Group of colleagues smiling and receiving constructive feedback from a leader.

Dr. Janet Pilcher, author of Hardwiring Excellence in Education, continues the conversation from last week about the pivotal role of feedback in achieving important people outcomes within organizations. Joining her is Dr. KK Owen, a leader coach at Studer Education, to explore effective tactics for delivering genuine, timely, and specific feedback to employees. They’ll discuss the concept of building an emotional bank account to create trust, and they’ll also demonstrate the three to one tactic, illustrated through a role play for clearer understanding. Listen as Dr. Pilcher and Dr. Owen continue to explore the transformative impact of feedback on fostering relationships with employees and how it can serve as a tool for re-recruitment.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • How can leaders be genuine, timely, and specific with their feedback?
  • What is the three to one ratio, and how can it be utilized effectively?
  • How does feedback influence organizational culture?

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Episode Transcript

KK Owen: I think this relationship that leaders have with the people they lead that has to be built on trust and it has to be a real relationship. The number one thing that people want from their leader is a relationship. I want to know you and I want you to know me.


[Intro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Hello everyone, welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. I want to thank you all for tuning in every week. Today, more than ever, it’s important for us to be great leaders to achieve some important people outcomes. We want our high-performing employees to stay with us. We want our employees to be engaged and connected to their work. And we want our employees to show up and be present with us. Let’s talk about some key leadership actions we can take to achieve these positive outcomes.

Last week, we talked about the importance of giving positive feedback and hardwiring it as part of our leadership practice. This week, we’re going to dive even deeper into the topic. Joining us today is Dr. KK Owen. This will be her seventh time with us on the show, and KK is a leader coach at Studer Education, who last appeared on episode 233. So we’ll link to that episode in the podcast resources and provide that description.

I’ve worked with KK for a long time, so I know firsthand that her passion is helping organizations get better at getting better. And KK is a two-time principal of the year for the Escambia County School District in Pensacola, Florida. She’s a Florida Principal of the Year Regional Finalist and a University of West Florida Outstanding Alumni. She retired from the district as an executive leader overseeing teacher and leader professional learning. She’s one of our most senior leader coaches.

We’re excited for KK to be here today, where we’re going to do something unique. We’re going to start off by discussing the importance of building an emotional bank account with the people that you lead. We’ll move into how building trust allows you to make withdrawals from that bank account when the time occurs. We’ll also talk through some examples and tactics of how to do that. Then we’re going to role play with giving effective and constructive feedback and what that sounds like. I’ll play the role of leader and KK will play the role of the high performer receiving that feedback. So let’s jump right in.


Janet Pilcher: So as I mentioned, Dr. KK Owen is joining me today and it’s always so good to have KK on the podcast with us. KK, you and I have worked together for many years and been on site together and just always learn so much from you. So thank you for being with us today. Look forward to our conversation.

KK Owen: Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to it as well.

Janet Pilcher: The podcast last week, KK, we really focused on positive feedback. You know, wanted to start the year, and I think it’s a good time as right now so many of us are experiencing cold weather or even us who live in the great state of Florida are experiencing cold weather—not near what some of the others across the country are—but it gets a little gloomy in January and February, and I couldn’t think of anything better to start the year off with thinking about positive feedback as we build our year in 2024, ourselves and with our partners. And also in this gloomy time to really try to keep that front and center of what we, you know, what we do.

So I just wanted to start with the idea of something that I wrote in the book and what we continuously refer to and what Stephen Covey coined years ago was building the emotional bank account. One of the things we know that positive feedback really helps us do is build that emotional bank account, and in turn we begin to really build trust in our organization by the way that we intentionally engage in conversations and listen to people and act on the feedback.

And that’s, when we talk about an emotional bank account, we’re just building that trust. We’re intentionally doing actions where we’re building a bank account of trust so that, at some point when we have to make those difficult decisions, we know that we’re going to have to cash in because it’s going to be a difficult decision across the board. But if we have enough deposits in our emotional bank account, it’s much easier for us to manage through those decisions and to continue to build the good communication to help people understand why those decisions are made.

Sometimes people, you know, really will lose a lot because they don’t have the bank account, the trust in that bank account that’s established, and so they go into the red, so to speak, as they start out with those changes.

You know, so I know that you talk about this with the leaders that you work with in many instances, so what do you think, KK, this is important to leaders and for leaders to do as we continue to move forward in the work that we do in education?

KK Owen: You said something very important about trust. I think this relationship that leaders have with the people they lead that has to be built on trust and it has to be a real relationship. The number one thing that people want from their leader is a relationship. I want to know you, and I want you to know me.

We also know that humans working together is not always smooth sailing. There will always be ups and downs, conflicts, difficult conversations. That is going to happen. So the smart leader, the prudent leader understands that and uses every opportunity to build up that emotional bank account because they know somewhere in the future is a withdrawal. A withdrawal is coming and the relationship has to be able to tolerate that withdrawal without ending the relationship. And if they never have to have a tough conversation, great, now they just have a great bank account, but it will come eventually, so I think it really is tied up in that trust and the relationship, and knowing that those two things depend on an emotional bank account. That’s why leaders should do it.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, you know KK, I’m smiling because sometimes when we talk about this with leaders, you know, we’ll hear things like, “well, I could just apply this in my personal life and that would work as well.” And I think that’s right. It’s just really a way that we as humans, I love what you said, as human beings, we engage with each other and really build that trust together in each other.

So I know you work with many great leaders across the country. Can you give me an example of some that have done this really well in building an emotional bank account?

KK Owen: Yes, I have several partners as all the coaches do who are really highly skilled at this idea of understanding the emotional bank account and how they do that. They do it in a variety of ways. They recognize good performance. They show gratitude. They show care and concern.

So it’s really a broad range of the kinds of examples that they’re doing it and why they’re doing that, and highly skilled people know that you can do this in a number of ways. You can do shout outs for good performance. You can send emails. You can do what I call a drive by: stop by someone’s office or classroom and tell them that someone mentioned good work they did or something you’ve noticed that they’ve done.

And if they’re really highly skilled at this, and the ones that I work with who are super high skilled at this, they actually tie it to things like the goals we’re working on in our organization, the values that our team has set for ourselves, our standards of excellence. And then when you do it in that way, now you’ve gone to a different level where leaders are actually very subtly providing reinforcements and gentle examples and fresh instances of why people do something well and why that matters to our organization. And then we all know we get more of that, that recognized performance gets repeated. So the leaders who are really skilled are very specific in what they’re doing for a reason. And those emotional bank accounts are being built.

And every once in a while, in addition to the shout outs, public and private recognition, drive bys, emails, those handwritten “thank you notes” that tell an employee you’re valued and here’s why “Here’s something specific that you did that matters to our organization. And I thank you for that.” That is really our goal standard. And we have some people who do that very, very well. Some that come to mind, Jon Malone at NIA, Matt Hillmann in Northfield and Minnesota and many others that do this at a very high level, I would say.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. So good. Such great examples. So I hope as listeners out there, you can just go in and just take the notes and examples of what KK has provided because I think what we see is ,we’re not talking about things that are complicated to do, KK. These are relatively simple things to do. And if we do them in the way that you talked about and we do them often and consistent, it really begins to help change our culture. People really, again, building that emotional bank account builds trust in people that builds trust in our organizations that then move to that culture shift. And that’s to me when people say “I can feel our culture shifting,” it’s because they start out doing the things that you were talking about right there.

KK Owen: I think that’s right. And I always teach people, I start by telling them “you can learn to do this.” Like you said, this is not hard to do. In order to sort of build that muscle to be able to do it, you have to use things like your calendar and put a reminder on your calendar, “who should I recognize this week?” Or set up a system that I’m going to write three or four or five “thank you” notes every Sunday afternoon just by thinking back on the week and who did what and what did I notice?

I know a new superintendent in California, David Shimer in Burton; he set that as one of his goals for himself as he moved into his first superintendent’s job this year. And that’s what he does. And he does it very consistently. And that is changing things in the district about how people feel about him and their work.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so important, especially, you know, just what a great example with a new superintendent, you know, can’t think of anything more important than to really do those intentional acts, calendar those, and really build the trust because they’re having to establish trust in a new leader in a new way. So great example there.

You know, as we’re talking about the how-to’s, another how-to that we tend to talk about in our work is applying a process to where we give three compliments to one criticism, right? When we communicate and we’re giving, and this is especially when we want to give feedback, we’re asking for a change in behavior or asking people to do something, or, you know, we want to give some improvement feedback, you know, thinking of how do we do that. The concept of three compliments to one criticism is what we use. And it’s based on research years ago that in a business study where the researchers found it took about five-ish, you know, compliments to one criticism to get the most effective action. And I think over time, what we’ve found is if we at least try to do the three-to-one that we really do get a positive outcome for asking for assistance or behavior change or for somebody to, you know, to come along with us or providing that improvement feedback.

You know, one of the other things that you were referring to, probably indirectly, but that feedback in any type of feedback, it’s specific and timely and genuine. You know, we’re not just saying, “hey, good job,” you know, or “good job, I like this and what you do,” you know, like “boom, boom, boom. And then, oh, let me give you some constructive feedback, right?”

It’s very specific and it’s timely in terms of what’s occurring, and it’s genuine in the way that we’re engaging in that conversation. So those that three-to-one, always thinking about “how do I intentionally provide feedback with that approach in mind, and how do I make sure I’m specific, timely, and genuine?”

So, you know, just kind of turning it back to you, KK, when leaders give feedback, you know, think about, because you’ve been part of a district where, you know, you led a program where people provided feedback, right, to teachers in terms of a framework? You’ve watched leaders give feedback. But when you think, you know, traditionally in terms of how we as provide feedback to employees, you know, what tends to be that typical approach?

KK Owen: I almost have to laugh because unfortunately, especially for new leaders and for many leaders throughout their career, they have so many evaluations to do, so many observations, so many feedback sessions, they get into a typical rhythm that’s just not very effective. They are making it an impersonal conversation. Maybe they have back-to-back meetings. They’ve got to do these five conversations all in this one afternoon.

And so they are just skipping right through the personal care questions, like, would open up the space for a good conversation. They skip right through the, “here are the things that I think you really did well in your observation,” and “what did you think about how you performed that day during that lesson?” They skip through all of that.

Their goal is to get to the end of the conversation. “I’ve got to deliver this feedback in the quickest way possible and get this person to sign off on their evaluation so I can move to the next one.” And that’s being a little harsh and a little overdramatic, but it feels like that to leaders, and therefore it feels like that to teachers. They feel like it’s not a feedback loop or a feedback conversation. They’re not a participant in it. They just feel rushed. They feel “the point is for me to sign, and this is a one-way conversation.” So that is not very effective.

As Charlotte Danielson used to say, and I always love this quote from her, that teachers kind of thought about it as, “all I have to do is endure the conversation, and then I sign it and then I’m finished.” And that’s a terrible way for that to be. But unfortunately, that’s what it feels like to lots of teachers unless a leader becomes particularly intent on fixing that and changing their behavior so that it is an effective conversation about feedback.

Janet Pilcher: You know, KK, as you’re talking, it reminds me, I found myself saying this so much lately that in our work, you know, we’re trying to move people from what you’re talking about compliance, like “I got to do it. I’ve got so much to do, my compliance, okay, I’ve done it. I followed some type of protocol. I’m just getting it done, right? I mean, I’m getting it done.” You know, to really, performance, in terms of really looking at “how well can we do this? How can we get the outcome that we’re really trying to achieve?” And sometimes thinking about “what is the outcome we’re really trying to achieve?” Not just doing the behavior, but what are we really trying to accomplish? And how do we do that more effectively?

KK Owen: I think people, they feel less valued when it’s a rushed conversation. They don’t get anything that really helps them improve. And the focus of the feedback conversation is about, “let’s check it off” instead of “let’s improve your work.” And that should be a two-way conversation. Teachers, or any kind of employee should be a part of an improvement conversation. They should be a part of a feedback conversation. They should not feel like they are not part of the their own improvement. If they can’t feel like they’re part of their own improvement, they certainly won’t be part of the organization’s improvement.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and not very motivated, you know, to continue to do the work that they need to do is that, you know, that’s the, I mean, that’s really, you know, when we think about and connecting it back to the emotional bank account, you know, in the compliance mode that you’re talking about, we’re cashing in. But it’s—

KK Owen: Exactly.

Janet Pilcher: That process doesn’t have to be cashing in, right?

KK Owen: It could be very much positive deposits.

Janet Pilcher: Yes.

KK Owen: If leaders are skilled in managing the feedback conversations, it could easily be re-recruiting of our high performers. It could be motivating to our middle performers. It could even be motivating to lower performers to move them along. It could be used as a way to make deposits instead of a withdrawal.

Janet Pilcher: I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of it in that way before. Because I think, so I mean, I hope our audience can kind of process this a little bit because normally what we would normally think of “I’m cashing in,” we can do the inverse of that and say, “no, if we do it in a different way, we’re actually making deposits.” And that’s something to think about.

When do you typically think you’ve cashed in that you could turn it to build deposits instead of cashing in? Because it really isn’t a cash in experience here. It’s so important, but I’ve not really said that in that way before. I’ve not really thought about it from the inside out. So I just appreciate the conversation that’s kind of helped me get to that place, KK.

So let’s do a little, let’s just do a quick role play. I’ll be a leader and with you being what you are, a leader coach. And just let’s just kind of do a role play so people can kind of see what might that look like in action in terms of applying the three to one.

So we’ll just kind of step out and I’ll just move into role play so that our listeners can get a sense of what that looks like and potentially what that might feel like.

KK Owen: Sounds good.

Janet Pilcher: Okay. So KK, thank you for connecting with me today. I appreciate your time as always.

KK Owen: Thank you. I am very glad to be with you today. I’m glad we got a chance to meet.

Janet Pilcher: I know we won’t take too much time, but I did want to just talk with you a little bit about some things that I had in mind. And I wanted to start with really talking about some of the, some of what I’ve learned from you, you know, some of the, the actions that you take and the behaviors that you do in the work that you do as coaching, as a leader coach and coaching others. And I want to first start with one thing I’ve always noticed with you is that you, you really provide great learning intentions for your leaders in terms of what they’re going to accomplish and why it’s important.

You’re very good with the why, what, how and helping them connect that, and very, you’re very good with really helping them. And you did it today earlier. You didn’t even know what this role play was going to be.  [laughs]

KK Owen: [laughs]

Janet Pilcher: KK, and you did it today, but you’re very good at connecting it back to the organizational goals that what we’re doing is really connect. So you’re so good with giving them the learning intentions and setting the stage so that they are motivated to learn more. So I appreciate you doing that.

KK Owen: Thank you. That’s really great to hear. I feel like sometimes I might do it automatically, but it’s really nice and reinforcing to hear that that’s appreciated by you and hopefully by them as well.

Janet Pilcher: Yes, I think, I think it, you know, they might not see it like that, but they, you know, it’s, it’s almost like what they feel. And so, you know, the other thing I know that you’re exceptionally good at is building those relationships. So, you know, we talk about building an emotional bank account and the work that you do and just the person that you are is you truly build emotional bank accounts with the partners, the leaders in the organizations that you work with. And that doesn’t just, just come.

You’re very likable, but that does that they’re not building those relationships just because you’re likable. You’re doing very intentional actions to build those relationships with them. And I think that’s just a model practice that you do.

KK Owen: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I do feel like the more I work with partners, I learn them and their leadership style. And I also, also have my finger on the trust button all the time. How can we stay in this trusting relationship so that I can really listen to them, help them and sometimes have hard conversations with them if that’s- if that’s what it takes.

Janet Pilcher: Yes. And they’re welcoming [laughs] those hard conversations. And, you know, what I’ve witnessed too is they’ll call you and say, “I need to have a hard conversation. I need you to have a hard conversation with me” because they really begin to value that.

And, you know, a third thing that I see KK is, and you help me with this because I, you know, I don’t do this as well as I could, but you’re really focused on giving people an opportunity to reflect on what they learn, to practice what they learn so that they can truly change their behavior with a new process. And you’re, you know, you’ve helped us really reinforce that on our team, how important that is for the leaders and the learners, the leader learners on the other side.

KK Owen: That is very true. I think one of the basic tenets of our work is this idea that we really don’t learn by doing. We learn by reflecting on what we’ve done. So if we think of it as practice, as we’re learning to gain skill in different areas of leadership and being okay with practicing, and I might not be great at it right now, but I can get better and providing people the opportunity and the safe space to reflect on their own work. That’s how we get better. So I do try to always be careful to provide a time for them to learn because that’s where we learn in the space after the doing.

Janet Pilcher: Yes. And you’re just such a natural, it really scaffolding that in such a genuine and nice way where people just want to follow you in that regard. Those are just three things of others that I could, you know, really talk about what you do really well.

And, you know, KK, as we, as we continue to onboard new team members, I really believe that you can provide great value to them by coaching them and teaching them. You know, I know you’ve got a busy schedule with partners and it could be a big ask to spend a little bit of your time coming forward and really being a key part of our onboarding experience to share your knowledge. But I can’t think of anyone more valuable than you and the experience that you have and our new leaders being able to capture the knowledge that you have and the experiences and again, your ability to build the emotional bank account with them, you know, so that they have somebody to trust. And so I’d really like for you to be a part of our onboarding process so that your colleagues can learn from you. So I hope that you would consider that.

KK Owen: Wow. I’m honored to do that. I’m really honored to do that. I think that doesn’t come naturally to everybody to be able to build those skills. And I think for our newer people in our organization, that I feel like I could be helpful to them in scaffolding and learning how to do this work. And I would be happy to do that. And I’m honored that you’re asking me to do that.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, thank you so much. And I’m so glad you feel that way. And I knew that you would. So we’ll work out some of the details in the specifics, but I just wanted to close with again, extending my appreciation to you. And I know the people that you work with extend their appreciation for all that you contribute to them. So thank you, KK

Janet Pilcher: Thank you. Okay, so we’ll pull out of role play. Thank you, KK, for doing that with us.

KK Owen: Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: I think it just really helps to kind of see, it’s kind of fun to do that. But let’s just talk for a few minutes, you know, as you’re going through that role play, you know, how does it how does it make you feel? Right? Let’s start with that.

KK Owen: It was clear to me that you are not rushing through this conversation. It was clear to me that you had thought about it ahead of time. You knew what you wanted to share with me. And I think that’s part of the specific and timely sort of feedback. You gave me some great positive feedback about what you value about my work. And that in turn, made me feel valued. It made me feel like I’m important to the organization, that I have some skills in some ways that can help our organization. It was kind of an automatic re-recruitment of me in my current role, even before the ask to move into a slightly different role.

Janet Pilcher: Yes, that and hadn’t really thought of it. But yes, that is just a general re-recruitment of saying, you know, “here’s very specifically how you’re valued and what you contribute.”

You know, so let’s just ask my last question to you today going back to the three to one, again, three to one really helps us connect to the emotional bank account. I gave you very, I gave you three specifics. We engaged in a conversation about that. So that probably helps is to, you know, to not just give them, but to really talk about them together and to leverage that.

So let’s just kind of summarize today. What’s the power of three to one in support of teachers and staff that we work with each and every day?

KK Owen: I think it starts with what we started with at the beginning of this conversation, the trust and the relationship, that it becomes clear that a leader has taken the time to plan and think about a feedback conversation or any kind of conversation really, so that it leans into that need of the employee to be known by their leader to have a relationship. That makes it authentic and it makes it genuine along with the care.

So it’s built inside the relationship, and it is making deposits in that emotional bank account, and every, like you just did the three to one, if leaders are aware of that, you can make people feel valued, make them feel known, and you also provide them with those specifics so they know what to repeat. I should keep doing this because my leader just told me that that’s the right thing to do. So you’re again, providing those general reminders of “this is what right looks like,” reinforcing behaviors that you would like to see more of and building up that emotional bank account all the time because the time is coming when there will be a more difficult conversation.

And there are people who do this so well that it’s almost kind of automatic for them. And I know of an executive leader, and I’ve literally watched this occur where people were fired, yet they hugged the leader and said, “thank you. Thank you. You’ve been so good to me. You’ve been so kind to me. I completely understand why this has happened.”

I’ve watched that repeatedly with this leader and I mean, obviously the people were being fired for a legitimate reason, but that the amazing depth of that relationship was such that they’re still friends. Someone walks out the door having lost their job, but they still feel valued and like they have a relationship, which I just find remarkable. I think that is the power of the three to one.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And what you really talked about in is it’s that genuine relationship that you build with people. And , you know, when we have to make those critical decisions, like letting someone go or transitioning people out of the organization, I’ve always found that there’s always in our minds, KK, as leaders, we want people to be successful. We want people to find a next step. You and and those, wnd we want them to improve in ways that help them find the next step.

So anything that we can provide, that’s anything that we can do and that we’ve done, my hope is always that whatever we provided in that three to one, that they take those threes with them and self-reflect and understand how to apply that as they continue to progress in what they do.

KK Owen: Yeah, I think that’s our final opportunity to help them move to the next step. If they weren’t a good fit, they were in the wrong seat on the bus, whatever the situation is, we don’t have to kill off the relationship by helping them move to that next place where they can be productive, happy, contributing to the organization in a different way or contributing to a different organization. Everyone has value.

Janet Pilcher: Yes. And sometimes, I think back over, sometimes we make those decisions. I’ve made a decision to transition, you know, you have from one organization out of an organization. At the end of the day, the question that we ask ourselves is, “am I in a place now where I can contribute value?” Right? And if the answer is “I don’t see that.” Right? “I don’t see that I’m contributing in a way that I can have value for others or value that I’m contributing or that the organization is contributing” that hopefully somewhere along the way, we had a leader who really provided us with great support that helps us leverage ourselves to that next place.

That’s the power, you all. I mean, as we’re talking, that’s the power of positive feedback as people are working. And that doesn’t mean we don’t have hard messages or give them critical feedback when that time is needed because as we said, we’re going to cash in. But the power of really leading along the way of building that emotional bank account, applying strategies that help us, tactics and actions that help us do that and using the three to one as just kind of a common embedded way of how we engage in conversations with others really helps us build those relationships with people where we have true care and concern.

And we’re building that emotional bank account in our organization so that we’re building the trust that’s needed as we make those difficult decisions.

KK, I appreciate the time that you’ve spent with me today. I hope that this was valuable to you and just again, appreciate you. And I know our listeners will get a lot from our conversation today. So thank you so much.

KK Owen: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much. Always glad to be with you and glad to talk through important topics like this one.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: I hope you enjoyed my and KK’s conversation and enactment of what right looks like when giving feedback to high performers. Be sure to listen next week as we welcome back a very special guest and dig in even deeper on the topic of giving feedback, utilizing the three to one ratio, and its positive impact on developing leaders.

We’re looking forward to our first event of the year, Destination High Performance. I hope you’ll join us there. It’s going to be an Estacada Oregon on April 17th and 18th. And we’d love for you to join us there for an inside look at improvement journeys from educational leaders across the country. They’ll share their stories of continuous improvement in action from the district to the classroom. So to learn more, head over to

As always, I thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. If you found this episode useful or informative, please share it with a colleague and I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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Teacher or educator reflecting. Students working together on a group project in backgroundTeacher or educator reflecting. Students working together on a group project in background