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Are leaders born or made? It’s a question I’m regularly asked and so, it seems, is Erika Andersen, author of ‘Leading So People Will Follow’. The answer is, both. As Erika aptly describes it “leadership capability falls along a bell curve. Some people are, indeed, born leaders. These folks at the top of the leadership bell curve start out very good, and tend to get even better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve: that bottom 10-15% of people who, no matter how hard they try, simply aren’t ever going to be very good leaders… the big middle of the curve…is where the real potential for “made” leaders lies.”[i]
So how do I go from being an OK leader to a great leader? Self-awareness is the single most important trait in determining your success as a leader. If you followed the steps in my last post, you will have started gathering feedback. Well done. By gathering the information in this structured (but still informal) manner you give yourself the best chance of receiving useful feedback. But having the feedback is one thing, now you need to do something with it.
I’ve gathered the feedback, what now?
The next step is interpreting the feedback and that started while you were still receiving it. During the conversation, hopefully you asked clarifying questions, such as ‘can you give me an example of when I last did that’ or ‘here’s what I am hearing you say … do I have that right?’ During the receiving stage your role is to make the other person feel comfortable enough to share as much information as possible. The more context you receive the greater your understanding.
Until you are quite experienced in receiving feedback, I encourage you to thank them for the information and indicate you want time to consider what they’ve told you. When you have developed your ‘feedback muscles’, you might then feel equipped to respond on the spot.
I have found it helpful to write down everything they’ve said as soon as I can. If I am having a reaction to the feedback, I will also highlight the sections I’m having the strongest emotional response to. As well as giving you space to ‘park’ the feedback until you’ve calmed down, it allows you to look back over previous notes to identify patterns.
What if I don’t agree with the feedback?
Our first reaction is likely to be to defend ourselves. Don’t do this if you ever want to receive genuine feedback from this person (and others) again. The second most common reaction is to judge the person giving the feedback. Both reactions take away your power to improve your leadership effectiveness.
The feedback is a reflection of how you’re perceived. Someone else’s perception might be different from how you see yourself, this doesn’t make their perception wrong. It’s their reality, based on the information and observations they have about you. We have so much more information about ourselves than others do. Our values, beliefs, needs and intentions are not always known to the other person. It should be your goal to change their perception to something closer to what you believe is your true self. We need to stop seeing feedback as either positive or negative (constructive), and start seeing it as coaching.
When I hear feedback that I really don’t agree with, I take the view that at least 10% of what they tell me is probably true. I then go looking for those nuggets. Not surprisingly when I change my mindset to look for the learnings, I usually find more than 10% of feedback that I can work with.
How do I apply what I’ve learnt?
Once you know what feedback you want to work on, you need to develop a plan. Your plan should focus on what you can do differently going forward, rather than what you did ‘wrong’ in the past.
By having a plan, it puts you back in control of the situation. To strengthen your relationship with the feedback-giver, and to encourage future feedback, report back to them on what you plan to do: ‘Thank you for the feedback, I didn’t realise I was doing X, I’ll be more conscious of this and plan to change my approach by doing Y. If I slip back or don’t have it quite right, can you let me know?’
How do know if it’s working?
This is a two-pronged approach: self-evaluation and, you guessed it, more feedback. Self-evaluation involves paying attention to how your behaviour or approach is affecting others. Observe the verbal and non-verbal clues to see if they are reacting positively or negatively. In addition, you can check back in with your team, or the individual, to see how you are going. Depending on the complexity of the change, this might happen once or multiple times.
Seeking and acting on feedback should become an ongoing process, that is as regular a part of your routine as checking your emails.
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Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three primary-school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.