Over the years, I’ve worked with many executives who were separated from their organizations for a variety of reasons, and the number of reasons continues to grow. Today, executives are let go not just for poor job performance but personality fit, relationships, business decisions, and company politics. Having dealt with these exit stories in all categories, it’s clear that people aren’t being given feedback—and aren’t asking for it.
Often, when meeting with me to go through their exit story, a client will say, “I never saw it coming!” Then I walk them through the events and conversations of the last 60 to 90 days, and inevitably they say, “I should have seen it coming!” When I ask if they had a feedback loop, most answer that they didn’t. They could be successful in their jobs, even though they had no idea how they were actually doing. But they could be that much more successful with a good feedback loop.
Great leaders and managers know that how you see yourself and how the world sees you need to be in sync if you’re going to be the person and leader you need to be.
Undergo a formal, yearly evaluation.
On occasion I will work with an executive who will have a 360-degree evaluation done each year to evaluate where they are in the leadership Journey. This is an imortant source of feedback, and the absolute minimum amount of feedback you should be seeking. These evaluations should be routine and presented in a positive way as an opportunity to see growth year to year, rather than in a sporadic or negative way that causes the leader to believe the mere mention of an evaluation is a commentary on their job performance.
Seek out informal feedback consistently throughout the year.
Of the executives who have regular formal evaluations, almost never do they have a feedback loop consistently between those yearly evaluations. Frequent, informal evaluations are the key to maximizing your growth as a leader and addressing issues while they’re still fixable.
Do spot checks with peers, direct reports, your board chair, executives who you report to, or any other group you interact with regularly. Once a quarter or so, sit with a person from each of these groups that you know will give trustworthy feedback, and ask them:
- What should I continue to do?
- What should I start doing?
- What should I stop doing?
Consider the source.
I believe that many people are reluctant to seek out feedback because they received some particularly cutting, vicious, or maybe even untrue comment when seeking feedback in the past, and they’re turned off to the whole idea. I understand this, and I’ve experienced it myself! That is why seeking out the feedback from the right people is essential to the process.
It’s hard to find people who you both respect and who will give you their honest thoughts in a constructive way. If you don’t know someone well enough to understand and trust their intent to help you, not harm you, it is difficult to seek feedback from them. Though it’s never easy to hear negative feedback, when it’s coming from a person who you respect and know has the best of intentions, you can trust their words and allow them to make you a better leader.
But feedback shouldn’t be all bad. You want someone to reinforce the things you do well, too. Look at your stakeholders, both vertical and horizontal. Who in that group do you respect? Who disagrees with you? Who do you see regularly? Who sees you interacting with others? Positive feedback from people who fit this description can be trusted because it is less likely to come solely from a desire to look good to the boss.
Respond to feedback with a growth mindset.
If you can get people to start telling you the truth about yourself, how you’re doing your job, and how you come across to people, there is such a benefit to that. I met with someone once who was a lower-level employee assigned to give feedback to an executive who was seeking it out from all levels of the organization. But the executive always got angry when the feedback from her direct report got too honest, so the employee said she was going to stop telling her the truth. It wasn’t worth the risk.
When you are asking for feedback, make sure that person understands that there will be no retaliation, and stick to that with your behavior. Your first response to feedback that is hard to hear should be to seek to understand. Ask questions about the feedback in a non-emotional way. It’s not the outliers that bother us, the feedback we hear once but never hear again. It’s the repetitive themes from multiple sources that can cause an emotional reaction. If you’re talking to a trusted peer or friend, you simply cannot take it personally. That over-involves emotion. Remember that your goal in seeking this feedback is to see yourself clearly so that you can be the best leader you can be.
I believe we would have fewer leaders in transition if more executives had stronger, more frequent feedback loops. As you seek out feedback as a leader, you are setting the tone for your entire organization. Developing a regular feedback loop may carry some personal risk, but it is essential to your personal and professional growth.