by anne lueneburger

To enter Frankford High School, located in a Northeast Philly neighborhood, students have to pass a metal detector. That is if they show up. One out of four students is absent on any given day. Frankford High with its poor socio-economic fabric is rich in hard-luck stories reflected in a 40% dropout rate. Not so for Wilma Stephenson, Frankford High’s culinary art teacher and resident game changer: 100% of her students graduate and find their place in colleges and culinary institutions around the country.

Stephenson demands excellence. She barks out instructions and has her students come in at 5.30 in the morning to peel potatoes for hours until they resemble the perfect “torpedo” shape. The image of a drill sergeant comes to mind (not best practice in giving feedback!). How does she get away with it? One of the reasons students commit is certainly that Stephenson has a track record of teaching those kids to cook well enough to win big scholarship money at the citywide cooking competition every year: close to $1,000,000. But acquiring useful skills or promising outcomes does not fully explain why most students continue to show up for class.

What motivates Stephenson’s students to accept her high standards is that they know her feedback is rooted in one thing. She deeply cares about each and every one of them. She puts in long hours for her students, gets to know them as individuals and will not shy away from standing up for them even in personally challenging situations. Stephenson’s students sense that her “I love you” comes from a profoundly honest place. She bridges her student’s tension of wanting to learn and grow and being accepted for who they are. As Tabeka, one of her students, sums it up: “To me she is a hero.”

We all need feedback, it’s essential. That’s how we get better. But it’s not easy to hear that we screwed up or fell short of our potential. Likewise, it’s uncomfortable to tell someone that he needs to “course correct.”


A recent study showed that over half of feedback received is perceived as unfair and inaccurate. To give good feedback, we must understand what makes it so hard to receive it in the first place. According to Harvard’s negotiation gurus Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, there are three triggers that cause us to reject feedback:

  1. Content triggers: We see the advice or assessment as unhelpful, if not untrue.
  2. Identity triggers: We see our values and who we are as a person come under attack (regardless if the feedback is “right” or “wrong”).
  3. Relationship triggers: We do not feel connected with the giver, for a myriad of reasons (i.e. perceived lack of competence, goodwill, respect).

There are proven methods such as the Situation-Behavior-Impact approach that can help a feedback giver avoid some of the content and identity triggers that might trip us up. It’s trickier when it comes to the relationship itself. Often, we make assumptions about the recipient of our feedback and bring this bias into the mix. The recipient may have made our life difficult and our frustrations and personal annoyances negatively impact the conversation.

Or we may want to avoid giving feedback and let ourselves off the hook when it comes to having these difficult conversations (often under the pretense that we do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings). Just the other day I caught myself again picking up the clothes after my teenager rather than ask her to do this herself (sigh!). Why? Because it was easier…for me!

Whenever there is a disconnect (between actions, values, or personalities), it will feel like feedback in a boxing ring – for both parties. However, giving feedback is a major developmental tool for leaders. And it is a leader’s responsibility to not rob those under her care of this opportunity.

The good news is that we can avoid relationship triggers and build a sense of connection with our recipients. Ideally, we have already built a rapport long before we have a feedback session. But even in these circumstances, we need to suspend our own agenda first. We have to put ourselves into the other persons’ shoes. What will most likely be their state of mind? How have they reacted to feedback in the past? What might be a particular trigger for them and why?

Then comes the real stretch assignment for the majority of us. And the most important one. Until we feel a sense of true caring and compassion for our recipient, we are not ready to give feedback. Period. Full stop.

So how then can you develop this caring, positive attitude towards someone who may have challenged you in every possible way? Here are 5+1 ideas you might want to try to get yourself into the right state of mind before you start a difficult conversation:

1. Think 3:1.

From research we know that relationships that flourish have a 3:1 feedback ratio. Write down three positives for every piece of criticism you are going to share.

2. Adopt a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset).

Assume that people can change. In this light, be sure to supplement evaluative comments that you prepare (i.e. “your rating is average on commercial orientation”) with coaching questions (“what do you think you can do to improve?”) and advice (“here is what I can suggest”).

3. Leverage strengths.

Take the top three signature strengths of your recipient and explore together with her how she might apply them to develop and evolve. (Don’t know her strengths? Invite her to take the VIA Pro Strengths assessment and leverage the results as part of your feedback session).

4. Keep it real.

Reflect on your own biases. Where might they come from? How can you make sure to stay in a place of thinking in the best interest of the recipient? How can you give yourself reminders not to get tripped up and suffer from amygdala hijacks?

5. Breathe deeply.

Put your hand on your upper chest. Take a breath, then exhale with the feeling and sound of a sigh of relief:”aahhhh.” Notice how your chest softens downward under your hand as air flows out. Do this a couple of more times and think about your lungs releasing toxins and stale air, creating more space for fresh air. Then inhale, and on the exhale whisper, “La, la, la, la…” for the length of the exhale (this helps carry air out of your body.). Let each inhale come naturally, whenever it arrives, allowing your abdomen to soften each time. Repeat until you feel your whole body softening.

+1. Hold a warm cup of tea (or coffee) in your hands.

Say what?!? Yes, that’s right. Warmth dramatically improves our ability to become more caring. Many studies support this finding. Recent research out of Yale showed that a mere 25% of study participants that were holding a cold pad chose a gift for a friend, compared to 54% of those handling a hot pad. And while physical warmth can cause us to be warmer, it also makes us see others as warmer people. So we suggest you also offer your recipient a warm cup of tea.

Caring about our recipients significantly raises our chances to give impactful feedback. It might motivate to know that seeing a world of possibilities also makes us smarter. In a 2009 study, Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto proved that positive emotions literally change how the brain works. Positivity broadens our awareness and we are better at seeing the big picture and connecting the dots. A positive state of mind also makes us more resilient and prepares us for bouncing back from difficult conversations, according to Barbara Fredrikson’s research. An asset for both feedback giver and recipient.

Wilma Stephenson intuitively gets the most essential part of giving feedback right. She breaks many rules on what we know about giving effective feedback, be it raising her voice or publicly scolding her disciples. But what makes her ultimately successful is that she is the number one cheerleader of her students. Her tight ship is founded on a deep sense of caring and love.

So yes, you can learn the skills to give effective feedback. In fact, we are happy to email you a complimentary copy of our North of Neutral feedback guide if you send us a note to But it is only if you engage with the heart that your feedback will fall on fertile grounds and bear fruit.

by pamela welling

see the future 2

It’s a fact of career life – sometimes the most important decisions and conversations about our trajectory happen when we are not in the room. If you keep getting out promoted by the new kids on the block, it’s time to think about creating internal champions who are willing to spend their hard won political capital on your behalf. Here are some tips you can deploy to get you started:

Connect the dots: Our career lives would be so much easier if management could just pull a Tom Cruise, read our mind and see what we see when we think of ourselves at work. Your manager is not a pre-cog, unfortunately so if you do see a future with your firm/team/boss- articulate it. Let your boss know why and link your vision with her strategy, your unit’s strategy and if possible, the strategy of the firm. Connecting the dots in this way evidences that you are willing to do the leg work it takes to get your promotion, while making sure that your firm will reap rewards too.

Have a marketing plan: Don’t be afraid to self promote, even just a little bit. It’s not necessary to be a bold faced wunderkind, but it is OK and perfectly reasonable to ask peers, reports, seniors and vendors to send you an email outlining how you did a good job and the skills sets you used to perform them. Not only does this help you build self-efficacy, it also builds the business case for your promotion with the key decision makers in your chain of command. If those colleagues CC your boss on that email- well even better. Re-reading those emails will also keep you sane on those days at the Mozzeralla farm where the Water Buffalo are just refusing to play nice.

You. Incorporated: Build the business case for You. Inc. This is a tactic I recommend to everyone, not just those thinking about a promotion. Evidence how you understand what your firm needs and wants, and how you already have the experience and skills to deliver. If there are gaps- which there should be- identify the stretch projects that could help you bridge them, and where your current skills can be deployed to high impact on said project as you learn.

You should start to see the fruits of your labor within about six to eight months, and be sure to flag your efforts in your annual review. If you still don’t see movement from your chain of command, then know you are well positioned to platform into a firm that will better value your work and give you that promotion you deserve.

by renita kalhorn


“If you want a quality, act as if you already have it. If you want to be courageous, act as if you were – and as you act and persevere in acting, so you tend to become.” – Norman Vincent Peale

Over the years, I’ve shared a variety of approaches to goal-setting. In 2012, I suggested focusing on creating habits. In 2013, I said, start at the micro level, with micro-goals and micro-practice. In 2014, I said let’s resist the “all or nothing” lure of a new start and start fresh every moment.

Whatever approach you take, you can turbocharge the process by shoring up your belief that what you want is possible. How do you demonstrate that? By acting as if your future has already happened. This isn’t a new idea, of course. Napoleon Hill wrote about it in the early 1900s with his classic, Think And Grow Rich. Wayne Dyer says “you’ll see it when you believe it.” And Tony Robbins may have mentioned it a few times too. ;-)

So why don’t we practice it more?

Because we’ve been conditioned to wait for concrete evidence — a signed contract, a deposit in our bank account, our photo on the magazine cover — for confirmation that what we want is on the way.

Because it takes incredible mental strength and imagination to see beyond the current physical reality, to disregard doubt (your own and others) and sustain consistent belief in what’s possible.

Because it’s not easy to break out of autopilot and the familiar comfort of routine.

But this is what people who achieve the greatest, most unlikely goals do. They start to think and act like their future self before anything in their current reality warrants it.

When tennis player John McEnroe was asked how, early in his career, he beat Adriano Panatta, one of the top-ranked players in the world, he said: “I was number one in the world. My ranking just hadn’t caught up yet.” Do you think that mindset — behaving like a #1 player who was used to winning instead of one ranked hundred something?— affected how he played when he was at break point?

When Amos Winbush III started his tech company in 2008, he was a 20-something musician with no business or technical experience to speak of. And yet, he was able to negotiate partnerships with CEOs and COOs of $60 billion, $40 billion companies without getting intimidated because he envisioned himself on their playing field. As he told me, “At the end of the day, I have a service, you have a company, you have customers that you have to give really great products to. We’re kind of scratching each other’s backs. So I just do it.” In six years, he’s built CyberSynchs into an $180 million company.

Sophia Amoruso, who went from a string of dead-end jobs to building Nasty Gal into a $100+ million online fashion player says: “You create the world, blink by blink. It is entirely yours to discover and yours to create.”

Stop seeing your current reality — your lack of revenues, discouraging press, competitive market — as an indication of what’s possible. Your mind can trump matter. Spend 10 – 15 minutes every day rehearsing how your future self would “show up” in the various scenarios of your day, and start acting like that…now.

by anne lueneburger

right now. what would you [your name goes here] do?

This is the question that changed everything for Jerome Jarre. Feeling lost and unhappy with life he has an epiphany: life is about living at your full potential, getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself everyday. Today Jerome Jarre is no longer the homeless school dropout but a successful social media star, video producer, and storyteller who is invited on the Ellen DeGeneres show and has over 8 million followers on Vine. How did this happen? Jerome Jarre took risks most of us are not prepared to take. We may want to have this option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Often, however, when we come to this juncture in our conversation, my clients tell me that they’re deadlocked, held up, controlled by circumstance.  They feel they are at an impasse because they’ve learned not to grasp – or even see – the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of their aspirations. And here is the good news: the opportunities are there. And often these opportunities present themselves in small incremental changes that we can make. Part of getting my clients out of the paralysis to act is to help them dip their big toe into the water (and not ask them to jump right in).

So rather than leave a job or a relationship or a life altogether, the next time you face the choice of answering another slew of emails as opposed to going home and watch the dance recital of your daughter, ask yourself: “If I were 99 years old and on my deathbed and all of the sudden I have the chance to go back to right now, what would I do?” Ask yourself this question often enough throughout the day and you will see that these small changes will sum up to a life better lived. Willing to give this a try for a week?

by anne lueneburger

Are you looking to lead a life with purpose and passion? Do you struggle with selling your ideas, your products, yourself? Are you unsure how to inspire your team? Simon Sinek does a superb job of explaining why answering the question of “why” is superior to answering the  “what” and the “how” if we want to be successful and feel fulfilled.

happy holidays



“One Optimistic Unicorn” by Liv Lueneburger

As 2014 comes to a close, we wanted to take a moment and thank you for reading our entries and being a part of the North of Neutral community. Our offices will close on December 20th and will be back open on January 5th. We are much looking forward to supporting our readership and clients in the coming year.

May 2015 be your best year yet!

Your North of Neutral team

Not only great music, but also rivalry, jealousy, and betrayal are at the heart of “Amadeus”. At 4:59 of this clip, Mozart humiliates the powerful composer Salieri at the court of the Austrian Emperor. And as the talented Mozart gains recognition, Salieri becomes consumed with plotting Mozart’s downfall.

Stories like these feed the notion of politics as nefarious scheming: it’s not enough that I win, but you most lose. In other words, politics gets a bad rep when we fail to put something greater than ourselves first, or when we fall short of doing the right thing.

But politics, per definition is neither good nor bad. Being politically competent involves applying our skills and strengths to be more effective. It describes informal efforts to sell ideas, influence others, increase power, or achieve other objectives. Aristotle described human beings as “political animals”, noting our tendency to live in “polis” – organized social units. Mix people and power, and you get politics.

As coaches, we sometimes see careers derail because of a lack of political competence. If we ignore politics, we risk being under-political and naïve. If we fall prey to naked self-interest, we become over-political and lose the trust and support of those around us. Ironically, both situations can lead to isolation.

Not surprisingly, political skill is an important component of successful leadership and starts from the inside out. When is the last time that you have carefully assessed your own degree of political savvy? Dr. Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman assessment can help you get clarity.


Their assessment lets you confirm your preference for an either less or more political style, broken down into six individual dimensions for each style. This instrument also helps you identify areas where you may in fact be under or over political, and you can start taking measures to self-correct. As with any assessment, a feedback and review session with a trusted third party is an essential part of the process. This could be a friend or a colleague, but if you prefer an outside source, consider partnering with a coach who can ensure that you optimize rather than overcorrect.

Here, finally, are some of the lessons we have seen play out time and again among our most politically astute clients:

1/Be sincere and authentic.

Inspiring trust is the foundation of being a politically competent leader. Contrary to what many think, being straightforward and transparent around our agendas helps to de-politicize issues rather than add to them. As others know what our agenda is, we invite stakeholders into the decision-making process, clarify their needs, and can start looking for win-win solutions.

2/Think before you act.

Beware of amygdala hijacks…This is one of the highest predictors for career derailment if we don’t’ know whether, when and how to voice our thoughts. If we are in a situation that triggers us, we need to take a deep breath and center ourselves in the presence. Only then are we able to think clearly through what would happen if we acted in a certain way and can explore alternatives.

3/Scan your environment.

First, start by identifying distinct stakeholders and their degree of influence in the organization. Next, in order to influence these stakeholders, we must be able to observe and, understand what matters to them. By paying attention to what they say (and what they don’t say), their non-verbal cues and facial expressions, we can get a better idea of their concerns and hot buttons. Putting ourselves in “their shoes” and validating our perceptions with someone that we trust to compare notes with.

4/Be plugged in.

Many successful executives have stalled their careers as a result of poor networking. This includes their immediate teams, managing up effectively (how well do we keep our boss in the loop at all times?), but also people outside of the organization as well as lateral and vertical relationships in the organization. Forging alliances, tapping into the grapevine, and identifying sponsors is what we call basic career hygiene. Not only will these connections support our growth when all goes well, but they also can have our back when we experience a professional low. Unsure about the “how to”? Consider observing effective networkers and see what you can learn from them.

Or read up on how effective leaders create and use networks.

5/Tell your story (or others will do it for you).

By engaging in negative self-talk and holding ourselves back we sabotage our ability to succeed. Do you want to be universally liked or do you want to get promoted? Ask yourself: “What kind of impressions do I make on others and what kind of impressions about me do I want them to walk away with?” Being proactive, putting ourselves out there and ask for assignments allows us to be visible and take credit.

Now, if you are a normal mortal, but – like Mozart – already have made an influential enemy, here are some great ideas on how you can make your enemies your allies. The good news: political savvy can be learned and previous blunders can be overcome.


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