The Necessity of Executive Feedback, Part 1
One of the main roles of a leader is to offer feedback. Working from a place of authority, leaders are often trusted to have the clearest perception of an organization’s vision and know the route to executing that vision. For feedback to work, it’s important for leaders to have the respect of their employees. Without this, organizations can easily function chaotically with too many opinions circulating and disgruntled team members going rogue or undercutting others. On the other hand, when the valued-opinion scale is tipped too far on the executive side, companies suffer the consequences of bad communication and distrust.
Leaders are always going to have opportunities to offer feedback, but it’s crucial that they receive feedback from their employees. Otherwise, they’ll rule blindly to the beat of their own drum and drag their teams with them.
Think about it: There’s a reason why our society has fewer kings than ever before. It’s because they don’t consider the needs of their subjects. In business, leaders shouldn’t be kings. They represent the needs of the company; therefore, they should represent the needs of their employees and customers.
In 2016, early in my time as COO of Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters, I reached a point where I desperately needed critical feedback from my employees.
The company had started out as a mom-and-pop coffee roaster with a lot of heart and quality coffee, and I was brought in to create and execute systems for growth. At that point, I had never helped build a startup, but by the time that I left my previous job at a large consulting firm, I had touched enough business functions to feel confident to try my hand. I had also further developed my keen attention to detail, direct communication style (for better or for worse), and my ability to break down complex ideas and challenges into practical steps.
When things had to get done, I pushed to execute. And I made sure, from the beginning, to have 1-on-1 meetings with every employee weekly, hoping to balance my systems-driven leadership with some level of coaching and mentorship for my team. These meetings gave me the opportunity to both offer vital feedback to each employee personally and to get to know them more than I ever would have while they worked behind the bar. I would also prompt their feedback, which I felt they offered sparingly and in a measured manner likely due to the skewed power dynamic between us.
Although I had tried to prioritize coaching actively, sometimes while employees were literally doing the job (i.e. behind the coffee bar, or brewing our cold brew) and during my 1-on-1 meetings, I wasn’t the most emotionally literate boss. I felt like the company had so much growing to do, and in the 2016 version of Chase, this feeling manifested into a demanding leadership style.
I was working 60-80 hours a week and sacrificing weekends, so why shouldn’t the employees be able to at least perform their shifts up to my standards? On the floor, I would clock the movements of the employees. During busy times, I would step in to “help” because I didn’t trust them to do their jobs. And since I got caught in the weeds of the day-to-day tasks, I struggled to communicate my bigger, overarching vision. I was creating shit storms when I needed to focus on brainstorms.
More than that, I was creating a health storm for myself and others. At the time I held the mentality that entrepreneurs have to risk everything to create the next great company. And I was, by the accounts of many people close to me, working myself into an early grave, risking my health, wealth, and relationships in order to succeed—and my relationships with our employees were a big part of that. I couldn’t hide my frustration. Our company’s direction and priorities were shifting every week, and I felt out of control and had no idea how to communicate my intent to employees. As a result, I would resort to yelling, fuming, and talking about others behind their backs—anything to relieve the pressure. I was running out of steam.
The Ugly Feedback
Although I received some feedback from the employees during our 1-on-1s, I needed more after all of this chaos—and I needed it to be unconstrained. Thankfully, our company’s finance director set up an anonymous, executive feedback document for each employee to fill out honestly and candidly. When it was complete, he synthesized the themes into one document and delivered it with a cover page.
In a series of bullet points, he buffered the contents with a message: Don’t take it personally. He advised me to not decipher who said what because feedback was meant to be taken objectively. As piercing to my ego as it was about to be, I just had to take it in stride, soak in the information, and learn from it.
With all of this leadup, he ended the emotional preparation by pointing out a good sign: At least the team felt comfortable enough to offer the feedback. We would have had bigger problems if they had said, “Why bother providing feedback? Management doesn’t really care.” At least there was a mutual understanding that we all wanted to build this business together… But man, how bad could this feedback be?
Not “bad,” per se—but incredibly constructive, direct, and decisively clear. Here were a few of the takeaways:
- Leadership was scattered. Decisions were being made behind closed doors. With priorities changing day to day and from location to location, employees didn’t feel empowered to do their jobs confidently. Trainers, who were looked at as leaders, felt powerless and struggled to communicate to new hires why they had to prioritize things. Team members were walking on eggshells. Leadership needed to own their decisions.
- Unless it’s an extreme situation, employees would rather work through busy times without leadership inserting themselves onto the floor. It broke their flow. And please, they pleaded, stop watching over the team and questioning them on everything they do while they’re helping customers. It put unneeded pressure on them and caused more mistakes.
- Too much talk, not enough action. Everyone wanted things to go a certain way, but no one was really willing to lead that path.
- Leadership didn’t understand what it was like to work behind the bar, and it showed. There were way too many meetings scheduled at the whim of management and way too many mediums of communication—PowerPoints, goal-setting spreadsheets, Asana, email, Slack. We needed to stop with the corporate tool kit!
- Training staff members were doing the work of 2-3 people at once. They were expected to be on their feet for shifts of 8+ hours and then act like salaried office employees but without proper salaried compensation.
Here was a particularly poignant paragraph about my personal leadership failings:
“In general, Chase has problems with boundaries and communicating his expectations and needs. He demands a lot from his employees with little warning, sacrifices employee comfort for the sake of the brand (aprons are supposed to be functional as aprons, they’re supposed to get dirty), and doesn’t seem to trust his employees very much. He demands feedback while you’re on shift and seems judgmental if things didn’t go exactly as planned. And worst of all, if you need direction from him and you ask him what he thinks, half the time he turns it back on you, and makes it a question like, ‘What do you think?’ In these moments, it’s clear he has a narrow idea of what he thinks is the correct answer, but he’s not telling; it’s a test, a mind game. Our staff is tired of this routine. If he’s got a vision for how things should be, he should speak up ahead of time or be 100% satisfied with the results.”
Wow—what an amazing learning opportunity for me!
As you can imagine, this first batch of feedback was deeply humbling, and thankfully a lot has changed since 2016, in no small part due to the feedback I received and my willingness to swallow hard and change what I needed to based on that feedback. If I had never received it and continued to unravel down my original path, the whole ship would have gone down in flames. I thought I was working hard to scale the business and take it to the next level, but to truly serve the business, I needed to serve my employees and see their perspective of how I was steering the ship in the first place.
Awareness of the good, the bad, and the ugly is the catalyst to positive change. It acts as a vessel for leaders to adjust organizations to create better environments for employees to work.
And it certainly was a vessel for me. The information I received through the feedback survey guided my actionable steps to improving as a communicator, delegator, vision-maker, and most importantly, a listener, which ultimately resulted in building a seven-figure, vertically integrated B2B coffee business.
In my next post, I’ll share just how I acted on the feedback and what steps I took to help Commonwealth Joe increase its revenue by 5x, triple its headcount, make two distinct directional pivots, and raise millions in capital.
Feedback can be scary, but it’s a game-changer. See how I committed to my leadership overhaul, and ask yourself, “How can I use feedback to improve my business?” Check back soon.