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?