Dad’s advice on how to be a positive leader has stood the test of time

It is classic (and maybe a little cliché), but the best advice that I have ever received about leadership came from my dad. He believed in the power of positivity and truly helping others when you have the responsibility of leading a team. His advice was simple, but it carried so many powerful concepts behind it. The elegance of it will always strike me: “No matter what, whenever you give people critical feedback, use a 3:1 rule. Three positive comments to every critical one.”

My father started his career selling appliances and worked his way up to becoming an executive director for Sears before he retired in 1994, despite being born into significant poverty. He was a driver, highly goal oriented, and he significantly increased the revenue of every store that he managed. His coffee cup at work had a quote from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” My father lived this daily and not only encouraged, but actively helped his teams do the same. He was known in the 1970s for advocating for his direct reports and ensuring women and people of color were represented and paid equitably. He believed in a high-accountability culture that never lost sight of truly, genuinely caring about people. It was part of the secret to his success and the success of his teams. Simple. 3:1. No matter what.

Throughout my career, I have often reflected on the power and meaning of such a simple concept that my father used as a cornerstone to his leadership style. It demonstrates what a leader must keep top of mind. Leaders must create a culture of feedback to ensure that critical feedback will be adopted. But it is so much more than that. It’s about really seeing the whole person; it’s about caring about them individually. It shows that, as a leader, you are paying attention to everything the team is working on, not just when something goes wrong.

I remember the first time I needed to give difficult feedback. Despite a career in a field that counsels managers to have challenging conversations, I was nervous the first time I had this moment with an employee. I cared about this person. I wanted them to be successful. I wanted to accomplish the mission. All these things were true at once! As I prepared, I carefully mapped out what I wanted to touch on, our follow-up plan, and made sure that I included the 3:1 ratio of positive/ critical feedback. I found that it created an environment of both accountability and compassion. And as someone who deeply believes in servant leadership, both are equally important to me.