q&A with em: giving your boss feedback & maintaining your mojo

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more, access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. Join your host, Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence. 

Martin: Hi there and welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This episode is going to be just a little different. We've had a lot of really great feedback on the podcast and quite a few questions from listeners who either want us to do deep dives or look into a specific issue that they're having. I thought we'd turn this into a Q&A episode, where I can answer a couple of these questions for you.

We love getting feedback from you, so if there's that has come up for you this week or anything that you'd like some advice on, let us know and we'll record an episode on it for you. To help me with this Q&A segment, so that I'm not asking myself the questions, our producer and the other half of Your CEO Mentor has joined me. Welcome to the podcast Em.

Emma: Hello, I'm stoked to be on this side of the podcast this week and I think it'd give people a nice break from your voice. 

Martin: Yeah, like they needed a break.! But look, it's great to be here answering listener questions. I've had a lot of people connecting with me on LinkedIn. I've been getting a lot of direct messages with questions, which I love and I read every single one of them, so please keep them coming. 

Emma: Alright, Marty, I'm getting it straight into it because we've got two really good questions that I think listeners are going to love. The first question is from a listener who writes, "How do you maintain your mojo at the top? What are some tips and techniques for coping with an overwhelming workload, having multiple, often conflicting issues in a day, etc.?”

I think this is a really interesting question because workload overwhelm doesn't just happen at the top as you know. It can affect you at all levels of leadership and I know that I definitely struggled with this when I was working in marketing agencies, so I think this is going to apply every type of leader out there. 

What are your thoughts, Marty?

Martin: Well, look, this seems like a really simple question but the answer is multifaceted. There a range of techniques and disciplines that I employed particularly in my time as a CEO. The first thing is that temperament has a lot to do with it. Being able to stay optimistic and keeping an eye on the big picture is really what it's all about. There's a number of ways to do this but there's actually a physical side to it, as well as an emotional and a mental side to it, so it's really important to keep yourself in good shape and it's really important to do the things that are actually going to keep you calm and in control at any point in time.

For me, things that have helped me over the years are things like breathing exercises. I'd make sure that I'm getting enough exercise and sleep. I'm absolutely crap at meditation. I've tried it a few times. People say you should meditate because it really calms you and centres you, but I've always struggled with meditation, so I do my own types of relaxation. 

Over the years, I've been variously pretty bad at these at different times but when I'm doing them diligently, it really makes a difference to my temperament and my ability to cope with what goes on, on a daily basis. 

Emma: It's funny, you've always mentioned these things to me as being really important and I have really tried to implement some of these in my life and in my day to day, but it's pretty hard to do sometimes. What are some of the things that you did when you were at your peak as CEO?

Martin: Yes, I think as I mentioned, it's really about discipline. It's making sure that you are getting to bed at the right time and getting sufficient sleep. I think diet and alcohol has a lot to do with it. Typically, under stress, a lot of us who do like the odd tipple will have a drink at night and if you're under a real lot of stress, then that one glass of wine with dinner can turn into one bottle of wine with dinner. You've got to be really careful of just that creep up effect that comes on you. 

It's also making sure you've got the discipline about what time you get up in the morning. When I was in peak as CEO, I was up at quarter to 5:00 every morning rain, hail or shine, to make sure that I had time to get my exercise in, to do my reading, to do the things that were going to set me up right for the day. 

Emma: I actually just listened to a podcast episode this morning on the Health Hacker Podcast with Adam MacDougall and he spoke about sleeping, his number one health tip above all else. I think that's definitely something that we could all work on, especially me. 

Can you talk a bit about what we should be doing when we get overwhelmed with a huge volume of work? I think that's something that's inevitable in every leader's journey.

Martin: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think part of keeping your mojo as a CEO, you've got to make sure that you're not being swamped by stuff and stuff comes at you all the time. There's a whole range of things that can distract us every single day in what we do and it's making sure that you're working at the right level. For a start, you keep the volume of work to the right level because you're not taking on things that are below your level. We've already got a podcast episode on this. I think it was episode seven. We spoke about working at level and that's just so critical in making sure that you don't just get overwhelmed with all the things going on. 

One of the key things about working at the right level is that you can actually distill your priorities much better. When you're swamped with work, it's really hard to step back and just figure out what you should be doing at any point in time and where you should be spending your time and energy. If you can't do that, then it leads you into things that you shouldn't be doing and some of the really important stuff can get neglected. That puts additional stress on you and it's a vicious circle. 

It's really important to make sure that if you're a CEO, you're actually operating at CEO level. If you're a general manager, you're operating a general manager level and if you're a team leader, you're doing the same thing. That'll actually make sure that you're focused on doing the right things for your role at any point in time. Number one rule is, don't do the work of your people and the last thing you want to do is make yourself the centre of all decisions. I see many leaders who have a little bit of the control freak streak in them and they make themselves the centre of all decisions and not only does this slow the organisation down, but it puts a huge amount of stress on the individual and it makes it really hard for you to work out your priorities. This can suck you down into a malaise that then, makes you lose your mojo.

Emma: I think, not being the centre of all decisions is a really good point. It does make me think though, what happens when you unwittingly become the centre of attention? I guess an example is when you we're in the energy industry, there were some pretty serious issues that you had to deal with that kind of put you into the media spotlight. 

With everything else going on in your day job, being a busy a CEO, how did you keep your cool when your organisation and the way that you did things was under attack? 

Martin: Yeah. That's a really good question because that is one of the tougher parts of particularly, the CEO role and particularly in an industry that's volatile and has a high profile as the energy industry has in Australia over the last few years. 

I think, one of the most important things is that people in your organisation look to you for cues as to how they should react and how they should behave. I used to say to my executives, normally not in a group, but normally individually when I had an executive who was under the pump, I'd say, "You just relax, I'll tell you when to panic. I've got this under control. You've got this under control. It's not as big a deal as you think."

It's pretty difficult when you have the Prime Minister of Australia taking every opportunity they can in the media to accuse your business of gaming the market and gouging customers, but we had to find a way through that. To keep the organisation aligned during that time, it was actually quite difficult. But perspective is just so important and understanding the relative importance of any event and not overreacting to it is critical in being able to keep your cool and to keep your grace under pressure as I like to call it. 

Look, the thing that we had when the Prime Minister and the Federal Minister for energy were attacking us is that we had to recognise that it was just politics. There's no point in getting upset about it. There's no point in getting down about it. It just is what it is. 

But fortunately, the facts were on our side. The way it worked out was that we had the ability to point to some things from the government regulatory bodies that had given us a clean bill of health. For example, the Australian energy regulator, the AER, investigates every high-priced event in the wholesale electricity market. Every time they did an investigation, they found out that CS Energy was clean, so the high-priced events weren't because of our bidding behaviour, they were, of course, of supply and demand issues, they were because of network constrained issues. There were other things that had nothing to do with their bidding behaviour. 

When the ACCC released its far ranging report on the electricity sector generally in the middle of 2018, they found that CS Energy and other generators had not used or misused their market power in any way. Seeing these things come out and having the facts on our side, certainly helped us to stand up in the media and say, "It's not what they're saying. That's just politics. Here's the real facts." 

Being able to do that keeps you cool and it keeps your organisation cool. I let the organisation know that we weren't rattled, that we were confident and that we were acting ethically and responsibly in respect of balancing the needs of all our stakeholders. 

Emma: Ah, I love the, "I'll tell you when to panic," cue. It makes things so clear. All right, so there's a lot of good tips in there Marty. Any final thoughts before we wrap this question up?

Martin: Yeah. Look, just one thing that I think is not spoken enough about him and that's keeping your sense of humour and not taking yourself too seriously. Now, most of us aren't in life and death situations each in our work. I know that some people are, but for most of us, that's not the case. We're not landing space shuttles, we're not performing cardiothoracic surgery, people aren't dying on the table. There's a serious side to our jobs and we've got to take out business seriously, but getting too caught up in it is counterproductive and it adversely affects your people, so maintaining your cool, maintaining your sense of humour and not takin yourself too seriously is absolutely critical in maintaining your mojo. People feed of that around you and it makes for a good day for everyone. 

Emma: It's just so important to keep that perspective. Some really great tips there Marty and we'll turn those into a PDF for listeners to get from our website. If you want to download those to reference when you need them, just head to www.yourceomentor.com/episode9

Alright, let's get onto the second question. After we did the episode on building a high performing team, we had heaps of people come back and ask us this one specific question, "How do I give feedback to my boss?" 

Giving feedback to your boss, it can be one of the hardest things to do. I know that when I've had to do it in the past, I've been so anxious and I'm sure of how it would be received, so I think this is going to help a lot of people out. 

Marty, what are some keys strategies for giving your boss feedback?

Martin: Yeah, this is another great question Em. I'd like to step back from this one a little bit before I talk about the crunch time of giving feedback to your boss because it actually goes to the relationship you have with your boss. Your relationship with your boss is clearly critical to your ability to perform and succeed in the role you're in.

Now, your boss is probably the most important person for you in an organisation. You need some organisational air cover, so your boss has to protect you and support you. You need a certain amount of patronage in the organisation, so that if you're performing well, your boss will actually promote you in the organisation and I don't mean physically, I mean metaphorically. You also need to get clarity of purpose, so that you actually know that you're aligned with the purpose of the organisation. That's what your boss should be providing for you. 

Emma: How do you actually build this relationship with your boss?

Martin: Well, like anything else, it starts with trust and respect. As I've said before, if your people trust and respect you, there's absolutely nothing you can't say to them. Now, the same goes for your boss, but it's a little tricky with the power dynamics stacked in their favour rather than yours. 

Emma: We had a little feedback on episode five which dealt with the use of power, is there anything that would be useful to add from the perspective of your boss?

Martin: Look, not really, Em. I think, it comes down to a few basics though. First of all, the boss needs to know that you will give them what they need to know when they need to know it. As one of the best operational leaders I've ever worked with, Mark Albertson, used to say, "Bad news by rocket, good news by rickshaw." Basically, if there's bad news, you want your boss to know about it straight away. I remember, a mentor of mine, many, many years ago, Janice Hagen, saying to me, "If you have a problem and you actually hide it from me, you're actually taking away my ability to manage and to change the situation. If you do that, I'll view that pretty dimly."

I think that's really important if we look at holding bad news back from the boss as something that actually inhibits their ability to do their job and to actually dig the organisation out of the hole. Show them respect first and demonstrate your loyalty and trust. You also need to demonstrate that you're driven by the right things even if your boss isn't. You need to show that you're driven for the organisation first and making sure you do the right thing by the organisation, the right thing by your team and the right thing by your boss and management above. Sometimes your boss isn't going to be that sort of person but you need to be like that anyway and you'll get them to come online with you. 

Now, for most bosses, he's earned you the right to be a trusted advisor. There's the odd boss who can't handle confrontational dissent, who likes to surround themselves with yes men. That's generally about their own insecurity. You need to realise that working for one of those is difficult. They will be absolutely impervious to feedback. 

Emma: Have you ever worked for one of them?

Martin: Yep. Now, that's all. Just, yep. 

There are a few rules of thumb, right? Let's assume you have the respect and the relationship to actually give your boss feedback. There's a couple of things that you should do. The first thing is pick your time, right? You don't want to walk up when your boss is flat out with something or in the middle of something or in a stress situation. Pick your time and make sure that you've got a boss in a receptive mood. 

Second thing is, be genuine. Don't complain. Don't bitch and moan. Be constructive. If you have something that you want to say about your boss and how they're performing or how they're behaving, be constructive about it. You should never give a boss feedback until you've asked permission first, and I think, that's just as simple as saying, "Hey look, I just want to have a conversation with you about something. Would you be prepared to accept some feedback or would it be okay for me to give you some feedback on something?"

Now, there's not many bosses that are going to say no to that. In fact, probably none, that I still think they're a bunch of bosses, who would like to be able to say, "No," but don't. Some will be more receptive than others and you just have to be aware of that and understand it.  

The next thing is you've got to be respectful and honest. How you say something is just so important. If you're saying it in accusatory tones, if you're belligerent, if you're aggressive in any way, shape or form, you've already lost. The only way you're going to get through is by being respectful and honest and it's the same as feedback that you're giving to your team and your people. I've always found it's really good if you can couch it as asking their opinion and guidance, rather than telling them something. I find that works much better.

Something like this. "Hey boss, this morning, when you got the team together and gave them a roasting about using too much stationery, what impact do you think that had on them?" I think rather than telling the boss, ask the question. Let them work it out themselves. They're not there because they're stupid, right?

I think, finally, be very specific in giving feedback, so they know exactly what you mean and you've got to have a few examples up your sleeve because they're going to say, "Well, I don't do that. What are you talking about?" I think you definitely have to have some examples there.

Look, let's face it. Not all bosses want feedback, nor do they create a feedback culture. They want feedback from you and they want feedback from themselves. Now, I was really to have people around me who felt as though they could always give me feedback. I think it's an essential component of a high performance culture. But despite that, sometimes, even with me, their hair stands up on the back of my neck, right? But you just need to get over it. 

It's hard sometimes to sit there and listen and I had one executive say to me once, "Look, I really object to the way you send out some meeting papers on a Friday afternoon for a 10:00 a.m. meeting on a Monday morning. I think, that's really irresponsible in terms of work life balance." Whereas, that he was standing up on the back of my neck. I had to listen to it and say, "Thank you for your feedback." I went away and thought about it and 24 hours later, I went back to this executive and said, "Look, you're an executive of this business, it's not unreasonable to expect that you spend a couple of hours on the weekend preparing for your week ahead and even if you don't want to do that, you're an executive and you can make that choice. But you can always block out your calendar on Monday morning, so that you're in by 8:00 and you've had two hours to prepare for the 10:00 meeting. There's a bunch of ways around it."

But I took the feedback on, I thought about it and I went back to this executive and I gave them my answer. I think, that's probably the way to do it even when you don't think it's a reasonable request. 

Emma: One of the things that I used to get anxiety about before giving my boss feedback was how it would be received. Are there any tips or strategies on making sure that your boss is more receptive to receiving feedback?

Martin: Oh yeah, definitely. There's a number of things you can try Em, certainly unlike 360 degree feedback mechanisms. What I find is a really good thing to do is to do 360 degree feedbacks for myself and my team and then, talk to my boss about supporting that and saying, "Look, if you support this and give it your imprimatur, we're going to get a much better outcome because the executives will really buy into it." 

If you ask them for their support, you can also ask them to be involved and then, your boss can be a part of it too and really lay it from the front. This actually drags them into the process and it puts them right in the spotlight for self-awareness, the same as you and your team are prepared to do. Once that happens, the feedback has to come. 

Now, I have seen bosses just reject the feedback out of hand, but that's quite unusual, most bosses who subject themselves to a 360 degree feedback, actually want to know more about it even if the initial results aren't what they might've hoped for. 

Emma: There are so many good tips there. Anything else you'd like to add onto this one before we wrap it up?

Martin: Look, probably just a word of warning. You need to know when a relationship with a boss is unrecoverable. Now, I know it's a bitter pill to swallow but you need to plan your exit. If you've got an unrecoverable relationship, you can't do anything with it, you've got to get out. When I say this, it just makes it so important that your boss isn't the only person in your organisation that you develop a trusted advisor relationship with. If you rely solely on your boss and that's the only person, who forms an opinion on whether you're good, bad or indifferent as an employee, then you're putting yourself at high risk. 

Developing relationships outside, beyond, above your boss are really important. Then, if it does come to crunch point with your boss, you have some options. It's either that, or you're looking for a new job in a different company and sometimes, that's a bit harder. 

Emma: Love it. You've covered some really actionable strategies in this episode, so I hope that it's really helped out our listeners and the people who asked the questions.

Marty and I would love to hear your thoughts on this episode, whether you got something out of the answers, whether you liked the format, whether you liked me and if you've got any questions that you'd like us to cover, head to our website, www.yourceomentor.com/podcast and enter your feedback or question in the form. 

Marty, I'll let you close this one out. Bye. 

Martin: That sounds good Em. Thanks for coming on and just remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. If you know a leader who'd get some value out of this episode, please share it with them. You may help them with something they're really struggling with.

Next week, we're going to cover from the subject of leading through your values. Until next time, I know you'll do everything in your power to be a no bullsh!t leader.