March 6, 2021

Corner Office: Tiffany Cooper Gueye: Tiffany Cooper Gueye, BELL’s Chief, on Giving Feedback

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. The first time was as a site manager for BELL when I was 20. I was a college senior, and I was supervising other college students and some graduate students. Being in that leadership role wasn’t scary or even all that challenging. I had done leadership things throughout high school and college, so that part was easy.

But I remember my first challenge: a colleague I was supervising, instead of jumping right into tutoring, would actually start reading his newspaper. That kind of challenge stuck with me for a few years — managing people who aren’t self-motivated, and the ones who don’t quite get it. The people who are psyched about the mission, and committed to it, will thrive because they’re about the right things. But how do I kick-start somebody who maybe shouldn’t have been there? That stuck with me for a while because I didn’t know what to do with it.

Q. So what did you do in that particular situation?

A. I probably let it go on for a couple of days without doing anything. What I wanted to say was, “That’s a ridiculous thing to be doing right now.” But I had kind of rehearsed something in my head like, “Well, maybe there’s a way you can use that story to engage your students,” and I tried to hint at it that way. He got the message, so that worked out fine. But I did learn a good lesson about the need to be direct.

Q. Because it sounds like you weren’t really direct with him.

A. Right. That first year I was too nervous about the role, and what it meant to be a manager, and I didn’t want to upset people, and I wanted them to like me. I’ve since learned, of course, that hinting or trying to dance around issues is probably the worst thing you can do for somebody whose performance you’re responsible for. And so, since then, feedback is probably one of the most important things to me in my leadership role. Assuming I have all the right people in the right positions, I think the most important thing I can do for them from there is provide direct, honest, clear feedback. And I get a lot of feedback in return from my direct reports that they really value that.

Q. Tell me more about the learning curve to reach that point.

A. For several years in management roles early on, I realized that I’m really good with the people who are high performers. I’m not so good with the people who are not very good performers. And I continued to learn that the hard way for a couple of years by being kind of dismissive of the people who weren’t high performers — you know, never mind, I won’t try to get things done through this person, I’ll go elsewhere. And I think it took a couple of years before I really had an appreciation for how much that hurts the organization, and how poorly I’m using resources when I do that, and how I am misusing the high performers when I do that.

This notion that somebody could be low-performing and take feedback from me that they would see as valuable — I really didn’t have the confidence those first couple of years to believe that. For the last five years I have really changed my mind about that. I’m not more expert necessarily. I’m not smarter necessarily. But I know what I know about what we’re trying to achieve, and I know what I know about people’s performance. So that’s a valuable perspective. I feel really confident in that. And as long as I’m really clear in communicating it, then I think people appreciate it.

Q. So how do you make that happen now?

A. I think having a very formal performance review process in an organization is an important thing, so I use that. The first time I did it, it worked well. I was very clear. I was able to use specific instances as examples. But I also learned that you can’t wait many months after something happens for the formal review process to give somebody feedback. So I started giving more immediate feedback, then revisited it in the formal review process. Within a couple of years, I realized that my responsibilities were about more than giving feedback, and that I also had to help turn around their performance.

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