I was two months into a new leadership role when my boss called me into her office. She told me I needed to make some changes. Not with my staff, but with me.
I will never forget the feedback she gave me. Although it was hard to hear, it would end up being a turning point in my career. It was critical information that would help me to be more effective in any leadership position.
Her feedback? Stop doing my old job and start delegating. She explained that the value I needed to bring in my leadership role was not the same value I brought in my technical role. I shouldn’t be spending my time answering benefit questions or fixing payroll issues. I needed to lead at a higher level and teach and coach my employees to handle the technical areas.
At first I felt disappointed that I wasn't exceeding expectations. I thought I was doing a good job because I was able to help anyone who called the human resources department. But that wasn’t my job anymore. Although I may have been helpful to that individual manager or employee who called, I wasn’t being helpful to the organization as a whole. I wasn’t operating at the level necessary for being an effective leader.
Feedback is critical for letting you know whether you are on course or off course toward your goals. There are two kinds of feedback--negative and positive. Of course we all love positive feedback, and most of us would rather avoid any negative feedback. But one of the smartest things a leader can do is to seek out opportunities for improvement. And that is what negative or constructive feedback is--an opportunity to learn, adjust and grow.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, was recently asked, “What is the number one thing you look for in someone who can scale with a company?” Her answer: “Someone who takes feedback well. Because people who can take feedback well are people who can learn and grow quickly.”
It may be uncomfortable, but asking for feedback often can be just the information you need to excel and succeed in leadership. Leaders who regularly solicit feedback not only gain valuable information, they also build trust with their employees since they are open to hearing conflicting ideas, perceptions and information.
Below are three things to consider to gain valuable feedback:
1. Use a feedback scale. Let’s say you want to get feedback from your employees on the quality of your leadership. You can ask each employee the following question:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the quality of my leadership over the past month?
- An answer less than 10 gets this follow-up question:
- What would it take to make it a 10? (This is where you will get some detailed, valuable feedback on what to improve).
- If the employee responds with a “10” then ask,
- What specifically did I do to earn such a high score? (Again, this is where you will get detailed feedback).
I learned this technique from my mentor, Jack Canfield. This question can be used with your boss, employees, children, customers or anyone you want feedback from. I recently asked my husband, “How would you rate the quality of our relationship over the past month?” (The answer was 9. Not bad, but there’s still room for improvement). :-) The beauty of this question is that it generally solicits specific, actionable information.
2. Be specific with your question. One of my coaching clients recently asked her CEO for feedback, and the CEO was very vague and general with her answer. It seemed that she didn’t really want to provide specific information for fear of hurting her employee’s feelings. My client really wanted the information so she could learn how to improve and excel even further in her career. I suggested she go back with a more specific question. Think of it this way:
General/vague question=general/vague answer
Specific question=specific answer
Avoid these general questions:
- What feedback can you give me on my performance?
- What can I improve?
- How am I doing?
All of these questions are very general and can even be overwhelming for someone to answer. Your manager might be thinking about five to 10 things she can tell you, but doesn’t really know how to frame her answer.
Instead, ask more specific questions:
- From your perspective, what is my best strength as a leader?
- What is one thing I can improve upon overall as a leader?
- What is one thing over the past month you think I could improve upon?
- What is one thing I did really well this month that I should continue doing?
These questions are easier to answer because they are more specific and pointed.
3. Ask regularly. When you ask for feedback on a regular basis, you send the message that you are open to hearing the information. It may take some people time to feel comfortable giving you constructive feedback, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive meaningful feedback the first time you ask. You may need to be more specific with your question, or it may take time for some people to trust that you will be open and receptive to the information.
You certainly don’t want to bombard your boss or employees by constantly asking for feedback, but asking regularly will create an environment where your colleagues feel comfortable openly sharing feedback with you, even if you don’t ask. In my experience, leaders who display a level of approachability and who listen well are more likely to receive honest, constructive feedback from their colleagues.
When a colleague does give you valuable feedback, don’t forget to thank them for the information. Don’t defend yourself if you don’t like what you hear. Just say “thank you, I appreciate your feedback” and decide what part of the information you can use to improve.
Exceptional leaders are always looking to improve. They never settle for the status quo or assume they have nothing more to learn. They seek constant, never-ending improvement.
I’d love to hear from you: What is the best feedback you ever received in your career?
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or firstname.lastname@example.org.