By Francis Wade
Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
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
Corporate leaders tend to be big fish 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 shrunk rapidly as they progressed up the
corporate ladder, creating a natural shortage of direct growth opportunities.
By the time they reached 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 unrecognized, 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? Doing 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 obtuse, 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
Many employees make the mistake of believing that a top executives 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, 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.
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 him at email@example.com