Everyone – even the most accomplished leaders – has strengths and areas for improvement. When I talked to organizational consultant Ed Poole about professionals who rise quickly, he warned me of the danger of being “unconsciously incompetent,” meaning you don’t know what you don’t know.
You can avoid this by putting yourself in a position to objectively evaluate your performance.
This is easier said than done. In fact, getting honest, helpful feedback from people with whom you have personal relationships can be extremely difficult. This is because individuals who like us want to be supportive and are also afraid of hurting our feelings.
The only way you will get feedback you can use is to be very strategic in asking the right questions in the right forums, and to develop a reputation as someone who takes constructive criticism well.
Following are some suggestions for approaching superiors, subordinates, and clients/mentors:
Asking Your Superiors
The annual or bi-annual performance review is a great place to begin. Print out your last review and look at the goals and/or action steps outlined. Then, set up a meeting with your boss and anyone else who supervises your work on a regular basis.
The goal of these meetings should be soliciting concrete feedback on your progress, and while they’re occurring, try to maintain a good balance between listening to what your superior has to say and playing an active role in the conversation.
Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about any feedback you receive so that you know how to proceed. Once the cycle is complete, your managers might be perfectly happy to forget about your performance until the next official review period. Don’t let them. Be proactive about setting up follow up meetings to review your progress, address potential problems, and incorporate new responsibilities and priorities.
When it comes time for your next official review, make sure your boss gives it to you. This may sound silly, but you’d be surprised how many organizations de-emphasize the importance of the official review. Remember, though, that it’s your right to request a timely appraisal. Think of the official review as an opportunity to sell your manager on your value to the company as well as collect up-to-date feedback on your performance.
To prepare, think about successful projects that demonstrate how you’ve improved in previously identified weak areas. Also, brainstorm concrete examples that illustrate outstanding work, and practice communicating them so they’re on the tip of your tongue.
Beware of asking for superior feedback too often, for if you are in your boss’ office every ten minutes asking for reassurance on the most mundane task, he may begin to perceive you as needy and irritating. It’s a fine line between appearing eager to learn and be guided and becoming the person your manager dreads seeing in the hall.
Asking Your Subordinates
360 degree reviews that solicit feedback from subordinates are a terrific way to get a clearer picture of your leadership strengths and areas for improvement and ensure that your effectiveness increases over time.
A 360 degree assessment can typically be distributed to several raters of your choosing and includes a list of questions about standard leadership competencies. If your organization has a 360 degree review process in place already, you should definitely participate. If it doesn’t, however, it’s easy enough to purchase a commercial, web-based service that e-mails a survey directly to your raters. Popular commercial assessments include the Leadership Practices Inventory and the Leadership Mirror.
There are a few important things to keep in mind regarding 360 degree reviews. The first is confidentiality.
You must give direct reports the ability to provide comments anonymously or you will probably not get feedback that’s honest enough for improvement purposes.
If you only have a few direct reports (or even just one), then you might consider including peers so that individuals cannot be readily identified.
The second is follow up. If you want your direct reports to continue to buy into the process and believe it to be credible, then you must create a specific action plan to address points of feedback that are consistent among several raters.
Asking Clients and Mentors
It’s also a good idea to periodically collect feedback from trusted individuals who work with you as clients or mentors. For this, you might use a free online service like Rypple. Rypple lets clients and mentors know you’re looking for feedback or advice, and gives them a quick way to tell you what they really think on a particular question or issue. Their identities are kept secret, it only takes them a minute to respond, and they don’t need their own Rypple accounts. You can then review the results and implement changes in real time.