What Every Leader Needs to Hear

As we approach the midpoint of the calendar year, leaders and organizations should be preparing to give their people formal feedback. Halfway through the year is a good time for feedback, because managers can learn from successes as well as mistakes and put in place changes that will lead to better results and outcomes over the second half of the year.

That said, what should happen is not always the same as what does happen, and if you’re like most executives you will, alas, probably neither give nor receive midyear feedback. That’s a huge missed opportunity, and one you can change, at least for the people you’re responsible for. (You can also try to generate feedback from your own boss and peers, simply by asking “How Am I Doing?”)

However, even if you’re not going to be getting any formal feedback in the next few weeks, we can help. As leadership and organization development advisors and consultants, we have over the decades seen literally thousands of executive assessments, performance reviews, and 360-degree feedback reports, and it is remarkable to note that executives, whatever their role or company, tend to get almost exactly the same kind of feedback about what they can do better, differently, or more or less of as leaders. (Obviously leaders also get a lot of specific feedback that varies depending on their industry, organization, business challenges, change dynamics, etc.)

We asked about a dozen of our colleagues who regularly work with C-suite and senior-level executives to tell us what kinds of feedback people give their leaders, and we clustered what we heard most often into seven general themes:

1— COMMUNICATE MORE: “More communication” is probably the most common feedback leaders get, and to some extent it’s a catch-all for important things people want but don’t fully know how to articulate. Communicating more doesn’t mean starting a newsletter or cc:ing lots of people on your e-mails. Rather, it relates to how much dialogue you are creating as a leader: two-way conversation where your people can be heard and all parties are able to ensure they understand each other and are aligned. This theme also embraces strategy and vision; that is, creating a shared story which becomes the narrative people need to hear to ensure that they are doing the right things in the right way for the right reasons. (In many years of working with leaders, we have never once seen an example of an executive faulted for over-communication: “Tony, really, you can stop talking about our strategy and how we should be executing it—we all get it.”)

2— DELEGATE TO ME AND EMPOWER ME. The ability to delegate represents a critical transition from being a do-er to becoming a manager and leader, and it can be a difficult transition for achievement-oriented people. Under pressure they tend to think, “this one (customer, project, presentation) is really important—I need to do it myself to ensure we get the win.” Instead try letting go of control, getting out of the details, and giving up the ball to allow your team score. If you don’t, you won’t be able to scale your business or organization because you’ll be limited by your own bandwidth; you also won’t be developing followers who can step up as enterprise leaders in the future. You can be sure that your boss also wants you to delegate, because by doing so you free yourself up to do the things that only you can do. Remember, however, that delegation is not abdication: instead of simply assigning tasks, you should be creating capability in others by showing them where they need to go and helping them get there. Which leads us right into #3….

3— SPEND MORE TIME COACHING ME: Coaching is the necessary counterpart to delegation: having given them the task, help them succeed! The most powerful feedback in executive 360s, ranging from frustrated to poignant, is when followers express the desire for coaching and development. Give me feedback; invest in me to make me better, not just to get more output from me; show me that you have an interest in my career and future. This theme relates to both execution and talent development: getting things done today while developing stars for tomorrow. As many leadership theorists have written, the most important job of a leader is to create other leaders; and as successful CEOs know, people development is not something to be delegated to the human resources function. In many ways, the most essential activity of effective management is coaching. (If you don't believe this, think of the best boss you ever had, and then ask yourself what he or she did to earn that assessment from you.)

4— BUILD A HIGHER-PERFORMING TEAM: Team development is a classic blind spot, and executives tend to give themselves higher marks in this area than do others, particularly their bosses. The team is the most important social unit of any organization, the means by which the work really gets done, but most leaders fail to invest meaningfully in aligning their teams and enhancing performance. A team should be a powerful alliance—a partnership where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—not merely a collection of people who happen to report to the same leader. What are you doing to increase your team’s effectiveness? Or, better, how effective is your team at innovating and driving results when you’re not at the hub of it? Team members become highly skeptical and even disengaged when their leader fails to address underperformers, or takes no action when it’s clear that the right people are not in the right roles. As a leader, you are truly only as good as your team.

5— WORK BETTER ACROSS ORGANIZATIONAL BOUNDARIES. Many comments in executive 360s cluster around the broad concept of working across the enterprise and “breaking down silos.” Collaborate better, manage conflict more constructively and work effectively in the matrix. Take risks and challenge the status quo, but do so by getting buy-in and engaging stakeholders. Seek to understand the complexity of the entire business, not just your unit—and innovate by looking outside your own sphere of influence. Manage up and across, not just down. Be more visible and generous, and advocate more for your people. This theme is the one with the most diversity of feedback, and if you’re thinking about how it applies to you, you may need to work a bit to identify your biggest opportunities and challenges. For more senior executives, achieving the next promotion or career milestone often depends on figuring out how this development area relates to them—and taking more considered risks to create impact at a higher level.

6— FOCUS MORE ON STRATEGY AND CULTURE, AND THINK ABOUT YOUR LEGACY. One of the best pieces of advice we ever gave, which was elicited by an extremely thoughtful C-suite client, was to think more assertively about your role as a project, with specific goals and inflection points, not merely as a an open-ended position. The strategic question is: How should you prioritize energy, time, and resources to make significant progress against your “Big Rocks” in the next six months and beyond? Too many leaders fall victim to organizational inertia and lose their sense of urgency. “Being more strategic” doesn’t mean some sort of mad scientist capability; it means clearly laying out prioritized goals and a compelling plan for how to achieve them, ideally built with your followers and not for them—and then holding yourself accountable those goals and milestones, and ensuring that your team understands the priorities and executes against them with clarity and in unison. Furthermore, as we’ve all come to realize, strategy is inseparable from culture. Celebrated leaders such as Lou Gerstner, Jack Welch, and Steve Jobs spent increasing amounts of their time as CEOs driving culture in their companies. If you frame the question as “what legacy do you want to leave?” you will gain clarity on how to build something that will last and continue to add value after you move on to your next role. What do you want to be known for?

7— ASK FOR MY FEEDBACK: Our last theme is the briefest and simplest: your colleagues want you to solicit their input on how they feel about things, what they want you to know, and what you may be missing. Several of the standard on-line 360s have “he/she asks for my feedback” as one of their stock behavioral questions, and nearly every executive who goes through these 360s gets “Asks for feedback” as their single lowest-rated item. (We have occasionally joked that we could make a lot of money offering to bet our clients what 360 question will be their lowest score.) Asking for feedback is a trivial act, but if done with authenticity it can have a huge positive effect: it demonstrates self-awareness and a willingness to improve; it signals that you value the perspectives and input of your colleagues; and it reveals a productive kind of vulnerability. Asking for feedback brings us back to theme #1 above: the importance of communication and fostering dialogue. And dialogue is, of course, essential to all the other themes, from delegating and coaching to building a higher-performing team to working across organizational boundaries. It is so easy to get better in this area: simply work more open-ended questions into your natural style (“Does this make sense?” “What did I miss?” “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”) and be sure to show that you actually want to listen to the answers.

These seven leadership themes are the ones we see most often in executive assessments, performance reviews, and 360s. If you’re an executive who has received formal feedback recently, some of them probably look familiar. If you haven’t received feedback in a while, the odds are good that some of them apply to you. So, what are you going to do about it?

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences related “what leaders really need to hear”—please share your perspectives by mailing newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com

“Leadership and learning are indispensible to each other.’”
—John F. Kennedy

Postscript: We would like to thank a handful of our colleagues for their especially good and salient input into this newsletter: Peter Cairo, Tom Gosselin, Libby Halstead, Craig McCall, Terry Nichols, Frank Rouault, Janet Spencer, and Lisa Vertucci. Most of the good ideas in this newsletter came from these valued colleagues, and they bear no responsibility for any of the bad or inaccurate ideas!