On Friday I was the keynote speaker for the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting. Durham ranked third on the Inc. 2020 Surge Cities Index, a list of the 50 best cities for startup growth: Attracting talent, supporting entrepreneurs, and generating momentum.

One of my slides described Durham's flywheel, how each part feeds and in turn is driven by other parts of the flywheel to build a thriving, supportive, "rising tide floats all boats" business environment. Showing how, together, Durham has not only grown... but built an outstanding foundation for future growth.

I explained that to keep the slide simple I had included just a few of the Durham flywheel spokes: small businesses, corporations, local and state government, investors, and agencies. "Listing every facet of your flywheel would have made this slide unreadable," I said. "So don't worry if you don't see yourself represented. While you might not be listed... you're up there."

Heads nodded. A crowd of over 1,000 talented and successful people representing the many slices of Durham's business, education, civic, and social ecosystem? They got it.

Except for at least one person.

After the meeting ended I was chatting with people who stopped to say hello. A woman shouldered through two people and said, "I know you said you couldn't show everything on the flywheel," she said. "But you should have shown the arts. We're extremely important."

"Absolutely," I said. "Music, theater, art... those things help create a community where people want to work and live."

"There you go again," she said. "You left out dance."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I was just summarizing. On the slide, and just now."

She stared at me for a few seconds, then nodded her head once.

"Well," she said. "Next time... do better."

Where Feedback Is Concerned, How Soon is Too Soon?

A few people standing nearby looked uncomfortable. One even apologized.

I didn't mind. Feedback comes with the territory. Especially from people who care, and I definitely respect people who care.

Plus, her point was valid. The arts are a vital cog in the flywheel of a city's economy.  If you're the biggest employer in town, it's tempting to think you're the primary driver of your city's success.

But: You need to attract and retain talented people, and talented people have options -- generally speaking, they can work wherever and for whomever they want.

Without the shops and restaurants, without the community resources, without parks and recreation, without the arts... your company won't be able to attract and retain the people it needs. 

So do music, theater, entertainment, dance -- and everything else I'm leaving out -- matter? Absolutely.

But did she need to tell me that right after my keynote?

Good question. My answer? 

If feedback is positive: Don't wait. The more time that passes between great performance and recognition, the lesser the impact of that recognition. In short, immediately is never too soon.

If feedback is negative: Unless the behavior needs to be corrected right away, wait. Give things time to settle. Most people get defensive when criticism is immediate. 

That's especially true if you decide to toss in a little feedback while praising an employee. If you say, "That was great how you handled the customer's complaint, but next time you might also consider..." then all I hear is what I should do next time.

Praise and recognize now. Save improvement opportunities for later.

"Next time... do better."

I clearly haven't forgotten what she said. (Neither have the people in my house. "Do better" has already become a family catchphrase.)

What she said also made an impact. I feel bad that she felt left out, and that others might have as well. In the future I'll be more aware of making points that don't require disclaimers or explanations that, however well-intentioned, could be insufficient.

I'm glad she said something. I will try to do better next time. It's tough to improve without constructive input. 

But it took me a little while to get to that place. In the moment, my immediate reaction was more defensive than open.

If you want the feedback you give to be as effective as possible, think about when you deliver it.

Because with feedback, when you say it can be just as important as what you say.