It was 1994, but I can still see the shell-shocked faces of the other CEOs. In Quebec City for an American Management Association conference, I had just shared the results of my annual Roundtable Review, in which the six vice presidents who reported to me anonymously listed their views of my strengths and NTIs. The NTIS were things like:
- You’re very careful of your own time, but not always with others’ time. You get too involved in micro issues and often cause meetings to run late.
- In quizzing deeply for problems, you come up with small, insignificant things that waste people’s time on follow-up.
- You try to come across as caring, but you’re not always genuine. Example: You asked an employee in the presence of his spouse the name of another employee’s spouse.
The CEOs were aghast. “I can’t believe you let your people talk to you like that,” one said. “Hey,” I said, “if they’re thinking it, I want to know. At least then I can deal with it.” Was it painful to read the negative stuff? Absolutely. You always like to think that your employees admire you. Don’t kid yourself. If you’re committed to being the best leader you can be, you’ve got to let Toto pull back the curtain and expose the flaws of the great and powerful Oz (that would be you).
For my annual Roundtable Review, the people who reported directly to me wrote their critiques and submitted them to HR, who merged and purged the comments and presented them to me anonymously.
Solicited brutally frank feedback must be accepted with grace. Early on, I often heard comments like, “You say you’re open to us giving you feedback, but you should see your facial contortions when we do; it’s a kill-the-messenger look.” They were right. My spoken gratitude was belied by body language that said I’d rather be walking barefoot over hot coals. I had to train myself to listen reflectively, rather than defensively.
Confidential feedback has to be acted upon—quickly—lest your people quit bothering to drop comments into the pipeline. I basically had three responses: “That’s valid and I’ll try to do better,” “I hear what you’re saying, but this is why I do it like that,” and “I totally disagree, and here’s why.”
➤ Less egotism, more empathy. These four words enhance work relationships because they scrub the vagueness out of communication. Ultimately, success depends on how well you communicate your ideas and how well you receive feedback.
➤ Acquire listening skills. Conversations aren’t competitions. They’re successful only when both parties win. People feel free to express themselves when they feel appreciated, and nothing shows appreciation in the business world like the scarce resource of undivided attention.
➤ Be concise. Keep memos short, sweet, and readable. Use subheads, quick paragraphs, crisp writing, and lots of bullets. Be clear and precise in verbal communications, especially when the stakes are high.
Painful as it may be, you’re best off knowing what employees think of you. Keep it anonymous, accept it graciously, and offer a detailed response to show you take their input seriously.