Don’t Accept Assumptions

Stephanie AllenSeason 5Episode 6


Stephanie Allen, a strategic CEO advisor and fractional COO, reminds us about the need to ask if we can give feedback. If the other person is not ready to receive it, we’re likely wasting everyone’s time and creating unnecessary conflict. She also reminds us that feedback is a gift, and sometimes it’s a gift we didn’t think we needed. Feedback loops are important; while we can’t control people, we can influence them. One key aspect to all of this is, “Don’t accept assumptions.” Leaders need to clarify and verify.


Stephanie Allen

Stephanie Allen

Strategic CEO Advisor and Fractional COO

Stephanie Allen of Stephanie Allen Consulting is a strategic CEO Advisor and Fractional COO, renowned for her work in scaling operations and leadership development within the digital marketing and tech industries. Creator of The Panoramic Operations Roadmap, she helps companies achieve substantial growth through streamlined processes and clear organizational objectives. Her approach emphasizes the critical role of effective feedback loops in driving business success, a topic she has explored in depth at notable industry events. Stephanie’s insights on nurturing transformative leadership and operational excellence make her a welcome guest on today’s show.


Stephanie Allen (00:01):
"Ask, 'May I give you some feedback?' and making sure that the feedback can be seen as great stuff or tough stuff. So really normalizing that. And so when you ask someone permission to give them feedback, it doesn't matter whether they're a CEO or your peer, you're going to have someone be ready to receive it because either they're gonna say, 'sure, yeah, go for it' or 'you know I'm in the middle of something, can we have another time where we do that?' The challenge is giving feedback if the person you're giving feedback to isn't ready to receive it, then it's not a valuable use of anyone's time. And all it does is create unnecessary conflict."
Troy Blaser (00:34):
Hello, welcome to Simply Feedback, the podcast brought to you by Learning Bridge. And I'm your host, Troy Blaser. It's great to be with you today. I'm excited about our guest today. Her name is Stephanie Allen of Stephanie Allen Consulting. Stephanie is a strategic CEO Advisor and Fractional COO, who's renowned for her work in scaling operations and leadership development within the digital marketing and tech industries. Creator of The Panoramic Operations Roadmap, Stephanie helps companies achieve substantial growth through streamlined processes and clear organizational objectives. Her approach emphasizes the critical role of effective feedback loops in driving business success, a topic she has explored in depth at notable industry events. Stephanie’s insights on nurturing transformative leadership and operational excellence make her a welcome guest on today’s show. Stephanie, welcome to Simply Feedback. It's great to have you with us today.
Stephanie Allen (01:30):
Hi Troy. I'm really excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Troy Blaser (01:35):
Yeah. We'll start with a question that we always start with because I love to hear the stories and it helps us get to know you a little bit better. But I wonder if you could tell us about a time that somebody gave you feedback and maybe it was feedback that had an impact on your life or your career, but was a turning point for you. Is there a story you could share with us?
Stephanie Allen (01:52):
Yes. The turning point or something that had a big impact on my life was during university that actually led the way for maybe how I carry myself in my career today. And it was by the dean of my program at university. And the feedback was, you need to show up the right way regardless of what's going on in your life. And to be in my late teens, early twenties and have someone share that with me was really beneficial. So the story behind that is that I was in my second year of university working two part-time jobs and just getting by with managing all of my schoolwork and raising money to fund my university life.
Troy Blaser (02:34):
Sounds like many students.
Stephanie Allen (02:36):
Yes and in that time a dear friend was diagnosed with cancer and they passed away. And when that happened, it really rocked my world in a way that I didn't anticipate. And I sort of stopped showing up. I was really questioning what my life was about someone to die so young that I cared about and I let things slip with school and, and I was just kind of going to work. And it was a pivotal time in my university career and I actually ended up failing the year because of that moment and I had a decision to make, do I keep going or not? And so I was talking with the, the dean and she shared her feedback with me and it really resonated. But there was a second person, another professor on the team who I sat with because I had failed his course.
Stephanie Allen (03:24):
And he shared some interesting things with me that I didn't fail by much. And that out of everyone in the class, I would probably one of the most successful people in my career, even though I had failed this moment. And it was really what I needed to hear it at that time to keep going with my schooling. And so I went back and I redid the year and I was in the top of the class. And so why was this so pivotal? Well, it's because I received really tough feedback. I really failed big time. But I also had feedback that it didn't define me in that moment. I had an option to keep going and try again. So now today when I give feedback, I give the tough feedback, but I don't hold onto that. Like that is the only thing I think of that person.
Stephanie Allen (04:11):
The next conversation we have, I am thinking about what they're great at and what they've done well, and showing them that that tough moment was not the be all end all of who they are to me or the business. And I think that that was a pivotal time in my my life, but it was also a pivotal time of setting the foundation of the value of feedback and how to not assume that one bad moment with someone is going to determine what they are like in the future. And I think that's why I'm kind of known for seeing the greatness in everyone. So I always like to see what is someone really great at and how can we leverage that? And I make sure that they know that even if there's something they're doing that is not going well.
Troy Blaser (04:55):
Oh, that, that's really fantastic. I mean that, like you kind of said, that formed a foundational experience in your life that has really given you a platform to grow from. That was a difficult challenge and a difficult experience to go through. But you said, I'm not gonna let this failure define me. But yet in a way it sort of has because it has made you someone who watches for that greatness in others and and is able to focus on that as you're sometimes sharing the tough feedback.
Stephanie Allen (05:21):
Yes. That's a good point. That's good.
Troy Blaser (05:23):
No, it, it's inspiring and it's so wonderful to hear these kinds of stories and hear about the mentors, you know, the dean or the other professor who are in that position for you as a student to really make a difference that has lasted with you for many years after university. Well, okay. So as I was kind of getting ready for our conversation today and getting to know you a little bit, reading through that bio that I shared, I came across a term that was new for me, Fractional COO. Can you just quickly explain that for me and for others in our audience who might not be familiar with that term?
Stephanie Allen (05:57):
Yes, definitely. What it means is you get someone that can be your COO or your second in command on a interim basis for a defined period of time. Or they are with you for a shorter period of time each week for a long period of time. So you have fractional COOs that are just happy to be a fractional COO and they have their one company they work for fractionally or a handful, or you have other fractional COOs that are doing just consulting and giving the strategy. And I would say I'm a bit of a hybrid of both of those. So I go in and I give the strategy and and help people design the best operations possible. But I also go in and I do the implementation on an interim basis. And sometimes I'm there for a year, sometimes I'm there for three months or six months.
Stephanie Allen (06:45):
It depends on the needs of the business. But I always go in with the philosophy of how can I work myself out of this job so that I know the company is set up for success and can do what it needs to do in its own way and be sustainable. And I found that to be really fun and exciting because I get to work with multiple businesses at the same time and throughout a year that my ability to understand what's happening in the world, because I do this globally, has my knowledge has increased exponentially. And I would never wanna give that up.
Troy Blaser (07:17):
Well, that's really cool. It sounds like maybe something applicable, especially to a small or a mid-size business that maybe isn't quite ready for a full-time COO, but can still bring in that expertise on a temporary basis or just for a part of the week for a fraction of the week, I suppose, right?
Stephanie Allen (07:33):
Yes. And so I often talk about how to know if you're ready and when the the right time is. That's a good time to bring someone in like that. But I also think it's understanding the overlap of the C-suite because you've got COO, you've got CIO, you've got CFO, and you know, the O and all of that is kind of all operations. So you need to figure out what is the need of the business and what core skillset do I need to compliment our current team or myself and bring the right fractional executive into help. And I think there's some confusion about sometimes what A COO is versus a CIO or a CFO or a CMO. Sometimes people use those terms interchangeably for me. And that's okay. There's a lot of acronyms there to remember, but I think it brings to light that it's not easy to know about fractional because you've got the fractional aspect of it and then you've got the skillset that you need to get clear that you need fractionally. And that makes sense. It's great for smaller intern businesses to start to get it right. But what I'm noticing evolving in my business is that the larger organizations are bringing me in to support their leadership team actually real at the things they need to do as well. So as a fractional COO it could evolve, your clientele could evolve as you evolve.
Troy Blaser (08:50):
Oh yeah. And of course the fact that you are working across multiple organizations, as you said, your knowledge increases and you're able to bring that into those different organizations to kind of bring in the best advice, the best policies, procedures that you see across the different industries that you work in. So as you're working with these different organizations, I wonder what are some of the common challenges that you've observed that companies face thinking about simply feedback our podcast today? So thinking especially about feedback systems, can you share some of the challenges that you've seen and maybe what you advise them to do to overcome these obstacles?
Stephanie Allen (09:25):
Yes. The big challenge, if you're thinking you need to improve your feedback or things aren't going as smoothly as you'd like in your team, you're not sure how to have the behavior change or to improve things. You know, my recommendation is you first look at how you're communicating as a team because for me, feedback is a form of communication. So the first part is to look at how are you collaborating and communicating on the work that you're doing. And once you evaluate that, you might see gaps. So here's a really good example. You have a manager that is not happy with how their direct report is taking the information and applying it, and they're not seeing the progress they're expecting based on the times that they're talking about that. First thing I look at, well, how often are they connecting?
Stephanie Allen (10:10):
And if this manager is only meeting with a direct report once a month, then I would say, oh, maybe there isn't enough connection time to actually have progress happen. That's a long time to go from giving someone direction to wait three, four weeks to have a follow up about that. Now, if you're meeting once a month, but you are having weekly updates reported to you and you can see the progress and you have a great relationship with your direct report and you can message them or give them a voice message, you know, with feedback, that's a different story. But that's what I mean about you have to first look at what are the forms of communication you're using? How often are you communicating and are you actually setting the team up for success to be able to receive feedback and act on it quickly so that you see the progress happening.
Stephanie Allen (10:54):
So I think communication is the first thing I would look at if people are having challenges. And then I would look at the individual level of manager to direct report relationship and understand how that is going. And then the third thing I would look at is how is the team coming together and are we having tough conversations? Are we sharing bad news and the wins together so that we can help each other evolve and change how we're working for the better? And so if you have great communication and you have great direct report to manager relationship, but you're not having transparent open conversations as a collective, you still might have some challenges with feedback loops because feedback is actually so much more than just a manager to direct report. It could be direct report to manager and it could be peer to peer and it could be executive to someone doing the work. It could be someone doing the work to executive. So for me, feedback is an always, like I tell my son, when you cross the street, don't just look right and left. Look always these days there could be a bike, there could be someone walking a car turning down the wrong street. So it's the same thing for communication. We need to make sure that people can stop and look always with the communication and feel set up for success to have that conversation.
Troy Blaser (12:10):
I really like that idea that in its very basic, most simple form feedback is communication and vice versa. Meaning, you know, you and I are having a conversation and as you're speaking I'm listening to what you're saying and sort of processing it and then offering in implied feedback in, in my answers, in my path of the conversation. So there's feedback going back and forth in every communication that happens, even if it's not a formal answer, these questions, you know, to, to give me feedback on how I'm doing as a leader. But just that everyday communication that can be so, so useful as feedback. So another part of the work that you do is to advise CEOs as you come in to work with an organization, are there challenges that you tend to face as you work with those CEOs? And what advice do you give them about their companies or about themselves specifically as leaders?
Stephanie Allen (13:05):
Yes. There are always challenges. I think operations and challenges kind of go hand in hand. If there weren't challenges, I probably wouldn't be there.
Troy Blaser (13:14):
Right. If there weren't challenges, they're making a whole lot of money and very happy. And they don't need you. Right.
Stephanie Allen (13:18):
They don't need me. They got, everything's going well. So I have observed, I'll give you the common threat. I'm in a unique situation. Because right now, when I go in fractionally, I'm invited, I wanna be there, my insights and feedback is welcomed, but that doesn't mean it's not challenging to give feedback. And I think first of all, I have a model I use like you have to ask people. And this isn't mine alone. I, you know, if I can credit someone, I went through the manager tools learning and conference to understand how to give feedback and side note, I thought I was really good at feedback before I did that. And then I did that program and I got so much better. So, you know, there's a whole other story there for another time. So I, I like to use the model, "ask, may I give you some feedback?" and making sure that the feedback can be seen as great stuff or tough stuff.
Stephanie Allen (14:08):
So really normalizing that. And so when you ask someone permission to give them feedback, it doesn't matter whether they're a CEO or your peer, you're going to have someone be ready to receive it because either they're gonna say, "sure, yeah, go for it" or you know, "I'm in the middle of something, can you tell me that? Can we have another time where we do that?" The challenge is giving feedback. If the person you're giving feedback to isn't ready to receive it, then it's not a valuable use of anyone's time. And all it does is create unnecessary conflict.
Troy Blaser (14:35):
Yeah. I really like that. By asking the question, it sort of sets the stage in that person's mind. Okay, I need to be in a mode to receive it. Especially if it's tough feedback. It could come as an insult or why are you trying to offend me? Right. But by prefacing it with that question, with asking, are you in a spot where you, I can give you some feedback, then that does make a shift for the person.
Stephanie Allen (14:57):
Yes. And the time that I had the most fun giving feedback to CEOs is actually in a leadership meeting with everyone there. And when the CEO is frustrated, okay, this is my favorite time to be in the room because we need to listen to the CEO and understand what is frustrating them and listen. And so I get to model for the other leaders in the room how when they feel concerned or upset or frustrated, that's when I get really calm. I work really hard to do this, but I get really calm and I stop and I just really zone into like what is happening.
Troy Blaser (15:32):
Stephanie Allen (15:33):
And I focus just on them and then I reflect back what I hear and I simplify the situation. And so I've had other leaders say, I wanna be able to do that. That was just awesome how you handled that. So it's not just about me giving feedback to the CEO when I go in there, it's actually teaching and showing the other leaders how to do that so that it is a healthy environment when I'm not there anymore.
Troy Blaser (15:59):
Yeah. Is there a specific case or a time you can think of when feedback loops like that have impacted a company's growth or their efficiency?
Stephanie Allen (16:07):
Yes, it happens all the time because assumptions are not made when you can do that. When your boss or a CEO gets really frustrated and their, their anxiety levels go up, right? Because they just need, and often it's because of something that happened in the past, an issue they've resolved and they don't want it to happen again. They are going through their own historical memory and it might not even be about what's happening right now. It's that it's familiar and there's a worry that would happen before is gonna happen again. That's like eight times outta 10 why a CEO gets frustrated. I've seen it happen over and over and over again. So if you don't actually slow down and realize it's not about me, like you have to almost, if you're new with this, it's not about me. It's not about me. Let me really figure out what is going on here.
Stephanie Allen (16:52):
But if you don't do that, what happens is people stop talking, "oh, my boss is upset. I'm just gonna stop talking and not say anything". And that's actually the most dangerous thing that can happen because then work productivity goes down, morale goes down, it starts right there. It's really subtle, it's hard to measure. There's no data point for this. But this is the moment in time where that happens. So when I teach people how to do this, there are no assumptions and you actually get to a solution and then productivity goes up and the culture of the team is really healthy. So I've often gone in when the engagement is low and after working with me, the engagement exponentially improves because I've opened up the lines of communication and I've shown how to do that in different forms. I've modeled the ways that would work, not just told them what to do.
Troy Blaser (17:44):
As you've worked with different organizations, are there key components of a feedback culture that you bring in, apart from good communication, are there specific principles or components of a feedback culture that you would bring into an organization?
Stephanie Allen (18:00):
I think the main thing I do is I talk about radical candor. I love that book. There was a time where I had a team of project managers and I gave them the book to read because it really influenced how we interacted with the scrum teams and things like that. It was really, really helpful for them to understand what I meant by being open and transparent with communication when it came to agile methodology and Scrum. So radical candor, it's a great book. You know, I think if I could sum it up in a couple words, I see feedback as a gift.
Stephanie Allen (18:33):
And sometimes when you get a gift, you really love it. Like, oh my gosh, this is a great gift. And sometimes when you get a gift like, oh, I didn't think I wanted that, but oh, I actually need that.
Stephanie Allen (18:43):
Right. So it doesn't mean the gift is always like Christmas morning and wow, it's really exciting. But it's a gift that maybe you need that you didn't know you needed sometimes. And when you think of it that way and you realize if I am open and honest with the situation here and I'm speaking about the reality of the situation, the team is happy, the clients are happy, the boss is happy, that that is just the bottom line to me. And so I bring that into an organization. Recently we had a big quarterly meeting with a client and we didn't do a good job getting our transparent communication in line before we went into a meeting.
Stephanie Allen (19:21):
And so the client was hearing it for the first time, but it wasn't horrible because at least we were being transparent. And I tried to turn that into a lesson and I went first and I said, I don't like how that went. I don't like how I said things there because I didn't realize we weren't really ready to say that or that I didn't realize that it would be received that way because we hadn't talked about it internally enough. And now I know. But then I also shared, I need everyone here to be honest with me about where we're at in a project so that we can get things in line to actually share it with the client. So that's an example where I'm teaching in real time and changing that. And I know that'll never happen again because we had this really nice heart to heart with the CEO, the actual team and me after that moment, we did it right after. And so supporting the CEOs that wanna do fast feedback and making sure the systems in place support that, and then helping the team digest the feedback and making sure that we're being transparent. So I'd say radical candor is something I probably always bring with me.
Troy Blaser (20:22):
I love that. And that implies, and it requires a high level of trust on the team as well, right. To be able to give that feedback and then to receive it requires trust among the teammates so that they know it's being given in the best interest of everyone on the team.
Stephanie Allen (20:39):
Yes. So what do you do when you don't have trust? Right? Well, as leaders, we have to practice the radical candor first, even when the team is not ready to do it with us. And when they see it consistently happening, you're consistently showing up with that radical candor. It will happen. It might take two months, it might take four months, but if you see progress and they're evolving, it will happen. And so it's not giving up on it, it's showing up the way you want the team to show up. And then they will trust that you'll be good to them when they are radically candid.
Troy Blaser (21:12):
Yes. Really leading by example in that case to create that culture of trust. Well, at the beginning of our conversation, I asked you about a time in your life when you received some feedback as you have worked with different companies, different CEOs. I wonder if there's a time or an experience when you've seen feedback cause a point of inflection in someone's career or in their life that you've been working with, whether that was for useful constructive feedback or whether the feedback experience went poorly. Is there an experience you could share with us?
Stephanie Allen (21:43):
Yes. I'll share one with a CEO and then I'll share one with a more of a teammate level. And what's happened with multiple CEOs I've worked with is when I show them what I would do in a situation, I share my observations. I'm not actually giving them direct feedback, I'm just sharing information and scenarios that could happen. Every time there's a light bulb that goes off in their head and goes, "oh, maybe I'm getting in the way."
Stephanie Allen (22:10):
"Oh, maybe I need to do something different." Or "maybe I need to have a conversation with more people in the room than just one person. And that's what really brings me joy when I work with CEOs with that growth mindset. And it's not like I'm giving them direct feedback. I'm just showing them another way or giving them options and they figure it out on their own. Like, CEOs are really smart. They've done a lot to get to where they are. But it takes a lot of bravery and courage and honesty to share information with them that others would be afraid to. And that's really I think the benefit of having the right COO for you. You've got someone that that's that reflection or mirror or is keeping you connected to what others think and sharing observations with you. So that you can then decide how you want to continue in that situation. And then the COO supports you on rolling out that new way of working. And that's really what leads to success in a business with multiple people and not wanting to be in the day-to-day all the time is the the leader.
Troy Blaser (23:12):
I love that.
Stephanie Allen (23:13):
So that's the pivotal point. And then I think the one that sticks with me the most is more of the flip side of giving a teammate feedback. Like working through with them, giving them time to show how they can improve, reflecting back that I'm not seeing the progress. So really doing my best to be a good leader and support them. And then them realizing that they needed to go, like it wasn't the right fit for them. And helping them come to that realization on their own versus firing them. And I think that's the thing I like most about feedback is that you're just the vessel of information and you're there to equip people with information and then it's what they do with it. I think as leaders, we can't really control people, but we can influence them and we can give them information to make a good decision for them.
Stephanie Allen (24:02):
And sometimes the best decision is helping them exit the company, not necessarily staying in the company. And when you practice this feedback model, that will start to happen more and more too. And it's being prepared for that, that that could happen. And that's in the best interest of the CEO, the team and the company when you do that, and the individual as well. You know, why would they wanna stay somewhere where it's not gonna work repeatedly for them? So I think those are the two scenarios that I've seen have pivotal moments on other people, but I, I don't truly know how it impacts people all the time. Right. And there could be times where I think I'm doing a great job and it's actually caused someone some discomfort.
Troy Blaser (24:43):
Stephanie Allen (24:44):
You know that that's a growth thing. As a leader, you have to make sure you're doing your best to provide it in a safe way, but not worry too much about how people are gonna feel when you give the feedback. Because that could stop the feedback from happening.
Troy Blaser (24:56):
You know, as you were talking about the CEOs, you're able to talk with them and you present that information and you love it when the CEO figures it out for themself, "oh, maybe I need to change this" or "I need to do something". Or "maybe I've been the obstacle". It's so encouraging because then if they're figuring that out on their own, then you're like, well it's likely that they could do that next time when I'm not in the room presenting that information.
Stephanie Allen (25:21):
Troy Blaser (25:22):
That can be very encouraging. Thinking about our audience, we have HR professionals, maybe some CEOs or COOs listening to our conversation. Is there anything else, any other specific advice you would wanna share with our listeners? Amazing, awesome principles that would benefit us?
Stephanie Allen (25:39):
I have one. Don't accept assumptions. It sounds really easy, but it's really hard.
Troy Blaser (25:46):
Stephanie Allen (25:47):
So if you are feeling like, "I don't really understand, but I'm gonna assume what someone told me is what I need to do, but doesn't quite make sense". That's an assumption. Don't accept that. Go get information. Or you're like, "I'm not really comfortable with how that conversation went. Was that me, how I showed up was I didn't have enough information". Or "I'm not really sure my direct report likes me". You know, maybe that's something you shouldn't assume. Like actually get to a point where you get a good relationship with them and then the feedback's easier. Just be really consistent with not accepting assumptions. And if you have a team that is on the lookout for that, you will help each other clear up those assumptions.
Troy Blaser (26:25):
Awesome. I love it. I think that all of us can take that away and think, okay, are there places in my career in my job where I'm making assumptions that need to be questioned or that I need to get some more information on it? I mentioned as I was introducing you, I talked about the panoramic operations roadmap. Can you just tell us a little bit about what that is and why you're passionate about it?
Stephanie Allen (26:48):
Yes, definitely. Well, it's a model I've created just based on my years in operations. And I've got it into a half day workshop. So I do preparation based on a questionnaire that's given by the client. And then I go into this workshop with the CEO or the CEO and their leadership team, and I give them my thoughts about where they're at in their business for the vision and impact that they're doing, like their mission, the finance, HR team, development operations, and also the long-term vision. Like there's all the areas of the business. And I give them a summary of what's going well. So what they should keep doing, stop doing and start doing. And we have this great collaboration together where we map out what they need to do in the next 90 days, what matters most to get their business to the next level.
Stephanie Allen (27:38):
Why I'm passionate about, it's because it's a really fun exercise. It's not very heavy lifting on the team that I'm helping. It's a very short engagement over a few weeks and they have this amazing plan to run. And then they can always bring me in to help them with different areas if they need to. More and more I'm getting to work with other COOs and other executives and support them in being successful in leading their team, which is ultimately what my goal is, is to help create as many healthy and wealthy businesses as possible.
Troy Blaser (28:09):
Yeah. So if someone is interested in what they've been hearing about today, if they want to know more, what are some ways that they could continue that conversation with you? What are some ways they can connect with you?
Stephanie Allen (28:20):
Well, I'm very active on LinkedIn, so they can definitely connect with me there. And there's a link to book, a quick little meeting to learn more about each other, a discovery call. And they'll also be able to learn more about me on my website. And they can book a call from there as well with me and they can learn a little bit more about the services I offer there as well.
Troy Blaser (28:40):
Fantastic. Well, Stephanie, thank you so much. I've enjoyed our conversation today. It's always great to think about feedback loops, think about ways we can improve our communication. It's been wonderful to get to know you a little bit. Thank you for joining us today.
Stephanie Allen (28:53):
Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.