THE BLOG
12/28/2014 08:06 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Anna Carroll

Anna Carroll, MSSW, through EverydayFeedback.com, specializes in workplace trends and training. In her recent book, The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up Your Team's Success, she helps leaders at all levels overcome their obstacles to giving feedback.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
From an early age, I loved intense conversations with groups of friends and there was something satisfying about math and getting answers. So I became a math teacher and got to interact with over 100 students a day and facilitate a future scientist group. I loved shifting my communication strategies each time I needed to help a student who didn't understand something the first go-round. After 7 years of doing that, I went to graduate school and became a professional training designer in an organizational consulting firm. I didn't get a MBA; I got an MSSW! "Social work" better describes business for me--the social systems that drive the way people act within a company. I was surprised to find myself in the role of account manager for clients in the northeast US and then leading the US accounts team. Eventually I started my own company. As an entrepreneur, it was easier to change my mind and stay creative than in traditional job roles.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as an author and a coach?
My previous employment experience has been mostly with Interaction Design, Inc. which I started in 1990. I recently renamed the company after our website, EverydayFeedback.com, because I am focusing primarily on workplace feedback---how leaders can help the people who work for them via frequent, honest feedback. I conducted a lot of research with the companies I worked with over the years and I wrote articles and now a book, The Feedback Imperative, based on my observations and trendspotting. Coaching came naturally as well, as I automatically needed to coach people through their personal journeys as leaders of change.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure?
In the 90s there was a great trend toward employee participation, which, unfortunately, got knocked down a lot after the tech bubble popped. I did a lot with cross-functional, cross-level quality improvement teams--later evolving into lean and Six Sigma methods. I was in on the early days of facilitating the GE Work-out process which was particularly innovative in its delegation of authority to cross-level teams to make big decisions.

Some of these ideas are back as proven best practices. These days, I really love the notion of agile development because the whole goal is to speed up results through faster feedback loops and learning.

My current business mission--to improve this huge gap in human-to-human feedback came out of the disappointment that so many employees, managers, and companies feel when helpful feedback is missing.

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
Get really clear on who are your customers and match your decisions to your target group. For instance, if you want to sell a product or service to time-strapped high-income professionals, where will you find them? I've seen a lot of people make the mistake of opening a business--either a physical or online "location" that target customers would never find.

Of course, you may need to do research to decide on who are the customers that your business can best support. If you're clear on what you offer, maybe you'll be surprised that a younger group, those with advanced degrees, or retired women are way more attracted to what you offer than the audience you originally planned to serve, and you will need to adjust to this situation.

Meet experienced business owners and ask them a lot of questions that will help you save money and avoid mistakes.

Make sure the work situation you are creating brings you personal joy. For instance, if you are working alone but enjoy connecting with others, make sure you build in social time, co-working, or partnerships to match your workplace style. I've seen women entrepreneurs giving up on a business, not because they didn't make money, but because it isolated them or made them commute too far, etc.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I love my work and it's part of my joy. At the moment, I am not planning to retire. I am very happy sitting down on a Saturday and writing or planning a customer project all day. At the same time, I will take off for long lunches during the week to really connect with friends (who are often colleagues or customers). My husband and I enjoy our long dinners almost every night, whether at home or in nearby cafes. I lift weights in a gym 2-3 times a week and try to get some cardio in. We recently moved from the suburbs into a small condo near the Austin greenbelt so we can walk to great places. My husband and I are both somewhat workaholics, but we have fun doing it and we check in with each other a lot. I bring my laptop into his study and we'll sip a glass of wine as we finish stuff up after dinner.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think women are sometimes out of the loop about how decisions and deals are really done in big companies, because a lot of the influencers have traditionally been men. When I first started my consulting business, I was very often facilitating groups of all men in planning meetings or trainings. I never felt discriminated against or treated badly, but I couldn't help notice the rituals and patterns of behavior that were unfamiliar to me as a woman. In some cases, I admired the way problems were addressed with less drama that I would have imagined. Also, counter-intuitively, men seemed to defer or submit to one another when they were alone with other men, as opposed to arguing or leading with the aggressive behavior I had assumed. They often patiently listened to a leader of a higher rank without commenting. This submissive behavior in the face of power was sometimes counterproductive. From a feedback perspective, I wanted them to speak up and get their views on the table.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentoring has brought me into a greater network of women leaders and made me feel that it is normal and natural for women to be leaders and founders and creative entrepreneurs. It has been less about getting specific advice from mentors and more about collaborative support from (and to) other women.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many great women leaders today--It's awesome to behold! I love leaders who combine vision and optimism--and a lot of younger women combine these qualities. They tackle hard challenges and controversies, and keep propelling themselves forward to get great things done, without stopping to be swayed by criticism. Mary Barra of GM, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and although not in the "young" category, Hillary Clinton have each kept their focus on their positive goals in the face of criticism and drama. Whether I agree with their specific politics or decisions, I admire each of these leaders' combination of confidence and openness to lead with conviction and intelligence.