Seeking & Accepting Feedback

November 21, 2009

One of the greatest gifts someone can offer you is honest feedback. Truly. Most of the time, people will try to varnish the truth or avoid it altogether. Since it’s so rare a gift, it’s only right to treat it as such. Often you have to go get it, as not everyone will be forthcoming if you don’t ask for it.

So ask, but not too often

Identify a set of people whose feedback you want on a regular basis. Then go get it. It’s that simple. Don’t over think it. I see a lot of people get nervous about how and when they do it, asking themselves about the appropriateness of the request. Don’t worry about it. It will be immediately obvious to you if the request is making someone uncomfortable. Then it’s up to you whether you push on through or let it go. Below are a few considerations in asking.

Be diverse in the inputs you seek. Don’t just get your boss. Get colleagues, people in other departments etc. In particular, seek out people you think might have uncomfortable feedback. If you feel threatened by people you currently work with for political or evaluative reasons, then mine old co-workers.

Be specific about what feedback you are looking for. Don’t ask for people to comment on broad open ended questions. It will make them uncomfortable (more like evaluating you as a person than commenting on your communications skills) and lead to areas that may be off point.

Example: “Is there anything I can improve on?” isn’t as helpful as, “I’ve been wondering about my communication skills, have you noticed anything in my emails or presentations you think I could improve on?” The latter is more specific and likely to yield actionable feedback.

Ask for examples. Don’t settle for generalizations. Drive for enough detail to understand, evaluate and take action.

Example: “I don’t think you present well” isn’t that helpful. Get them to say “You just read the slides and never see if your audience is following along.” That is specific enough to understand what the action plan might be.

Ask people who can actually answer. This sounds obvious, but think about the type/category of feedback you’re looking for and make sure the person you’re asking has seen enough to have a “qualified” opinion. Another thing to think about is how observant or thoughtful the people you ask are. Sometimes, non-obvious folks are very wise and can offer keen insights. Political advice is often very useful from this type of connection. So target wisely.

Example: Asking someone you haven’t worked directly with about your leadership style won’t lead to anything useful.

Don’t get overly aggressive about seeking feedback. It’s great to want feedback, but seeking too much represents either lack of confidence, understanding or disingenuousness. All bad. I’m not saying don’t be assertive in seeking out advice. I am saying don’t check in too often. Use some judgment.

Listen & don’t argue

Having asked for feedback, actually let people offer it. It is perfectly appropriate to ask thoughtful follow up questions and to play out scenarios, but don’t debate. You’ve asked for a gift, it is being given. Don’t be ungrateful. As my grandmother would say, “that’s not attractive sweetie.”

As I mentioned, asking follow up questions is part of the process. As mentioned above, if someone is too general, feel free to ask for examples. A specific example can then be fodder for re-playing the scenario to explore and learn.

For example: You receive constructive criticism on how you handled a meeting. It’s good to ask your fellow participant how they felt, suggest alternative approaches you might have taken to get their feedback and understand how participants perceived the situation. It’s NOT OK to say “I totally disagree, Sally was way off base and I don’t see how I could have handled it differently”. You just made it worse. If this is how you plan to approach feedback, better not to ask.

I bring up the graciousness part because I see the lack of it with a consistent minority of people I give feedback to. I suggest that for those of you who wrestle with accepting feedback learn to bite your tongue. If someone actually cares enough to give you feedback, they care at some level. Don’t turn them off. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t invest the time in you.

Say “thank you”

I won’t belabor this given my comments above. Suffice it to say that gratitude and graciousness are far more compelling than indifference or rudeness.

Reflect & evaluate

Take time to think about what you have heard. If you don’t reflect, the act of asking and receiving is partly wasted. It only matters if you turn inputs into insights that  drive action.

After one or several discussions, it’s time to determine your sense of what’s important. Each perspective you hear is valid, but they may not all agree or be of central importance in your development. You have to decide what strengths are worth reinforcing and what improvement opportunities merit time. You can’t rock everything, so pick and choose based on your judgment and bandwidth. Think about what you agreed with, what was new, how could I work on that etc.

I do suggest you develop a plan for key areas you are working on. It can be as simple as 3 bullet point reminders on a post it about how to kick off a meeting, or as involved as a multi-year development plan for an involved skill set. But put it in print and track yourself.

Closing thoughts

 Asking for feedback is crucial to your development. Many leadership studies cite the ability to seek out and utilize feedback as one of the most important traits great leaders possess.

 Seeking out feedback and acting on it also comes with soft benefits. It demonstrates self-awareness, maturity and a drive to improve. It also exposes you to people in ways that might not come up in the normal course of work. It also opens deeper mentoring possibilities. It’s a win/win as long as it’s done sincerely.

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Fake it ‘til you make it

September 12, 2009

Something I see a lot of people struggle with in their careers is having the confidence to lead. I hint at this in a number of my posts, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed head on. So here goes.

I was just reading a column in business week (“Acting the Part of a Leader”) by noted leadership author Warren Bennis that struck a few chords for me. Many people I chat with or teach have the mistaken impression (in my opinion) that people they perceive as leaders have tremendous confidence, are particularly wise or have some other higher powers that they aspire to have. They often are looking for “the answer” to how to get there themselves. I am certain I was that way years ago and I guess I still am in some ways.

Based on my own experience and backed by some scholarly research, here’s the secret: Most “leaders” didn’t start out that way. It is in fact achievable if you are willing to work at it, take some risks and be resilient when you get knocked down. In addition, you usually have a limited number of really high pressure situations in which to learn to perform. These situations are often thrust on you by circumstances.

Play the Part

Bennis makes an important point about leaders. They are usually “acting the part” of a leader. I suppose that some people naturally do the right things, but most I can think of (Lincoln, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Churchill, Alexander etc.) were masters of wearing “the mask of command”. They understood the part they were required to play to move people forward.

The same dynamic plays out in smaller groups and day-to-day experiences. Most of us won’t lead the free world or face life and death decision for multitudes. But most of us will face adversity in groups and have the opportunity to lead, even if quietly and not from the front.

I think this takes courage more than confidence – A willingness to “be out there” and maybe be wrong. I encourage people to put themselves out there. If it’s a little bumpy, that’s to be expected.  Confidence grows from experience. Do it more and you’ll get better at it.

I’d also add there’s a big difference between being nervous and showing your anxiety. Being visibly agitated doesn’t instill confidence in anyone. I haven’t met many people who were confident in every situation they face, but those who adapt and are able to project confidence are better able to bring teams along.

You often have to play a role that is difficult for you, but needed by the group to advance. In my own career I can think of many examples. The way you lead a small group of high performers is very different that how you lead a team that is underperforming and on a tight deadline. That’s part of what makes genuine leadership tough. There are common principles, but every situation is different. You need to try and be who you need to be given the context.

 So I guess my take-away is “fake it ‘til you make it”. There’s no reason you can’t be more effective if you work at it.


Leadership Podcast

March 18, 2009

For those of you who listen to podcasts while puttering (for me it’s on the elliptical machine at the club), I thought this recent Harvard Ideacast (Ideacast 133  – What business leaders can learn from today’s military) on leadership was interesting. It focuses on how the military currently works to develop a leadership culture. It is by one of the authors of the Frontline Leadership blog at Harvard Business Publishing online.

The observation I found most interesting was Colonel Tom Kolditz’s observation that leadership is not a skill or a role, rather it’s an “identity”. It has more to do with how you see yourself and the implications for how others then perceive you. There’s some nice discussion about leadership and followership, the idea of leaders needing to focus on followers needs to build trust and cohesion etc. Worth a quick listen.