I was running through the woods at Eagle Creek Park last Saturday with a good friend. I had sensed something was off in our relationship, so I asked him if there was anything I was doing that was making life harder for him. Over the next several minutes he calmly described two of my habits that weren’t working for others around me, or for him. The first habit involved dominating in group conversations and the second related to going too fast and deep in relationships, when not invited to do so.
As he described his perspective on my behaviors, I felt defensiveness and anger welling up in me. My mind immediately started to generate justifications for why I do what I do.
Since then, I’ve been reflecting on how rare it is that I get really helpful feedback about how I lead.
Most of the CEOs I work with don’t have adequate feedback channels in place. Even in cultures where they hear bad news from the front lines quickly, they rarely receive a regular stream of new perspectives about their own personal leadership. During a really good week, they may hear one helpful insight from a spouse, a trusted consultant, or a Board member.
It’s an open secret among top executives… being a CEO is a lonely and isolating job. It may seem glamorous to those scaling the ladder of success to the corner cube, but as any CEO will tell you, it ain’t all roses and lollipops.
Without regular and insightful feedback, we stagnate. Even worse, we can start to believe we’re doing just fine when others can plainly see our opportunities to improve. And if the chief executive’s organization is scaling quickly, the degree of difficulty gets amped up further, simply because today’s leadership competency will be inadequate for tomorrow’s challenges.
Occasionally I run into a CEO whose attitude astounds me. Once when I asked a founder and CEO, “Have you ever considered hiring an executive coach?” he replied, “Chip, I don’t think you understand how much I know.” Doh. But more often, those in charge of organizations recognize that they self-sabotage (unintentionally) and that their impact on others can be dramatically different than what they intended. You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.
When CEOs aren’t receiving much feedback, what dynamics are at play? There are three factors that get in the way:
- The power gradient between the other members of my team and me can stifle authentic conversations. When I have the authority to hire and fire, others naturally tend to tread with more caution.
- It can feel unsafe to be challenged. My ego sometimes prefers to remain blissfully unaware. When I’m comfortable, it’s easy not to deliberately seek the pain.
- I’m the hero of my own story. It’s easy to assume that I’m right because I know my intentions are good (or better than someone else’s intentions, anyway). I tend to be more generous with my own motives than I am with others’.
The habitual ways I respond to feedback give me the right to hear more, or teach the giver that it wasn’t worth it. I have 3 practical suggestions for CEOs that can start the journey of building stronger feedback channels. Each of these approaches can help you earn the right, over time, to hear more and more from others:
- Prime the pump. When you find nobody is providing you any performance feedback (for whatever reason), think of your top 3 opportunities for growth. Take one of these topics and say, “I think one of my biggest flaws is ____. To what degree do you agree with me that it’s an important issue for me to work on? Is there anything else you think would be more important for me to focus on?” Initiating this conversation gives explicit permission for the other person to dig in to a topic they might otherwise naturally avoid.
- Demonstrate gratitude and curiosity. When you receive any feedback (whether you agree or disagree), say, “Thank you for the feedback.” Without defensiveness (no arguing), ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the other’s perspective on the impact you’re having.
- Close the loop. After you’ve had a chance to digest the feedback and decide if you will change anything internally (beliefs, attitude, perspectives) or externally (behaviors, actions), share your insights with the individual who honored you with the gift of feedback.
Of course these 3 suggestions don’t just work with the top executive. The best CEOs not only have robust feedback channels for themselves, they also intentionally build and steward a culture in which everyone has good channels. When all team members regularly make meaningful and powerful contributions to each other’s’ development, the organization is well positioned to grow its people at the velocity required by the CEO’s vision of the future.
As you may have surmised, my running buddy was spot-on with his feedback. I’m thankful for his courage, candor, and selflessness. I needed to hear his perspective, even though it stung. His words churned up some uncomfortable emotions in me, but I hope I earned the right to hear more.