How Am I Doing?

After spending some time working with one of our executive coaches, our clients often ask, “What impressions do you have of me?”

What they mean, of course, is:

  • “What have you heard about me?”
  • “What do you observe based on our work together?”
  • “How would you describe me and my leadership capability to others?”

These are great questions, and halfway through a formal coaching engagement, a trained coach should be able to offer insightful answers.

But an effective coach will follow up queries like those with a few of her own, such as:

  • “Good questions—who else have you asked?”
  • “What are your peers saying?”
  • “If you took a new job, what advice would the people who work for you today give to your new team?”

The responses to questions such as those are, all too frequently, “Hmmm, those are great questions” or “You know, I am not sure—I guess I’ve never asked.” When pressed—“Well, why haven’t you asked?”—most of us would tend to answer:

  • “I hadn’t thought about it.”
  • “I’ve been so busy.”
  • “I didn’t want to bother anyone.”
  • “Asking seems a bit self-indulgent.”

Or, if we are really being honest…

  • “I’m scared of what I might hear.”
  • “If I ask, then I might have to do something with the answers.”

If you are in a senior leadership position, people are asking questions about you all the time, implicitly and explicitly. They are talking about your strengths and weaknesses, and how you are coming across. Don’t you want to find out what they are saying? Why not join the conversation?

We all know we should ask for feedback, but we don’t do it as often as we should. Feedback is an immensely valuable part of learning and growth: in childhood development, in organizations, in product innovation, and in scientific discovery. When it comes to being effective leaders, how we are perceived can matter more than our intentions. And we must not only seek to understand how we are seen by others, we must also do something productive with the feedback we get. (See our earlier newsletter on what do to with feedback.)

Feedback can make us feel wrong, or foolish, or incompetent, which is why we instinctively fear it. But people who can overcome that fear tap into rapid learning—the very reason why kids learn things so quickly. Children aren’t afraid of looking silly, so they try something and fall on their face; and then try something else, and fail again; and eventually they figure out how to do it. But as adults we can find it hard to allow ourselves to look like we don’t know what we are doing, and so we struggle to learn as fast as our children (which is why “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”). We need to reframe “failure” as “learning” in order to open ourselves up to feedback and the growth that it brings. Yes, feedback can hurt for a bit (hence the expression “growing pains”), but the discomfort fades while the learning lasts. None of us is perfect, and those of us who are prepared to embrace our imperfections will spend less time “posing” and more time growing.

Whether by formal or informal means, using a deliberate approach to getting feedback is valuable in helping identify blind spots, becoming aware of “derailers” (overused strengths that can become weaknesses), and better appreciating what you’re really good at and what people most want from you. Here are a few suggestions on how to get better feedback:

“360 Feedback” Tools
There are a variety of tools that provide formal feedback on your effectiveness as an executive, ranging from on-line surveys to having a trained coach or assessor do interviews on your behalf. Often called “360’s” or “360-degree feedback” because they solicit input from your boss, your peers, and your direct reports (i.e, “360 degrees around you”), these tools can be invaluable for gaining a comprehensive view of others’ perceptions of you as a leader. Your respondents can rate you across different leadership dimensions and competencies, and this kind of feedback is most useful when the respondents take the time to offer specific comments and examples. An executive coach can play a vital role in helping you interpret the feedback and take action to improve your performance and results.

Informal Approaches
Even without a 360 or other formal instrument, you can open up a feedback conversation pretty easily. One of our clients recently shared a set of questions he occasionally asks of his team and his most important business partners in the course of normal interactions with them. The list looked like this:

  • What are three words that describe my strengths?
  • What are three words that suggest how I could be more effective?
  • How and when have you been most able to benefit from working with me in the past?
  • Where could I have improved our past interactions to make your job easier?
  • What could I do differently to be even more effective?

The leader who asked these questions was constantly surprised and delighted at how willing people were to share their thoughts, and how useful the feedback was. There was a benefit in the data he gathered (which he put to use immediately with his coach’s help), and there was probably an even bigger benefit just from asking these questions. Almost all of us would admit, if pressed, that we’d like it if our own leaders would ask for our feedback more often.

Getting feedback can be difficult: we may indeed have to hear things we didn’t want to know or want to have to deal with. But if you make a habit of asking for feedback (not too often, and in the right situations), you’ll find that the conversations become easier, and the feedback becomes even more useful. As a bonus, the very act of asking people for their feedback brings additional benefits because it sends a powerful signal to others that (a) you are humble, (b) you respect them, and (c) you are brave (since everyone knows how hard it is to ask for feedback). Those are not bad adjectives to be associated with, especially when you consider the alternatives. So regardless of what you may learn from the feedback, you are bound to improve your brand and relationships just by taking the time to ask for it.

Asking questions about how to be more effective as a leader is a fantastic way to grow, as long as you are open to the feedback and willing to do something with it. We’d be interested to hear how you collect feedback to improve your own leadership effectiveness—please send us a note at newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com and share some of your tips and experiences.

“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”
–Marian Anderson