In my last blog post, I wrote about what can happen when successful professionals miss growth opportunities by relying on the same tried-and-true portfolio of skills and behaviors in each successive role, even when it’s not in their (or their organization’s) best interest to do so. I used Margaret Thatcher as a cautionary tale.
Obviously, there are wildly differing approaches to career management and leadership development across the corporate landscape. Some companies do a stellar job of providing support. And some individuals have an uncanny ability to stretch and transform themselves. But there’s a reason why shows like The Office and the Dilbert comic strip are so popular. Most of us have blind spots and are sometimes spectacularly off the mark in evaluating ourselves and the way we are seen by others. And standard corporate feedback processes often fall short of providing meaningful and actionable information (until it’s too late) about what’s working and what’s not.
For example, one client recently shared an elaborate 360-degree feedback report that quantitatively measured coworkers’ perceptions of her capabilities on a wide range of competencies. However, her boss hadn’t provided any context around the purpose of the assessment (professional development? performance management?) and then zipped through the results with her in a pro forma way as required by HR without adding any qualitative thoughts or suggestions of his own. As a result, she was left with a lot of data but little understanding about what she should do with it.
Another client, who works at a Fortune 100 company, has a manager who sits on the executive committee, is a trusted advisor to the CEO and makes no bones about her disdain for annual objective-setting exercises, performance reviews and other “time-sucking” HR practices. She’s also rarely in the office. As a result, six months into his new job, my client has received virtually no substantive feedback – from his boss or anyone else – about what he’s doing well and what he could be doing better.
If you find yourself similarly in the dark, perhaps it’s time to take matters into your own hands. I promised I’d offer some tips for conducting a qualitative 360-degree survey on yourself (which is the DIY version of what executive coaches often do on their clients’ behalf at the start of a coaching engagement). Below is a step-by-step process for you to follow that should not only yield some good data about both your strengths and areas for improvement, but can also help you build more open and mutually supportive relationships:
- Create a rich target list of people you trust – As you’re thinking about people to interview, cast a wide net. When I conduct 360s for a client, I speak with their manager, a cross-sampling of their peers and direct reports and other stakeholders that might include external or internal clients, vendors and former colleagues. I think it’s always helpful to include a family member or close friend in the mix as well. When your spouse / significant other / twin sister / best friend of 20 years makes some of the same observations about you as your coworkers (as is almost always the case), it’s pretty hard to refute the data.
- Make individual requests that provide context – Ask each person on your list in person if possible (otherwise by phone or email) if they’d be willing to spend 10-15 minutes sharing some candid feedback with you. You can obviously be more casual with a work friend than you can with your boss or a client, but the gist of your message should be that you value and trust their opinion and would like to hear their thoughts about what you do well and what you could be doing differently to be even more effective. DO NOT send out a form email to all of the people on your list at the same time with questions for them to respond to electronically. Not only does it make a bad impression (and result in weak answers), but it also does nothing to foster the relationship-building component of this process.
- Ask open-ended questions and lead with strengths – Questions you might ask could include:
Tell me what I’m doing well. What do you think some of my core strengths are?
What do you think people generally value about the work that I do?
When you move to development opportunities, you might ask: Tell me one or two things I could be doing differently to be a more effective manager / colleague / advisor. What are some behaviors that might be getting in the way of my ability to do the best possible job in my role?
Are there any opportunities I might be missing to add more value?
If there are specific processes you suspect aren’t working well, ask about them: What can I do differently to make our meetings more effective?
How can I better support your development / marketing / new business efforts?
- Listen, listen, listen – It goes without saying that interrupting or getting defensive will very quickly limit the opportunity to extract any value at all from this process. If you are truly blindsided by anything you hear, ask for an example so you can better understand their point of view. After that, bite your tongue.
- Say thank you – This goes for everyone you interview, including your spouse or twin sister.
- Look for common themes across the feedback and create an action plan – As you review your notes from the conversations, it’s likely that there will be a few fairly consistent themes that emerge. Getting a clear picture of what others see a your core strengths can be very empowering. And actually identifying the habits, behaviors or mindsets that aren’t serving you well is the first critical step towards being able to do anything about them. Frame them as positive to-do’s – so Margaret Thatcher’s might look like this: foster a more inclusive, collegial work environment where multiple perspectives and debate are not only tolerated, but encouraged; treat others with respect and fairness, even when they have disappointed me; show important members of my team, and family, how much I value them on an ongoing basis.
- Follow up, enlist support and continue to check in – Once you’ve established a plan of action, reach out to everyone you spoke with to let them know what you’re going to be working on and ask for their help. Empowering important others in your life to help you succeed by giving them permission to tell you when you’re doing that thing, again, and give you positive reinforcement when you’re not is the best way to ensure that your new initiatives take root. Following up more formally at regular intervals lets them know how seriously you take this process – and their role in it.
- Success 2.0 – Changing longstanding behaviors isn’t easy. So give yourself credit when you arrive and enjoy the view. . . but not for too long!