Leading Fully

Patrick Ogburn's Leadership Blog

» Font Size «

Archive for the ‘development’ Category

One of my favorite one-liners came from a friend of mine who works a lot with senior executives: “There are two things you never get as a CEO: A bad lunch, and the truth.” People usually chuckle when they hear that – because like all good humor, it has a grain of truth in it. This should be disconcerting for leaders. How can you run a company, division, or even department if nobody will tell you the truth?

Do You Hear The Truth?

For most executives, one of the most difficult things is making sure that you are getting critical feedback from people in your company. One client, a newly minted VP at a major multinational company quipped to a friend as they sat down for lunch: “I used to be able to say whatever I wanted. Now, I have to watch what I say, because suddenly, what I say matters. Whenever I say something, people run around doing stuff!”  This is the good news/bad news of being in charge: People pay attention to your actions and words!  The good news is that when you talk, things happen. The bad news is that if you haven’t gone out of your way to make sure that the truth is coming your way with intentional regularity, then it won’t – because people are waiting to see what you think before they tell you risky truth.

…or Does the Emperor Have No Clothes?

There’s a reason why the story about “The Emperor Has No Clothes” has lived on for so long. Like all lasting stories, there is an intuitive truth expressed in the story – that people are afraid to deliver tough messages to the boss. It seems irrational (even infuriating) when you are the boss, right? You know what a nice person you are. What we miss is that it is a perfectly rational response when viewed through the lens of human survival. We’ve seen other people pay the price for offering a point of view that differed too far from that of  the boss. Most of us don’t even think about it. We know that there is a line that you just don’t cross, and like dogs who have been trained to know when they are approaching the boundary lined out by the invisible fence, we instinctively stop when we sense that we are getting close to the edge.

Six Tips to Engender Candor in Your Organization

1. — Ask for feedback. Especially if there is an area of your work that you are trying to improve, ask people for the bad news. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t tell you right away. If there is a longstanding pattern of treating the boss with kid gloves, it may take a few tries. If you demonstrate that it’s OK to tell the truth, it’s amazing how much people will tell you if you ask. It’s equally amazing how long they will let you trundle along, blissfully ignorant of your shortcomings – unless you ask. People have learned that it is usually safer to not tell the boss she has warts.

2. — Listen to the feedback. This one is so important, I was inclined to put it first (if not for the temporal sequence of asking for and then receiving feedback). If you are not prepared to listen to others‘ points of view, it is better not to ask. I’m always surprised by the number of times I have seen people ask for feedback and then not ignore or discount the response.

3. — Thank them for the feedback. If someone has enough courage to give you feedback, the first thing you should do is thank them, irrespective of the substance of the message. If you are hurt, disappointed, or frustrated by an aspect of the feedback, don’t react. Thank them sincerely, take some time to reflect on it, then when you are able to see the value of the feedback, go back and thank them more specifically, letting them know how the feedback helped you.

4. — Develop Powerful Listening Skills in your leaders. Listening well is a skill. Some leaders are naturally gifted listeners, but even those are pressed for time. Leaders need to recognize and value that an important part of their job is listening to the people that rely upon them for leadership. Make it a priority in your organization, and make sure your leaders understand how to do it well.

5. — Develop feedback skills in your leaders. It’s one of the most difficult tasks to do well, and it’s one of the most important skills that a leader can have. The most effective leaders are able to deliver feedback that leaves the hearer feeling stronger for having received it, irrespective of the message. It’s easy to imagine how someone would feel stronger for having heard an encouraging feedback message. It is equally true of a well thought out, meaningful constructive or corrective feedback message. Click here for more about delivering powerful feedback.

6. — Never underestimate the power of the truth. In my years in Human Resources, coaching, and developing others, I am always surprised at the number of times that managers will say “I don’t know what to tell her/him.” They are often shocked to hear me say “Why don’t you tell them the truth?” This is not a license to be rude. You often have to think carefully about what is the useful piece of information for the hearer, and then speak clearly, simply, and with compassion. Too often, managers will deliver a tough feedback message couched in so many qualifiers that by the time it reaches the recipient, they think everything is great. It’s much better just to speak plainly.

If this sounds simple, well, that’s because it is. It does not have to be complicated to work. Don’t mistake simple for easy, however. The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these six things can be a good start toward building candor and feedback into the culture of your part of the organization.

In my time flying jets for the USAF, one of the things that I learned is that feedback can be a matter of life and death. For most of us, it’s not literally life and death, but it can seem that way. When we live our working lives in a “feedback desert,” as a client once said to me about her organization, then well-delivered feedback can seem as life-giving as water when it does finally come.

Feedback is a Gift

Think about it this way: if you were barreling around a curve on a country road, and a bridge was out just around the corner, wouldn’t you be grateful for someone shouting at you to slow down? My favorite image illustrating this is the commercial aired during super bowl XLV showing a beaver who dropped a tree in front of a speeding car which was headed for a washed out bridge. (Click here to watch it on YouTube.)

While this perspective is most useful when receiving tough messages, it can also be useful in spurring us on to do the hard work of giving meaningful feedback to those around us. Remember the times that someone had the courage to tell you the truth when the message was tough. Have you ever heard “I wish you’d have told me sooner…?”

Feedback is Powerful

Giving effective feedback is possibly the most important job you have as a leader of people. It can be one of the most powerful motivators and performance improvement tools. Done well, it forges a personal connection, gives dignity, and taps the wellspring of hope in each of us. It helps keep us aligned with the direction of the organization, and gives us the clarity we need to improve.

If It’s so Great, Why Don’t People Do It More Often?

Many managers view thoughtful feedback as a once-per-year event, linked to performance reviews (if you do them). This may be the result of being trained by habits borne of processes endemic to most organizations.

It’s also true that doing it well isn’t easy. I think that leaders mostly don’t do it because they aren’t confident in their ability to do it well. Psychologists call this “self-efficacy.” You are more likely to do things that you have confidence in your ability to perform. The trick, then, is to build your confidence in your ability to do it well.

How do I do it Well?

My 7 year old nephew was playing video games with Grandma, and soundly clobbering her in every aspect of the game. Sensing his frustration, Grandma said “I’m sorry honey, I just stink at this.” My nephew sighed heavily and replied “I can’t say anything.” His mother had taught him what many of us learned at that age. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” A minister once gave me a more sophisticated version of the same coaching. Before offering corrective feedback, ask yourself: “Is it true, is it necessary, and is it kind?” If it passes these three criteria, then go ahead. Here are a few tips that build upon that foundation.

Six Aspects of an Effective Feedback Message:

1 — The deliverer has the intent to help and not to harm. That’s where the kindness comes in. When thinking about the message, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about what benefit it will be to them, and explicitly communicate your desire to help them improve.
2 — Dialogue. Any meaningful developmental conversation I have been a part of has been a dialogue. Meaningful dialogue about the context, actions, and impact surrounding the feedback helps you to get to a mutual understanding of the facts and the significance of the issue to the organization and the individual.
3 — The feedback is true. This can be a challenging one. While you may want to believe everything you think is true – it is important to recognize that we are all subject to our own biases. See #5 below.
4 — It makes a difference. Think about whether the feedback you want to offer will help them to improve in some important way. You may not know exactly what the specific improvement will be, but you should be able to see the possibility of improvement.
5 — It distinguishes between the objective and the subjective, and responsibly communicates both. I’ve heard it said many times that you should keep the feedback purely objective – I disagree. Objectivity is important, but so is subjectivity. What’s more important than both of them is to recognize and distinguish the difference. The objective part of the message is “what happened” – the observable, verifiable facts. The subjective part of the message is the impact of their actions, which lets them know why the feedback is important.
6 — It gives everyone a path forward. Even when delivered well, corrective feedback can be difficult, and positive feedback can feel good but have little impact. A meaningful discussion about the path forward can help both parties understand the path forward. This includes next steps, agreements, offers of support, requests, and commitments.

If you’ve not been doing this well, give yourself some grace – very few leaders do. Don’t, however, give yourself an out. this is one of the most important skills you can master as a leader of people.  The reason more people don’t do feedback well is not because it is complicated, it is because it’s not easy to do well. Even so, doing these five things can be a good start toward building your skills as a developer of great performance in others.

Many times, leaders who attain a level of success by advancing through their technical discipline reach a level where their strengths don’t seem to be getting them the results they expect at the next level. “What got you here won’t get you there” is the title of a recent business book by Marshall Goldsmith. The reason the title is so catchy is that it’s idea that’s been around for awhile, and has some intuitive truth in it. There are valuable lessons from this idea. I’ve also seen some logical fallacies often applied in the wake of this insight.

Tone it Down?

Too many times I have heard a well intentioned coach tell someone they need to “tone down” their strengths. I ‘m not sure I agree. I understand where this idea comes from. All of us have known leaders who are insufferable know-it-alls, or leaders who leave people bewildered as they rapidly jump from initiative to initiative, or many of us have experienced the pain of working for a “control freak.” I won’t disagree that we could point out aspects of overused strengths to each of those leaders, and all would agree that they seem to need to “tone it down” in some way. I would further suggest that in each case, it’s often not a simple matter of toning down a strength. Rather, it’s more often a matter of better understanding and judiciously applying the real strength, and/or balancing that strength with new talents and perspectives that help to make more productive use of the best of who you are.

By way of illustration, let’s look at the first example on the list: the “know it all.” This is a reasonably common scenario. For the purposes of this illustration, we’ll narrow it to a specific variety of know-it-all;  a technical expert who became a leader of people. In this case, let’s say the leader’s name is “Kelly.” Kelly is a brilliant technician, and clearly and quickly sees to the heart of most technical issues, effortlessly fashioning elegant solutions before most people understand the problem. Suddenly, when leading other competent people, his best skills don’t seem to be helping. His skilled engineers don’t want his elegant solution — they want to create their own. Truth is, he probably wants them to do that also.

Misapplied Strength

Very often, this is the point at which some well meaning coach will say: “You need to throttle back your analytical and problem solving skills.” Not so fast. While there is merit in the intentions, the suggestion is rooted in incomplete logic: “If a skill is getting in the way, don’t use it as much.” What this misses is that the skill or “strength” as we’ll call it, is not the issue. The issue is behavior. A subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference when making an adjustment. In this situation, the behavior of solving direct reports’ problems for them is one aftereffect of applying the problem solving strength – or more accurately stated: misapplying that strength.

OK – Now what?

The real question, especially for the practical minded among us is: What do I do with this insight? Here are five things you can do to move the needle

  1. The starting point is to work hard to gain clarity about your unique mix of strengths. Sometimes the mere action of building self-awareness will move you in the right direction. There are many ways to do this, the most effective of which collect input from others which feeds a meaningful dialogue about your unique gift mix. Multi-rater questionnaire based feedback (often called 360 feedback) can be a very cost-effective and efficient way to gather feedback – when done properly.
  2. Work towards balance. Very often, rather than simply “scaling back” your strengths, better results can be gained by identifying counterbalancing strengths, that, if present, could help you be more effective. In our example, Kelly (not his real name) could be more effective by strengthening his receptivity behaviors. By intentionally developing behaviors that force him to elicit solutions and be open to the input of others, he would be able to mitigate some of the counterproductive effects of overusing his own analytical ability.
  3. Look for ways to reframe and reapply your strengths. Sometimes the shift can be achieved by reframing the challenge to which you are applying your best self. Back to our example: Rather than being a great engineer managing his team of engineers, Kelly could become a leader of great engineers. First and foremost a leader of people, whose depth of knowledge in engineering strengthens him as a leader. When you apply analytical skills to being a leader, the subtle shift results in  solutions that support their analytical prowess rather than highlight your own.
  4. Build in mechanisms for ongoing feedback. Development is, by its nature, a challenging and somewhat risky endeavor. If you are really developing and growing, you will be trying out new perspectives, approaches, and behaviors. Rarely do we get it right the first time. Find people you trust to give you meaningful feedback. If you have direct reports, cultivate dialogue with them that will allow them to give you meaningful feedback.
  5. Make sure that you don’t do this alone. Develop relationships with leaders you respect through which you can get meaningful, objective coaching. When you can find these relationships within your company, they can bring the added dimensions of providing some specific insight about the company and building influential allies. There can also be value in having someone outside of your company as an objective observer and coach.