Becoming a More Effective Leader
By Vinay Kumar and Jean Frankel
As leadership coaches, we find that many forward-thinking, growth-minded leaders want honest constructive feedback so that they know where they need to improve in order to become more effective. Yet it is also true that many of them find it difficult to receive such open feedback, for reasons that are understandable. Thus, we are frequently called upon to conduct confidential interviews to gather 360-Feedback on behalf of these leaders. This may be a part of an ongoing leadership development program, or simply a desired periodic pulse-check on a leader’s effectiveness. The best leaders are hungry for this feedback, although many are fearful of the process. What’s it like? We’ll share with you in this post.
Most of the time when we deliver the feedback it goes pretty well. While the client may have a few surprises, most high achievers are absolutely committed to learning, growing, and becoming more effective, and therefore they value and welcome such candid feedback. This is because they believe it’s better to know how they are being perceived by those they are leading, than to not know. For once they know how they are truly perceived by those around them, then they have at their disposal more informed choices about how to respond and how to adjust their behavior. Frankly, most clients believe that knowing beats being in the dark and not knowing, all the while wondering why they are not getting the desired results.
Occasionally we face someone who wants to argue with the feedback. The argument can take many forms from “those people don’t understand me” to “those people are wrong, and let me explain why.” After letting them vent, our response is usually something like this – “You may be right and they may be wrong. But you know what, it frankly doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because perception is reality – to them. People interact with who they think you are, not with who you think you are. And how others perceive you can and does directly impact to what degree those you lead listen to you and follow you, to what degree they are engaged and give their best to you, and what opportunities become available to you and which ones don’t. This also goes for those that the client works with on a peer level across the organization, over which they have little or no supervisory responsibility. Feedback from these peer relationships is critical, as this directly impacts the quality of a leader’s results and their future, as well as the organization’s as a whole. We’ve yet to have anyone argue with this, although the reality is sometimes difficult for them to accept.
On a related note, a key point to note here is that to a great degree, how you are perceived by others is directly connected to the quality of the conversations that you engage in. This is because, as Vinay discusses in his new book Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence: How Extraordinary Leaders Build Relationships, Shape Culture and Drive Breakthrough Results, much of a leaders’ work tends to be conversational. Therefore, what you say, how you say it (including your tonality, facial expressions, posture, gestures, moods), has a direct impact on your public identity. Here we are reminded of this quote: “It takes about two-years to learn how to speak. It takes a lifetime to learn what not to speak”. We agree.
Another observation is that when they receive feedback, high achieving leaderswant to immediately change everything. They see the feedback as a problem which needs quick solving. This is not necessary, nor realistically possible. When leaders take on the work of becoming a more effective leader, trying to change everything at once is a recipe for failure. Jean notes that in her executive coaching practice, the most successful clients are those who strive to change only one or two specific behaviors at a time, typically those that will make the biggest difference. Through focused executive coaching, critical conversations, and effective leadership development, leaders benefit from focusing on practicing and measuring specific behavior change, rather than trying to completely reinvent themselves overnight.
Typically, this kind of change takes a few months of focused effort. And as the client progresses, they need to reach back out and gather additional feedback, to ensure that their actions are successfully changing the perceptions that others have of them. This is crucial because leaders work and lead in a system full of people, and thus their overall effectiveness and success depends as much on changing their perception as on changing your actual behavior.
With the above in mind, here are three points for you as a leader to keep in mind as you strive to change:
- You have to change at least some behavior: You can’t change perceptions without changing some behavior. Start with something that’s easy to do and likely to make a significant difference. You’ll be amazed at how much leverage you can get from relatively simple and small changes. For example, let’s say you are perceived being a poor listener. Then simply keeping your lips shut while others are talking and letting them finish before you speak will make a big difference in how you are perceived. Also, rephrasing and playing back in your own words to others what you’ve heard will help.
- Make it known that you are trying to change: Let people know that you have received feedback and are attempting to change specific behaviors. Don’t wait for people to notice the change, at least right away, because they may not. Even if they do, at first they may be skeptical and wonder what you’re up to and how long the new you will last. Plus, more often than not they are generally too busy and preoccupied with their own thoughts. So you have to “advertise” and let them know that you are trying to change and what you’re working on changing. It also helps to solicit their help in making the change, by asking for regular feedback from them. This lets them know you are serious about changing and when you slip back to the old you at times, which we guarantee will happen from time to time, they will forgive you.
- Accept feedback gracefully. When you receive additional feedback, simply respond with something like “thank you”, or “tell me more” or “please help me better understand what you just shared.: Please never ever never argue with the feedback, or try to explain why they are wrong about you. Remember, perception – reality. On the day that they tell you to stop asking how you’re doing and that you’re doing just fine, you have been successful in changing their perceptions of your behavior, as well as changing the behavior itself!
- Be patient: Don’t expect people’s perceptions of you to change overnight. Particularly if they have known you for a long time. It takes people awhile to see you in a new light as change in perception almost always lags actual change in behavior. Behavior change takes time. Keep at it and be patient. At minimum give it several months. And you’ll eventually see great results that will make you a better leader and will help your organization to greater success!
If you have comments and questions about these ideas, or if you would like to learn more about how you can acquire such invaluable candid 360-feedback for yourself or your colleagues, please contact Vinay Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jean Frankel at email@example.com. Thanks!
This is the first in a series of three blog posts that will provide you with timeless steps from our collective experience and that of other experts, for getting off to a good start with your own onboarding program. To get notification when the next posts in the series go up, please subscribe to our newsletter.