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 –

Some vacation thoughts for leaders

Disconnect with a Mental Vacation Before Taking the Real Thing

Do you find it takes you a week to wind down when you finally get a break?

Well, with the time for taking holidays coming up, this seems like a good time to re-post a link to this Harvard Business Review  article by Carolyn O’Hara, which suggests mentally preparing yourself before you leave.

It’s all too easy to take work on holiday with you, whether it’s physically (I’ll just read through this stuff in the evenings and catch up a bit) or mentally – waking at 3a.m. wondering what to do about x or y or z. But if you do so, you’re simply transferring work to another location and losing the wonderful opportunity a holiday gives you to return refreshed and with as clear mind and a restored sense of perspective – Recreation is just that: re-creation!

I’m a great believer in practising new things mentally before actually undertaking them, so I see no reason why this wouldn’t work. I know there’s always a huge amount to be done before you can leave for a vacation but building in some ‘winding down’ time into your task list could pay dividends. She also has useful tips for really enjoying your holiday once you leave the office – and for easing yourself back into the flow.

Here are her headlines:
Practice with a mental “vacation” everyday
Plan ahead and define “emergency”
Empower your team
Give yourself permission to check in
Leave projects behind
Manage your re-entry
Savor your memories

Disconnect with a Mental Vacation Before Taking the Real Thing –

And when your team members take a holiday, help them prepare and then ease them back in kindly and thoughtfully!

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.

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

Power, presence and perceptions

A bit of pondering on an autumn afternoon off…
As we move up the ladder at work, whether we become lecturers or administrators or managers or other holders of senior positions, we change and grow and our knowledge increases and our experience broadens. Our skills and abilities stretch and our opinions become more robust. Our viewpoints change as we see the bigger picture. Maybe we have to become more focussed on strategy, perhaps appearing less caring about the smaller things – and I’d say that’s natural and is probably the only way those responsible for large organisations can function effectively. We may also dress differently – more formally perhaps – which changes the physical perception of our presence. Power always adds presence (I think because of the obligations that come with it), whether we recognise it or not.

But I’m willing to bet that inside, we feel the same as we always did. I was speaking to an elderly gentleman the other day and asked him if he felt any different having reached his eighty-fifth year. His response confirmed my own experience: he felt exactly the same as he had in his twenties – it was merely that his image reflected in the mirror in a morning was different.

The perceptions bit of this ramble though, is about how others perceive us. When you were promoted to a position of leadership amongst your colleagues, how did your attitude towards them change? And more to the point, how did their attitude to you alter? Like it or not, someone appointed to lead suddenly becomes ‘them’… ‘Management (TM)’. Suddenly we are no longer ‘us’ but have become ‘them’. No doubt you spent some time thinking about how you managed the transition and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Of one thing I’m certain – the effect we, in our new positions, have on those with whom we were once ‘us’ is something we need to consider and take very seriously. We appear different and have a different ‘presence’ whether we know it or not. I’ll give you an illustration…
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Can You Take Your Strengths Too Far?

From the HBR Blog Network –

Can You Take Your Strengths Too Far?

by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman  |   2:04 PM October 2, 2012

For the past decade, leaders have been encouraged to focus on developing their strengths rather than always gravitating to working on a weakness. But is this too much of a good thing? Lately, a number of business thinkers have suggested so.

It’s tempting for those of us strongly committed to developing leadership strengths to ignore such dissent on the grounds that any new practice will attract critics. But the debate has practical significance to leaders. How should a hard-driving executive respond when given high scores for his ability to drive for results but low scores on building strong relationships with peers and subordinates? Is this evidence that he’s taken his strength too far?

We don’t think so. We would absolutely advise this person to keep driving for results; we suspect that his intense drive is what got him this far in the organization. But we don’t see this as a zero sum game — we don’t think he needs to stop doing one thing to start doing something else. So we’d also recommend he develop additional strengths in relating to people.

Like many of those who are raising doubts about the limits of developing leadership strengths — as Robert E. Kaplan and Robert Kaiser have done in the pages of HBR, and more recently Tony Schwartz has done on this site, we believe that a single strength by itself doesn’t serve anyone well. A leader needs several strengths to succeed. And balance is required. Strengths in combination are far more powerful than any one alone, our research has confirmed. Our data show, in fact, that possessing five strengths is a surefooted way to become an exceptional leader. One-trick ponies don’t last long in the center ring.

We also strongly agree with them that serious weaknesses should not be ignored. We’ve called these “fatal flaws,” and we certainly advise people to fix them first. That’s critical for the roughly one-quarter of leaders our data tell us appear to have such serious defects. We submit, however, that the rest should be working on their strengths.

People can and do behave inappropriately — and they do things to excess. In his blog, Schwartz describes how he learned that his own unbridled candor was hurtful and unproductive. Kaplan and Kaiser similarly described how either “forceful” or “enabling” behaviors could be taken too far and have negative consequences. They observed that if a leader overuses the “forceful” strength by being exceedingly directive — always taking charge, making every decision, and constantly pushing people — the leader’s effectiveness diminishes. That’s a conclusion that we suspect most would accept. And so do we. They also observed that a leader who is too cautious, gentle, understanding, mild-mannered, and almost exclusively focused on others will also be less effective. We completely concur.

Where we part company is in labeling any those behaviors as a strength.

We find it constructive to use a definition of “a strength” based on the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, among others. By his definition, a strength is a behavior that is:

  • Executed effectively
  • Broadly used in a variety of situations or settings
  • Lasting in its effects over time
  • Consistent in producing positive outcomes
  • Valued for its intrinsic worth, as well as its positive outcomes
  • Not specific to one culture
  • Harmonious with, rather than opposed to, other strengths

By these measures, “being forceful,” or “exhibiting righteous honesty unmediated by empathy,” are not strengths.

Our analysis of behavior that does fit our definition of strengths comes from data generated in the 360-degree evaluations of 30,000 managers by 300,000 of their colleagues. From examining 12 years of such data, we’ve identified 16 competencies that describe the most effective leaders and distinguish them from average and poor leaders. When done extremely well, these behaviors become leadership strengths. They included qualities like displaying integrity, exhibiting superior problem-solving skills, being highly technically competent, being innovative, taking initiative, inspiring and motivating others to high performance — and, yes, driving for results.

We’ve found no evidence that extremely high scores on any of these competencies has negative consequences. That is, we haven’t found anyone who scored at the 90th percentile for any one of these behaviors who was perceived by their bosses, colleagues, and direct reports as less effective than someone who scored in the 60th or 70th percentiles. We haven’t found the business results of any high scorer to be inferior to the people who received lower scores. Nor have we found subordinates and peers writing more negative comments about a higher scorer than about any individual with a more moderate score.

Instead, we find the data tell a consistent story. Those with the lowest scores on a competency receive many negative written comments, and their objective results are inferior. Those with the highest scores produce the best outcomes on everything we’ve been able to measure. If this is overusing statistics, then so be it. Our profession needs more leadership analytics, not less, in our opinion.

Some might think strengths-based development was discovered by a social scientist or consulting company, but the real credit should go to Peter Drucker, who in his classic 1967 book The Effective Executive made the compelling case for focusing on strengths. In fact, he argued, it is the role of the organization to leverage people’s strengths and to make their weaknesses irrelevant.