Sometimes feedback is well received. Other times, not. Leaders see feedback as invaluable.
In two of our recent, highly-clicked blog posts, we discussed STRATEGY and CULTURE as they relate to academic institutions seeking enrollment growth. Our discussion of enrollment management would be incomplete without a few observations about the need for LEADERSHIP.
When are we leaders?
Leaders come in all forms. Some of us lead organizations, others departments, others a single project. Being a leader has to do with taking ownership of the vision or reason for the work, the people, the process, and the results.
And being a leader has everything to do with the learning. The analysis before, during, and after. And that has a lot to do with feedback. Receptivity to feedback, even when unsolicited is truly important. These are the learning moments with value for those willing to step into a leadership role; a role that requires humility and listening along with confidence and daring.
Read on for a few quick and helpful insights that just may help you take a fresh view of the feedback you are likely getting all the time. There are more gems coming your way than you may realize. Plus, our closing link will bring a smile to your day.
How many of us make the effort to step back and look at our work from a position that is not us in our own skin? How many of us can push aside feelings of defensive indignation when we get less than flattering feedback?
Invariably, our reaction has to do with who is giving the feedback and how they give it. Right person, wrong tone? Wrong person, wrong tone? Even unsolicited, feedback can be really valuable to the recipient. Receptivity to the process of learning is a valuable leadership quality.
Let’s be clear, not all feedback is valuable in and of itself. As a leader (organization, department, or project), you typically have more context than others and you are calling the shots. It is critical to own that from top to bottom. And that ownership includes listening to feedback and assessing it for its own value and then discounting the advice that does not feed progress.
Worth considering: why someone might be prompted to give less than valuable feedback in the first place. Did they misunderstand your vision or the process you put in place? That’s important information for leaders. There certainly are times when the recipient of feedback learns more about the person giving the feedback and less from the feedback itself.
When the individuals or the team do not perform as intended or give feedback that is off the mark, that is an indicator that something is misaligned. Leadership has everything to do with keeping everyone and everything aligned and moving forward. And leaders make necessary adjustments to people and processes along the way. Feedback of all sorts are signposts to what needs fixing: tactics, tasks, tools, people.
A perennial question: can leadership skills (like graceful receptivity to feedback) be taught? MBA programs would say "yes." Others would say leadership can be coached over time as opposed to taught in an academic environment. Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader is a classic on many MBA program curricula. The book has food for thought sprinkled throughout its pages from many industry leaders.
In Bennis’ introduction he talks about specific critical leadership skills like “adaptive capacity” and the ability to “respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change.” He also mentions the ability to act, “before all the data is in” which begs the question, when, if ever is “all the data in” – really, ever? But that is a blog post for another day.
Bennis continues in the introduction to point to a leader’s “ability to spot the handful of people who can make all the difference in your life and get them on your side.” (emphasis added).
Taking feedback well, with integrity, with curiosity, and exploring it from many angles makes you stronger. The act often inspires valuable people to align with you. And done with strength and confidence in your own skills, evaluating feedback will improve your results.
Further on in On Becoming a Leader, Bennis quotes Renn Zaphiropoulos, co-founder of Versatec that was later purchased by Xerox where he became corporate vice president. Side note: Zaphiropoulos was an international student from Egypt where he was raised. He earned his engineering degrees at Rose Hulman Institute in Indiana before he rose to leadership positions.
The relevant quote that struck me from Zaphiropoulos: “It’s easy enough to learn marketing, selling, engineering, whatever. It’s harder to learn how to optimize your own performance and that of your subordinates.” (Listening to feedback helps here.)
Further on, Bennis quotes Sydney Pollack, the famous actor, producer, director (Out of Africa, Tootsie, The Firm), who shares, “It’s hard to teach anything that can’t be broken down into repeatable and unchanging elements. Driving a car, flying an airplane – you can reduce those things to a series of maneuvers that are executed the same way. But with something like leadership, just as with art, you reinvent the wheel every single time you apply the principle.”
All of this points to the value of feedback from everyone who steps up to share it. Well intentioned, well presented, solicited, or totally not. Feedback is always a valuable indicator of whether your leadership is hitting the mark. Taking feedback well (non-defensively) may be one of the more valuable (and free) forms of leadership training.
A recent article in Harvard Business Review talks about developing leaders and the failings of many executive education programs sharing, “Beyond hard skills – which can be taught in micro-credit online sessions on so many platforms…At the other end of the spectrum lie skills that are difficult to teach, measure, or even articulate; they have significant affective components and are largely nonalgorithmic. These skills include leading, communicating, relating, and energizing groups. Mastery depends on practice and feedback.” – Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas, HBR March-April 2019.
Leadership is your adaptive capacity to shape events as those events shape you. Bennis at times uses the term “innovative learning.” The learning that comes from so many different sources for those who are curious and open to it.
Another wonderful quote buried in Bennis’ book comes from Shirley Hufstedler, a powerful lawyer and judge who President Carter appointed as the very first US Secretary of Education in 1979. Her words are a terrific and humble reminder to all leaders: “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried very hard.”
We love the expression on Secretary Hufstedler's face on her Wikipedia profile photo. Is she telling all of us to try just a little (or a lot) harder? We kinda think so.