Employee feedback is a vital asset for helping leaders evolve in step with the growth of their firms, says entrepreneur Luke Saunders in a recent opinion column. (Fast Company, 18 November 2020)
As founder of US brand Farmer’s Fridge – which sells fresh food via a network of refrigerated vending machines – Saunders explains that he has handled every task related to his business, from food preparation and servicing fridges to marketing and accounting.
However, he points out, exponential growth that the firm has enjoyed since landing capital investment in 2018 has forced him to reinvent his leadership style several times over – a process he says “never gets easier”.
One method he has found particularly useful is soliciting 360-degree feedback from his board members, executive team and direct reports during critical growth phases, to ensure he is performing in all the right ways for the firm.
Following some initial reluctance, Sanders even decided to harness employee feedback in the early stages of the pandemic. While the responses credited his entrepreneurial skills and vision, they also highlighted areas for development.
As he explains: “The team felt I needed to graduate from ‘do it all myself’ mode to an executive who could effectively oversee departments. Another main theme was transparency: my colleagues wanted direct feedback and clear goals from me. They felt I had a tendency to be too ‘in the weeds’ on certain projects.”
In another recent article, fellow US entrepreneur David Klein – founder of student-loan lender CommonBond – argues that CEOs should seek employee feedback as soon as they launch their businesses. (Inc. Magazine, November 2020)
Hailing from a career at the feedback-obsessed McKinsey & Company, Klein advises that to guarantee candour, CEOs should never approach staff directly, but through intermediaries such as the HR director or an executive coach.
In his view, CEOs must pay attention to every single comment. However, he notes: “listen to your gut in deciphering what feedback is most effective for you to internalise”. He also urges CEOs to act meaningfully on the feedback they receive, saying: “When improvement is visible, the whole process will be trusted.”
Like Saunders, Klein advocates the use of employee feedback for helping CEOs develop in line with business growth.
What sort of mindset does a CEO require to ask for – and make best use of – employee feedback? And what sort of methods for obtaining it will produce the most constructive, insightful responses for the relevant leader to consider?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “This all resonates very clearly with a system I have had in mind for a long time, which I call the ‘Three-As Model’. Essentially, what’s important here is that the feedback is demonstrably received, heard and applied. That requires the chief exec – or indeed any leader – to solicit feedback with genuine, open-minded curiosity, and to proactively ensure that something tangible results from it.
“So, my Three-As Model starts with…
- ASK. Because the onus is on the leader to make a point of requesting the feedback. They cannot expect staff to provide constructive feedback by way of a natural reflex and on a constant, rolling basis. The second ‘A’ is…
- ACCEPT. Let’s face it, anyone in a leadership position has been around long enough to know they’re not perfect, even if they’re sometimes reluctant to admit it. They must accept, at face value, every piece of criticism they may receive, even if they think it’s unfair – because fundamentally, this is about how the leader is perceived by other people, not how they perceive themselves. Once that acceptance is in place, then, the third ‘A’ is…
- ACT. It doesn’t matter what the criticism may be – and I don’t use that term in a negative sense, because what we are talking about here is constructive criticism – there must be an action on the basis of that observation. Staff will give feedback, very happily in many cases, until they discover it’s not making any difference.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on critical reflection.