Have the courage to invite feedback

When was the last time that someone in your organization told you the truth about your leadership? How often do you invite feedback? How safe do others feel about telling you the truth? What do you think you might learn by asking the question?

As an individual rises to the highest levels of leadership, there are fewer and fewer people willing to tell him/her the truth. Marshall Goldsmith, author and executive coach suggests that there are only two problems successful people have with feedback: (1) “They don’t want to hear it from us;” and (2) “We don’t want to give it.”

Employees quickly get the message that they are welcome to tell the boss only what the boss wants to hear.

It’s complicated

In our culture we have created the belief that leaders need to be super human. They need to know what to do; make perfect decisions; and avoid mistakes at all costs. We are often surprised when leaders fall short of these unrealistic expectations and more surprised when they acknowledge that they have missed the mark or made a mistake. We are all too familiar with the recent experience of an umpire making the wrong call in a baseball game and achieving hero like status because he publicly acknowledged his mistake. He demonstrated behavior that is the exception rather than the rule.

There is little appreciation that when leaders take on the illusion of perfection, others in the organization believe that is the norm. The organization mirrors the behavior of its leaders. Employees learn that mistakes are not tolerated. Employees resist offering a different point of view, taking risks or challenging status quo. Taking this dynamic to the extreme, organizations lose their vitality, morale declines and the possibility for future success diminishes.

What is the alternative?

Successful leaders appreciate that perfection is not the goal of leadership. The most astute leaders know that leadership is a lifelong learning process and they become lifelong students. These leaders recognize the importance of acknowledging their humanity. They do understand that the organization mirrors their behavior. They do appreciate that if they take the lead in inviting feedback, others will do the same.

A number of years ago, one of our client leaders, Paul Purcell, chief executive officer of Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., announced to his leaders and managers that he intended to engage in a 360 feedback assessment. He invited his leaders to do the same. While the process was not mandatory, the message was clear. “If I can make changes, there is hope for all of you… You may ask why we would embark on this initiative during a time when we are looking to cut cost. We do so because we believe that you are the most significant leaders in the firm and in order to ensure our success in the future, we must be certain that you have what you need to lead…”

360 feedback: The process

In our experience, 360 feedback can be obtained through interviews or online assessment tools. 360 feedback refers to the process of eliciting feedback from direct reports, peers and boss. Clients and family members may also be included. In order to protect the autonomy of raters and provide rich feedback to the leader, 16 to 18 raters participate. We typically find that the focus of the assessments are less about leadership tasks, roles and function, and more about personal qualities that reflect self-awareness and the ability to connect with others. (examples: authenticity, flexibility, coaching others, empathy, etc.)

Once the 360 assessment is complete, a report is prepared for the leader. Ideally, a qualified coach reviews the feedback with the leader. While the feedback includes both reflections about strengths and opportunities for development, human beings are “programmed” to focus on what we perceive to be negative feedback. A skilled coach can provide a balanced perspective, highlighting the importance of strengths as well as enhancing areas for growth and development.

Creating a plan for change

An executive coach works with a leader to create a plan for change. Through careful review of the feedback, the leader identifies one or two areas, that if addressed, will significantly improve his/her leadership effectiveness. Often, the leader engages his/her coach to support his efforts. The coach holds the leader accountable while supporting her through the process of change and recommending strategies to accelerate the leader’s growth and development.

Communicating the plan and asking for support

One of the more powerful dynamics of the process occurs when the leader or manager communicates his/her intention to change. We encourage the leader to meet one-on-one with a number of his/her raters to communicate what he/she has learned from the feedback and what the leader intends to do as a result. We also encourage the leader to ask for support from the individuals who interact with him/her on a regular basis.

You can imagine the power of this level of communication when a number of leaders engage in the process simultaneously. One of our clients told us that this process created levels of communication and support among leaders, “the likes of which the organization had never known before.”

Organizational impact

While it is never easy for us to receive candid feedback about areas for improvement, leaders who invite this level of candor create organizations where employees learn that we are all on the path of life long learning. Employees learn that we have the ability to change and grow when others tell us the truth.

Who will tell you the truth? Do you have the courage to ask?

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (www.ccvernal.com), a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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