I make my living in large measure helping executives understand how others see them, and then deciding what to do about that. The truth is that while most of us have a fairly complete knowledge of how other people’s behavior affects us, we are generally clueless as to how our behavior affects others, or how they perceive us.
One of the ways that I facilitate executives’ self-awareness is by getting feedback from their bosses, peers and those who report to them. It sounds easy and straightforward; it’s not. Here’s why: While many organizations solicit feedback as a part of their leadership development initiatives, most of that feedback is useless because it is too generic and not actionable. A recent personal example:
The CEO of a large multi-national company and its Chief HR Officer hired me to work with the new President of the company’s largest division. After meeting with those two gentlemen with my coaching client and subsequently mapping out the engagement, my first order of business was to collect feedback from a dozen individuals, including the CEO, peers, and members of my client’s team, who could/would give me insight into my client’s effectiveness.
In advance of each interview, I sent those people an explanation of my approach along with four categories for them to consider: My client’s strengths, his weaknesses, things that he did that he should stop doing, and things that he didn’t do that he should start doing. My first discussion was with the CEO. Under the category of “weaknesses,” the first thing he mentioned was my client’s “rough engagement style.”
I looked at him quizzically and asked him what that meant. He returned my gaze with a perplexed look and asked the following: “You can’t be serious! You don’t know what that is?”
My response: “I know what comes to mind when someone uses that label, but I can’t do anything about it; it’s too generic. It describes a state of being rather than specific things he is doing when he demonstrates his style. I can’t wait until someone has a philosophical epiphany to propel change. I work with a person to change what he is doing. With that in mind: When he is demonstrating his rough engagement style, what is it that he’s doing?”
After a moment of silent reflection, the CEO responded: “Well … one thing he does regularly is really irritating. During meetings, he will routinely cut people off in mid-sentence to make a point. It really angers people when he does that.”
My response: “Terrific! Now we’re making headway.” I wanted to dig deeper into this point, so I asked the following: “Does he do this with specific people or in specific situations exclusively, or does he do it all of the time?”
Again, after some thought, the CEO responded: “You know Rand … he really only does that with three people: our CFO, our Chief HR Officer, and our General Counsel.”
I continued to probe for the reasons that might help to fill in the blanks for me. After several more minutes, I believed that I had some really concrete information that I could act upon.
Here’s the point of all of this: When getting feedback, most executives just don’t dig deep enough. In this specific instance, if the CEO had a feedback discussion that went no deeper than “rough engagement style,” my client would have bobbed his head implying understanding, and the CEO would have assumed likewise. My client would have then left the CEO’s office with incomplete understanding and no idea what to do next.
The same battle-tested executives who insist that business objectives and action plans be SMART (specific, measureable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) have a hard time coming to grips with the necessity that development objectives and action plans be likewise. As an executive, you will NEVER make headway with your own personal development plans or those of your team members unless those plans are as SMART as (for example) your revenue plans.
Self-Awareness is a Necessary Step in Improving Effectiveness
With all of the aforementioned in mind, every executive ought to be able to answer the following questions about him or her self in a precise way:
- What are my strengths?
- What are my weaknesses?
- What stresses me?
- What are the triggers that propel me into unproductive behavior?
- How do I manage conflict?
- How well (and how) do I respond to authority?
- How do I deal with criticism?
- Am I an effective team member?
- What is my communication style (including, especially, listening)?
Unless you can answer those questions with a high degree of certainty, detail, and specificity, you have no shot at being an effective leader. Feedback that is equally detailed and specific is a necessary first step in acquiring self-awareness and improving effectiveness.