Mandy Gilbert of Creative Niche: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

…Everyone has a bad boss story that negatively impacted their confidence. So if there’s one movement that I feel can make a difference from the bottom up and the top down, it’s having leaders invest in their development. We have a responsibility to create a safe and diverse work environment. What many don’t realize is the direct impact we have on the lives of our staff, which in turn affect the lives of our clients, customers, and business. So make the investment. Whether that be in online courses, mentorship, or executive programs, there is always room for growth, no matter how long you’ve been at the job.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mandy Gilbert.

Mandy Gilbert is a speaker, investor, author, founder, and chief executive of Creative Niche, a company that provides creative staffing and workforce management solutions to multinational corporations as well as major advertising, digital and public relations agencies. Mandy has been recognized as the United Nations Global Accelerator and completed the Entrepreneurial Masters Program at MIT. She lives in Toronto and is the proud mom of two busy boys, Isaac and Sam.

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?

By 26 years old, I was a top performing recruiter at an internationally recognized firm. I was being flown across North America to meet with big clients and grow the team. With a healthy six-figure salary, I was offered a prestigious promotion with an even greater compensation package. And then I walked away from it all.

In 2002, I left my lucrative job in recruitment to start my own firm, and called it Creative Niche. I wanted to create a company that did things differently. Where culture was more important than the bottom line, philanthropy was a core value, and people took precedent.

So with an $8,000 loan, I launched into the world of recruitment with little prospects and a lot of heart. Now I’m proud to say that Creative Niche has been in business for nearly 20 years. We’ve donated millions of dollars in philanthropic efforts, and have placed thousands of creative, digital, and marketing talent across North America.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our philosophy at Creative Niche is to establish great values and live them day in and day out. This includes respecting our staff’s time and lives outside of the workplace, and making sure we give back to our community as much as possible. Our culture is very collaborative, which is quite rare for a sales-driven, commission-based business. We are a company that focuses on elevating, rather than competing, with one another.

In addition, we truly honor time away from the workplace. We want our staff to make memories with family and friends, which is why we offer a very generous vacation policy, flexible work from home schedules, and summer hours. In fact, my staff do not work beyond 5:30pm.

Many people ask how we’re able to accomplish being home before dinner time every night of the week. Well, it’s simple: we work hard during business hours and we respect that we have lives outside of the office. In order to get the best of my staff, they (and I) need balance.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

It took me two kids, 15 years, and building two businesses from the ground up to finally realize that self-care actually makes me a better mother, businesswoman, friend, and partner. In fact, it was when I finally started to delegate, hired an executive assistant, and took time for myself each week that my professional career really began to take off.

The sleepless, stressed-out entrepreneur is often glorified in today’s culture. It’s a misconception that working 80-hour weeks is the only way to achieve success. However, what I find most interesting about my personal career is that when I finally took the time to have real work-life balance, I became happier, less-stressed, and an overall better boss to work for. From there, it was like a domino effect; revenues grew, our culture strengthened, and demand increased.

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?

For a long time, I thought I could do it all. I could lead a team, manage clients, win new business, be a great wife, and achieve supermom status. And I actually thought I was doing a pretty good job at all of those titles — that is until my own staff held an intervention. They told me I was double booking myself constantly, missing meetings, and needed to get more organized. So, they took it upon themselves to write and post the job position, interviewed the candidates, and hired me an executive assistant. Now I look back and can’t believe I tried to manage it all!

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Delegate, delegate, delegate. I made the mistake of thinking I could do it all. And guess what? It cost me. It frustrated my staff, my family, and myself. The stress of trying to be everywhere at once isn’t worth it, and it’s the biggest contributor to burn out. So do yourself a favour and hire strategic staff that will help you leave work at work, and be present outside of the office.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is a servient role. Where people get into trouble is that they think that being the leader means being the boss, and that gives them permission to tell everyone what to do and when to do it. They feel they are the ones to only give feedback rather than receive it, and think they know all the answers.

This is the complete opposite of how I define leadership. In my eyes, it’s a position to inspire, support, and continually evolve. It’s looking at all situations as a team, rather than an individual. Great leaders marry empathy with analytics. They’re willing to make the hard decisions, but only with the intent to help the business and their staff benefit and grow.

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?

Before a high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision, I schedule time to simply think. I book off time in my calendar like I would an appointment, and use each minute to do my research. I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and anticipate the questions they may ask, or may not know they should ask. For example, what keeps them up at night? What’s their greatest pain point? Who do I know that knows them, and what insights could they offer? Being prepared is the greatest way to relieve any nerves, anxiety, and stress.

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?

I’ve found that the traditional ways of conducting quarterly or annually reviews are archaic, ineffective, and counterproductive. Writing a list of things that someone is doing wrong and scoring their skills on a scale from 1 to 10 automatically puts employees on the defence.

Whether you’re managing a team of five or a team of 500, the most effective way to deliver feedback is to do so immediately. When you see someone either make a mistake or do a great job, let them know within a 24 hour period. Capitalizing on these teaching moments while it’s fresh on their minds will help them grow into better employees. You’ll also begin to cultivate relationships based on trust and respect, rather than resentment.

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?

For one, a leader who provides direct, honest, and in-the-moment feedback means they’re allowing employees to grow and learn in their role. Secondly, you’re creating a relationship based on trust rather than authority, because your staff are going to have a better understanding of how they can improve, rather than trying to recall an incident six to twelve months later. Additionally, communicating direct feedback will garner you more respect. While receiving critique can be hard to do, no one wants you to sugarcoat it either. This can be viewed as confusing and even demeaning for those who appreciate honesty and transparency.

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.

  1. Remove distractions. Close your computer and put your phone away. Give them your undivided attention so they feel important.
  2. Embrace awkwardness. Giving critiques isn’t easy. Your voice may sound shaky and your nerves may kick in. Feedback and healthy tension means growth.
  3. Don’t wing it. Make notes and be prepared. Write down everything you want to say beforehand and practice it out loud before you have your sit down.
  4. Ask questions. Don’t do all the talking. Often the employee knows what they did wrong, and may beat you to the punch. You also may not have the full picture. Give them time to voice their side.
  5. Stay future focused. There’s no point in dwelling in the past. Mistakes can’t be unmade, so keep the conversation on ways to avoid similar situations in the future.

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?

Email is my last resort to giving feedback. Just because someone is working remotely, doesn’t mean you have to offer feedback via email. In my opinion, this is a horrible medium to provide reviews and critiques. We all know that text can be inferred completely differently than it’s original intent, and the tone is open to the other person’s interpretation. Before you know it, you could be engaged in a hostile email exchange that steered far off the original course.

That’s why I always recommend a video platform like Zoom or a phone conversation over email, but my favorite method is to actually meet and go for a walk. In today’s climate, you can also meet in a park or a coffee shop and sit at a safe social distance. This creates a space that puts each party at ease and creates a dialogue that’s focused on collaboration. When delivering feedback, it’s important to frame the context before you jump to the issue at hand. For example:

‘Hey, I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing, because I saw on our last video conference call that you were quite dismissive towards me. I believe I saw you roll your eyes when I was speaking, which doesn’t seem like you. I didn’t appreciate the open display of frustration. Is there something I did to upset you?”

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?

Generally, feedback should be given within 24 hour of the incident. However, don’t do it if you’re feeling reactive. Only provide critique once you’re calm and in control. If this means you have to wait longer than 24 hours, than so be it. However, don’t wait too long, because the employee needs to know how you feel in order to fully absorb your feedback.

Whenever you’re talking about a particular incident, never generalize. For example, you don’t want to say ‘You’re never here on time!’. Stay away from using terms like ‘never’ and ‘always’. Instead, pinpoint a particular time, date, and situation. Otherwise the employee could feel attacked. Your feedback could come across as unjust if you don’t provide concrete examples.

I personally don’t believe in set intervals of giving feedback. This feels like an ambush, as if you’re constantly collecting notes on people and creating a tally of faults. Who’s going to look forward to a meeting where they’ll be called out for everything they’ve done wrong over the past six months?

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

A great boss articulates what the vision and goals are for the employee and the company, and connects the two together. Effective leaders acknowledge individuals and the team collectively. This includes their progress, their achievements, and their areas of improvement.

In the beginning of my role as a leader, I thought that being liked equated to being respected. However, I soon learned the two are far from linked. My staff didn’t know how they could contribute and advance in my company because I failed to share a strategy with them, and my management style lacked structure. I’ve learned that staff want a boss who they can trust will make the right decisions, even if they are difficult. They’ll hold people accountable, celebrate the wins, and communicate effectively.

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. 🙂

Being a leader is incredibly important. Everyone has a bad boss story that negatively impacted their confidence. So if there’s one movement that I feel can make a difference from the bottom up and the top down, it’s having leaders invest in their development. We have a responsibility to create a safe and diverse work environment. What many don’t realize is the direct impact we have on the lives of our staff, which in turn affect the lives of our clients, customers, and business. So make the investment. Whether that be in online courses, mentorship, or executive programs, there is always room for growth, no matter how long you’ve been at the job.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Being respected is more important than being liked.”

In the first few years of starting my company, I thought I was a great leader. But as a twenty-something-year-old-first-time-boss, I wasn’t communicating effectively with my team. I was managing, not leading, and there’s a clear distinction between the two. I wasn’t coaching my staff to become better and excel in their roles because I was insecure and unaware of my shortcomings.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on my personal website and on LinkedIn. You can also follow my company, Creative Niche, on LinkedInTwitter, and Instagram. I also write a column in

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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