An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Build genuine relationships with your people who are remote, so that when you do deliver feedback, it’s done in a way that can be received and your team can trust that it’s coming from a good place, where you have their best interest in mind. Oftentimes, when I see leaders struggling with giving feedback, it’s because that element isn’t there.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darrin Murriner.

Darrin Murriner is Cofounder and CEO of Prior to founding Cloverleaf he managed large and complex teams at companies such as Arthur Andersen, Fifth Third Bank and Munich Re. He is the author of Corporate Bravery, a book focused on helping leaders build a culture free of fear.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I remember my dad selling specialty advertising when I was in the fifth grade, and I would take all his extra samples to school to sell for money. I made enough to buy the original Nintendo Entertainment System, which was a big deal! I kept this up through similar side hustles throughout my time in high school, but when I went to college I got stuck on a corporate track. I think for a lot of kids coming out of college nowadays, entrepreneurship is the preferred path, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and for decades prior — people were focused on paving the way to jobs at places like Goldman Sachs or General Electric. For a while, I fell into that groove, and I spent the first 15 years of my career not being fully true to myself.

Meanwhile, I was still doing all these entrepreneurial things on the side, and I didn’t understand that maybe it meant I should have been an entrepreneur full-time. Over time and through a lot of self-awareness work, it dawned on me that I’m meant to be building things. I wrote a book called Corporate Bravery, which really marked my transition out of the corporate environment into entrepreneurship. The focus of the book was on how to change corporate cultures to be less fear-based in their decision making, promoting a more aggressive stance that found motivation in opportunity rather than being influenced by what could go wrong. Throughout that experience, I began harboring some thoughts and ideas about a tech platform that could help people engage more effectively with each other in the workplace, and thus, Cloverleaf was born.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My cofounder, Kirsten Moorefield, and I were focused on bringing transparency to how people work together, examining the behavioral layer of how work gets done and addressing questions like, ‘Why did I work well with that person, but didn’t work well with this other person?’ and ‘Why was that team able to accomplish such amazing things, but other teams weren’t?’ It feels like it’s this ambiguous, mysterious thing, but there’s data and science that can be leveraged to build an experience out of these questions. We decided to build a tech platform that could do just that.

Like any new burgeoning area of technology, you must find ways to connect innovation to existing markets and the way people think about solutions to their problems. Over time, we’ve evolved into the coaching space, because coaching is the way many people solve interpersonal challenges in the workplace today. The problem with coaching is that oftentimes, it’s only accessible to the top five- or ten-percent of leaders in an organization. That’s pretty exclusive. At Cloverleaf, we believe everyone should have the ability to learn about themselves and about how to work effectively with each other using a technology solution could really facilitate that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My first job out of college was with Arthur Andersen — what was, at the time, the most well-respected accounting firm in the world. They happened to have a client in Houston, Texas by the name of Enron, which imploded very spectacularly as a company highflyer in a burgeoning field of energy trading. Because Arthur Andersen was the accounting firm for this company, their reputation took a major hit, too. It was like the company disappeared overnight, going from having 85,000 global employees to being practically non-existent.

What a weird way to start your career, right? There was a lot of fear and trepidation, and plenty of that factored into writing Corporate Bravery. On the other hand, I got a lot of valuable leadership lessons in that short period of time. I had a chance to learn what to do well and what not to do.

My direct manager at the time was very transparent; he built a lot of trust through really focusing on our team dynamic, and even passed on opportunities that didn’t allow him to bring his team along with him. It was a selfless demonstration that established a high level of trust and camaraderie. That period was a really formative for me — both for the positive and negative lessons learned.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The mistakes I’ve made in my career are almost all related to entrepreneurship, either failed projects that never really got off the ground, or even some day-to-day mistakes we made while building Cloverleaf. Oftentimes, most of those mistakes revolve around trying to do too much and not being focused enough. I would say most of the incidents I can recall probably took place sometime throughout the last four or five years and revolve around not being ruthless enough about the focus on my personal attention or the attention of the company.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

The biggest thing is to set aside time. For instance, I recently began blocking off an hour at lunchtime, because I was finding myself getting increasingly crunched for time around that part of my day. I would end up grabbing some sort of fast food that wasn’t good for my body, which I’d then scarf down very unceremoniously ahead of my next call. I realized that having a break midday is a really good thing, not just for my personal health, but also to reflect and even follow up on the latest developments from that morning.

I also block off two Fridays a month on my calendar. This is time I devote to tackling longer work, where I can clear my plate and spend more than just a 30- or 60-minute stretch of time thinking strategically about some of the more advanced challenges facing our business. It might not always get adhered to — if I’ve got a critical client meeting that must happen during time I’d blocked off, I can reckon with altering my lunch plans. If you can hold that time block 80-percent of the time, though, it gives you the necessary space to reflect and avoid burnout.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

There’s no perfect formula to leadership. Every situation calls for a different style. Being a company that uses behavioral assessments like DISC or the Enneagram, we often notice the culture associating leadership with behaviors common to those with DISC type D for Dominance or those who are an eight on the Enneagram — the decisive, high-energy types. Our team works hard to make sure that we’re not only appointing leaders who exhibit those qualities, but are rounding out our leadership team by promoting those who bring differing strengths to the table.

In reality, I’ve seen so many people who either don’t have the positional authority or don’t exhibit those stereotypically dominant characteristics who regularly demonstrate good leadership through speaking up in important moments with critical information or alternative perspectives. In those moments, leadership to me is as simple as standing up and lending your voice, plus following that up by creating space for others to be heard as well.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I have a pretty strong faith component in my life, and for me, tapping into that is an essential component of relieving stress. I think creating space for whatever spiritual connection someone might want to express is important in relieving stress as a leader. Personally, I tend to dedicate time to my faith in the morning, so that I’m starting my day with the right frame of mind and can better process my stress-induced emotions as the day goes on.

I’ve also been working on establishing some habits geared at the physical release of stress. I’m constantly trying to figure out where I can fit exercise into my regular routine. Sometimes it’s in the morning, sometimes it’s after work, and oftentimes it’s bringing up the rear of particularly long, busy weeks.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I’ve been a manager for two decades in various contexts, from classic corporate environments to startup spaces, like the one at Cloverleaf. In my time as a manager, I’ve worked with many people, with different personalities, communication preferences, and work styles. What I’ve learned is that building strong relationships is the key component to giving good feedback. In those situations where feedback doesn’t get delivered in an effective way, it’s because there’s not a strong relationship and personal connection between folks, and the person giving feedback doesn’t know how to adjust feedback for an individual.

For example, at Cloverleaf, we’re mostly what we call support-motivated team members, which means, if I walk up and ask someone, “How’s that particular task going?” it doesn’t feel like micromanagement to most people, because they’re the type of team members who want to know that their manager is engaged and asking questions and looking for opportunities to help and break down barriers.

But I have one team member in sales who doesn’t prefer the support-motivated approach. He’s a very goal-oriented person. He wants to know the number he needs to achieve in a certain day, week, or month, and then talk to me at the end of the month to let me know where he stands with that number. If I ask him every day how his work is going, it’s going to feel micromanagement to him. That’s not the kind of feedback or engagement he’s looking for from his manager. I’ve learned that it’s important to get to know people on a personal level and ask them what style of feedback they prefer, and set that expectation upfront. I want to make sure that we can have conversations that feel productive for everyone involved.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

A 2015 Gallup study shared that “today’s employees want a manager who is invested in their personal and professional development. They want frequent feedback — and opportunities to do more of what they do best.” Giving continuous, real-time feedback — that is also, as you mention, honest and direct, but I’d also like to add, humble — really helps empower and motivate team members to do their best work. It’s an incredibly important skill for a leader toward building trust in the workplace, increasing engagement of the team, and helping grow each person’s strengths.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

As I mentioned, building relationships is critical in giving feedback. At Cloverleaf, we talk about our core values, and one of those is “be a genuine teammate.” This involves two qualities: candor and authenticity. If you’re going to be candid, that is going to lead to better, more effective performance. There must be an authentic relationship that exists behind that. That’s very hard to do in a fully remote or virtual world. What we know about how people engage and interact with each other in digital or virtual spaces is that interactions tend to become very transactional. It’s focused on: “Did you get this thing done?” “Where are we at with that deliverable?” “Hey, how do I access this document?” It’s very much about the productivity and that doesn’t create a fertile ground for performance feedback to be well received, because there’s not a real authentic relationship there.

Build genuine relationships with your people who are remote, so that when you do deliver feedback, it’s done in a way that can be received and your team can trust that it’s coming from a good place, where you have their best interest in mind. Oftentimes, when I see leaders struggling with giving feedback, it’s because that element isn’t there.

Practically, you can do this through weekly one-on-one meetings, where you’re getting to know each other and building that trust. But it’s also important to create separate conversations that are focused on employee growth and personal development. Once there’s trust, there’s also a desire for feedback. For example, the other day, I met with a team member who initiated the conversation for feedback. She came into our one-on-one by asking, “What can I be doing better?” Ultimately, we want to hire people who come with that kind of growth mindset, who are actively seeking that out, but we know that not everyone is in that place, so again, the key element is to intentionally work toward building authentic relationships with those remote employees.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

The same goes for email. If you have a genuine relationship with the person you’re giving feedback to over email, then there is a strong foundation of understanding built in. I would, however, avoid giving feedback over email if that relationship hasn’t been established. Focus on building that relationship first, since there is a lack of nuance, and therefore opportunity for miscommunication in tone over email, especially with constructive feedback.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Absolutely. One of the most critical factors in giving feedback is when you give it (whether it’s constructive or positive feedback). It’s important that feedback is as close to the relevant circumstances as possible. Holding onto feedback is a disservice to everyone involved. If the timing doesn’t allow for feedback in the moment, try to give feedback within one week or less, instead of waiting for the next performance review. Giving feedback as close to the event has a direct impact on someone’s understanding of how they’ve performed — and these more consistent feedback nudges have been shown to lead to higher engagement and behavioral changes than piling everything on in an intervention- or performance review-style feedback session.

Some other things I consider beyond timing is making sure that the feedback I give has the intention to contribute. Criticism, for example, is not feedback. Constructive feedback with alternative approaches and solutions is helpful. As for positive feedback, don’t stop at “great job!” Go beyond that and express the impact that a job well done has had on the team, organization, and specific individuals as well. The key thing to remember is building trust is hard work and takes time.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

A great boss has a healthy amount of humility and empathy. A recent study from the University of South Australia Centre for Workplace Excellence spent time with nearly 500 team members spanning 120 different workplace teams. The research uncovered that “leaders who demonstrate humility through self-awareness, praising others’ strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback” are creating more positive workplaces and curbing negative influences.

What’s great is that both humility and empathy are skills you can learn and practice as a boss. The basics are essentially:

  • Humble leaders have a self-awareness that acknowledges they don’t have all the answers.
  • Humble leaders include their teams in problem-solving and decision-making and are dependent on others each step of the way.
  • Humble leaders ask questions with sincerity and curiosity.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Something I’ve been feeling increasingly passionate about is the current American political structure. My interest isn’t rooted in specific issues as much as in ensuring our political system works as a democracy, guaranteeing every voice can be heard through access to voting. I’ve been looking into nonpartisan organizations that I can get involved with or throw my support behind — either financially or with my own time — who are making great strides in bringing free and fair access to secure electoral processes.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In his book Humble Inquiry, former MIT professor Edgar Schein makes this statement about humility: “Humility is not a required major personality trait of good inquirers. But even the most confident or arrogant among us will find ourselves humbled by the reality of being dependent on others.”

This quote resonates with me as a cofounder, manager, and coach to my team. We will all be humbled by depending on others in life. Effective leaders depend on their team members to do much more than complete a list of tasks. I depend on my team’s opinions, insights, and feedback for the good of the team. This not only provides our company with a more diverse set of opinions but also helps individual team members feel more valued.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me @murriner on Twitter and keep up with what we’re working on at Cloverleaf on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and at our blog.

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

Darrin Murriner Of Cloverleaf: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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