Monday, January 25, 2016
COACHING – PRODUCTIVE FEEDBACK
Kim Scott, an executive coach and former Google Inc. executive, is writing a book the subject being what she refers to as "radical candor." Rachel Feintzeig in her article, "When 'Nice' Is a Four-Letter Word," appearing in the 31 December 2015 issue of The Wall Street Journal, attributes Ms. Scott as defining radical candor as "giving criticism while showing genuine concern."
Nature of Criticism
It appears that speaking "candidly" as contrasted with using “mitigated speech,” or being “politically correct,” or serving a "knuckle sandwich," or “withholding comments” for fear of confrontation or offending, is on the rise. And that's positive! A number of companies are encouraging their employees to provide each other with "honest," or “candid,” feedback. How novel.
This practice goes by different names in different companies. At Deutsch Advertising in New York the practice is called "front-stabbing." Ouch! At the Canadian offices of Randstadt Holding NV, a staffing firm, it is referred to as "mokita," which, according to the WSJ article derives from an expression used in Papua New Guinea to describe "that which everyone knows and no one speaks of," the proverbial elephant in the room. How cute!
We're all for and have long been proponents of openly and honestly addressing issues regarding work, people, etc. If we fail to do so we are merely allowing issues to fester and grow worse as we proceed to kick the can down some road to a future reckoning, all the while undermining performance, morale, job satisfaction, relationships, etc. We refer to this practice of dealing honestly to enhance performance as "coaching," which is about providing accurate and productive direction. More on coaching a bit later. But first we want to address a few potential issues regarding this sudden emergence, and deployment, of candor.
There is no such thing as so called "constructive criticism," which is the old standard for candor. Recognize that by its very nature all criticism is about laying blame. Its synonyms include "censure, disapproval, reproach, disparagement, condemnation, denigration, blame and denunciation." How can this possibly be constructive? It (deeply) wounds those on the receiving end of so-called constructive criticism.
Next, all too often criticism is personalized. It's not about the work or behavior but directed at and challenges the very essence of the individual. Instead of "this" work is not acceptable its "your" work is, and "you are," NOT acceptable. The first deals with the work product or behavior while the latter deals with the individual and his/her place in the company, community or relationship. It is highly unlikely the individual will change when s/he feels threatened, under attack or unfairly treated, as criticism is wont to make her/him feel. Instead individuals facing criticism will defend, rationalize and strike back in their own way (e.g., bad-mouth the criticizer, leave the employee of the company, not follow direction, argue, etc.).
Candor is often delivered, not just received, out of context. What we mean here is that it fails to address the big picture and, instead, harps on one or more facets, incidents and things. It can become for those being "candid" an act of supreme satisfaction of finding something wrong with someone or his/her work. This can make the one being criticized feel singled-out, being picked-on and unappreciated. By the way this also applies to the work product, particularly among agency creative personnel, who feel their ideas, as well as they, themselves, are under attack.
Additionally, so called “candor” can be nit-picky and, as such, feel overwhelming to the person being criticized. Leo Burnett is credited as stating that going before a creative review committee felt like, “being nibbled to death by ducks.” Some issues are more important than others. And, until they are dealt with the person being criticized cannot progress to address other, smaller issues. Every sound manager knows to put those critically important things first and not to overwhelm those receiving feedback so as to better direct and manage improvements in performance, not paralyze or cripple them. There is also the dynamic that when people begin to address one matter with their feedback they overreach into other matters, getting things off their chest so to speak, spiraling out of control and victimizing the receiver.
This notion of creating a culture of criticism can lead to creating mob mentality and turn downright ugly. On the “extreme” end of the spectrum one merely has to revisit the communist practices of the Cultural Revolution in China and Stalin's Soviet Union where petty people gained and abused the powers they were given to “denounce” others while elevating themselves. Abraham Lincoln said if you want to test the character of someone see how s/he behaves when given power. The criticizer has power, while the criticized is powerless. Instead, people need to speak candidly in a way Ms. Scott directs: reflecting genuine concern for the other person, the work and the relationship. People need to avoid criticizing to put down others and/or make themselves feel more important.
Lastly, criticizing misses and important dimension needed to bring about a change in behavior and enhanced performance, added-value direction.
Coaching – Add-Valuating
This is certainly not a condemnation of Ms. Scott's radical candor. In fact we intend to read the book when it is published. Nor is this a condemnation for honest appraisal and feedback. As we mentioned earlier, we're advocates and have championed it throughout our careers and modeled it when providing feedback to agency teams regarding their creative submissions. What we feel is that feedback needs to take the form of coaching, which is about adding-value through relevant direction to enhance personal performance and the work product. If you are not adding-value then you shouldn't be giving feedback! Coaching isn't pointing out negatives but instead focusing on direction - what is need to achieve appropriate or, better yet, exceptional performance.
Dishing out a "knuckle sandwich" is not coaching. This is the practice of starting with a positive, following-up with the negatives, and concluding with yet more positives. This not only obfuscates the message and defeats the purpose of feedback to improve behaviors and the work product but also lacks the direction needed to have a positive impact on performance. If it doesn't ultimately influence and direct performance then it is merely superfluous yammering.
This is not merely pointing out what you don’t like or appears incorrect. That’s criticism and does little to move the work along successfully. It lacks the important component of “direction.”
What is coaching? Coaching is defined as "transporting people to a place they could not reach on their own." This is about being more productive. It is not evaluating, which is the backbone of criticism, but "add-valuating," by providing direction aimed at enhancing performance. Coaching is a skill. Not everyone who has an opinion or a say in matters is going to be an effective coach unless they master the skill set. This skill set consists of the following:
1. An accurate appraisal of the individual's performance or the work (as in creative submissions). Performance needs to be guided by proven principles, best practices, quality processes and a thoughtful assessment of each within the context of performance standards. Many of our clients who speak of "marketing excellence" lack a clear vision or measuring system for performance progress and goals. If you don't know what is great or even good work then how can one possibly provide the appropriate feedback to take performance to the next level.
2. Commenting with "skillful means." This is a Buddhist term for appropriately addressing something without causing collateral damage, such as resentment and personal enmity.
The first skill requisite, conducting an accurate appraisal, requires that the coach know the game, what really matters and what it takes to win. Unfortunately too few marketers, including senior marketers, know how to conduct an accurate appraisal of creative work. It also requires an attitude to go beyond what is merely acceptable to demand the extraordinary. At the very least, we must believe the creative work will lead to the achievement of our communication behavior objective. Then it must be given with skillful means to lead the agency to a more productive solution.
Commenting with skillful means is comprised of the following practices:
1. Know what you think about the work before you speak. All too often people speak before they've undertaken a thoughtful analysis. Worse yet, as mentioned above, they provide feedback when they don't have a legitimate basis for assessment of performance for the work beyond it being “on” or “off strategy.”
2. Provide an overview of the performance or work. The overview is your conclusion, addressing the purpose of the coaching situation. If, for example, your brand team is sharing a proposed positioning strategy they want to know whether you approve it, or where they stand regarding their progress. If you agency is sharing campaign ideas they want to know whether they have effective ideas and/or you feel their work is worth pursuing. So your overview deals with these matters. For example, "while we are making progress we still have significant more work ahead of us before I'm ready to approve the work." It is not, and we repeat, not a perfunctory thanking the agency for their work. Nor is it the middle layer of a knuckle sandwich.
3. Recognize what they are doing well. Not only do we not want to change that which we believe is productive; we want to show attention to the whole cloth and appreciation for what has been done well.
4. Don't talk about what's wrong with the work, or what you don't like about it, but what you need to see (i.e., the needed direction) to make the work more productive. This starts with holding the perspective that the glass is half-full, not half-empty. It's not what someone is doing wrong but what they need to do to make it more productive. Fill the glass. For example, it's not "you're missing key copy words" but "I need you to include key copy words." Yes, we certainly see what is wrong (if we know how to accurately appraise marketing communications) but an effective coach identifies and guides her/his team to what needs to be done for them and their product to be more productive. This is the heart of the "adding-value."
5. Don't be prescriptive. You're providing direction, not the solution. You don't tell them to use a particular set of key copy words. Instead you direct them regarding the nature of what you must have. For example, you might say, "we need key copy words that state the brand's benefit in compelling 'customer language' which, at the same time, capture the campaign idea."
6. Identify specific "next steps." Remember not to overwhelm those you are coaching with a long to-do list. Instead, think of coaching as an iterative process. Today we work on this and when we achieve it we move on to the next set of direction that will take the work to the next level productivity.
Care deeply - As Ms. Scott proposes, let your coaching reflect “genuine concern.” This concern needs to be for the work as well as the person(s) receiving the coaching. Our goal in coaching is to make the work count where it counts, in the marketplace. The creative work must make a difference in triggering a specific customer behavior otherwise it is not productive. We need to keep in mind that, as stewards of the brand, we have a responsibility to utilize resources (including personnel) effectively. Care for the brand and everything that touches it.
Be clear – Say what you mean and mean what you say. No mitigated speech. If you have a question, ask it. If you need to provide direction don’t ask a question, direct. Be absolutely clear with your direction so there is no chance of being misunderstood.
Get playback in real time – Not feedback but playback from those receiving your coaching. Make sure that your direction is absolutely clear (see above point). A hallmark of good coaching is that those being coached will be able to playback the direction they’ve been given. It’s best to do this in person, immediately following the coaching. Then it is helpful for the agency (or you) to issue a call report within 24-hours.
Tackle differences in direction on the spot – We’re not talking about different points of view. Instead we’re referring to the playback to make sure it is accurate. If the playback is not accurate restate, as clearly as possible, what it is you need to see (your direction!). Do not leave the engagement with inaccurate playback, as you will not see what you expect from your direction in the next round of work or performance. And, that will lead to a myriad of additional problems and issues.
BOATS & HELICOPTERS:
How well would you rate your, and/or your team’s, coaching skills when managing marketing communications and your creative resource teams? How would these creative resource teams rate your skills or those of your organization? If you are like most marketers and organizations you probably need to build and/or improve your skill set in this critically important area.
If you’re ready to take the next step of skill building, consider having us assist you with our customized “Coaches’ Clinic” training program. This is a one-day program designed to train marketers of all levels to: 1) accurately appraise creative submissions; and 2) comment with “skillful means,” leading to more productive marketing communications.
Please contact us if you are interested in learning more. Best wishes for add-valuating through relevant coaching to make your marketing communications matter more.
Richard Czerniawski and Mike Maloney
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