Holding Up the Mirror

The criteria for what makes an effective leader is changing. If senior executives are serious about sharpening their leadership skills, they need to be open to receiving constructive, candid feedback from colleagues. It may be an uncomfortable experience, but taking the time to evaluate and assess personal performance is increasingly important.

According to Charlie Wagstaff, Managing Director at Criticaleye: “Leaders should not be precious when receiving challenge from their peers and colleagues. They need to welcome honest, open critique from those around them and factor it into their approach – ego and a reluctance to adapt are damaging traits.

“Openly discussing vulnerabilities and promoting frank dialogue will help you determine how to improve performance and engage your teams.”

Failure to do this could lead to stagnation, says Judith Nicol, Director for Leadership Services at Warren Partners. She explains: “If as an individual or as a team you don’t reflect and continue to develop self-awareness, you can’t improve your effectiveness. All you do is produce more of the same and it becomes your default position.”

360-degree feedback

At Land Securities, Chairman Alison Carnwath uses 360-degree feedback for the leadership team, including the CEO.

“If you want to provide a balanced view to a chief executive about how they are doing, beyond simply saying: ‘You’re doing a great job, keep going,’ you have to find tools to help you,” Alison notes. “My CEO absolutely wants to hear what his direct reports think about him, cogitate on that and talk to me about it. It gives him some hints as to what he could do better.”

As well as providing the chairman with a fuller picture on leadership performance, using such tools can make a good impression further down the organisation. “Most people say ‘yes’ to CEOs the whole time, so the opportunity to receive frank feedback is great. It also sends a good signal that they are willing to learn and be challenged,” Alison adds.

Handling sensitivities

Adopting this kind of approach requires a mature and open attitude. Alan Armitage, CEO at Standard Life (Asia), found that encouraging his leadership team to critique one another has helped them assess their own style and characteristics, as well as understand how they can best work together as a team.

The executives have to trust each other for this to work. “It’s easier to do when the team has had some successes and you’re wanting to take it to the next phase,” Alan says. “If there are conflicts or issues this could just antagonise the situation further.”

Last year, Alan introduced 360 feedback to his leadership team on a more regular basis. “I felt the team was mature enough to take direct feedback from others,” he explains. “We even managed to take into account some of the cultural differences they have versus a Western organisation.”

There has to be clarity on why you’re introducing new forms of appraisal. If it’s not implemented effectively, it can easily backfire and result in suspicion and unwanted politics.

Nicky Pattimore, HR Director at Equiniti, says: “I’ve seen organisations introduce it for development purposes but then suddenly it’s built into performance assessment, which creates distrust.

“There is often nervousness around these kinds of tools if they have not been used before. Being clear on why you’re using it and ensuring it’s done in a safe environment is important.”

It’s a point echoed by Judith from Warren Partners. “A lack of transparency is a killer. Right from the off you’ve got to be very clear about why you’re doing this, what good looks like, and crucially what information is going to be shared with whom, as well as what support will be given.”

While the success of using frank feedback in leadership development hinges on the attitudes of the chief executive and chairman, a strategic HR director who can guide its implementation is key.

By Dawn Murden, Editor, Advisory

Do you have a view on 360-degree feedback for leaders? If you have an opinion that you’d like to share, please email Dawn at: dawn@criticaleye.com

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