At varying points in time, all leaders are required to inspire, motivate, and challenge employees, colleagues, customers and stakeholders. At other times, leaders need to monitor performance, hold people accountable for results, and negotiate areas of conflict.
In all of these situations, leaders rely on feedback from other people to gauge their effectiveness. In particular, leaders need employee feedback. Without it they have little hope of inspiring or motivating.
Imagine, for example, you are speaking to a room of 200 people on a topic they should all be highly engaged in. After about ten minutes you crack a joke or make a humorous comment. Nothing happens. No response. Then you notice that no one is smiling or frowning. You see nothing but blank stares. You have zero feedback. How would you know what to do to get things on track? At least if someone was nodding off, you would know to speed up, talk louder, or turn down the heat in the room!
While no feedback is difficult, inauthentic feedback can be even more difficult. For example, senior leaders (particularly C-level leaders) often feel like they are speaking to a room full of people nodding approval. They often are told nothing but “yes, that’s a great idea,” or “I’ll get right on that.” High-level leaders can find themselves thinking they are the most insightful people on the planet when in fact no one wants to give them bad news.
What leaders really need to make good decisions and motivate people is honest, direct feedback. Feedback-poor environments make it nearly impossible for leaders to motivate top performance, drive results in an organization, and inspire teams toward excellence.
How do leaders get honest feedback from employees? Ideally, they create a culture of trust where their staff can tell them the good, the bad and the ugly without a second thought. In truth, this kind of environment is rare at the executive level. Without an open, trusting culture, a well-conceived and regularly implemented 360-degree feedback process is the only reasonable approach. 360-degree feedback is an optimal tool for starting executive teams on conversations they have long wanted to have but couldn’t ever quite initiate. It is essential, however, that the 360-degree feedback process is implemented well. Poorly implemented 360s can be far worse than none at all.
There are four basic ingredients to an effective executive 360-degree feedback process: 1) everyone in the executive team (ideally 3 levels of leadership including the top) receives feedback in a 1-on-1 coaching session, 2) the survey content is relevant to organizational strategy and the executive team’s issues, 3) all leaders are expected to speak with their direct manager and their direct reports about the development priorities from the feedback, and 4) feedback must be collected anonymously from all direct reports, the direct manager, and a small subset of business partners/peers.
Given these pre-conditions, I have seen countless cases where an executive team has radically changed their culture and opened up critical conversations that had limited their effectiveness for years. Leaders literally describe it as a feeling that fresh air has been infused into the group.
In many ways, effective leaders do one thing well: they help others achieve greatness. They literally pave the way for success of their direct reports and their organization. Without feedback about what direct reports need and what is (and isn’t) working well, leaders don’t have a chance. With open, honest feedback, leaders thrive.