Executive Feedback as a Conversation

May 11, 2021
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When I was first hired as a consultant at RHR international in 1985, Bob Shaffer was the regional manager. The license plate on his car read, GROW. Bob was 65 years old.

Bob viewed himself and everyone else (in the most positive way) as continuous measurable improvement projects. Times and circumstances change, and new challenges arise, calling for behaviors that sometimes are new, unpracticed, rusty, or embedded in an earlier age. Bob never let his consultants or his client executives off the hook and never gave them license to view themselves or their direct reports as finished products. In fact, one of my colleagues recalls the time he met with Bob in a restaurant. They were so engrossed in their development conversation that neither noticed a robbery going on at the front of the place until a policeman came to their table and asked them what they had witnessed.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of feedback and why leaders avoid it. Here are a few thoughts on making feedback a regular part of the conversation rather than something you wait to give only during a performance review. Giving feedback regularly can help your executives grow purposefully, stay ahead of the game, and lead more effectively instead of evolving slowly or growing stale. It will also put you in the top decile of development-minded executives and likely aid in retention.

  1. Prepare the soil: I work with an energy executive who puts it this way: “One of the very first things I do with new direct reports is tell them I will provide direct and real-time feedback because I care about their growth and development. It’s a form of recognition.”
  2. Make it collaborative: Frame it up as a mutual conversation versus straight feedback. Engage them: “How did you think that meeting went? Where did you feel most effective? Where might you have taken a different approach to get the best outcome?”
  3. Be situation specific: Imbed feedback in a specific context. Identify how a strength in one situation may be a weakness in another situation. Have a conversation about the dangers of playing only to one’s strengths. Provide a vivid example of where you overcame that tendency yourself: “My natural inclination as a leader is to take control. While doing so is sometimes essential, I’ve had to learn to grab the wheel only in truly urgent situations and otherwise solicit full participation from my team.”
  4. Feed forward: Add a future-looking component: “What might you do differently next time to increase your impact?”
  5. Capture teachable moments: Whenever possible, deliver feedback in real time, when the behavior in question is fresh and top of mind. Never wait until end of year.
  6. Put it in career context: Be clear regarding implications for their career progression: “Broadening your repertoire in these kinds of situations will build a case for your taking on greater responsibilities.”
  7. Avoid the “feedback sandwich”: Balance positive with corrective feedback but beware of the critical piece getting buried between two pats on the back. Then check for understanding to make sure all the points landed.
  8. Take action for immediate relevance: Help them jump-start the new behavior by putting it into action this week or better yet, this afternoon.
  9. Remember that you treasure what you measure: Create feedback loops (360s, post-meeting reviews) to reinforce the new behaviors and provide tangible evidence of progress.

Getting comfortable with feedback conversations isn’t just a skill to be used in the workplace. In their book Fair Talk, S. Gorbatov and A. Lane suggest, “…it will not only make you a better leader but a better partner, sibling, child, parent, and friend.”

Grant W. Levitan is a Senior Partner based in Chicago. His work facilitates organic and authentic growth in leaders, enabling them to achieve new levels of performance and personal effectiveness.