How Do You Create A Culture Of Feedback?

A client recently asked me, “How do we create a culture of feedback?” That question took me back to the following story.

I was the HR Director at a large conference hotel. We had a team of employees known as banquet housemen whose job was to clean, set-up and tear down the hotel’s many function rooms. It’s a very physical job which involves moving tables and chairs in and out of storage areas, setting rooms to precise specifications, and cleaning those rooms so that when you arrive for your meeting the room looks terrific down to the last detail. Banquet housemen, therefore, are deployed all over the hotel, and they work odd hours (so that you can dance until 1:00 AM at your awards banquet, and some other group can start their meeting in that very same room at 8:00 AM).

The banquet housemen team was suffering from low morale and high turnover. We tried several interventions/strategies to improve the situation, but nothing worked. It came to pass that the supervisor left, and we hired a guy named Frank to replace him. And Frank taught us something.

After about a week of assessing the situation, Frank created at short form performance evaluation. With a stack of these forms on a clip board, he’d randomly pop in to a room where a couple of housemen were working, he’d watch them work, and then he’d complete an evaluation on each person and hand it to them. He did this every single day.

The first 30 days, turnover was even worse. But within 60 days moral was very high and turnover went to almost nothing. The evaluations clarified his expectations and provided feedback so people knew the degree to which each person was meeting them. So creating a culture of feedback has the potential to bring about serious improvements.

These housemen needed the evaluations because there was no measurement system in place. A measurement system is the absolute best way to provide objective and helpful feedback. But for some jobs it’s difficult implement a practical measurement system. In those cases, frequent, candid feedback from a coach is very helpful.

These days, because almost everybody has a smart phone, it’s easier to get feedback from end users. In my story about the banquet housemen, today we could ask meeting attendees to answer one or two questions on their phones about the room set up. Or we could just ask the meeting planner. Or both. The point is we have options we didn’t have back when Frank was operating. These ratings would constitute measurements by which we could evaluate performance.

In my experience, when individuals or teams are given this kind of information, they make adjustments on their own. But there are plenty of times when the team doesn’t know what to do differently to improve their scores. That’s where the coach comes in. The right coach will … um … coach people as to what they should do. The measurement system will tell everyone whether it worked.

If you communicate clear expectations, implement a system to measure success, and provide frequent, candid feedback, you’ll establish a feedback system that works.

P.S. There’s one more very important thing. I once heard a client say, “Around here continuous improvement means constant criticism.” Feedback has to have some balance. Make sure you’re not just focusing on what’s wrong. Make sure you’re reviewing successes and high points, with the intent to figure out how to repeat those performances.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Can You Improve Your Coaching ROI?

As a leader you’re responsible to help your direct reports improve their performance. A big part of that involves coaching. Unfortunately, the term “coaching” has taken on a negative connotation in many organizations. To mention that a person is receiving “coaching and counseling” is, sadly, not a good thing. That’s because “coaching and counseling” is now a euphemism for “disciplinary action”. This post is not about how to discipline.

Did you compete in sports when you were in school? You expected to receive coaching. You wanted to receive coaching. This post is about that kind of coaching, the kind of coaching that actually helps people improve their performance. Coaching requires an investment of time, effort and money. What practices give you the best ROI?

First, in order to improve someone’s performance you have to understand what you have to work with. Begin by learning the answers to these questions: What are that person’s strengths and weaknesses? What are his or her character traits? What do they naturally do well? Here’s a hint when assessing someone’s potential — there’s a difference between room for improvement and potential for improvement.

Counter intuitively, a person’s greatest potential for improvement lies in building on areas of strength. However, way too often coaching focuses on efforts to improve areas of weakness. Asking a person to perform behaviors they simply don’t have in their repertoire actually makes performance worse. Why? Because aptitude matters, that’s why.

For instance, if a person isn’t good at telling jokes, coaching them to tell a joke at the beginning of a speech won’t improve their performance. In all likelihood they’ll tell it poorly, people won’t laugh and it’ll make things worse. If you’re the coach here, you should ask yourself, “To what end do I want this person to tell a joke? What outcome will that accomplish?” Let’s assume the answer is, “To establish rapport with the audience.” A great coach will help the person identify a different way to establish rapport, an approach that involves behaviors they can do naturally. Find ways to work around weaknesses. Find ways to make weaknesses irrelevant.

Great coaches focus on specific recommendations rather than talking in generalities. For instance, instead of saying, “You have to be a better listener,” a great coach might say, “When the prospect is talking, don’t interrupt. Take notes if you can.”

Great coaches invest more time reviewing successful performances rather than reviewing failures. If you want to learn more about failure, study failure. If you want to learn more about success, study success.

Don’t confine your coaching feedback to annual or semi-annual reviews. Give people frequent, candid feedback. Coaching is an ongoing, every day responsibility. Don’t shy away from tough conversations.

Of course there’s much more to coaching than can be addressed in this brief post. But if you follow these five guidelines you’ll improve your coaching ROI.

  1. Understand what you have to work with. Don’t ask people for behaviors they don’t have in their repertoire.
  2. Focus on building strengths rather than eliminating weaknesses.
  3. Review successful performances to learn how to repeat those performances.
  4. Provide specific rather than general recommendations.
  5. Provide frequent, candid feedback in real time.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Want Your Company To Be A Great Place To Work?

Once again I had the privilege to attend the Great Places To Work conference. In this post I share some of the most meaningful points from various presentations. Please note that I did not have the opportunity to attend every presentation. These are not exact quotations, so this is my interpretation of what was said.

Peter Harrison, CEO, Snagajob

  • Invest the time and effort to bring in people who resonate with your mission, and then extend yourself to make sure they stay.
  • Referrals are still the most important recruiting source.
  • Don’t over engineer your values statements. Keep them brief and clear – easy to understand and enliven.

Michael C. Bush, CEO, Great Place To Work

  • People want to trust who they work for.
  • They want to be proud of the company they work for.
  • They want to enjoy the people they work with.
  • They want leaders who walk their talk.
  • They want to be treated with respect.
  • They want fairness – no preferential treatment.
  • They want a sense of camaraderie.
  • They want to be proud of the work they do.
  • Here are some things leaders do in companies that have built high trust cultures:
    • Thank people
    • Care about people
    • Speak to people
    • Listen to people
    • Inspire people
    • Trust people
  • People are motivated by the “why” of their work. They want to know the mission and vision.

Meaningful points from an excellent panel discussion

  • Culture must be the core of the company ethos.
  • Leaders must truly live the values.
  • It starts with who is selected. Build company values into the recruiting process.
  • Everybody owns the culture. Make it every employee’s responsibility to build the culture.
  • To reinforce your culture, share stories about instances where someone has enlivened one of the company’s values.
  • When considering promotions, think about whether the internal candidate lives the values.
  • If a person is not enlivening the company’s values, take action.
  • Companies must demonstrate that they have the agility to change when necessary.

Amy Bastuga, Vice President, Human Resources, Radio Flyer

  • One important purpose of orientation is to assimilate people into the culture.
  • There are no shortcuts to selecting the right person.
  • An open position is better than a bad match.
  • Every applicant for Radio Flyer receives a letter from the CEO explaining that one goal of the recruitment process is to ensure that the job with Radio Flyer will be the best job they’ve ever had.

Each presenter said much more than what I’ve shared in these few notes. These were points that resonated with me relative to the theme of this blog.

If you want to build a great place to work, I recommend you consider joining this movement. Check out their Website at

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

When Is Kicking Butt A Good Idea?

Kicking butt is a widespread leadership practice that has stood the test of time. I think it’s a valuable tool to have in your repertoire, and like any tool you have to know how and when to use it. So kicking butt is a good idea – sometimes. As usual, I don’t think I have the definitive point of view about this, so I hope you share your thoughts.

First, let’s acknowledge that some people are natural butt-kickers, and some are not. It’s easy to know whether this comes naturally to you. You’ve been in a leadership role for a while, you’ve done it, it felt like the right thing to do, and it worked. If you’re very comfortable with this technique and you have no doubt you’ll use it again, then this post is for you.

If kicking butt is not a natural part of your leadership style, that’s okay. I advise you against trying to learn this technique or improve your use of it because there’s some aptitude involved. Focus on using other techniques (those that come naturally to you) to accomplish the same outcomes.

For you natural butt-kickers, let’s assume that your intent is to improve performance. With that worthwhile goal in mind there are two situations in which this tool can be very effective: 1) to punish poor performance after the fact, and 2) to motivate people, to create a sense of urgency.

If a person or team has performed poorly (way short of their capability), they’re disappointed, and they know you’re disappointed. Kicking butt brings this to closure and therefore allows you to move on. It feels appropriate to everyone. Once you’ve done this though, leave it behind. Don’t keep punishing them.

If a person or team is not demonstrating enough urgency kicking butt is also appropriate. This is the most easily identifiable situation in which to use this technique. However, this is not the only motivational technique. Too many leaders overuse it when other techniques might be even more effective.

It’s important to understand what kicking butt can accomplish and what it cannot. It can increase someone’s sense of urgency. It can make them try harder. It can increase their desire to perform better. But it cannot increase a person’s (or a team’s) level of skill or talent. Kicking butt cannot and will not increase their capability to perform better.

If a person or team is truly giving their best, this technique will fail.

It’s also important to understand that when it comes to motivation one size does not fit all. The technique of kicking butt might work well on you and on some people who report to you. But it won’t work for every person on your team. The best leaders are intentional about understanding and responding to the uniquenesses of each person on their team.

In conclusion, kicking butt can be a desirable technique to have in your repertoire. However, make sure you do it only for people who respond to that particular technique, and understand what you can and cannot accomplish by using it.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Manage Up?

A couple of my friends recently suggested today’s topic. It’s certainly not something I’ve done with excellence over the years, but I hope I’ve learned and improved in this area. It’s important. As I share my thoughts, I hope to stimulate your thinking and solicit your contributions about what’s worked for you.

First, let’s understand that we’re talking, once again, about relationship. When viewed in that light, the question can be re-stated, “How do you have a great relationship with your boss?”

  • Honor his character traits, values, strengths and weaknesses.
    • Don’t wish he would change, and don’t try to change him. Accept him as he is. This is one of the most affirming things you can do for anyone.
    • Look for areas where you and the boss have complimentary strengths. These present opportunities for synergy.
  • Understand his needs, goals and expectations.
    • You want to understand these things about your customers don’t you? Why? Because knowing these things empowers you to add value as your customer defines it. Do the same for your boss. The more clarity you have about expectations, the easier it is to meet those expectations.
    • Make your boss’s priorities your own.
  • Demonstrate fierce loyalty and unmitigated trust.
    • Make sure your boss knows you seek his greatest good.
    • When you disagree, do it in private.
    • Support his decisions public, even if you don’t agree. Remember, you might be wrong.
    • Keep him well informed. Don’t hide information.
    • Don’t speak negatively about your boss. That’s blatantly disloyal.
    • If you’re going to meet with his boss, tell him so before you do it.
    • If his boss calls you into a meeting, let your boss know what it was about as soon as possible.
  • Ask for advice and guidance.
    • Although you should bring possible solutions, you’ll run into problems. It shows respect to ask your boss for guidance.
    • Don’t be defensive. That’s worth repeating.
    • Don’t be defensive. From time to time you’re going to get your ass chewed. Sometimes it’ll be unfair. As my friend Jim Horsman says, “Lick your wounds and move on.”
  • Share good news.
    • Don’t create a situation where you only interact with your boss when there’s a problem, or when you’re going to ask for something. Share a team success, share something great about one of your team members, or share a new idea.
  • Show appreciation. Give your boss recognition when he’s earned it.
    • We tend to think about recognition as being only top down. We need to escape that thinking. Like anyone else in your organization, your boss does things that merit some recognition. It doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Please click here to learn more about how to do it.

There’s a time-honored technique, ass kissing, which works wonders with certain people. I don’t endorse it, but I’ll conclude this post with a little humor. My best friend, Pat Mene, once wrote a list of top ten kiss-up statements of all time. I don’t have the list any more, but I do remember the #1 statement, which you can use if all else fails:

“Boss, now I know how the disciples must have felt!”

Thanks to Christie Calkins and Heath Stukenholtz for suggesting this topic.

Thanks to Pat Mene, not only for the quotation, but also for the countless ways in which he has enriched my life over the years.

And thanks for reading. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Find The Growth Opportunities During Tough Times?

Nobody looks forward to tough times. But let’s face it. Tough times are inevitable. They’re part of life’s journey. They cause a range of negative emotions and behaviors, including frustration, anger, blaming, finger pointing, and despair – just to name a few. But it’s during tough times that people most need great leadership. And like any life experience, they present growth opportunities for everyone involved. By no means do I think I have the best wisdom on this topic. But I do have some thoughts.

My first thought is something my friend Doug Rath says frequently, “This too will pass.” Great leaders, I think, know this. They know that hanging in there is a necessary strategy. Sometimes a situation calls for unglamorously soldiering on.

But how do you get people to soldier on? Most fundamentally, you must give them hope. Hope is the antidote to despair. And the belief that we can make things better, that we will make things better is a powerful motivator. In my opinion, it’s not about getting people to believe in you, it’s about getting them to believe in themselves.

Discuss your organization’s mission and remind people how your organization is making a difference in the world. Make it eminently clear that you will never give up on the mission and you will never give up on them. Give very clear direction about what the priorities are, what your plan is, and what each person’s role is in executing the plan.

Understand that success is highly motivational, and that even during tough times people are achieving successes. But they often don’t even notice their successes due to the overall situation. Don’t let people focus only on what’s going wrong. Some things are going right. Be intentional about calling out successes. Start every meeting by asking each person to name a recent success. This injects perspective and positivity into the situation.

The next point is most meaningful to me, personally. Use this situation to deepen relationships, including mutual support and loyalty. People who go through tough times together often form a deep and lasting bond. Your organization has the opportunity to become stronger due to this situation. You must nurture this outcome intentionally.

During tough times, people can become crabby and harsh with each other. Finger pointing and blaming can increase. Use your power to disallow this kind of behavior. Deliver this message (in your own words), “We’re better than this!” State your expectation that people choose mutually supportive behaviors. And, of course, you must model this behavior yourself. You all have the opportunity to grow as people.

This final point I learned from Dr. William E. Hall. During difficult, challenging times, talents emerge that would otherwise remain dormant. Be alert to spot these emerging talents. Once that good genie comes out of the box, find ways to use it. Find ways to celebrate these talents and nurture them into the future.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Known For Your Ethics And Integrity?

Very early in my career, a senior leader said, “Larry, as you progress through your career, you’ll bring with you your experience and your lessons learned. But the most important thing you’ll bring is your reputation for honesty and integrity.” Those words have served me well.

Your reputation is built by your decisions and actions as you move through life. Doing the right thing is easy when it’s convenient and painless. What do you do when “the right thing” is not at all clear? What do you do when it’s inconvenient and likely to cause you some pain? What do you do when you’ve done something wrong?

In this post my goal is to stimulate your thinking about this supremely important topic.

Walk your talk.

Who you are speaks more loudly than what you say. Failure to walk your talk will earn you a well-deserved reputation for hypocrisy. Think about politicians who forcefully espouse family values while committing adultery. Disgusting. Who wants to follow a hypocrite?

Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

A senior partner taught me this when I was practicing law. It’s not enough to know you’re doing the right thing. You must be aware of how others might see it. The appearance of impropriety often causes huge damage even if one’s innocence is later established. At the very least it tarnishes your reputation. If something will look wrong even though it’s not, don’t do it. If you’re called upon to explain why you’ve done something, you’ve already made a mistake.

Operate with transparency

As my friend and colleague Bill Kerrey says, “Sunshine disinfects.” People don’t trust mysteries. Transparency is the best way to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Don’t do something just because you can get away with it.

Temptation is all around us. In many cases, a leader can do things that are not right because nobody has the power to hold him accountable. I knew a company president who forbade HR to record her vacation time. Here’s the thing. Once you see that you should ask, “What else is she getting away with?” It’s a 100% certainty this is not the only case of this sort. She’s doing it elsewhere.

And as a practical matter, others will emulate that behavior. You’ll have a culture where everyone will see what they can get away with. No ethics, no integrity, no honor, no trust. Don’t do this and don’t condone it.

Encourage your employees to discuss the question, “What’s the right thing to do in this situation?”

It’s not always clear what the right thing is. The world does not fit neatly into the categories we’ve created. Vigorous, candid discussion is healthy. And well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree. Ultimately, however, we must act. Not everyone will agree with the leader’s point of view. When you have to make these types of decisions ask yourself, “Am I comfortable explaining this decision in a public forum?” If not, find a different course of action.

Admit your mistakes, apologize and do your best to make things right.

Too many leaders think it’s a sign of weakness to admit a mistake. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength. Who in their right mind believes their leader is incapable of error? Leaders who don’t admit mistakes undermine their credibility.

Adhere to your principles even when it’s difficult, costly and painful.

We have shining examples of this. To name just a few: Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Nelson Mandela, the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the protesters who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and Rosa Parks. I’m sure you can add to this list. These are the kinds of leaders who inspire people to action. When it comes to ethics and integrity, we’d all do well to emulate their example.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Kelly Moguel for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Will talent management practices create morale issues for employees who are not identified as talented?

This very intriguing question was posted by ANOOPA NARAYANAN, PhD scholar at Cochin University of Science and Technology. I think the answer is, “Yes.” Some talent management practices will create morale issues for some employees. My question is: What should we do about it? As usual, I don’t believe I have THE answer, but here are my thoughts.

I’m going to assume that Ms. Narayanan is referring to a situation in which a select group of employees has been identified as “high potential”, and are enrolled in a program designed to develop future leaders for the organization. Undoubtedly, there is a group of employees who wanted to be selected for that program but were not. In the moment, they’re going to be disappointed, and their morale will suffer.

First, I encourage us all to avoid the thinking (and the statements) that these employees are not talented. I use the word “talent” as a synonym for “aptitude” or “giftedness”. To have a talent for something is to have the potential for excellence in that thing. Often, we label someone as “not talented” because they are in the wrong fit for the gifts they’ve been given. Different careers require different aptitudes. So someone might be enrolled in a culinary arts program, but he or she lacks the aptitude to become a chef. Teachers in the program might say that person is not talented, but really they should say that person is not a talented culinarian. Maybe he has plenty of gifts, but they align with a different career.

I know an individual whose father insisted that he become an executive in the family business. But unfortunately leadership was not his talent. This person was a very talented photographer who was not allowed to pursue that as a career. I assure you, his morale was not good. That’s what happens when you put someone in a job that’s not a good fit.

Earlier in my career I had a top sales rep who wanted to become a sales manager. Upon considering him for that role, we concluded that his talent was selling, not managing people. So we declined the promotion.

Let’s assume we were correct about his lack of potential to be a good manager. What would be the consequences of putting him in that role? First, if he’s not a good manager, the morale of his direct reports will suffer. The performance of his team will suffer. He’ll be under constant stress trying to perform with excellence in a role for which he is not a good fit. That kind of stress contributes to serious health problems and burn out.

His morale did suffer, by the way, when he didn’t get the sales manager job. I tried to retain him, but he found a sales manager job with another organization. I still sleep well about that because giving him the job would have had worse consequences for our organization and for him.

We can mitigate some morale issues if we understand each employee’s talent and ask, “What’s the best fit for someone with those gifts?” Once we understand someone’s talent we have a better chance of putting her in a role where she spends the majority of her time doing things she’s good at and enjoys. When we can put someone in a job that’s the right fit, we’ve created a platform where she can add the most value to the organization, and where she can thrive and grow.

We must provide growth opportunities that go beyond traditional hierarchical promotions. In academia, for instance, individuals can continue to earn degrees that bring them increased status and respect, even though they don’t supervise anyone. Many trades and professions provide similar possibilities for people. We’d all be well served to create additional growth possibilities for our employees so that hierarchical promotions are not their only option.
If we’ve properly identified high potential employees, it makes sense to invest in their growth and development. We have to accept that this will cause some morale problems for those who were not selected. Some might leave. That’s a cost of the program.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Create An Amazing Workplace?

Recently I was a guest on a Podcast hosted by Chris McNeill.  To hear this interview, click here:

To learn more from Chris, click here:

Big thanks to Chris for inviting me to share my thoughts. As always, I’d love to hear yours.

Larry Sternberg




Have You Tried A Positive 360?

I’m not a fan of the typical 360º review process for the following reasons: 1) reviewees often are allowed to choose their reviewers (everyone “games” this), 2) the questions focus on weaknesses, and 3) the follow-up focuses on fixing those weaknesses. The activity generated makes people feel like they’re “doing something”. All in all, however, most 360’s don’t add a great deal of value. It’s like taking bad-tasting medicine that doesn’t actually do you any good.

There is an alternative: the positive 360. Here’s a possible set of questions for reviewers:

  1. When X is really “in the zone” what is she doing?
  2. What are X’s most important contributions to our team/company/organization?
  3. What do you appreciate most about X?
  4. What does X really enjoy doing at work?
  5. What are X’s biggest strengths?
  6. How can we support X better in areas where she’s not so strong?
  7. How can we “job sculpt” X’s responsibilities so she spends most of her time doing what she’s good at and enjoys?
  8. How can we create more “in the zone” experiences for X?

Please note, this set of questions does not ignore areas of weakness. But instead of focusing X’s efforts on changing, we’re focusing everyone’s efforts on supporting her. So for instance, if X is not good at follow-up, we can send X to training on follow-up, but after the training if she’s only just a little bit better, we accept that and focus on how to support her. We avoid giving her assignments and responsibilities that require a lot of follow-up.

If you’re X’s supervisor, you need to struggle to find the answer to questions seven and eight. The more time each of your people spends doing things he or she is good at and enjoys, the more often they experience being “in the zone”, the faster you’ll accelerate your team’s performance and each individual’s growth.

Give the positive 360 a try. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Larry Sternberg