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Bill Catlette

Bill Catlette

Bill Catlette, @ContentedCows is an executive coach and business author who helps clients build lasting competitive edge by eliminating blind-spots and improving leadership habits.

A Few Words on Workplace Feedback for Millennials

by Bill Catlette: Friday Nov. 18, 2016, 11AM

Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of providing professional coaching for a diverse group of a dozen or so Millennial professionals, managers, and executives in the workspace. Though it is a disparate group other than the age cohort, we’ve individually uncovered and worked on a fairly short list of remarkably common performance enhancers. Providing and Receiving Feedback has been a nearly unanimous item of interest. If this group is representative of the broader cohort, and I think it is, it stands to reason that sharing some of our learnings in this area might be of interest to a wider audience, certainly to include other generational cohorts. Here goes.

If you occupy a professional or managerial role, part of your job (often a significant part) is to provide feedback to others… Feedback pertaining to processes, performance, projects, et. al. And, at your stage of growth and maturation in the employment strata, you should also be on the receiving end of quite a bit of performance feedback. If not, you should worry, a lot, because people who aren’t being actively coached are being ill-served by the organization.

Giving Feedback: Giving feedback in the workspace is tough. We’ve not been especially well trained to do it, it’s not usually in our sweet spot, we haven’t witnessed many good examples, and the receivers of our well-intentioned efforts aren’t always cordial or interested. A few thoughts:

by Bill Catlette 11/14/16 12:00N

Popular vote totals suggest that less than half of us got what we wanted by way of the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. Indeed, many had been, as Tom Brokaw said just prior to the election, “curled up in the fetal position saying, ‘get it over with’”, while hoping and praying to avoid getting that which would infuriate, or scare the bejesus out of us.

Well, we got it, and are now destined to get one of those rare chances in a constitutional democracy to find out both what our newly elected president is made of, and perhaps more importantly, what We the People are made of. The big question is, are we (you and I) going to remain on opposite corners of the porch, snarling and barking at one another and passers by, or are we going to get off our butts, leave the parties, socio-economic cohorts and identity labels behind, and act like adult Americans, people who actually have a community of interest again? Alone within the quiet recesses of our being, each of us gets to choose (no, must choose) what sort of American, what sort of person we want to be going forward, and what our fellow countrymen have a right to expect from us. Make no mistake, for as long as we’re doing the “one nation under God thing”, we’re all in this together… drinking from the same water fountain. We’re not squatters here, though. We own the place, and it’s time for us to start acting like it.

As a road warrior for my entire professional life, I’ve logged some serious time in hotels. I sent the folks at Marriott a friendly tweet recently… “@Marriott - We hit a milestone this week, sleeping together for the 750th time. Don’t worry, my wife knows. Seriously, keep up the great work!” My business partner, Richard Hadden keeps an even busier travel schedule, and we also do some consulting in the industry, so it’s not unusual that we’re occasionally asked about current or anticipated employment issues affecting the hospitality workspace. Indeed, we were asked that exact question recently, with regard to our outlook for the year 2017, which is just around the corner. As so much of it also pertains to any business operating in a labor-intensive service industry, it only makes sense to share some of that thinking for the use of others.

Excepting known domestic (U.S.) items that have carried over from prior years and are likely to remain on the table for some time, e.g., healthcare, contractor status, and overtime pay laws, I’ve taken a stab at identifying a short list of key workforce issues and opportunities that have already or will present to hotel industry executives in 2017. Here they are, in no particular order:

Having seen example after example of the “power of the carrot” I have long maintained that organizations large and small should be careful, very careful what they incentivize people to do, because it will absolutely, positively drive behavior… in every one of us. We’ve seen it on a super-sized scale in the healthcare fee-for-service model, where providers ring the register thru unnecessary and duplicative procedures, and now in banking (again!) even after the near meltdown of the global financial system in 2007-8.

In a story reported by CNN, Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that Wells Fargo Bank employees had “secretly opened unauthorized accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses."  According to the CNN piece, this was no minor caper, with over 1 million bogus bank and credit card accounts opened, and about 5300 Wells Fargo employees terminated for their role. 5300 people!

So, what if anything can the rest of us do to prevent or at least minimize such behavior in our own businesses? Several things come to mind, but the first is, don’t over-react and become averse to incentives in general, but do be very thoughtful about how you structure and implement them. A few thoughts:

Spurred by incessant jousting over whether one of the U.S. presidential candidates might be “hardening or softening” their position on immigration policy, I thought recently about an altogether different arena, the workspace, and the evolution of management style that many of us find ourselves in the midst of, as we journey between a top-down command and control style (hard), and a more collegial and inclusive (softer) style. Regardless of where one is on that transition curve, and your direction of travel, there are still some universal precepts, ‘iron laws’ if you will, that bear adherence. Based on some of the conversations that have cropped up of late in my coaching practice, here are three that bear mentioning:

Good leaders say “no”… a lot

Two of the biggest things I see leaders at all levels struggling with are, 1) dealing with the enormous daily pile of incoming, be it text, voice, or anxious faces standing in the doorway, and 2) the urge to be “in” on every meeting, relationship, and decision.

For nearly three years, CEO’s (and other C-suite occupants) have been voicing mounting concern about the length and strength (or lack thereof) of their leadership bench. Following are a few thoughts about the underlying causes of those concerns, and what can be done about them.


1. Lack of developmental opportunity / assistance - They are on the bench (for now), but not in the game. You’ve invested neither time nor interest in them. There have been few, if any serious progress and career-pathing discussions, let alone follow-on action, leading to the conclusion that you don’t care, or that they don’t matter.
2. A fish out of water - They don’t fit the organization culturally. In many cases, they’ve been aware of it for some time, perhaps since their first week, and are only now working thru the denial, and/or the need to have a respectably long stay on their resume.

In a recent speech for about sixty undergrad management students, I posed the question: “How many of you either already occupy, or aspire to a professional role as a leader?” Everyone in the room raised a hand. After acknowledging delight in seeing so much interest, I then remarked soberly, “some of you probably need to put your hands back down”, drawing scornful glances from two professors seated in the back row.

I didn’t say it to be mean or dispiriting, but realistic. Being a leader can be a joy, but it isn’t easy. On lots of days, it’s no bargain, and let’s just get this out of the way... As with any other occupation or profession, not everyone is cut out to do it. In fact, when you get right down to it, very few are - not because it requires an abundance of smarts or skill, but because it’s hard, especially on the first few rungs of the ladder, where you have pressure from above and below, the incoming never stops, and you don’t get to call a time-out. It’s a bit like fast-roping your way into an armed conflict without the benefit of training or ammunition.

As a sports-minded teen growing up in West Virginia in the mid 60’s, I was an impressionable witness to the metamorphosis of a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay into the more fully formed adult who became known as Muhammad Ali.

Our town wasn’t exactly a bastion of racial or social tolerance, so there wasn’t much local sympathy when Ali was stripped of his title and livelihood, fined, and sentenced to prison for refusing to be drafted into the military. Though his conviction was eventually overturned by an 8-0 Supreme Court decision, he still paid a heavy price.

It took me a while to come to grips with the fact that, whereas Ali was as good a promoter as he was a fighter, his decision to reject the draft notice was based far more on conviction than self-promotion. And in that respect, his actions proved more respectable than those of some of my classmates who found more surreptitious ways to avoid military service in the same increasingly unpopular war. He at least stood up and said, “No” in an unwavering voice.

Whether as parents, business or civic leaders, this presents an enduring lesson for those of us who have accepted the mantle of leadership – notably that we, too must stand for something(s), and stand means stand. It’s not always going to be appreciated at the time, and there is often a personal price to be paid. Yet, people who look to us for leadership have a right to expect that we will find our voices when circumstances call for it, and that those voices will be equally clear and resolute when we say, “No, we’re not going there”, “We can do better”, or to unambiguously call someone out who is behaving badly.

The song, “If I Could Turn Back Time” written by Diane Warren and performed by recording artist, Cher, laments our inability to completely erase and undo harm caused to another:

“If I could turn back time
If I could find a way I'd take back those words that hurt you and you'd stay.

I don't know why I did the things I did. I don't know why I said the things I said.
Pride's like a knife it can cut deep inside.
Words are like weapons they wound sometimes.

I didn't really mean to hurt you, I didn't wanna see you go…”

Leaders, like every other human, occasionally cause harm to others, be it via a mean or inconsiderate comment, personal betrayal, inappropriate use of position power, forgetfulness, selfish behavior, or some other action. More often than not, when it happens, we are aware of it, but choose to minimize or not to clean up the mess we just made, perhaps out of arrogance, pride, or ignorance (as in not knowing how best to remedy it).

One such episode permanently seared in my own memory involves a senior exec who chose to chew me out via speakerphone while two peers, one of my direct reports, and a contractor sat in his office listening to the ‘conversation’. The ONLY reason for doing that with an audience, let alone that particular audience, was to embarrass and humiliate. He got that, and more. Like the injured friend or lover in Cher’s song, I quit him immediately, and then left the job on my terms and timetable. And we wonder where disengagement comes from?

Simply put, once spoken, words can’t be put back in the mouth. Many deeds cannot be undone. But what we can, and must do is take responsibility for our messes and clean them up. Some of us seem content to roll thru life without regard for the damage caused by our wake. That damage accrues to our reputation which, at the end of the day, is all any of us has.

Following is some of the best advice I’ve gotten on this topic, most of it from the good example of others (thanks, Mom):

When you make a mess…

  1. Own it – sooner, not later. Don’t wait to be force-fed the facts or blame.
  2. Offer a real apology, not one of those wimpy, qualified (“I’m sorry if anyone was offended”) versions. Do it in person. Do it once, and mean it.
  3. To the best of your ability, make it right - make the person whole.
  4. As long as you’re paying the price for your mistake, learn from it and move on, a better person.

Economists have struggled over the last decade to attribute and explain the dramatic slowing of U.S. productivity growth. Since 2005, U.S. labor productivity growth (growth of measured output minus the growth of labor input) has been effectively sawed in half. As one of the few real indicators of economic vitality, understanding this phenomena is anything but an academic exercise.

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