One piece of the executive coaching program I deliver to senior leaders involves conducting feedback interviews with superiors, peers and direct reports. Everything is anonymous – and as a trained journalist I tend to induce candid remarks that serve as valuable data during the coaching engagement. After speaking to 10-12 people, I transcribe comments then sit with a client to review others’ perceptions one by one.
Before these debriefing sessions, I give clients a ‘what to expect when you receive feedback’ document to help them prepare for hearing views about their performance and style. The range of emotional reactions is described as the SARAH Cycle: Surprise, Annoyance, Resistance, Acceptance, Hope. Much like the five stages of grief (DABDA) are non-linear, clients flow back and forth among SARAH before becoming open to change.
“I didn’t realize…” is an oft-heard response during a debriefing. When we finish, I tell a client to put the report away for a week and let some time pass. That allows the emotional response to dissipate and places a client in a much better mindset to work on changing what she desires. Interestingly, about half the people – and I’ve presented at least 50 of these over the years – tell me during our next session they read everything again that night. Then they showed the report to their significant other. Then they kicked the dog. (Just kidding about one of those.)
Yet, with all the angst that comes with having me ask, “What do you think about _____?” clients discover this is one of most important steps in growing into a stronger leader. If you’re looking to build on your strengths and improve areas where you’re challenged, have someone ask about you.
Part of my coaching work with executives consists of conducting feedback interviews with 10-12 of their supervisors, peers and direct reports. This provides insight into the perceptions of those who know the person being coached in a working relationship. Typically, three or four underlying behaviors arise that clients seek to improve during our coaching sessions.
While it’s better to have a detached third-person – like a coach – explore areas around what are Susie’s biggest strengths, where are ways Billy can be more successful and describe John’s communication style, you can do this on your own.
Choose a few folks who you interact with on a regular basis and ask them to sit down and share how they see you… giving them permission upfront to be candid. Listen closely to what they’re saying, taking a few ‘headline’ notes without being absorbed in capturing every word. Be sure not to react to anything you hear. This isn’t an exercise in right or wrong, good or bad; it’s exploratory research and a chance to learn.
These conversations should last less than 15 minutes. End each one by asking is there anything else I should know that would help me be a better leader? Then simply say thank you. There’s no need to accept, reject or negotiate any of their viewpoints. After you talk to everyone review your notes and look for patterns where you could do better. Chances are if there’s something you need to change more than one person mentioned it. Choose two or three that are important to you, and put together a self-improvement plan.
Circle back to tell each person how much you appreciate his or her helping you, and share the first things you’re going to address. This lets them know it wasn’t just a conversation that ended without action. Finally, select one person to serve as your accountability partner to ensure you stay focused on achieving change, and schedule brief ‘check in’ updates every few weeks for several months. Soon you’ll start seeing a better you.
As part of our coaching program for executives, I conduct feedback interviews with 10-12 people who work closely with the client. These are superiors, peers and direct reports who provide a broad perspective about a client’s strengths and weaknesses. As coaching goes, this is one of the ‘gold mines’ for identifying potential areas for improvement.
Last week, one of the high-level executives I interviewed recommended this approach for the client we were discussing:
“It starts with recognizing what made him successful before is not going to get him to the company’s desired future state. If he does a better job improving his skill sets then he can help us get there. These provide opportunities to search the soul and think about what he can do to help us. He needs to identify three weaknesses – and we all have them – and challenge himself to turn those into strengths.”
Too often leaders at all levels incorrectly assume that the skills and traits that made them successful – and likely earned them a promotion – end up being mostly irrelevant as their roles evolve into higher responsibility. That’s why great sales people struggle to be great sales managers… why outstanding workers struggle to be outstanding managers… why knowledge experts struggle to be generalists.
The key to making a successful transition up the leadership ladder is to avoid fooling yourself into thinking anything you did previously has relevance in your new role. While what you previously did provided a solid foundation, it is imperative you learn new ways to work with and engage people. Your main responsibility as a leader is to lead, not do. Marshall Goldsmith wrote it best in his 2007 bestseller by the same name: “What got you here won’t get you there.”