I’m not exactly sure where I first heard that phrase. It is often attributed to well-known leadership guru, Ken Blanchard. One of my previous managers in the field of organizational development used it often to describe exaclty how valuable feedback is to successful leaders. Dr. Stephen R. Covey has said, “Leaders, beware! The higher you go in an organization, the less likely people are to give you straight feedback. Feedback is your life-support system. Without it, you will eventually fail. Do everything you can to create a culture where it is safe to give you feedback.”
In my own research of the most salient topics for leadership development within a variety of organizations, the ability and propensity to give constructive feedback always ranks in the top five most important leadership skills. When you think of your own best boss experience, chances are he or she was deft at delivering difficult news about your own performance in a way that didn’t hurt, but rather enlightened you. You knew the person giving the feedback had your best interest at heart.
Some feedback is certainly more difficult to deliver than other feedback. For example, it would be less painstaking to tell someone their presentation slides are too crowded than to tell that person he or she has bad breath.
About five years ago I was serving in a corporate position with responsibility for management development across an enterprise with a presence in roughly 23 different states. Mine was the privilege of working with leadership from around the company to develop management and leadership bench strength through a variety of activities, including one-on-one coaching, classroom training, trainer certification, and performance management, among others. One day, a senior vice president of a business group brought to my attention that a general manager in a remote manufacturing center needed some feedback. He suggested I might be the right person to deliver it. To make matters even more challenging, the nature of the feedback would be to help this mid-level leader see how his sub-standard dress and grooming habits were having a negative impact on his personal credibility and the credibility of the business unit. No one in the local facility among his own leadership team had been brave enough to tell him what was obvious to everyone else.
This champion had been skipping breakfast.
Recognizing the delicate nature of this task, I started with the simple, yet profound question – “What is the right way to do this?” I had memorized a simple yet effective formula for giving constructive feedback that I had taught dozens of times in the classroom. I had used it in practice a few times, too. So, this was a natural starting place. How can I ensure that the recipient knew I had his best interest at heart? How could I be specific, yet objective about what was being observed in his dress and grooming? If he had no solution to offer, how would I frame the expected change?
Then it occurred to me. Without the new expectations being delivered by someone whose opinion has teeth, he is not likely to act on the feedback. Part of my strategy then became to tell the senior vice president who had charged me with this challenging assignment that he should be the person to offer this critical insight to the general manager. I was now poised to give the executive feedback on his request for feedback! The whole proposition was feeling more and more career-limiting by the minute.
In the end, this senior leader was very receptive to my idea that he be the one to deliver the feedback. Together we strategized the best way to frame the message, ensuring that the general manager would recognize we cared about him and that his success was our ultimate objective.
The senior leader gave the feedback. The GM’s behavior improved immediately. He also went on to lead even bigger business units with this enhanced self-awareness. Part of his new leadership strategy was to create more open channels of feedback around him and his leadership team, to ensure something like this never happens again.
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