Years ago, before I had held my first true leadership role, I was given the opportunity to participate in a 360-degree evaluation process through my employer who sponsored me to attend a conference led by the Hay Group, now owned by Korn Ferry, whereby we ranked ourselves on a certain set of competencies and behaviors and then asked others to provide confidential feedback.
We provided contact information for people we worked with often, sometimes, and a few that knew us but may have not engaged in months or even years.
What I learned — which is not uncommon — is that my perception of self was different than others’ perceptions of me. And while I don’t recall the specific variances or their topics, I remember that some of the feedback left me feeling less than and deflated.
However, I have since learned that hitting the perceptions head-on and understanding where I could improve is the most exhilarating part of being a leader. As Brené Brown says, I have learned how important it is to get it right, not to be right.
In the show “Undercover Boss” on CBS, high-level executives don a disguise and assume a role in their company as a rank-and-file employee to try to understand the inner workings of their organization. Generally, what they learn is wildly impactful to the CEO and results in several wide-scale shifts in the business.
While this would be hard to do in a law firm, I think the concept has tremendous merit, especially for firms who want to ensure they nurture a future-oriented and financially successful business.
Too often we run across law firm leaders who claim to have their pulse on the people in their firms, but it is often heavily weighted toward the partners who generate the most business and are not in the majority when thinking of the broader workforce of a law firm.
So, how do you ensure you are getting well-rounded feedback? Whose voice should be listened to, how should you interpret what they say, and how do you ensure you are regularly grabbing enough perspectives to make informed decisions? Here are some time-proven ideas on how leaders can seek, process and use feedback to their advantage.
Who to Ask
The right people to give you feedback are those you work with most frequently, regardless of their rank or standing within the organization. They may be fellow partners, associates, business services colleagues and even certain clients. These individuals have legitimate perspectives on the actions you take and the behaviors you display.
Tap into their valuable knowledge!
Make It Routine
Too many leaders seek feedback only occasionally — perhaps using a formal 360-degree survey instrument as part of their annual performance appraisal. In my experience, this simply isn’t enough. Truly successful managing partners have made asking for feedback a core part of their job. They ask and aim to receive frequent, regular feedback, and they let it be known that it’s welcomed and valued.
Let’s use rate increases as an example. To ensure you make an informed decision that is in the best interest of the firm, you should start by seeking feedback from relationship partners to better understand how the decision may affect clients. Feedback you receive at this early stage may affect your ultimate decision.
At a minimum, it will spotlight the clients that may be in need of some additional attention. Once you’ve communicated the decision to the partnership, you should seek feedback from your trusted advisers on how they believe the delivery of this information was received.
Lastly, you should seek feedback following the implementation of the rate increase, demonstrating you support your partners and care about the firm’s clients. Information you’ll receive through these conversations will ensure you are equipped to address any concerns immediately.
A lot of the feedback that leaders receive is not useful to them because it is nonspecific. When a leader’s feedback question is simply “How am I doing?” the comments received are likely to be generic — “Oh, you’re doing a great job” — and unrelated to specific behaviors that are within the leader’s power to change.
A much better approach is to contextualize your feedback request with specific events and activities.
Let’s use the very familiar return-to-office planning and implementation as an example. For a decision that impacts each and every employee of your firm, make sure you seek feedback from a broad range of personnel.
Ask your management committee or C-level leadership how the messaging was received from their perspective, and what they’ve heard or observed from others.
Ask other individuals within your firm how they are affected by your decision: “How does this impact your ability to perform your job at the highest level?”
Or, ask for suggestions about what changes you can personally make: “How can I garner more enthusiasm around returning to the office so that our employees can engage in more frequent in-person collaboration?”
Specific, open-ended questions are much more likely to generate feedback that you can act on.
It’s difficult for an employee — or even a fellow partner — to give honest and transparent feedback to a person who outranks them. In a word, it’s risky.
As a leader, you need to reduce the other person’s perception of risk by demonstrating an openness to feedback. Show humility and curiosity by asking open-ended questions that you may not be able to answer yourself. Listen actively.
Thank the person and show them you value their feedback — even if it may be out of your comfort zone.
Accept the Good With the Bad
Feedback isn’t always about what you may be doing wrong — you also need to understand the things you do that are having a positive impact. This doesn’t mean you’re looking for generalized praise — once again, you want specific feedback that tells you what’s resonating and what you need to do more of.
Whether negative or positive, accept feedback for what it is — a gauge that helps you recognize the effect your actions are having on people, and a tool to help you understand what you need to change.
Process, Don’t React
Particularly when a piece of feedback is negative, a leader may strongly react to it — getting defensive or angry, making quick decisions and taking immediate corrective actions.
But any single piece of feedback is simply a single data point that needs to be understood in context. Be sure you’re actively processing the feedback you get. Seek feedback from multiple stakeholders, and take time to reflect on the various perspectives you will hear.
Think through the full implications. Try to discern patterns and relationships. You’re not ready to act until you have built up a full picture of what is going on.
Plan for Change
The main reason we seek feedback is to build a foundation for positive change. For leaders, this means making a plan to take action on the feedback received. Again, this plan needs to be specific — focused on the competencies and behaviors that can make a difference to the leader’s effectiveness.
What do you need to do more, keep doing the same way, and stop doing to improve as a leader?
Set targets for the improvements you want to make and determine how you will measure success. Share this plan with the people who provided the feedback, and keep them up to date on your progress in implementing it. Doing so demonstrates that you are leading a business where it is safe to voice opinions and offer viewpoints, and that you appreciate and value their feedback.
In summary, you don’t need to go “Undercover Boss” to improve your performance as a leader. The best leaders manage the feedback cycle as an important aspect of their jobs.
Rather than waiting for occasional feedback and reacting to it, they actively seek it out, welcome it, take it on board, process it and create action plans to address it. As a result, they add greater value to their firms.