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Advisory Column: Executives must make it easy to get direct feedback

Published:Sunday | March 1, 2015 | 12:00 AM

High-level executives live in a rarefied world of extreme competition and ambition, but the longer they stay at the top, the harder it becomes to get the kind of advice that overturns their thinking.

Here's what they can do early in their careers to open the doors to quality feedback that keeps them and their companies growing.

Corporate leaders tend to be big fishes in small ponds. When they were young professionals, they had many people around them telling them what to do and how to do it better. That number shrinks rapidly as they progress up the corporate ladder, creating a natural shortage of direct growth opportunities. By the time they reach the executive suite, with its outsize power and influence, others have shifted their behaviour.

The fact that executives tend to be somewhat smarter, better read and harder-working than their peers further sets them apart. This difference often goes unrecognised, leading them to think they are being told everything they need to hear. They routinely underestimate how much feedback their colleagues are withholding, especially around their performance. They fool themselves into thinking they know what's going on.

These are formidable obstacles. What can managers do (before they join the executive team) to force open the gates of communication? Using these three tactics can help them at every step of the corporate ladder.

Tactic 1 - Don't just invite feedback, ask for suggestions: Most people who work around executives aren't skilled at giving feedback to anyone, let alone to powerful movers and shakers. They often couch their words, using indirect language, hinting at the problem they see. For example, instead of being blunt and pointing out a flaw in the leader's performance, they might make a vague suggestion for a new business idea.

Executives need to encourage other people to speak up, even if they must do so in their own terms, at their own pace. It's not hard to understand why someone with a difficult message to deliver will look for the safest method possible.

Sometimes, this renders the communication obscure, but the fact that the effort is being made indicates courage on the part of the messenger. Both their overt and hidden messages deserve to be amplified, but a leader needs to have good listening skills to hear them.

Tactic 2 - Use formal mechanisms: A Jamaican firm has adopted a novel approach - each professional carries with him/her a pre-printed card on which every feedback conversation is noted. Targets are set for each person, who needs to have a minimum number of conversations per month.

Another method some companies use is a 360 degree evaluation, in which a manager's performance is assessed from multiple angles. These structured methods help ensure that feedback is delivered, increasing the odds that an effort is made.

Tactic 3 - Seek early evidence: It's easy for a persuasive leader to live in denial. All he/she must do is argue with early contrary evidence. A few years ago, I worked on a project in which I discovered that an executive team was at odds with its managing director.

There was no open disagreement - things hadn't gotten that bad. But there happened to be a vast difference in opinion that wouldn't go away. No matter how hard she tried to persuade her direct reports that the problem wasn't as bad as they thought, they wouldn't budge.

Instead, she switched gears and argued that the issue didn't exist because customers hadn't complained about it yet. She was right - they hadn't. It was the kind of problem that customers wouldn't notice for a very long time.

However, she missed the opportunity to deal with it during its early days, because it required a fix that would take several years to effect. On this point, her more experienced colleagues had an advantage she couldn't fully appreciate.

Many employees make the mistake of believing that a top executive's job is to keep things comfortably consistent. In the short term, many do try to stay in their comfort zone by making it hard for bad news to reach them. While this sort of ignorance may help them sleep better at night, in the long term, everyone suffers. It's difficult to run a company effectively on the basis of partial information and without critical feedback.

In fact, it endangers the results shareholders want, a fact that executives often don't see clearly. More to the point, they also don't see their own part in preventing head-turning advice from reaching them.

Achieving growth in these recessionary times requires ingenuity and sacrifice, and companies must be provoked to reach new levels of performance. It takes a conscious and consistent effort to destroy barriers to the delivery of uncomfortable communication, but doing so is one way to prompt leaders and companies to grow.

n Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity'. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.