Susanne Gurman of SecurityScorecard: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Always make sure you and they are in a good place to have the conversation. If you’re looking to give criticism but the person receiving it has something occupying their mind and/or emotions then wait for another time. Don’t squash a high, don’t kick someone when they’re down. Alternatively, if you have negative emotions either caused by the situation at hand or something else, wait until those feelings are gone. In short, you’ll want to be in a neutral place.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Susanne Gurman who is the Senior Vice President of Marketing at SecurityScorecard.

Gurman is a respected and results-oriented, global leader with a proven track record of building successful teams and accelerating company progress. Gurman has over 20 years of experience in developing and driving growth strategies for high-tech companies.

Prior to joining SecurityScorecard, Gurman spent over 10 years at Digital Guardian, where she was the Vice President of Global Field & Channel Marketing. She also serves as a Board Member for Savvy Cyber Kids, an organization that helps parents and teachers educate children in cyber safety, cyber ethics and other aspects of their daily tech lives.

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?

Thank you for having me. I started out in marketing by way of events at Thomson Financial. It’s where I first fell in love with technology. From there, I was able to successfully support growing tech companies. Starting at OpenPages where I worked as a marketing programs manager helping with demand generation and brand recognition. I stayed until the company was acquired by IBM. Especially being early in my career, I didn’t want to work at a large organization where I knew I wouldn’t have the ability to see how my contributions are making an impact. So from there, I moved on to Digital Guardian and that is where I fell in love with security technology. I was able to contribute in all sorts of marketing capacities by taking on various roles and really grew my career throughout my 10 years there. Since then, I joined SecurityScorecard, the global leader in security ratings, a little over a year ago, and have helped lead the marketing team to new heights.

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

SecurityScorecard stands out in so many ways. I think one of the biggest differentiators is how our core values (called SCORE values) are not just a plaque on the wall but are infused into the fabric of our everyday life at the company. There isn’t a ‘Scorecarder’ who doesn’t live and breathe those values, let alone not know them by heart. Couple this with the fact that we start every Monday with an all-hands meeting that begins with an open mic for anyone to publicly recognize and thank fellow colleagues for emulating the values the week prior. It truly helps start your week with positive momentum and camaraderie. These elements combined really help make SecurityScorecard a great place to work.

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

Being that I started out my career in live events, there are lots of crazy stories that are too bizarre for fiction. Some of the most interesting include the CDC showing up at my BioIT World Conference and Expo in hazmat suits because a registration volunteer thought the powder used to dry the ink in our conference brochure was anthrax. I also once had a conference call with both American Express and the Pentagon to get the authority to charge 3,000 military credit cards that all got declined when we tried to use them for conference pass payments after these 3,000 people were already attending the event.

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?

I think the funniest mistake I ever made was back when I was at Thomson Financial. I had traveled to one of our other offices to execute a town hall meeting for 600 people. The hotel staff wasn’t equipped to help me with the tech set up I needed for the next day. It was well past business hours so I downloaded an instant messenger app I knew my IT team was on 24/7. I’m going to date myself with this next detail, but it’s critical to the story…this was before any instant messaging technology was adopted as a business tool so it was my personal account. It worked for what I needed. I was able to get in touch with my IT staff and have everything set for the next day. Before the meeting started, I checked the laptop to ensure my instant messenger was closed out but between me checking it and when the CEO went on stage, another speaker downloaded a software onto the computer for his presentation and it required a reboot of the computer.

During the CEO’s presentation, my personal instant messenger comes on the screen blocking his slides and I am in the back of the room with the sound crew and unable to remove it unless I went on stage. The CEO had no idea what it was or how to get it off the screen. The entire audience groaned at the same time because they knew how bad that was. I was unable to move, paralized by fear. Thankfully, someone in the front row came to the rescue by at least minimizing the screen so I spent the rest of my meeting calling every IM contact I had to try and ensure no one else sent me a message. What lessons did I learn from this experience:

  1. Always be honest and transparent about mistakes. Integrity goes a long way in business since trust is crucial to have good business relationships. I made sure I addressed the issue with the CEO. Explained the situation and took responsibility for the mishap. While I was sure I was going to get fired, he thought it was the funniest thing. Mistakes happen, and it’s not what helps define you, but how you respond to them does.
  2. You can’t control everything and perspective is everything. Things are going to go wrong, no matter how well you plan and pressure will undoubtedly increase as you inherit more responsibility. In my case I can say that I am not saving lives and my decisions are not life or death. This helps provide me the perspective needed to keep a calm, clear head.
  3. While I love technology, I think this incident is why I fell in love with security. It brought to light the fact that anything and everything online is subject to mass proliferation. It was a smart lesson that ensured every photograph, statement and/or piece of information associated to me was something I was okay with the whole world to see.

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

No one can actualize the vision of a company alone so your employees are your greatest asset Having the right team motivated correctly is essential to a successful business. My advice to CEOs and other business leaders is to ensure every employee knows what the company vision and purpose is, what the plan is to get the company to where it’s looking to go, and ensure every employee knows how their role contributes to getting there. In order for them to share in your pursuit to grow or maintain a business, they need to be bought in. They need to feel a sense of purpose and also be recognized for their contribution to the big picture. Otherwise, it’s not a career, it’s just a job and a paycheck.

Show them the vision, allow them some ownership into how the company will succeed and their work turns into a passion. And who gets burned out from a passion? Of course this is high-level so to bring it a layer down, vision also allows for clarity in work priorities which helps reduce burnout. From there as a leader, you have to ensure your employees have the tools necessary to do their job. The tools could be tech, time, guidance, autonomy, etc. Knowing what type of an environment is needed for each employee (because everyone is different) is key.

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

Leadership comes in many different shapes and forms. I’ve seen great leaders who have opposite styles and personalities. You have hundreds if not thousands of books on how to be a great leader. The concept of leadership is to positively influence people to act toward some collective prosperity that typically takes the shape of a goal. My personal approach to leadership stems around three key components; service, humility, and courage. Service — as a leader, it’s my job to support the team and the company, not the other way around. Humility, being transparent about what you know, what you’re willing to do, keeping your promises, and leading by example are all important to gain the trust and respect of those you work with. And finally, courage. The courage to fail, the courage to stand up for what you think is right although it may not be the popular opinion, the courage to admit when you’re wrong, and the courage to continuously push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

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?

For any stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision, the key IS to be prepared. The number one thing that causes stress is feeling ill-prepared. Do the research, consult mentors and subject matter experts (SMEs), gather the data, details or context needed to feel confident. Bounce the ideas, approach and tactics you plan to use to achieve your goal(s) off of people you respect and trust to get good, honest feedback. This will provide you with the ability to not only think through how the event or decision will play out but also knowing enough to foresee alternative turns or objections.

When I was interviewing for my current company, it was for a position I really wanted and I knew the responsibility it carried would stress-test my abilities. It was also the first time I was interviewing for a job in 10 years. So I researched all of the latest interviewing techniques, read books by recruiters who were giving advice on how to maximize your value during an interview, I reached out to my former bosses to gain advice on what areas I should focus on highlighting and areas I should learn more about to be successful in this new role and then finally, I took a few online courses to gain a baseline understanding for those responsibilities I didn’t feel I knew enough about to be credible. It was about a month’s worth of prep for a total of 6 hours worth of interviews but it paid off in every way possible.

From a physical health perspective, I recommend relieving stress by releasing endorphins through exercising regularly and drinking lots of water because hydrated cells are efficient cells.

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?

My leadership in managing teams stems back well before my career started. I think this is an important data point to note because I learned more about what not to do as a manager during that time. Throughout college I held roles of captain, president, and chair. All of which required me to manage peers with no true authority other than social order. There was so much about leadership I was wrong about. Having to have all of the answers, giving into popular opinion, not knowing how to appropriately motivate people, etc. Those positions were harder than any corporate management position I’ve had. When it comes to giving feedback, what I learned was, giving feedback is critical — whether it’s good or bad. If you recognize a person for their positive contributions and they feel appreciated for their work, then they are far more willing to hear about areas where they can improve. Positive feedback however, must be in real-time and not coupled with constructive improvement feedback unless the positive feedback is a reminder of something you’ve given praise for before. Same with constructive improvement feedback. Otherwise, if you couple new data points in the same conversation, the conflicting feedback will fight each other for mindshare and dilute the intended message. Pending upon their personality, they could unequally weigh one over the other as a default way of absorbing information. I’ll give an example: your team member just completed a really difficult project. You bring to the team’s attention the achievement by their colleague. Then at another time shortly after, in private, you do a debrief. You talk about what went well (already identified) and what has room for improvement.

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?

Employees want to do the right thing. Also, even the most stringent type A personalities will admit that no one is perfect. If you truly want to be a good leader and help your team grow and achieve their greatest success, then ongoing education and learning is key. Honest and direct feedback is the best way to make this happen. Without honest and direct feedback, there is ambiguity around expectations and that leads to confusion of what’s important. That isn’t good for anyone or the business. If feedback isn’t given, either good or bad, then people don’t know where they stand. If they know where they stand, they can pivot in a different direction if needed or feel confident in their current direction.

Finally, nothing good can come from anything festering. Take too long to give good feedback and you’ve lost the moment for people to take pride in it. Take too long to give constructive feedback and you may have allowed for other negative results to take place in the interim.

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.

Honest feedback can only be done if there is a significant amount of trust established. If your team doesn’t trust that you have their best interest in mind, then giving honest and direct feedback won’t work. Here are five suggestions on how to make giving constructive criticism easier.

  1. Always make sure you and they are in a good place to have the conversation. If you’re looking to give criticism but the person receiving it has something occupying their mind and/or emotions then wait for another time. Don’t squash a high, don’t kick someone when they’re down. Alternatively, if you have negative emotions either caused by the situation at hand or something else, wait until those feelings are gone. In short, you’ll want to be in a neutral place.
  2. Always ensure that your team understands that all feedback provided is constructive and is designed to help them learn and grow. If this is a constant understanding and/or is reminded during times when feedback isn’t taking place, then it’s easier to receive feedback because they know the intentions are good.
  3. Stick to and be sure you know your facts. Ask questions that can help the person evaluate the situation again with a fresh perspective. Most of the time, because expectations are usually made clear, the team member can articulate the issue(s) at hand without me having to say much. Provide them the opportunity to talk about the facts and discuss what will be different after the meeting is over given the discussion. Being clear, succinct, and comprehensive helps manage expectations on both sides during the discussion and after.
  4. Do not discuss an individual’s constructive criticisms with other team members. It is not productive and reduces your credibility as a trusted leader who has the team’s best interest in mind.
  5. Allow your team to provide constructive criticism about you. Since not everyone is comfortable in giving direct feedback to a boss, provide them a time and a way when the team can do it anonymously. Be sure to listen to what they say and show that you hear the team and their feedback and work to improve. This helps level the playing ground a bit and shows that everyone can use and benefit from constructive criticisms and that it’s not a bad thing but a good thing.

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?

The only constructive criticism I give in writing is if a recap of a discussion is required or during bi-annual reviews. And during these reviews, there is very little if anything at all that comes as a surprise or shock to my team. The goal is to always know where you stand at all times and always to be on the same page about it. But providing constructive criticism is personal and therefore I either do it on the phone or over zoom. I want the ability to talk it through. With an email, the conversation is very one sided and I think these types of discussions deserve more than that.

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?

Positive feedback should always be done in public, constructive improvement feedback should always be done in private. Pending the aforementioned criteria, do both as quickly as you can. Never wait due to the reason I mentioned prior.

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

A few things here. A great boss in my mind is someone who:

  • Hires people smarter than they are and always has their team’s best interest in mind. Know your team, have a genuine interest in your team. Their success is your success. So it’s in your best interest to provide the team what they need, block them from things they don’t, and promote their successes as often as you can.
  • Does what they say and says what they mean.
  • Is transparent as possible. You don’t know everything, you can’t control everything but you can be open and honest about situations and their impact. Transparency is the cornerstone of trust and trust is critical in every relationship.
  • Gives feedback both positive and constructive improvement often to help manage expectations.
  • Knows what motivates their team members. No two people are alike so knowing what it is that makes them love their job is key.
  • Always sets the clear vision they want the team to achieve and be the positivity that drives everyone’s energy
  • Never stops learning themselves.

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. 🙂

There are enough resources in the world to feed every person on the planet, yet the distribution of food is not equal. The movement I would start would be one where we evaluate the system of food distribution so we could learn how best to allocate food to everyone that is both sustainable and beneficial to all.

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

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

This quote speaks to me as a person who has suffered from imposter syndrome brought about by my audio and visual dyslexia. I have always looked at my dyslexia as something that made me inferior to everyone else. The restriction from being in a normal classroom in early education and not being able to absorb information like everyone else made me feel as though I had to do twice as much to keep up with everyone else. And so I did. I chose not to be a victim of anything but instead, the hero in my own story. I always choose to see the positive in every situation and in every person because there is positivity in almost everything. It’s not a problem, it’s a challenge. It’s my choice on how I want to perceive life. It took some time before I realized that all that work I had done my whole life and the positivity I chose to make my reality didn’t just allow me to “keep up,” but it actually set me up for success. These choices are what helped me get to where I am today, far more than my abilities.

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