Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Everybody Knows About Your Weaknesses – Do You?

One of the most effective ways to develop as a leader, or to develop other leaders, is giving and receiving feedback.

Why? Because when it comes to assessing our own abilities, we tend to be pretty accurate when it comes to assessing our technical or functional skills. However, when it comes to assessing the impact our behaviors have on others, that’s where we lose sight of reality. That’s because we tend to assess ourselves based on our intentions, while others judge us by our behaviors. To compound the issue, we tend to get more objective feedback on our technical skills (test scores, metrics, instant results) than we do on the “soft stuff”.

Managers are notoriously unskilled when it comes to giving feedback - it’s one of the lowest scoring skills on management assessments. They’re not good at it, and they don’t like to do it, so they avoid it. And while we all say we want more feedback from our managers (and significant others), we’re not very good at receiving it.

One of the ways organizations have attempted to address the need to provide feedback to leaders is to use 360 degree leadership assessments. These multi-rater surveys, usually sent to direct reports, peers, and the manager, are a good way to collect confidential developmental feedback.

However, they can be time consuming, costly, and don’t always get to the heart of behavior issues.

As an alternative to a formal 360 assessment, I’ve started to use a “stakeholder assessment” process. Actually, I’m not aware of a formal name for it, so I made it up. The technique is often used by executive coaches as a way to supplement and clarify findings from a 360 assessment.

Here’s how it works (written from the perspective of the leader being assesses):

1. Enlist someone to help you with the process – we’ll call this someone a “coach”. It could be a formal coach, an HR or training person, your manager, or a trusted peer.

2. Pick about a dozen people who you trust and/or opinions matter to you. It’s usually direct reports, peers, manager, maybe a manager 2 levels up.

3. Decide what questions you want your coach to ask them. Something like:
- What is Dan doing well?
- How could he improve?
- What suggestions do you have for him in the future?

4. Send an email to all stakeholders. Here’s a sample:
"I am working with (coaches name). She will be contacting you shortly to set up a 20-30 minute appointment to gather your input on how I am performing in some key areas on which I’ve decided to get feedback and suggestions for improvement. The feedback I receive will be confidential and I will be following up with you to share my learning’s and what specific actions I will be doing to improve.
Thank you very much, please let me or (coach) know if you have any questions."

5. Coach interview each stakeholder, take notes, and summarize all notes by question.

6. Coach sends notes to leader a few hours ahead of time, and then meets to review the findings. Discuss reactions, surprises, and insights.

7. Leader picks 1-2 behaviors and creates an action plan to improve. Coach can help. Set clear, measurable goals, and regular times to check in with the coach.

8. Follow-up with stakeholders to thank them for their feedback, and let them know what you are going to working on to improve as a leader. Ask for their help in assessing your improvement, providing ongoing feedback, and additional suggestions.

That’s it! It’s simple, fast, cheap, and is incredibly effective. I’ve seen amazing transformations in leaders that have used this process. When they are aware of the little things that may be annoying people and limiting their effectiveness, and are motivated to change, it’s usually fairly easy to simply stop behaviors, rather than learning new ones. Also, when stakeholders are involved in the process and the leader is authentically transparent, their stakeholders end up rooting got them to succeed. They notice even small improvements, which ends up changing their perceptions faster.

Leaders are sometimes afraid to try this. I can understand this. It’s somewhat scary to hear about what others think about your strengths and weaknesses. But if everyone else is already aware of your weaknesses, wouldn’t you want to know too?


Laura Lewis-Barr said...

Nice post. Since so much of our communication happens beyond our conscious awareness, it isn't surprising that others may know us better than we know ourselves.

Jo Ayoubi said...

I think this is a great approach and agree with Laura's commment.
Our brains are designed to overlook our own flaws and weaknesses and to feel more confident about our skills than is realistic (how many people do you know who think they're a much better driver than average?...I know an awful lot of them, inculding myself!). This being the case, feedback from others on specific areas and behaviours is essential if we are going to improve, whether in work or elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

You may want to try, which is a website that you can use to send questions to a big group of people and they can respond anonymously. Saves some time, although you lost out a bit without the ability to ask follow up questions and clarify.

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...

Hey Dan, great post! The difference between how a leader views themself and how others view them can be huge. How do you know unless you ask?

James Higham said...

Accepting feedback is just about the most difficult thing for a leader to do.

Becky Robinson said...

The photo you chose illustrates your post perfectly, Dan. My personal experience is that accepting feedback about weaknesses is difficult outside of the workplace, too. In things even closer to home, it is even easier to get entrenched in evaluating yourself by your intentions rather than your actions.

Dan McCarthy said...

Laura, Jo, Anon, Mary Jo, James, Becky -
Thanks, sounds like we all see the need for feedback, and how hard it can be. I've found this method to be one of the most easiest and effective ways to get it.

Sarah McC said...

What a great picture!

Human Being said...

I agree, couple of years ago, i was told i am not assertive. Quite frankly i did not know the actual meaning and the context of people's thoughts. I did spend time with many to understand what is that they actually mean. Later attended courses to improve on this. I wanted to make sure i don't go too far as aggression and stop at assertiveness. I am thankful to everyone who contributed in my development. Constructive criticism always helps, no one is born perfect.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post, Dan.

We actually used this process with a client who appeared to us to be having customer relations problems. So, we made a series of phone calls on behalf of our client.

The result: A few apologetic meetings and eventually increased business with each.

You've described a methodology that can be used in numerous situations. It's a public service to managers, coaches, and consultants everywhere.

Dan McCarthy said...

HB -
Well said!

Steve -
Great idea using the same process for customers!

Joe Lavelle said...

Hi Dan - This is a great post! In fact I think it is the best post I have read from anyone this year!

People that have not yet learned the lesson of honestly evaluating themselves and that have not learned effective methods (like the ones you suggest) for getting HONEST feedback are severely disadvantaged when it comes to career advancement (or what I would rather term career acceleration).

Honest, real feedback is the primary fuel that can accelerate our careers.

Best wishes and always Act As If It Were Impossible to Fail!
Joe Lavelle

Dan McCarthy said...

Joe -
Wow, thanks!

K. Scott Derrick said...

Hi Dan,

Excellent post! This technique is also sometimes called colleague interviews or narrative 360 feedback (i.e., "a narrative 360"). Narrative 360s have been invaluable in my experience as an executive coach.

I have found that interviews with five stakeholders can be sufficient to identify those key areas that the leader might wish to focus on, while also allowing for a good degree of confidentiality. Clear patterns usually start to emerge after about three interviews.

At Georgetown University's leadership coaching program, we learned about a good set of questions to ask stakeholders in the 360 narratives:

- What should Dan keep doing?
- What should Dan start doing?
- What should Dan stop doing?

These questions help to keep the focus on leader behavior.

Keep the great posts coming!

Mike Myatt said...

I'm late to the conversation but I must agree that leaders need to know their weaknesses to be successful. Great post.

Mike Myatt


Dan McCarthy said...

Mike -
better late than never! Thanks

Belinda Rielly said...

This is great. I think I'll implement it.

Dan McCarthy said...

Belinda -
please let me know how it works for you.

Adi @ The Management Blog said...

I wonder how the current economic climate impacts upon this. If you have seen colleagues made redundant are you going to be open about your boss and their faults?

Craig Mostat said...

No dispute that most managers are very uncomfortable with this, and I think the method you outline is excellent.
However, I feel that all leaders should work toward a relationship that allows open an honest sharing face to face.
I recently wrote about this.

Elise Foster said...

Talk about being late to the conversation, I'd say over 12 months is late!

Great post Dan! I love the emphasis on stakeholder input. Your model very closely mirrors a coaching methodology for which recently received certification, the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process, based on Marshall Goldsmith's concepts.

One alternative I'd offer in the initial set of questions is this:

"If you could wave a magic wand and this person could change one specific behavior, what would it be?" Similar to the question about suggestions for the future, this question can really help the individual get to the changes that will add the most value in the near term, in my opinion.

Thanks again for a great post - I really enjoy your blog and find myself reading it often!

Dan McCarthy said...

Elise -
I like your magic wand question.