The CEO and Feedback

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How CEOs can ask for, secure, and act on quality feedback.

I often joke that my work is made possible because candor needs to be outsourced. CEOs have a problem getting a decent quantity of quality feedback. For new CEOs, this feedback issue is compounded by what I call the “honeymoon effect.” Further, a new CEO will have new direct reports, but won’t yet have built the kind of personal trust required to allow those reports to provide candid feedback.

Very recently, I had a call with an established CFO who works with a CEO client of mine who is new in the role. When I asked the CFO, “Can you give your new boss feedback?” his candid answer was, “That’s not my job—and, frankly, it’s too risky.”

When I’m conducting a 360 for a CEO, I always ask, “Can you give your boss feedback?” About 80% of the time the answer is “yes.” But, when I dig a little deeper, I invariably learn that this question is interpreted as, “Can you have open dialogue with your boss?” I have learned to ask a follow-up question: “Can you give your boss feedback about her/his style?” This is almost always followed by a pause on the part of the contributor—because giving the CEO such feedback is always seen as a risky undertaking.

I estimate that 30% of the 360 contributors I interview then state, “Yes, it’s not a problem; I will tell you what I tell him/her.” About 40% of 360 contributors qualify their answers and state that they can provide feedback, but (a) have to carefully pick the time to provide that feedback and (b) can provide feedback on some, but not all, style issues. Finally, there is a significant number of contributors for whom providing such feedback is simply too risky.

Of course, the CEO will be showered with positive feedback—that’s the easy part. For a newly appointed CEO, team members are usually glowing in their praise of the new CEO. The only exception is any team member who thinks they should have been appointed CEO.

CEOs are not born, they are made. The best CEOs I have worked with are keen learners. All have high IQs and most have a well-developed EQ. They have what renowned Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls “a growth mindset.” A growth mindset, applied here, is one where the CEO views improvement as possible and necessary. In contrast, a “fixed-mindset” CEO is a leader who says, “I am what I am and nothing can really change that.” The growth-mindset CEO is looking to learn from feedback. The fixed-mindset CEO ignores or deflects feedback. I can’t underscore how important it is for a CEO to have a growth mindset. Thankfully, it is possible to cultivate a growth mindset, and one of those ways is to actively seek feedback. The rest of this document is dedicated to this topic.

How Can the CEO Get Feedback?

First, it’s important to reiterate that a CEO who does not regularly get feedback is operating without an important piece of performance data. There are two ways for you to get the data you need:

  1. Ask for it. The best way to do this is to ask for suggestions about what you could do differently. The best time to do this is at the end of a one-on-one conversation, where you take five minutes to discuss you. I recommend that you not ask, “Do you have feedback for me?” Instead, ask, “Do you have any suggestions about what I could do differently?” If you are seeking very specific feedback, you might say: “I’m really working on my listening skills and not jumping in with the answer. How did I do in that meeting?”

You could also do this in real time after a team meeting or presentation/earnings call. It really is as simple as asking, “What would have made that better?” This method of soliciting feedback is often called “feedforward.” This term, coined by Marshall Goldsmith, allows the provider of feedback to help you focus on the future instead of pointing out something you did in the past that can’t be changed.

  1. A formal 360 process. There is no substitute for a 360 process that is conducted by a disinterested party. I have observed a few sub-optimal scenarios where the CEO was getting feedback in one of two ways: (a) an internal HR employee who specialized in assessment or (b) an online 360 survey tool. Neither of these methods generate meaningful behavioral data. Only an objective, qualitative process can provide the kind of in-depth information the CEO needs. A good 360 practitioner can also benchmark the CEO against the most important work a CEO might do. In my experience, a good 360 illuminates what a CEO needs to do to be effective in business and what the CEO needs to adjust to have an effective style. I’d also add that it’s important that the CEO get some informal feedback from the board chair or lead director.

What to Do with the Feedback

After you’ve had an opportunity to get feedback (especially if it’s a formal 360), you should take the following steps:

  1. Convert the feedback into development goals, which are simply what you are going to work on. You are busy, so, when creating goals, there are a few rules to follow:
    1. The goal has to have a big impact. It should give you leverage.
    2. The goal has to be meaningful to you. It has to align with your purpose and what is important to you. That’s what gives you passion and will keep you going.
    3. Each goal should meet the SMARTER criteria of:
      • Specific
      • Meaningful
      • Achievable
      • Relevant
      • Time-bound
      • Evaluable
      • Revisable
  1. When I work with clients, I want goals to have very specific actions and practices. Broad statements and sentiments won’t be helpful. In breaking down your goals into manageable steps, think of actions as one-time things that you will do (e.g., join a gym or speak to an underperforming employee/vendor). Practices, on the other hand, are things you do repeatedly (e.g., go to the gym X times per week or have one-on-one conversations with direct reports every other week).
  2. Once you have your goals finalized, the most significant thing you can do is share your goals. A huge number of studies point to the fact that sharing a goal creates greater accountability for progress. I recommend that the CEO share her/his goals with the team or with a subset of team members (stakeholders). Sometimes you might have a personal goal (e.g., get eight hours of sleep) that you’d only share with your spouse. The key here is to share your goals in the setting that makes you accountable.
  3. Use the following format for sharing your goals:
    1. Thank the person (or your team) for participating in the 360 process.
    2. Say a few words about how important development is for you and let your direct report(s) know that you are committed to their development too.
    3. Speak to your goals at a high level. Don’t provide all the details.
    4. Ask for their support and feedback. Ask them to actively provide feedback when they see you trying something different. Tell them that you’ll routinely ask for feedback in one-on-ones.
    5. At the conclusion of your request, say something pretty emphatic, like, “So now you know my development goals. It is really important to me that I get your feedback. Thank you for your ongoing support.”

This conversation should take no more than five or ten minutes. Don’t belabor it.

Five Feedback Tips for a New CEO

  1. Plan to get feedback early in your tenure (ideally in your third month).
  2. Proactively share your feedback and development goals with the board chair and your team.
  3. It is highly likely that you’ll have team members who are new to working with you; remember to give them feedback/feedforward. You’ll need to build a strong feedback loop with each team member.
  4. If you have a 90- or 100-day plan, solicit feedback based on the milestones in your plan.
  5. Schedule a conversation with the board chair (or lead director) after the first board meeting to capture feedback. Early in your tenure, the board will want to help you, which increases the likelihood of over-reach. Hitting the right balance between “nose in and fingers out” early in your tenure is critical.

Avoiding Feedback Pitfalls

I would be remiss in concluding this section without identifying some pitfalls:

  1. If you declare that you want feedback, you are going to have to follow through on asking for feedback and making changes. Otherwise, you lose credibility.
  2. I have had clients who disagree with the feedback they receive. The CEO needs a healthy ego and, when the ego resists feedback, the CEO, frankly, loses credibility. In ten years, I have worked with three CEOs who were fired (two of these engagements lasted less than two months). In all cases, the CEOs resisted feedback.
  3. Since 2010 and some changes in the law, boards are much more interested in how the CEO is getting results. I recommend that the CEO share behavioral goals with the board chair or lead director. This is especially important if the board leader has participated in the 360 process. I have often participated with the CEO and board chair in a three-way conversation about development goals. I recommend a proactive approach to avoid having board members ask executive team members, “How is the CEO doing?” It is important to stay ahead of the process.

Conclusion

It takes courage, humility, and a well-developed ego for a CEO to initiate a feedback process, but the payback is feedback that should be transformational. It should keep you on a path of sustainable, high performance in your demanding role.

Now, if you’ve had a 360-feedback process that was based on generic instruments (with all kinds of average scoring and peer ranking), do yourself a favor and hire a coach who can help you get the feedback you need to be successful. A good coach will figure out which of the feedback themes are the most important for you to pay attention to.

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