Feedback is the Fuel of Leadership

By Tom Davidson

When you’re an individual contributor, you measure your results by sales, acres, widgets and reports, but when you’re a leader, you measure your results by feedback.

This was on my mind as I cut, split and piled firewood last weekend. I had felled the dead trees months before, and they had been collecting fungus and beetles in our woods for far too long. There they sat, just waiting for me to get to work. Nothing was going to happen – except decay – until I put in the work.

Making the Move to Manager
Cutting, splitting and stacking firewood is much like an individual contributor role. Your success depends almost entirely on you. You are in control of your work. You are in control of how it’s done, and you are in control of the results. Ironically, the better you do your individual work, the more likely you are to be promoted to a different job, one of supervising others, usually individual contributors themselves.

But just because you were a great individual contributor, does not necessarily mean you – or others like you – will be great managers of people.

Once you make the move to manager, you are now responsible for all those same results and more, but you generally have to get them done through others. It is as if you were the first chair violinist who just got promoted to orchestra leader. It is a different skill set but one that requires you to have inside knowledge of what it takes to be a great individual contributor in your field.

When this happens, your results are measured by feedback. No longer are you measured on the pile of wood you produce but by what your people say, do and accomplish.

Feedback Loops
“Feedback” is a term from engineering that refers to a process (or system) control. How does a pilot know he or she is on course to her destination? Through feedback loops in the airplane’s control system. How does an air conditioning system know when to turn off and on? Through feedback sensors in it’s control system. How does a leader know what impact he or she is having and what to change? Through feedback mechanisms in his or her control system. Without any of these controls, a system drifts off course without knowing how, why or what to do about it.

Three Ways to Get Feedback
As a leader, you have at least three kinds of feedback loops.

First, you should be taking part in a performance planning and review process, hopefully one that provides clear goals and destinations and plans for getting there. Your performance feedback system should also have checkpoints, called performance reviews that let you know how you are doing against those goals and plans. At a bare minimum, these should be done once a year, but it’s much better to have them quarterly or semi-annually.

Second, you can take part in 360-degree feedback processes provided by your workplace. These can be designed by your in-house human resource professionals or purchased off-the-shelf. They can be completed by paper-and-pencil or, more commonly now, in online versions. These can be somewhat daunting processes so find an in-house expert or get outside help in picking or designing a practical system for you and your team.

Third, you might simply ask people how you are doing. Who you ask depends upon your role, responsibilities and stakeholders, but in general, you should be asking at least five to seven people whom you impact most in your work (e.g., direct reports, customers, supervisors, peers and contractors). What you should ask are the following questions:

  • What am I doing well as a leader and manager?
  • What can I do even better as a leader and manager?
  • What advice do you have for me to be more successful as a leader and manager?

Of course, you’ll add follow-up questions based on the answers you receive, but make sure your questions are concise and open-ended. Also, make sure you don’t get defensive or start explaining yourself. If you do any of this, your feedback giver will shut down or avoid being honest. Just be curious, and you should be fine.

Alternatively, you can have someone else ask these questions for you and provide you the results in the form of patterns, not telling you who said what but reporting the themes that they were given. This takes some expertise, so choose your surrogate carefully.

Another benefit of asking for feedback is that people see you trying to improve, and they give you lots of credit and credibility for the very act of asking.

If you’re uncomfortable or uncertain about how to do any of these three basic feedback loops, ask your human resource partner or give me a call.

Until then, I hope you enjoy your move to management. Even though you might have been a great “wood splitter” (and probably still are), your results are now measured by your people, not the wood pile.

It’s the nature of feedback, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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