  I never want to be in that situation.  I never want to be attacked by sales, put on the defensive, and bobbing and weaving for answers.  I want to be data-driven, confident, and educational.  I want to inform sales of our plans, up-front, get their buy-in on the program, go execute it, and then clearly share past results and future objectives.  Sales considers itself the most accountable corporate function.  If I show accountability before them, they will respect me.

After the corporate lynching ended, I figured this dynamic was what caused his downfall.  But when I went asking around, it wasn’t.  The performance may well have been a symptom of the problem, but it turned out the last straw was simple.

We launched version 6 of the product and a month later all we still had was version 5 data sheets.

Boom.  Basic execution.  That’s what will get you knocked out.  While you may be so busy doing 1000 things — and most marketers are — it’s not the bad article or the average presentation or the blown objective that will get you killed.

It’s the basics:  if the company launches version 6 of the product and a month later marketing is still only providing version 5 content, there’s a problem.  It’s black and white, de facto, proof that something is wrong.  It’s like handing sales a loaded gun and daring them to fire.

The moral:  prioritize your work.  Use a Maslow pyramid or concentric circles to understand what is core, what is next layer, and what’s after that.  And never miss on core.

Lead Nurturing, Fast and Slow

I’ll borrow the title of one of my favorite books (Thinking, Fast and Slow) to make a few important points about lead nurturing in this post.

While there is a strong argument that buyers should be nurtured before, during, and after the initial sale, I’m going to speak in this post about pre-sales lead nurturing, the purpose of which is to turn prospective buyers into marketing qualified leads, or MQLs.

For a widely used term, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find a good definition of MQL on the web. HubSpot’s definition, while a tad self serving, isn’t bad:

A marketing qualified lead (MQL) is a lead judged more likely to become a customer compared to other leads based on lead intelligence, often informed by closed-loop analytics.

An MQL is someone judged to be more likely to buy than the rest.  That works for me.  Typically, MQLs are defined by a set of rules like:

  1. New
  2. A predictive lead score of A, B, or C
  3. Correct geography
  4. At a company bigger than some threshold
  5. “Raised their hand.”  Took activity that indicates interest (i.e., they are not just  a name on purchased list) or increasingly, took multiple actions that accumulated points in a behavioral tracking system that exceed some threshold.

The first point (the newness criterion) was a trap that I slipped in to see if you were paying attention.  While some marketers will argue that MQLs need to be “new” (and there are some good reasons for this) others will increasingly question — in a lead nurturing world — what “new” actually means and why “new” matters.

After all, what should matter is that we have found a person more likely to buy than the other people.  Whether they’ve been in our database 2 hours, 2 weeks, or 2 years shouldn’t matter.  Or should it?

I think it does matter because:

  • Marketing needs to watch its image in front of sales.  Declaring someone who’s come to our last 3 annual roadshows an MQL strikes me as a “Kick Me” sign, regardless of whether she’s just accumulated 50 points.  There is a difference between someone who is new and someone we’ve been recycling for several years.
  • Marketing needs to track how many are new vs. recycled (1) to avoid a seemingly in-built tendency to be new-obsessed, (2) because few companies actually want 100% of either, and (3) because new and recycled MQLs will likely show very different downstream conversion rates, which should not be averaged away.

That’s why, in my view, a “new MQL” is a contact who has become an MQL for the first time (i.e., they are not necessarily new to our database, but they are new in hitting the MQL criteria).  After that, if they don’t buy on the first round and if they later come back to life again (by accumulating enough points in the nurture system), they are a “recycled MQL.”

MQLs = new MQLs + recycled MQLs

When I first heard the term “nurture” about a decade ago, to me it was all about recycling.  Nurture was what you did to people who were interested in your stuff, but who weren’t ready to buy now.  The purpose, then, of nurture would be some combination of (1) maintaining awareness and positive opinion so that the customer would call when they were ready to buy, and (2) attempting to accelerate the customer’s buying timeframe by marketing the benefits of acting sooner rather than later.

Nurture, then, was a process that should take quarters or years — not days or weeks.  Nurture could include emails, but it wouldn’t be limited to them.  We might invite nurtured leads to local events, mail them schwag (aka, “dimensional pieces“), and even call them from time to time.

I now call this path “slow nurture” because marketers seem to increasingly define “nurture” as the process by which you take a new inquiry (or name) and turn them into an MQL.  It becomes largely about email and is a speedy process that executes in hours, days, or maybe weeks.  I now call this “fast nurture.”

Both types of nurture should involve point accumulation, use tracks, and be A/B tested.  But there is a fundamental difference between fast nurture and slow nurture, related primarily to frequency.

This is what fast nurturing all too often feels like:

That’s why I also call fast nurture speed-bagging.

If you speed-bag someone who plans to buy in 12 months, what happens?  You irritate the heck out of them.  “Hey, I just wanted to read that white paper and you’ve emailed and called 4 times in a week.  Go away.”  Then they  hit unsubscribe or junk-sender.

And that’s it.  You’re done.  You spent real money finding someone, they were the right person, they even have plans to buy — just not now — and you speed-bagged them into blocking your communications.  Epic fail.

That’s why marketers need to think about Nurture, Fast and Slow.  They need to never fast-nurture slow-nurture prospects.  And they need worry about just how much they are speed-bagging even the fast-nurture prospects.  Particularly in markets where the challenge is more finding the right buyer at right time than simply finding the right buyer, matching the pace of the nurture to the pace of the buyer is everything.

We’re Not Buddies:  Thoughts on Managers Too Preoccupied with Being Liked

I always cringe when I hear a young parent say something like, “Hey Buddy, don’t forget your toy shovel.”  I feel the same way when I hear managers call subordinates “buddy” or when I see managers who are, in general, too preoccupied with being liked.

One day I wish the toddler would reply:

You are not, in fact, my buddy, but my father.  I will have many buddies over the course of my life and you will not be one of them.  I have but one father and you are it.  If you’ve not checked lately, the roles of ‘father’ and ‘buddy’ are quite different and as my father you have a number of responsibilities that I’m counting on you to fulfill, so let’s please stop muddying up the waters with this ‘buddy’ business before it does irreparable harm to our budding parent/child relationship.

I’d love to see a buddy-dad reply to that one.

Buddy-managers make the same basic mistake as buddy-parents.  They don’t understand their role.  While it might sound nice to be buddies with all your team members, it’s just not possible.

  • Either you are going to be buddies, just one of the guys/gals, and treated as such when it comes to work matters.
  • Or you are going to be an authority figure, someone up the hierarchy and with some power distance as a result.

Hierarchies exist for a reason and love them, curse them, or both – virtually every company today is organized on some variation of a hierarchy.  Buddy-managers abdicate their responsibility to be leader in charge in favor of trying to be everybody’s friend and risk losing their leadership positions as a result.

Just as in sports, your coach is your coach and not your buddy.  Your coach may like you.  Your coach may get to know you really well.  After you’ve left the team you may one day end up buddies with your coach.  But a good coach won’t try to be your buddy and your coach at the same time.  Why?

  • It’s favoritist and ergo divisive – “Joe gets to play infield not because he’s better than I am, but because he’s the coach’s buddy.” Divisiveness can kill the team, so the coach can’t tolerate it – let alone foster it.  Managers should never have favorites or protégés for this reason.  Who’s my favorite salesperson?  The one who sold the most last quarter.  I love that guy or gal.
  • It impedes feedback. You don’t give feedback to someone you see as “a player” and “a buddy” in the same way.  If you’re like most people, you temper the latter.  If a coach does have buddies on the team, this does them a disservice – they don’t get the same level of feedback that everyone else does.  Buddies don’t react the same way to feedback either.  (Think:  “who the heck are you to say …”)
  • It complicates matters of discipline. It’s harder to make your “buddies” run 20 liners than it is to make your “players” do it.  It’s also divisive as the coach will invariably be seen as softer on his buddies when it comes to discipline.
  • It eliminates the healthy bit of fear that exists in every coach/player (and every boss/subordinate) relationship. Am I going to start today?  Will I get to play mid-field or will I be stuck on defense?  Am I going to get picked to work on the exciting new project?

Now, if you are a buddy-manager (or a manager who anoints protégés or has favorites), you have probably managed to convince yourself of the truth of a line of absolute bullshit that goes something like this.

“Yes, I have a favorite, but I’m harder on him/her than everyone else.”

You might believe it.  You might want to believe it.  Believe away.  But I can assure you of one thing:  no one else does.

Don’t have protégés.  Don’t have favorites.  Don’t be buddies with your employees.  I once went so far as to suggest that managers should view employees as AWUs (asexual worker units) which was a bit over the top.  But the spirit wasn’t entirely wrong.  We’re here to do a job and my role is leader.

If you want a friend, as they say in Washington, get a dog.

Manager is simply a different role than buddy.  Don’t try to be both at once.  And don’t try to “switch hats.”  If you’re going to work for a friend (and I have) then during the entire employment period, that person is your boss, not your friend.  Once you stop working for them, you can be friends again.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be nice, shouldn’t get to know about our employees lives and families, what makes them tick, how to adapt your style to theirs, what motivates them, and their personal and professional goals.  Of course you should do these things.  But don’t confuse why you’re doing them – in order to be a good manager, not to try and make a new buddy.

The saddest part about buddy-managers is they typically fail as both managers and buddies.  I want my employees to like and respect me because I’m driving results that benefit the company, the stock price, and the team’s careers.  Not because I bought four rounds of beers and yacked it up with the team for three hours.  Buddy-managers often end up with dysfunctional teams that fail to drive results.  The lack of results can drive fights that then break up the buddy relationships.

Buddy-managers fail to see that the best way to be liked as a manager is to not try to be.  It’s to do a good job in leading the team and to be a reasonable person while so doing.   Managers who try too hard to be liked often end up not only disliked but not respected, and sometimes even fired.

You Can Never Fire Someone Too Early

The first time I heard the VC adage “you can never fire someone too early,” it rubbed me the wrong way.  It sounded harsh and unfeeling.  It seemed flippant. It felt trite.  It seemed, frankly, like one of those things people say in the press box, but never on the playing field.

But slowly, as with most VC adages, I found the truth in it.  Once you dismiss the initial tendency to rebuff it for its harshness, and try to really understand what it means, it’s hard to disagree with.

So what does it mean?

  • As an executive, by the time you find out there’s a problem, there has already been considerable damage done and you need to fix it right away to prevent more damage.
  • As an executive there will always be a time lag between when coworkers know there is a problem and you learn there is one.  Respect for hierarchy and politesse are just two things that delay signal transmission.  Rationalization, conflict avoidance, and denial are three others.
  • As the hiring manager you will tend to rationalize away problems because you hired the person.  Firing them would show a concrete mistake on your part and put you in the position of having to make a re-hire.  Deep down, you are rooting for individual-X to succeed and that biases your perspective and delays your decision.
  • You want a team of stars and superstars.  If you are even considering terminating someone it means, definitionally, they are not a star or superstar.  Ergo, you should not want them on your team.  This is a tough one to internalize, but it’s true.  Harsh as it may sound, the mere act of questioning whether you should terminate someone means that you probably should.
  • People who have known about the problem longer than you have are waiting and watching.  How long will you tolerate the behavior?   What does that mean about standards of competence you set?  How many subordinates will respond to recruiter calls while you figure this out?  And because your learning of the problem is definitionally phase-lagged, people may have been waiting quite a while.  You may have lost some already.
  • Empirically, when you ask seasoned managers about this topic, virtually everyone says that they never fired someone too early, but have often done so too late.  “Hire slow, fire fast” as the other hiring adage goes.

Whose Team Is It Anyway? The 90 Day Rule.

Say you’re an experienced executive joining a new company.  When you start, you inherit a team of people.

The first thing you must realize is that over time, “the team” will silently transform into “your team.”  Warts and all, you’re going to fully own that team at some point in time.  In the beginning, you might boast about the stars you’ve inherited and gripe about the clowns.  But at some point they’re not your predecessor’s clowns any more. They’re your clowns.  You own them.

The second thing you must realize is how quickly that will occur.  Typically, I’d say it takes about 90 days before the organization — e.g., your boss, your peers — perceives “the team” as “your team.”

That’s not a long time, so you need to use it well.

A key part of any new executive’s job is not just to assess the business situation, but also to assess his or her team.  You may have inherited some great people and some weak ones.  You might have great people who are in the wrong roles.  You may have some great people who are beaten down and need to be uplifted.  You may even have some people who really need to go pursue that career in real estate that they’ve always wanted.

Whether you’ve inherited The Bad News BearsThe A Team (fool), or something in between, you don’t have a lot of time before that team becomes your team.

So, what should you do about it?

  • Invest a lot of your early time in understanding your team.  Their strengths and their weaknesses.  What their internal customers think of them.  What you think of their work.  What coworkers think.  Understand their backgrounds, interview them, and go review their LinkedIn profiles or CVs.
  • Remember that it’s not black and white.  It’s not as simple as “good person” vs. “bad person.”  Oftentimes, it’s about the role — is that person a great product manager who’s over his head in a director role?  Is that person a great customer success person, but she’s currently struggling with a direct sales job?
  • Remember that it’s about the climate.  Maybe the team is a bunch of great people who are just feeling down.  Or maybe they’re good people, on fire and already performing at 98% of their potential.  The climate can turn stars into dogs, and vice versa, so you need to figure out who’s sailing into a headwind and who’s benefiting from a tailwind.
  • Remember that it’s about direction.  If the team executed a bad strategy really well and failed, that’s quite different from executing a great strategy poorly.  To what extent was the team aimed well or aimed poorly in terms of direction?
  • Remember that it’s about personal wants and needs.  Where do your team members want to be in a few years?  Do they see a way to get there from here at your company?  Are they happy with short-term constraints or are they struggling to get out of meetings in time to hit childcare before those draconian fines kick in?

Once you’ve gathered that data, then sit down with your manager, deliver the assessment and make a proposal.  Because after about 90 days it’s not the team any more.  It’s your team.  So you better focus on having the right people sitting the right chairs on day 91.

The New Split CPM Magic Quadrants from Gartner

This week Gartner research vice president John Van Decker and research director Chris Iervolino took the bold move of splitting the corporate performance management (CPM), also known as enterprise performance management (EPM), magic quadrant in two.

Instead of publishing a single magic quadrant (MQ) for all of CPM, they published two MQs, one for strategic CPM and one for financial CPM, which they define as follows:

  • Strategic Corporate Performance Management (SCPM) Solutions – this includes Corporate Planning and Modeling, Integrated Financial Planning, Strategy Management, Profitability Management, and Performance Reporting.
  • Financial Corporate Performance Management (FCPM) Solutions – this includes Financial Consolidation, Financial Reporting, Management Reporting/Costing/Forecasting, Reconciliations/Close Management, Intercompany Transactions, and Disclosure Management (including XBRL tagging)

You can download these new CPM magic quadrants here.

What do I think about this?

  • It’s bold.  It’s the first time to my recollection that an MQ has included product from different categories.  Put differently, normally MQs are full of substitute products — e.g., 15 different types of butter.  Here, we have butter next to olive oil on the same MQ.
  • It’s smart.  Their uber point is that while CPM solutions are now pretty varied, that you can pretty easily classify them into more tactical/financial uses and more strategic uses.  Highlighting this by splitting the MQs does customers a service because it reminds them to think both tactically and strategically.  That’s important — and often needed in many finance departments who are struggling simply to keep up with the ongoing tactical workload.
  • It’s potentially confusing.  You can find not just substitutes but complements on the same MQ.  For example, Host Analytics and our partner Blackline are both on the FCPM MQ.  That’s cool because we both serve core finance needs.  It’s potentially confusing because we do one thing and they do another.
  • We are stoked.  Among cloud pure-play EPM vendors, Host Analytics is the only supplier listed on both MQs.   We believe this supports our contention that we have the broadest pure-play cloud EPM product line in the business.  Only Host has both!
  • In a hype-filled world, I think Gartner does a great job of seeing through the hype-haze and focusing on customers and solutions.  They do a better job than most at not being over-influenced by Halo Effects, and I suspect that’s because they spend a lot of time talking to real customers about solving real problems.

For more, see the Future of Finance blog post on the new MQs or just go ahead and download them here.