Navigating Turbulence: Using Feedback to Smooth the Ride

Once again, the news is full of both facts and gossip about the early departure of a senior leader – this time from a high profile Canadian university. Of course, no industry is immune to this turnover, all sectors have executive ‘churn’ to varying degrees. However, the frequency of this turnover continues to accelerate – driven by incessant demands for better performance in an ever more challenging business environment. In 2014 for example, the rate for CEO turnover in North America reached a six-year high according to several leading search firms.

feedback groupNo doubt, some of this turnover is due to intentional transition by senior leaders to other opportunities that are more attractive – including higher compensation, new challenges, more attractive growth potential and enhanced career profile. Many departures, however, are related to a loss of trust with key stakeholders, most notably the board.

The reasons for this loss of trust are varied, but the most common is a failure of leadership, not business acumen or technical ability. It’s a given that executives must have the right combination of technical and business skills. What isn’t so clear is the capacity for leadership at the most senior level.

So, as a leader, what’s the answer? It seems obvious, but it’s about getting better feedback from people that matter, those whose trust and support are critical to your continued success. Evidence shows a clear correlation between leadership ability and the willingness to ask stakeholders for feedback.

Very few executives would dispute this fact but many don’t act on it. Some don’t want honest feedback, many don’t ask for it, and most don’t get much of it – unless it’s forced on them. And even if they do want feedback, there’s a key problem. They wield lots of power, so while they may be earnest in their quest for feedback, their direct reports, peers or even board members aren’t likely to knock on their door and say ‘I’m going to give you some feedback’.

So what are some options, as a senior leader, for getting this much-needed feedback?

  • Reach out to colleagues who you trust and who know you well. Ask them to provide insight into key strengths and weaknesses on your leadership style – based on their assessment of how you respond in specific work situations.
  • Tap into your network of peers who work with you on partnerships, external projects, volunteer initiatives or external boards. Get their perspective on how you’re ‘showing up’ as both a contributor and leader in these situations.
  • Identify one or two specific competencies that you believe require improvement or ‘fine tuning’. Get some direct reports, who know they have your support, to provide specific suggestions on how you could make improvements.
  • feedbackPractice self-disclosure by sharing one or two fundamental facts about your leadership style and approach with others that you trust. Get their feedback on how well these elements are playing out with them, other stakeholders and across the organization.
  • Partner with a coach/consultant who specializes in executive feedback to help you obtain in-depth narrative feedback on how you’re currently viewed by important stakeholders and where there are opportunities to enhance leadership performance and key relationships. More information on this approach can be found at the executive feedback page.

When’s a good time for you or your senior team members to get this independent narrative feedback? Here are some suggestions:

  • You’re in a relatively new role, with about 12 months tenure, and want a meaningful ‘check in’ with your key stakeholders on how you’re doing
  • You’ve got high potential leaders on your senior leadership team who want to identify and confirm next steps in their development
  • You’re undergoing a review process with the Board and they want specific feedback regarding your leadership presence
  • Regulatory, reporting or fiduciary requirements dictate the collection of stakeholder feedback as part of your review process
  • You’ve got specific concerns regarding the leadership attributes and actions of an executive team member and want to better understand the dynamics behind the situation

Getting feedback about leadership effectiveness seems to be an obvious course of action for executives. Yet getting accurate, forthright and actionable information can be a challenging process. However, making the effort and being intentional, even through small steps, can make a big difference to success in the longer term.

If you’d like to get a much better picture of your leadership effectiveness, contact me (email scott@cygnusconsultants.com or call 250-882-8830) for a brief conversation about how you can immediately improve the quality of feedback you currently receive.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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