To Get Honest Feedback, Leaders Need to Ask

When did you last ask for and receive genuine feedback from those around you? And did you actually listen to the bits that seemed unpalatable?

I was surprised and, to be honest, a little upset by a couple of bits of feedback I received from my last 360 degree survey but they gave me valuable information to act upon and I did so to the best of my ability.

The point is, the effect you have on others isn’t necessarily the effect you intend. The effect you *actually* have is the effect that is perceived by the recipient. You may intend to help, they may perceive criticism.  You may intend to be upbeat – what your listeners hear may be perceived as sarcasm.  I’ve  blogged about this before under the topic power, presence and perceptions.

This research (link below) by Harvard Business Review was based on over a million responses to their Leadership Practices Inventory. It’s not new (dates from 2014) but the results are just as relevant today.

To Get Honest Feedback, Leaders Need to Ask –

Have you ever thought someone else was after your job?

Have you ever thought someone else was after your job? Well, you might be surprised.

Some interesting statistics [1] I read in this month’s CIPD magazine:

87% of people believe they could do their immediate superior’s job

53% say they wouldn’t take it if they were offered it

39% say they don’t know what it actually entails.

I’m not sure who were the targets of the questionnaire, but I think these figures raise some interesting points.

First, the people who believe they could do your job. Some will be right and some won’t, but a large part of your responsibility as their superior is to bring them on and help them to be the very best they can be. Have you checked through your targets and goals for the coming year to be sure that you’ve built that into your plans? And have you made sure that in their development and performance review or appraisal (you do do those, don’t you?) they can see a progression path ahead of them?

As to the ones who wouldn’t take your job if they were offered it – why do you suppose that is? Is it because they’re happy and fulfilled as they are, or is it because you project such stress or unhappiness or weariness that they wouldn’t want to be in your shoes? If you are unhappy or weary or stressed, are you getting the help and support you need from your superiors? And if you’re at the very top of the tree and the buck stops with you, do you have a peer support network or a coach to talk things through with?

Finally, the last figure. I recently retired from a senior management position and had made a very real and concentrated  effort to ensure that the person stepping into my shoes would be well prepared, would know what the role involved and would have at their disposal all the necessary resources to be successful. Despite my best efforts, my colleague was surprised at the breadth of things I had dealt with, so no, my efforts weren’t a complete success, but I’m confident that the work that both I and other senior colleagues put into succession planning are easing the transition.

Succession planning is fairly common in business, but not always so in higher education. If you had to be replaced tomorrow, how would your colleagues, department or business cope?

[1] source:

Evaluate Your Emotional Agility

Now here’s an intriguing little activity from the good old Harvard Business Review in an article by by Susan David and Christina Congleton. Probably not very scientific, but a good rough indicator you might find useful to get you thinking about how emotionally agile you are.

The more we know about ourselves and the way we function, especially under stress or duress, the better we can actively manage our behaviour. We all have some negative thoughts and reactions – the important thing is how we react when we feel them and what steps we take to challenge them.

Why 40% of projects fail

Yesterday I attended a JISC training day, Managing Successful Projects in the Education Sector, given by the excellent John Burke, who quoted a very sobering statistic.

JISC gives funding to all manner of projects, feasibility studies and so on, and he’s been involved in overseeing many over the years.

And the statistic?

Forty percent of JISC funded projects fail due to lack of senior management  buy-in and influence.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? As a leader, your support for such projects really can make all the difference.

You can find JISC Infokits, including the Project Management one yesterday’s training drew upon, at the link below. In straightened times for HE, JISC is the place to look for excellent free resources.

The Behaviors that Define A-Players

This research reported by Jack Zenger in the Harvard Business Review reinforces what we all know deep down are the traits that separate the competent from the exceptional individual performer.

The leadership skills identified are as follows.

Exceptional individuals :

Set ‘stretch’ goals and adopt high standards for themselves
Work collaboratively
Volunteer to represent their group
Embrace change rather than resisting it
Take the initiative
Walk the talk
Use good judgement
Display personal resilience
Give honest feedback.

It’s not a long read: The Behaviors that Define A-Players –

The Eisenhower Matrix

Most of you will be familiar with this construct, also known as the Urgent/Important matrix, used by Stephen Covey and a myriad other management gurus. This week I’ve had the privilege of facilitating parts of an HE management ‘Awayday’ and the matrix was useful in illustrating the importance for leaders of remaining as much as possible in the upper right hand quadrant – Q2 –  which is where they make for themselves ‘headspace’  to work on strategy, develop people, strengthen systems, solve problems, set clear outcomes and develop themselves.

I’ve often used it both as a tool to manage my own tasks and priorities and as a way to help teams make informed choices about how they work, but I’ve rarely seen it so well illustrated as it is here, on Dr. Kristian Rother’s Academis blog,

The icons really say it all!

Rother Eisenhower matrix

Confucius he say…

Confucius said: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest”.

I’ve been reading a number of books recently which make use of quotations to set context at the beginning of chapters and since I’m writing a time management course at the moment, the appearance of this quotation as I turned a page this morning seemed quite apposite.

It occurred to me that one could actually choose a quotation to set the context for each day.

What quotation would you use to set the context for, say, a particularly productive day?

Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request

Have you ever been asked to provide a reference for someone whom you would struggle to praise?
This short article from yesterday’s Harvard Business Review blog offers three quite elegant strategies to save face on both sides.

Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request

by Jodi Glickman  |   2:00 PM December 5, 2013

How should Christopher respond? Could he, in good conscience, say yes to providing a letter of reference to someone he didn’t like or respect?  Could he say no, and tell Theo off?  Christopher listened politely, vacillating between surprise and schadenfrude, racking his brain for a way out of a seemingly no-win situation.

Saying “no” these days isn’t easy.  Most of us are terrible at it.  There are plenty of people who assure us we’ll be happier if we say no more often. The challenge isn’t entirely philosophical — we know we should say no more often. It’s tactical: how do you actually say no when you’re put on the spot?

If you find yourself in the unenviable position of being asked for a reference letter you have no interest in, or ability to write, there is a way out.  In fact, there are three ways out — three excuses that are perfectly suitable.  They include:

1. Not being willing or able to spend the time
2. Not knowing someone well enough
3. Not being able to provide a glowing review

Not willing to spend the time. It’s not that you don’t have a little extra time on your hands; it’s that you’re not willing to take the time from what’s important to you — whether it be mission-critical tasks at work or a spending time with your family.  Steve Job was famous for saying “no” to 1000 thingsand using “no” as a strategic business decision. If the ultimate sign of success is an open calendar, think of this “no” as a move towards freeing up your most valuable asset.   Play the travel card, the closing a deal card, or the family card — concede that you don’t have the ability to serve as a worthy reference or write an adequate letter of recommendation because it’s takes too much effort away from what you are truly focused on in the moment.

Not knowing someone well enough. The best references come from people who know you, your character, and your work product extremely well.  If you’re asked to vouch for someone you don’t know well, the chances of you knocking it out of the park are extremely low.  It’s in no one’s best interest for you to spend your political capital endorsing someone you don’t know intimately or can’t speak about genuinely.

So be honest, and decline on behalf of the other person’s best interests: “Medha, I wish I could help, but I really don’t think I know you well enough to provide as strong a reference as you probably need and deserve.  I’d encourage you to reach out to someone who knows your work style/product/ethic better.  As much as I’d like to help, I think you’ll be better served with someone else.”

Not being able to provide a glowing review. Finally, if you are Christopher and you simply can’t find enough (or any) good things to say about your former boss, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bow out early.  Tell Theo that you’d love to help, but you recognize that the letter of reference you’d provide likely wouldn’t reach the level of praise he’s shooting for.

It makes for a tough conversation for sure.  But ultimately, it shows that you have Theo’s best interest at heart.  The option of saying yes and then badmouthing your boss isn’t really an option — that’s a below the belt tactic you should avoid at all costs.

So take the high road.  Have the difficult conversation upfront, but know that your conscience stays intact and Theo’s future job prospects aren’t lampooned by you.  It’s one thing to decline endorsing someone; it’s another thing entirely to say yes and then jeopardize their future.


Jodi Glickman is a speaker and founder of communication training firm Great on the Job. Her book Great on the Job is out, and she is also a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job. Follow her on Twitter at @greatonthejob.

Three Ways to Say No to a Reference Request –