Leadership failure is a behavioural problem. It doesn't just happen, and it is not only the result of things we don't control. Instead, leaders fail because of who they are and how they act in certain situations.
A unique perspective
I work as an executive coach with successful people. A common theme affecting the executives that I work with is a lack of actionable feedback from those around them. The annual performance appraisal system that is supposed to be a source of valuable, insightful 360 feedback is more often a tick-the-box, "sheep dip" exercise. Only occasionally will a manager have the time, and care deeply enough to produce constructive, actionable insights rather than the generic, nondescript feedback that employees feel safe to enter into the black box system.
Why feedback is essential for business and career success
No one is born to be a leader. Leadership is behavioural, and so anyone can be a leader. Management is a job, whereas leadership is a function. It is the small things that we do that make a difference, influence others and make life at work better.
As David Dotlich and Peter Cairo say in the excellent book "Why CEOs Fail", leadership failure is a behavioural problem:
It doesn't just happen.
It is not only the result of things we don't control, such as a downturn in the economy.
Instead, leaders fail because of who they are and how they act in certain situations. Especially under stress, they respond with a pattern of behaviour that can sabotage their jobs and careers.
The problem is, the higher up you are on the corporate food chain, the less likely you are to be told the truth by the people that surround you. There are fewer people inclined to share their honest opinions about your decisions and leadership. This affliction has been labelled the CEO disease.
But wait, why is this the case? Why do those in close contact with the most senior executives, one or two levels below C-Suite, not pass on this invaluable information?
The messenger is often the one that is "shot.
Overconfidence on the part of the leader (from past successes) means they may not be open to hearing it anyway - so why bother.
Asymmetric risk - more often than not, there is more downside than upside in sharing a view.
And so these senior people often lack self-awareness because of people's reluctance to speak up, and perhaps overconfidence that their past success will always be the right way to do things.
They are missing a systematic feedback mechanism.
In his book "What got you here won't get you there", Marshall Goldsmith refers to a concept of proprioception, which refers to the body's ability to perceive its own position in space. For example, proprioception enables a person to close their eyes and touch their nose with their index finger. Marshall works as an executive coach with successful people who have a faulty sense of proprioception. They either don't know where they are in their careers or when they look at their career path they refuse to accept what it is telling them often with the view "Why change if it's working?" They resist the truth from those around them.
Why it is imperative to build and maintain a feedback loop early in your career
The lack of feedback isn't just a problem at the most senior levels. I would argue that it is more important to fix it earlier in one's career. Here is why:
When you are a few years into your career, you will likely either be at the point or fast approaching it, where you will start to receive less feedback. Having several years of experience under your belt means that your bosses will increasingly trust you to work semi-autonomously.
And yet, feedback will become increasingly rare at the same time that it is becoming increasingly valuable as you get more senior in your careers. Consequently, the few who cultivate the skills to collect, synthesise and then turn feedback into practical changes in their working life, will thrive.
Many will continue doing what has been successful already - perhaps working longer hours, with more intensity. The idea that people who rise to the top and then come unstuck by continuing to do more of what they did before, without recognising they need new skills and to change their behaviours is explained by the management concept called The Peter Principle.
The Peter Principle
The Peter Principle describes the following paradox. If organisations promote the best people at their current jobs, then organisations will inevitably promote people until they are no longer good at their jobs. In other words, organisations manage careers so that:
"Every employee tends to rise to the level of their incompetence."
While initially intended to be satire, it has become a popular management concept as it does make a serious point about the shortcomings of how promotion processes work within organisations.
The Peter Principle arises when the skills and behaviours that make professionals successful at one level don't lead to continued success when promoted and given more responsibilities. The most common skills gap arises when technical experts are promoted to a leadership role. The rewarding of success often results in the best salespeople or best consultants finding themselves in a position where technical expertise or being the best at selling is not top of the list for success as they advance.
The principle has been subject to much comment over the years. More recently, it was the subject of a Harvard Business Review article that empirically tested it for the first time. The study examined the performance of salespeople and their managers at over 200 firms.
The findings show that "…sales performance is highly correlated with promotion to management." and that:
"…sales performance is actually negatively correlated with performance as a sales manager."
It is therefore essential as we rise the corporate career ladder in developing systems for collecting feedback so that we know what to:
Do more of
We need to gain awareness of new skills, habits, and behaviours to develop as we gain more responsibility and seniority.
"Excellent firms don't believe in excellence, only in constant improvement and constant change."
- Tom Peters
What can we learn from elite sportspeople and teams?
At this point, I want to take a quick look at the world of elite sports. Business professionals can learn a huge amount from those at the top of their sports as some of what they do can directly translate from one environment to the other:
As James Kerr writes in the book "Legacy", sports teams have an advantage over business teams. Whether in training or for points, the feedback on their performances on the pitch is immediate - on the scorecard and the news headlines. Analytics can break down individual performance, and there is a video replay.
In business, leaders rarely have such defined parameters or immediate measurement.
So what options do we have for collecting and benefiting from feedback?
In her excellent book "Insight", Dr Tasha Eurich describes feedback as the truth we rarely hear, even though feedback is crucial to learn, develop, and grow continuously:
The truth we rarely hear.
Crucial to continuously learn, develop and grow.
Not one truth, a complex mix of views.
First, let's address the common excuses for our reluctance to ask for feedback. Again, referring back to Dr Eurich's research, these are the three most common reasons:
1 - I don't need to ask for feedback. The person is saying "Other people's opinions aren't as important as my own."
2 - I shouldn't ask for feedback. That person is worried that the act of asking would convey weakness or come at a cost.
3 - I don't want to ask for feedback. That person is fearful of what they might hear. It might be a bitter pill to swallow.
These excuses create a barrier to learn valuable lessons for our development. Yet it is a barrier that can be overcome. Instead of waiting for feedback to come to us, risking being blindsided at a bad time, we can choose to learn the truth on our terms.
9 steps to building a personal feedback loop
Become a role model who is proactively seeking feedback and constructively acting upon it. Here are 9 steps to building a supportive, challenging, and positive feedback loop:
Proactively ask your current boss. Specificity is essential. Don't just ask "How am I doing?" What could you be doing more of, starting to do, stop doing to be more helpful/impactful in the team? Look to help solve their problems and link the feedback to the issues they may be facing.
Ask a previous boss. Ask specific questions such as "What did I do that used to drive you up the wall or that caused you to cover for me or put out fires that I inadvertently caused and was unaware?"
Find a mentor at work who will observe you in action and provide timely and constructive criticism.
Ask a friend either at work or someone you know outside of work - again, be specific. Generic questions aren't beneficial.
Ask a trusted peer to provide specific feedback - have them watch you in a meeting or when you are speaking.
Listen carefully to what people are really saying. Pay attention to what people are saying, what they aren't saying and how they say it.
Watch successful people in action - what do they do that makes them so successful, how is it different to what you do? How might you authentically develop that skill or behaviour?
Get an independent executive coach - a coach is a trusted, independent partner. Someone who will hold you accountable and provide an outside perspective to help you see yourself as others see you.
Form a challenge group. Unlike a support group, they will challenge your logic, identify holes in it, and improve your reasoning and thinking to develop more compelling solutions.
What to do with difficult or surprising feedback
The first thing to do is not to become defensive or justify what you did or why you do what you do.
Say, thank you. I will try to do better.
Then reflect on the feedback. Then think some more.
Then and only then should you ask clarifying questions to add specificity, for example.
"Is there a recent example that springs to mind where you saw me doing it?"
"Do you remember when you first noticed this behaviour?"
These people have taken the time to give feedback, so keep them in the loop. It is important to acknowledge that you heard them.
A personal feedback loop is a system that supports a leader's development efforts. Remember, this feedback is the beginning, not the end, of a continuous learning and development process.
Together, let's try to normalise feedback. That is asking for, and giving feedback is expected and not the exception. That way, your teams will imitate your behaviour and start to seek input, raising awareness, and continuously learning proactively.
"Throughout my career and my life, there has been one essential truth: the biggest opportunity for improvement - in business, at home, and in life - is awareness."
- Alan Mulally (Ford CEO 2006-2014)
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