I had the pleasure of interviewing Raphael Crawford-Marks.
Raphael is the founder and CEO of Bonusly, an enterprise platform that helps companies create high-performance, high-engagement workplaces. He’s passionate about building products that help people connect with their work and each other in meaningful ways.
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 started Bonusly as a side project because I could see that the technological, cultural, and economic changes wrought by the knowledge economy would force companies to adopt more employee-centric management practices. I believed software could enable and enhance this shift toward employee-centricity. I had experienced poor company culture and seen naive attempts to engage employees backfire, so I thought there was an opportunity to build best practices into a SaaS platform that any company could use.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We live our values and practice what we preach. That includes using Bonusly, of course, but goes beyond that. We have a high-autonomy, high-responsibility culture. This means that employees are empowered to be owners, but also have the responsibility to get results, fail fast, learn, and effect change.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was really lucky to grow up and come of age in San Francisco in the ’90s. I got my start working at tech companies that produced software on CD-ROM, not in the cloud. One company produced virtual pet software. The new version of the software had a feature developed in partnership with the SPCA, in which the virtual pets would “run away” if their owners abused them. I was a quality assurance engineer and was put in charge of testing the feature. So for about a week or so my job was to abuse virtual pets.
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?
In my first software engineering role, in 1999 or so, I accidentally caused a denial-of-service attack that brought down California’s second-largest internet service provider. I was operating on almost no sleep for 24 hours and trying to debug an infinite loop bug on our live production web app. It was a pretty good illustration of why you should have basic things like source control, testing and staging environments, and so forth. But we didn’t have any of that back then. It was like the wild west.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’m a huge proponent of autonomy and flexible work. Set clear goals and expectations, and then give employees the freedom and the responsibility to guide their work. This means empowering them to make decisions about how to approach challenges, trusting them to know when and how they work best, and allowing them to take the time they need to refresh and recharge.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’m a fan of Kevin Kruse’s definition: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, toward the achievement of a goal.”
I like that definition because it doesn’t limit leadership to something that only someone with a certain job title can do — anyone can find ways to influence others toward achievement of a shared goal.
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?
Practice is key. If it’s a presentation, I do several rehearsals. If it’s a meeting, I review the agenda and imagine what I’ll say and how other participants might respond. If it’s a decision, I try to game out the consequences of each option. I’ll do this alone if necessary, but ideally with a trusted colleague or two who I know will give me candid feedback.
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?
It’s been an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience. I went from developing Bonusly by myself on my couch to leading a company of 50 people (and growing).
Management is a constellation of skills, including giving and receiving feedback. You need to practice those skills to get better. I was not very good at first. I’ve been lucky to have team members who were always willing to give me feedback and help me get better, and were forgiving and understanding of my mistakes and foibles (and still are).
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?
As a leader, you are responsible for building a team that achieves great results. To do that, you need each individual on the team to be motivated and capable to reach their goals. Feedback is one of the strongest tools you have for helping people on your team develop the right skills, which then provides them with a sense of progress and accomplishment that keeps them engaged with their work.
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.
- Build your relationship. The relationship you build with an employee over time will make it much easier to have productive feedback conversations. Have regular 1:1s with them and communicate often so that you each feel comfortable with the other and have lots of shared context. Also, spend time building your understanding of them as a person and what motivates them. All of this will build trust that will pay off when it comes to the next feedback conversation.
- Express your good intent. Start the feedback conversation by sharing that your intent is to help the employee improve, learn, and grow. Setting this tone for the conversation will get you in the right mindset and make it clear to them that you aren’t there to make them feel bad.
- Listen more, talk less. When giving feedback, try to make it a conversation, not a dialogue. Ask questions and seek to understand their point of view. Opening up the discussion will help both of you deepen your understanding and make room for problem-solving together.
- Talk about the impact of their behavior. Feedback often comes across as harsh when it isn’t in context or feels personal, so give the person insight into why their current behavior matters. It might be having an impact on their own goals, team dynamics, or customer experience, to give a few examples. By connecting it to the bigger picture, you’ll show its importance; by talking about specific behaviors, you’ll show the person has the power to change and improve. 4er rtfgvb54
- Don’t let it build up. Feedback that simmers in your mind for long periods of time ends up boiling over. It becomes a much bigger deal than if you give it regularly as small suggestions and guidance. The more often you look for ways to give feedback, the less likely you are to have a conversation that comes across as too harsh.
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?
I would highly recommend against providing feedback over email, at least as the first conversation. In fact, make my sixth suggestion for the question above, “Give feedback over a video call first, not in writing.” Even when you are remote, you can leverage video calls to be able to use facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. These nuanced aspects of communication are extremely important in providing feedback that is well received and understood. This approach is really the only way to make sure you aren’t too critical or harsh, because you can see the other person’s reaction and adjust your message accordingly. Once you’ve had this video conversation, you can follow up by sending the feedback over email as documentation they can reference over time.
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?
The best time to give feedback is at the earliest opportunity when you can give it in private and without heightened emotions. Don’t wait until the incident is no longer fresh in both of your minds because the context for your feedback will diminish. Giving it sooner also means that you won’t be letting it build up. And most importantly, you’ll be giving the person the opportunity to improve sooner. But on the other hand, do wait a short period of time if there are other people present or if emotions are high; both of these conditions lead the person to be less receptive to the feedback.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
Being a great boss means creating an environment that fosters a sense of purpose, progress, and belonging in your employees. A sense of purpose is borne of a shared vision and set of goals, plus an awareness that your work is important in helping reach those goals. Progress comes from gaining knowledge and skills. This means creating a growth mindset culture, providing both positive and constructive feedback, and creating opportunities for employees to develop professionally and personally. Lastly, a sense of belonging comes from being treated as a valued member of the team. This means prioritizing inclusion and psychological safety so that teammates feel empowered to brainstorm, share ideas, discuss challenges, and fail fast.
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. :-)
Especially in this country, there is an individualistic, “I win/you lose” culture that is causing serious long-term harm to many fellow humans, and to our society as a whole. It manifests in many different ways: the unaddressed legacy of slavery and racial oppression, the widening wealth and income gap, pollution and climate change, deeply unequal access to education and healthcare, and so on.
I guess I’d love to see a “we’re all in this together” movement that focuses on making investments and connections targeted at closing some of these massive gaps and divides in our society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The quote is often misattributed to Winston Churchill.
I love this quote because anytime you try to accomplish something big or ambitious, there are going to be really trying challenges. It’s a reminder not to be discouraged or stop when that happens, but to press onward.
How can our readers further follow your work online?