The Necessity of Executive Feedback, Part 2
In Part 1 of this series, I walked through my humble beginnings as COO of Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters in 2014. Two years later, after personally trying to will things into place and, in effect, creating a difficult work environment, both for myself and others, I received feedback from the employees of the company—feedback I really needed. Although the contents of the document were uncomfortable to read, I took the information in stride, soaked it in, and learned from it.
Receiving feedback isn’t easy, especially when it’s the first time. We all have egos, and when we’re told we’re doing something wrong, or that someone doesn’t like the way we’re going about a process, it’s common to fall into defensive behaviors—like reacting with a counterattack, emotionally checking out, or avoiding the problem. But if we can set our egos aside for a moment, we can grow.
In fact, feedback can be quite cathartic. When I finally read the document, I felt relieved. This was the medicine I needed, and I was grateful for every person who provided their thoughts and criticisms.
Then, after reading and digesting all the feedback, it was time to make a plan.
Game planning how to adjust
First things first: We started integrating supervisor feedback into a part of our performance process. The changes to our leadership structure were important, and it was equally as important that every leader in the company received feedback from their teams. So, we facilitated continuous, open channels for direct reports to advise supervisors on what was going well and what could improve.
Since feelings were now in the open, it was easier to move forward with a vision to improve as a leader so the company could grow with more content—and well-heard—employees.
- Meeting Implementation: With our new feedback mechanisms, I decided we should continue the one-on-one meetings in the hopes that employees would feel more comfortable offering regular candid feedback. In addition, we set up weekly team meetings to share ideas and set priorities for the week ahead.
- Compensation Adjustments: I adjusted compensation for employees earning hourly while being expected to perform salaried “corporate” duties so that they were now better paid. And in some cases, I separated these roles entirely and created new positions to allow them to do their work more effectively.
- Process & Expectation Documentation: I documented a vast number of processes and expectations, such as…
- How we’d do project management
- How we’d use Asana and other platforms
- How we’d run our meetings
- How we’d facilitate better cross-functional collaboration, etc.
- Delegating Responsibility: Most important of all the changes I made was handing off more responsibility to my team.
- I stopped jumping behind the coffee bar to “help” without asking the team for permission.
- I stopped expecting employees on the floor to be responsive to Slack, email, and other mediums of company communication and instead coordinated communication through their managers.
- I stopped giving feedback to employees while on the job, and instead took notes and shared them with them later.
- In general, I made it a point to give employees room to spread their wings and fly. I set guardrails for how they could make their decisions and gave them keys to the car—they would make more of the decisions and I would accept the results of their decisions no matter what.
This is how things ran for the next 18 months. I made judgment decisions on how I could be a better leader, and with continuous feedback plus long-term feedback, things were bound to improve.
The next round of feedback: 2018
By April 2018, our five-person leadership team was working hard to keep all of the pieces together. We had all greatly benefited from the round of feedback in 2016, but the company’s growth was exploding, and we were finding ourselves at another impasse with our leadership. Thankfully, we made it to this point, and we were improving.
At this time, we conducted another round of written feedback from employees. Here’s the positive feedback that was provided on my leadership this time:
- Consistencies: Employees felt I was a strong systematic thinker with a keen eye for detail, an adept planner with the future state of the company always in mind when decision-making, and a strong executor.
- Communicating Purpose: They said I had improved my communication behaviors, cutting out on-the-spot interrogations where I knew the answer but wouldn’t offer help, and “kept the company vision alive” by effectively communicating why we prioritized what we did.
- Positive Work Culture: According to the employees, I was doing a much better job of creating a space where the team liked to work—an immense improvement from the dark days of expressing outward frustration with my team.
- Teaching Growth: I had turned a new leaf by encouraging growth and skill development, and got better at breaking down complex ideas and challenges into more fundamental thoughts. In other words, I was successfully transferring more responsibility and opportunity to the team! As one employee put it, they felt more equipped to “own their work through adjustments to leadership style.”
With all of these positives, there was still plenty of room for growth. Here are the areas employees identified where I needed to keep working on change:
- Defining Roles: I needed to set a clearer organizational structure with well-defined roles and divisions of labor. They also asked for more mindfulness of employees’ talents, skills, and professional objectives when determining roles and responsibilities.
- Direct Report Needs: For my direct reports, I still wasn’t communicating as well as I needed to, or supporting them in all the ways I should in order for them to be most successful in their roles. They needed:
- More tools and training to be successful
- More visibility into my decision-making process and forecasting for the future
- Better communication on what I expected of them
- Better Management: I had focused here, but I needed to keep going. One employee stated I would improve by “increasing [my] focus on people management, accountability, and follow through.”
- “Less corporate-speak!” Admittedly, a hard habit for me to break.
And the next: 2019
After 2018, I implemented another round of changes for myself and for our processes to address what employees shared. I felt more confident delegating to my employees, and they were beginning to truly feel empowered in their positions.
Even so, as I mentioned above, leaders are never done growing. Therefore, in 2019—supplemented by our continuous employee feedback throughout the year—we conducted our third round of written feedback. On the positive side, the feedback showed two major areas of improvement:
- Team Development: Team members felt I brought a thoughtful approach to the responsibilities assigned to each employee, helping them grow as professionals and human beings. One shared, “Chase excels at developing the whole person.”
- Clarity and Alignment: I was good at creating clarity for the team in ambiguous situations, and I was improving at aligning the work team members were doing to the overall company goals.
Yet, as all leaders do, I still had plenty of gaps to bridge and things to learn. Employees identified these areas for further improvement in my leadership transformation:
- Emotional Leadership: I couldn’t quite shake the corporate jargon from my vocabulary and this problem seemed to encapsulate a larger issue I had: building genuine connections with my direct reports. Although I tried to improve as an empathetic leader, I could be emotionally distant. “Some attempts at transparency do not feel genuine and like an attempt to covertly gather information.” Yikes.
- Focus: I was still asking to accomplish a longer list of priorities than was prudent. “Narrow the number of major initiatives so the team can focus on what is truly important for the growth of the company,” one employee said.
- Openness to Different Management Styles: “The supervisors on your team may have a different way of doing things than how you would go about doing it,” one employee said. “That different style may work better for their team dynamic or personalities.” Sometimes, it seemed, I was still hitting a wall, trying to manage for my personality instead of recognizing that it might benefit certain members of my team if I tested out other management styles.
- “More direct, real-time feedback to your team”: Since 2016, I had worked to eliminate any tendency to helicopter employees working behind the coffeebar, but to my surprise, I overshot this leadership tweak. This, to me, was a sign that I was listening and improving. I knew a happy medium was attainable.
At the end of the document, I was left with this encouraging note:
“Your teams have felt a positive change in your management style since the fall. They feel more empowered to be self-directed and display true ownership over their work.”
We had finally built a system of trust.
“How am I doing as a leader?”
It’s a simple question with astronomical benefits. We often want to build more accountability across our teams but fail to start with ourselves. By being the first to take action on improving yourself, you encourage and inspire others to do the same for themselves. In my case, after receiving eye-opening feedback in 2016, I made it my mission to develop the attributes that employees identified as my blindspots and areas of struggle and to become a more trusting and communicative leader. I didn’t 100% make the mark, but I drastically improved. And because I helped provide the example for change, by default I helped show others how to change and improve, too.
It was a great experience, and it has served me long past my time at Commonwealth Joe. Not only do I seek out feedback from members of my own team, I help my clients implement strong feedback systems into their own organization.
Here’s the bottom line: Feedback reveals blindspots in your leadership style. Acting on feedback can build alignment, trust, and development at all levels within your organization.