Making the Most of Feedback

No matter how confident they are, most executives worry about how others perceive them. This worry is a natural one: what is a leader without committed followers? However, paradoxically, the same worry may cause executives to solicit less feedback than they should. “What if I don’t like what I hear? What if I can’t do anything about it?” It is indeed lonely at the top, and it can be even lonelier if you don’t ask others to join you in conversation.

Rather than guessing about how others see you as a leader, you can do something about it. Informally, and in non-stressful situations, ask people whom you trust “How are things going?” or “What could I be doing better?” (Intriguingly, often your significant other is a good starting point for feedback. Who sees you more clearly, and who has more freedom to be honest?)

Even better, you can get formal feedback, which is often called a “360” because the respondents come from all 360 degrees around you: direct reports, peers, superiors, and even clients or customers. A 360 can be conducted via an on-line survey or, even more productively, by means of thoughtful and probing interviews conducted on your behalf with key stakeholders. Survey-based 360’s are efficient and cost effective, but interview-based 360’s tend to generate a much richer and more detailed set of insights, and feedback that can be more forward-looking and thus more useful for enhancing executive success.

The hard part begins once you have your feedback report in hand. It can be difficult to receive and truly hear feedback. Less-than-flattering feedback may have a negative impact on your self-esteem, and can lead some of us simply to discount it. Positive feedback can easily be taken disproportionally or may cause your ego to run wild. No matter how you react to the feedback, it’s important to spend time reflecting on it before taking action.

Ideally, your report will be delivered and explained to you by your executive coach, by the consultant who wrote the report, or by your human resources partner. Following are some questions to ask yourself as you dig deeper into the report. (In the best cases, you could also spend some quiet time with a trusted advisor discussing these questions.)

What are the main patterns or themes that emerge from this feedback?
How does my own self-assessment align with or differ from this feedback?
What surprised me most about the feedback?
Are there significant differences in my feedback across different feedback provider groups? For example, does my boss see me very differently than my direct reports or customers do?
What am I most pleased with?
What concerns me most?
Which strengths should I try to leverage even more?
Which developmental areas would be most productive for me to work on?
Do I have any blind spots? Either negative ones (threats I might not have realized) or positive ones (strengths I may not have fully appreciated)?
What do I not understand? What feedback leads me to want more information?

You can, of course, choose to accept or reject the feedback. Feedback isn’t “the truth”: rather, it is a collection of opinions and perceptions from your stakeholders. It’s up to you to decide how to act on the feedback in order to make yourself more effective as a leader and drive better results for your organization.

Here are some other ideas for what to do once you have received feedback:

Thank your feedback providers. Tell them how much you appreciate them taking the time to provide you with feedback. Share with them, at a high level, what you’ve learned about yourself and what you’re going to do with that insight. If appropriate, engage them in supporting your ongoing development.

Ask for more information. Now that you’ve started a dialogue with your feedback providers, build on it. Especially if the feedback came from a “standardized” online 360, ask for more specific insights. For example, if your results indicate that you aren’t being inclusive enough in your communication and decision-making, ask: “What behaviors do I exhibit that may make me come across as non-inclusive?” or “What is one behavior that I can exhibit to be more inclusive?”

Create an Action Plan. Rather than filing your 360 after reading it, spend some time developing a set of pragmatic, forward-looking actions that will benefit both you and your organization. Your action plan should not be a wish list of courses to take or books to read, or a lengthy and unmanageable set of improvement objectives. Instead you should aim to capture 3 or 4 key and specific steps that you are committed to; that are tangible and measureable; and that will make a real difference in your effectiveness if you follow through on them.

By the way, all of the advice above goes for informal feedback as well as formal reports. If we are open to it and pay attention, we get feedback every day in almost all of our interactions. Sometimes it’s explicit: “I wish you would listen more.” Sometimes it’s subtle and even non-verbal. But the most effective executives, like the most effective people in general, are open to feedback, take heed of it, and put it to good use. Don’t be afraid of feedback: embrace it.

We’d be interested to hear about your experiences receiving feedback; send us a note at

"Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson