Schachter Consulting

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Helping Leaders and Their Teams

Taking Feedback

September 23rd, 2013

In the 1980’s, Joe Jackson (the porkpie hat one, not the shoeless one) lamented, “Though, it’s oh so nice to get advice, it’s oh so hard to do.” While I’m pretty sure he was singing about romantic relationships, I know he was addressing behavior change and he might as well have been describing feedback at work.

There’s a lot of attention paid these days to senior leaders delivering feedback. Quality, quantity and frequency. I’ve written on the topic, myself.

What about receiving and dealing with feedback? How good are execs at that? My anecdotal observation in organizations suggests not very. This means lost opportunities for the self-awareness, professional growth and relationship-building key to leading large, complex organizations.

It’s hard to take.
First, let’s broadly define “feedback” as someone calling to your attention anything negative about your behavior. Technically, it could also be something positive, but – let’s be real, here – we’re pretty good at hearing that stuff. The negatives are tougher. You might recognize and agree with it and that hurts. Alternatively, you may disagree with the substance, finding it wildly unfair and off the mark. Worse yet, you may not trust the motives of the person delivering the message and that further complicates it.

There are predictable reactions execs demonstrate to feedback. Driven types tend to feel irritation and ignore it. Expressive types feel stung and are likely to lash out. Amiable types tend to feel ashamed and try to make nice, while analytical types might feel confused by what they heard and retreat inward.

Take it anyway.
Suffice it to say, self-justification, angry outbursts, self-effacement and withdrawal aren’t particularly “leader-like” behaviors. When someone offers you constructive feedback, take it. Proceed under the assumption that the giver is well intentioned and that the substance is more-or-less accurate. That is to say, she is providing you with information intended to get you to change your behavior in order to produce better outcomes for the work group, for the organization, for her, or even, for you. Listen to learn. Why? Because whether or not her point is correct, she believes it and is trying to help. Graciously affirm her as a person and consider what you’re hearing. At a minimum, she will find you trustworthy as a peer or leader and your work relationship will improve. That helps stuff get done.

Besides, if she’s correct, don’t you need to know this about your performance? The odds are that everyone else already does. You might be the only person who doesn’t. Yikes.

And, if it’s incorrect? You’ll still know what she thinks and, having built trust by listening, you’ll be in the position to correct her understanding later.

When a direct report comes to you with feedback, it’s particularly important you take it. He’s doing you a favor bringing it to you and not somewhere else. It isn’t easy delivering a tough message to your boss. This is your opportunity to model the behavior and set a norm with your directs for how they should behave with those reporting in to them.

Motives don’t matter.
What if your feedback giver has bad intentions? First, this is rare and you should be slow to make this judgment. Second, it’s still a gift and worth hearing. Motives don’t matter; it’s either substantively accurate or inaccurate. If it’s accurate, you’ll want to address it, right? If your objective is to improve organizational performance then you must. On the other hand, if it’s inaccurate, it’s still useful data to you. This person is trying to provoke a response from you, whether an externalized action or an internalized feeling. At least, you’re now in the position to see him coming and be your best self.

What do you do in the rare event of negatively motivated feedback? The same as when it’s positively motivated: demonstrate magnanimity, of course. You can hear a message and, with Buddhist detachment, smile and neither internalize nor own it. The truth is, it’s quite unnerving to someone to see that you are above his or her intended harm. Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Jokes aside, you’re better off because of it. You communicate to the detractor that you are grounded and have confidence in your motives, values and objectives. Japanese home run champ Sadaharu Oh credited the pitchers he faced with half of his success. “The opponents and I are really one … An opponent is someone whose strength joined to yours creates a certain result.” Let your result be great performance fueled by organizational trust and strong individual relationships.

Here’s how to take feedback.
Convinced yet? Try these four simple steps:
1. Listen. Truly take in what your colleague says without judgment. It’s probably harder for him or her to say it than it is for you to hear it.
2. Clarify. Ask questions to fully understand the specifics.
3. Summarize. Demonstrate you heard the message by restating it.
4. Thank. A sincere thank you will reassure that you’ve taken it in and appreciate the opportunity to improve.

In conclusion, give as much attention to receiving feedback as you do to giving it. You, your team and the organization will benefit.


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The King’s Coach

February 8th, 2011

To be sure, The King’s Speech is an engaging film worth seeing.  It’s well written, brilliantly acted and – historicity aside – compelling and uplifting.  Watching it, I smiled as I noticed another, probably unintended, achievement: it’s an outstanding example of a thriving CXO executive coaching engagement.

The film begins in 1925 and follows Prince Albert’s quest to overcome a debilitating stammer.  He works with multiple specialists before engaging Lionel Logue, an unrealized actor turned speech therapist-cum-coach. They develop a tight working relationship through and beyond Albert’s ascending the throne as King George VI in 1936.

The Free Choice:

There’s a riddle we coaches have appropriated from the shrinks: how many coaches does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: just one, but the bulb has to want to change.

First comes the coachee’s free choice and commitment to the development process.   Not unlike Prince Albert (“Bertie”), any CXO looking for professional development support is in a precarious spot.  He may fret his constituents (e.g., Board, leadership team, analysts, business press) expect a senior executive “fully formed” upon arrival at the top.  Of course, top performing artists and world-class athletes know from experience that coaches are essential to challenge tired assumptions, improve technique, and speak truth to power when others won’t.  This is not in spite of the scrutiny from onlooking constituents, but rather because of it.  So, to make the work stick, the CXO has to be bought in.  Bertie understands that his duty to inspire the people of Britain requires him to confront his shortcoming, and that this will take outside help.  Period.

The Safe Space:

Logue is deliberate in creating a safe space for the work.  As the master coach, he knows that as Bertie works on technique, he will also need to cognitively explore his presenting problem to untangle it and problem-solve alternatives for action.  So, Logue purposefully creates the conditions for Bertie to acquire self-awareness and loosen up enough to embrace the self-consciously awkward muscle and breath-control techniques.

Like Logue, the CXO coach understands that this isn’t psychotherapy or worse, new age squish.  It’s a confidential context for the exec to make honest disclosures and discuss real topics.  The coach must toggle roles to elicit and engage the exec’s specific moments of insight.  Always the confidante, the coach is also at various times catalyst, facilitator, devil’s advocate, cajoler, midwife or refuge.  This is where coaching as an art is practiced.

The Chemistry:

Foundational to a successful CXO-Coach partnership is relationship chemistry.  When they first meet, Logue addresses Prince Albert by his familial nickname, Bertie.  The Prince bristles at the profound protocol breach but Logue persists in order to connect as equals, undefined by status or station.  It needn’t approach the professional equivalent of “love at first sight,” but a promising coaching relationship develops quickly from respect and mutuality to genuine affection.  The two look forward to time together.

With Bertie’s free choice, Logue’s created safe space and their shared chemistry flourishing, the film culminates dramatically.  Bertie (now, King George VI) delivers a three-page speech declaring war with Germany from Buckingham Palace live over the radio.  With Logue’s coaching, he might just perform at his peak.


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