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.
When you live in Texas and see news about snowstorms affecting other parts of the country, you think, “Glad that’s not us.” Until, of course, when the Super Bowl decides to come to DFW. Watching ESPN the past few days, folks across America could have been convinced the Lone Star State is frozen tundra during February. Even here in Houston – 270 miles to the south – they’re predicting several inches of snow over the next 24 hours.
It’s amazing how easily perceptions are embedded deeply in folk’s minds. In my coaching work with executives, I’ll interview a dozen people the client feels know him or her best, then share their quotes without attribution. Inevitably I’ll hear from the client, “That comment about me being condescending refers to one thing that happened a couple of years ago.” Yet there it is, a big enough issue to a team member that he felt the need to tell me about it during our 15-minute conversation.
While a single comment may or may not be relevant to a leader’s long-term success, understanding that supervisors, peers and direct reports have long memories is important. That quip you blurt out in a meeting that makes light of someone’s slip-up – the one everybody laughs at and you think is completely harmless – may have a lasting impact on your relationship with the object of your humor.
The snow in DFW will be forgotten once the NFL leaves town and temperatures rise; perceptions others hold of you aren’t so easily changed. So if your relationship with someone seems to be on ice, ask her what you did. If she tells you, apologize. Chances are it’s not too late to repair the misstep you don’t remember and warm up the chill in the air.
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.