Exceptional leaders have one thing in common: They know themselves well. That’s why it’s important for them to gather feedback from key stakeholders — a process many leaders view as a gift, because it reveals opportunities.
One way to gather that information is through 360-degree feedback, and the process of getting that feedback is experiencing a much-needed transition from quantitative to qualitative. To be sure, value remains in quantitative scoring (i.e., on a 1-to-5 scale) but the real improvement among company leaders comes from drilling down a few levels deeper to determine not just an overall score but an individual’s strengths and opportunities.
Qualitative feedback from key stakeholders — gained through intensive one-on-one interviews — is the key. More and more, executives who embrace this kind of approach take meaningful next steps and improve in ways that might never have occurred to them otherwise.
First, Who Gives the Feedback?
When identifying key stakeholders to be interviewed, it’s important that they represent a range of roles within the organization and a range of relationships with the executive. Typically, a leader provides a list inclusive of his or her direct-line supervisor, a couple of peers, a couple of direct reports and individuals from outside the organization — perhaps a mentor.
The stakeholders need not and should not be the executive’s best friends, but there should be a level of familiarity. In one case, a CEO’s limousine driver was interviewed and provided some incredibly meaningful insight, likely because he had a front-row seat to the CEO’s interactions with a whole range of individuals, including his spouse and children, his board, and even government officials.
We recently worked with a CEO for a large company who is a great public speaker. But early on it was clear he was strongest when speaking extemporaneously. Speaking off the cuff, he appeared authentic and relatable. But when a script was needed — and it often was, because the CEO worked for a public company and regularly took calls with investors — he came across as forced and stilted.
This was a finding from interviewing key stakeholders, and it was one that shocked the CEO. Given the easy way about him and crowd reactions when he spoke unscripted, he always had assumed his public speaking abilities were strong across the board.
For executive coaches in a situation like this, the first step is to make sure the executive in question agrees with the feedback and wants to address it. In this case, the CEO was receptive to the feedback and was determined to develop further.
How to Improve Based on the Feedback
Identifying how to improve was the next step.
We worked with the CEO to find ways that his strengths could help negate his weaknesses by way of color commentary on his own presentations. In other words, he might have to deliver scripted remarks, but he’d jot down additional analysis or storytelling, often by hand, that he could weave in. The fact that such commentary was not in the script helped change his mindset and made him a better speaker.
It also was important for him to receive feedback in real time from an audience member. Accordingly, he sought out an attendee from whom he could secure immediate commentary. This was important because the CEO would often give the same remarks several times in a 24-hour period. Having someone give him feedback each time allowed for continuous improvement.
Not every executive likes what he or she hears. One executive, upon receiving an 18-page feedback report, wouldn’t accept the qualitative feedback we provided.
But that sort of reaction is increasingly the exception, as those engaged with executive coaches know some constructive criticism might be coming their way. The situation should only improve as millennials — who are increasingly elevated to leadership roles and, as a result, are often the subjects of coaching — generally embrace feedback more than members of other generations.
More to the point, that’s why smart executives, particularly those looking to climb the corporate ladder, see this kind of feedback as a gift. That’s certainly what the CEO did when he learned about his limitations as a speaker. A year after he received the initial feedback, he spoke to a crowd of 200 at a company gathering. The feedback from his colleagues was immediate: The difference compared to a year ago was quite simply night and day.