Larry O'Toole founded Gentle Giant Moving Company in 1980 with a dual mission: to create customers for life and opportunities for loyal employees. Today the $27 million company has 17 locations in eight states and gets 80 percent of jobs through word-of-mouth and repeat business. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including nine "Best of Boston" honors from Boston magazine. One of the first things O'Toole (who, at 6' 7" and blessed with a soothing Irish lilt, is the eponymous Gentle Giant) discusses with new employees is the importance of feedback to the company's culture. He spoke with editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan about the art of letting people know what you think. 

What experiences persuaded you of the importance of feedback?
Well, it's been a lot of little things. But one that stands out is the time I got a call from a customer raving about one of our crews—in particular the crew chief. I kept an eye out for the truck, and when I saw it backing up to the loading dock I came down and went up to the crew chief. I said, "Gordon, your customer called and she went on and on about you guys!" We chatted for a while, and then I said, "Let me get out of the way so you can finish cleaning your truck." Well a few days later someone says to me, "Why are you giving Gordon such a hard time about cleaning his truck?" One thing we train our people on is that when you leave a job, your truck should be spotless. I hadn't even noticed his truck was a mess. I was concentrating on telling him what a great job he'd done. But when he saw me walking over, all that's in his mind was "Oh god! Larry, of all people! And on a day when I decided not to clean the truck until I got back!" All he got out of the interaction was that he had a dirty truck. Nothing else got heard.

It brought home to me how intimidating the owner can be: how your words carry a whole different emphasis than if you are a coworker or a line supervisor. It got me thinking about how to deliver feedback, the importance of doing it right and making sure people get the message you are, in fact, trying to deliver.

How do you make sure they're getting the right message?
When you're giving positive feedback, just say positive things. Don't mix it with anything else. Because if you do, the negative is all they hear. Particularly coming from me. You know: "The owner thinks I did something wrong." It's not easy for me, because I'm a bit of a mismatcher myself. When I go out to a job site I'll often notice things that aren't perfect. Minor things. And I just bite my tongue. Because coming from the CEO, any criticism has an outsize effect. And these are people that I'd never want to hassle.

What about negative feedback?
It's the same principle. Sometimes people are very tentative about giving feedback if it's critical. They're worried about hurting someone's feelings. So they mix in a lot of positive feedback to try to dampen the blow. I think if someone screwed up or made a mistake, you have to talk to them about that. Because you have to be sure they are getting the message, not mixing it up with how great they are. That's a conversation for another time.

Also, you shouldn't do it right away. Because if you give negative feedback after someone has finished a job, they feel like "Oh geez, we've just killed ourselves, and all they can do is point out what we did wrong." Instead, you wait to do it before the next task. Right when you're sending them out you say, "This is a beautiful, nice, neat truck. Let's be careful to bring it back as neat and tidy as it is now." That way you're coaching them, not rubbing their noses in it.

Do you coach people on accepting feedback as well as giving it?
You absolutely have to do that. We tell them that you're not going to get honest feedback unless you can convince the person that you really want to hear it. And we coach them to say things that make it easy for somebody to give you feedback. Like, "Can you tell me one thing I should improve on?" Or, "I really don't think I did a very good job with this"—assuming that's true. Then the person will say, "No, it wasn't that bad. But here's what you could have done better." We also teach the people giving feedback to be a little self-deprecating and not come across as though they know everything. The crew chief or person in charge should ask for a little feedback from their crew as to how they're managing.

I tell people: If you live to be 83 you can fit all the feedback that you got in your entire life onto one CD. You get very little of it. It's very precious.

If an employee does not take feedback well, is that a pretty good sign they are not going to work out?
If that chip-on-the-shoulder thing shows up in the first few weeks as a serious problem, we are probably not going to keep that person around. Everybody is a little thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. It's amazing how people get upset if they feel their competence is being questioned, even if they're complete rookies at whatever it is they are doing. But with coaching, they should get better.

Giving feedback in the beginning should be easy, because most people are like sponges when they first walk in. You could do a clinical study to determine the point where they cross the line between being sponges to thinking they know it all. It's probably when they've been in the workplace around 90 days. By that point, hopefully, we've established trust—what we call money in the bank. If you're giving feedback to someone who doesn't trust or respect you, then you're wasting your breath. We build trust by giving positive feedback whenever we can. So when the day comes that we have to give negative feedback, we've got license to do it.

What should be the ratio of informal feedback to formal feedback, like performance reviews?
I don't know that there's a particular ratio. Informal feedback should be the vast bulk of what's coming across. We sit down with employees at least twice a year and have Giant Steps Conversations, where we discuss their development. We separate those out from pay increases. Pay increases here are very well-defined: we have a job ladder and you ascend by accomplishing certain skills. So let's say there's a step that's tied to being able to move a piano. You get all the training, and then you have to go out on a number of jobs with another crew chief where you are running the job, and then you do it a number of times by yourself. Once you've done that, you are eligible for that increase. We have our own in-house driver's training and tests, and there are steps connected to driving a van, a light truck, a heavy truck, a tractor-trailer. Between constant informal feedback and clearly laying out the skills a worker needs to advance, everyone always knows where they are. There are no surprises.

What mistakes do leaders commonly make when giving feedback?

The biggest mistake is not giving it. Everyone is guilty of taking their really good people for granted, filing them away under Things I Don't Have to Worry About. You often hear that companies put 80 percent of their effort into the bottom 20 percent of their people. The poorest performers get all the attention, and the top performers hear very little. We have a really excellent worker who we had in mind to run a branch of our business. He has a lot of high-tech qualifications, but he'd told us he was happy here and didn't want to go back behind a desk. Then lo and behold, we found out just recently that he's accepted a job in high-tech. In the hustle and bustle of the last three months, we hadn't taken time to sit down and let him know what an important part of the team he was and what a future he had with our company. So we got caught with our pants down.

Another mistake is giving someone the same feedback over and over. Hello? Maybe this person should move along. It's almost dysfunctional. It's like with your teenage son where you keep giving him another chance. Only in that case you do it because he's your son. In business, you have to know when to stop wasting your time.

Is there value to feedback beyond simply helping people improve their performance?
We've found it helps develop skills like conflict management. One thing we tell people is that feedback may not be correct. Or it may only be slightly true. Your instinct will be to go on the defensive: jump in and tell the person they're wrong. But if you do that, then you are less likely to get feedback from that person again, which can destroy your ability to get ahead. So don't be all worried about defending your honor. Instead, listen and try to find the truth in what they're saying. Ask questions. Can you give me an example? Is one thing worse than another?

Conflict management is also about trying to see the other person's point of view and asking questions. Feedback teaches people to get at the truth without becoming excited or upset.

Is it tough getting feedback from customers?
Customers are often very slow to give you feedback. If they're not happy, they feel uncomfortable bringing it up. We have a customer we've done a lot of work for. She was always very happy with us. But on one particular occasion we were moving her mother as well. I guarantee you that if she had been at her mother's house when the things were delivered, everything would have been fine. But she comes in later and sees this shouldn't be this way; that shouldn't be that way—mainly because the mother told the guys to do things the daughter wouldn't have told them. She was upset, and at her work, she started badmouthing us. One of our other customers worked with her and called us up and said, "Look, this woman isn't happy with you." We did everything in the world to try to get her to tell us what was wrong, and she just wouldn't. It can be frustrating. You have to really convince customers that you want to hear the truth as well.

We used to ask customers to rate us on a 10-point scale, but it seemed like we kept getting 10s or 9s. So to try to get a better idea of what people felt, we went to a 14-point scale where 12, 13, and 14 were all excellent. That way people could give us a lower score and not seem too critical. They could circle 12, meaning you're excellent but you could be better. Our average is still something like 13.8. But you have to do everything you can to find out. It's important to have a hard copy of our response form, because it acts as a prop for our crew chiefs to have a conversation with the customer. When the rest of the paperwork is done, they're supposed to take out the response card and say, "Now that we have all the annoying paperwork taken care of, this is the only piece of paperwork that really means anything. We really and truly want to know how we can be better. I don't want you to fill it out and hand it to me now. I want you to think about it and mail it in." They can also fill the survey in online. When they don't do either, we call them up, and complete it over the phone.

I see one of your questions is, "Do you have any additional feedback to share with Gentle Giant founder and president, Larry O'Toole?" Do you think you get a better response when customers know the company founder reads their comments?
Absolutely. And I do read them.

How do you get honest feedback about your own performance?
I have a coach that I talk to once a month. She meets with other people in the organization and finds out stuff people might not feel comfortable saying to my face. She doesn't name names. It's completely confidential. For example, last year I bought something we call the Speed Stairs: a set of portable stairs and a slide that athletes use to train on. It's a recruiting tool—we bring them to events and challenge people to see if they have what it takes to be a Gentle Giant mover. The stairs cost $80,000, and I paid for them myself, out of my kids' college fund. People said they thought it was a great idea. But I got feedback that they were actually annoyed that we really didn't discuss this in management meetings, and people didn't have a chance to voice their opinion, which would probably have been this is crazy. The timing was a little bit unfortunate in that it happened when the economy was down. More recently, we were thinking about a partnership with a company that provides containerized storage. This isn't like the Speed Stairs: it would be a big hairy deal if we did this. But I was hearing back from my coach that people were nervous I was going to pull another Speed Stairs and spring this on them. Of course I would never do that. Sometimes it can be quite annoying. But you've got to listen and you've got to live with it.

I try not to be intimidating. On the other hand I'm a physically big person and I own the company. People have seen me get emphatic about other things—things to do with another mover or a customer. And I'm sure they're thinking, "Geez, I don't want to be on the other side of that." But I try my best to be approachable. I take people out to lunch all the time from all over the company, trying to establish easygoing relationships. But I think the most important thing is to be conscious that people are going to be intimidated. You can't fool yourself into thinking people are telling you everything.

Do you give and solicit feedback in your non-work life as well?
I've learned a lot of wonderful things from my wife. Let's say I get upset about something: that I'm out of line. She doesn't jump down my throat or get in my face. She waits until a later time, when we can have an easy conversation. Sometimes I'll try and give her feedback, and she may not be that open to it at the time. But she'll come back later and say, "You know, I really appreciate what you were saying back there."

I remember when my grandfather was teaching me how to drive. He told me, "If someone honks a horn at you, you probably could have done something a little bit better. Maybe they were being a jerk. But if you were a really good driver, that wouldn't have happened. Instead of getting upset at that person, try to figure a way to improve." So if someone yells at me in traffic I just say to them, "Thanks for the feedback."