Feedback is the Key to Developing Leaders... And It's the Gift We Aren't Giving

Source:  Center for Creative Leadership

Source: Center for Creative Leadership

It turns out, there is an actual recipe for creating a leader. Start with a heavy dose of dynamic work experience, add a few dashes of mentoring, mix in a pinch of formal training and voila! You have a leader. It’s called the 70-20-10 leadership development model, and it was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) decades ago.

Notice something interesting? A full 70% of this formula hinges upon the cultivation of increasingly challenging, on-the-job “work experiences.” Yet too often this key ingredient is overlooked by managers. After all, it is much easier to simply approve an employee attending a one-off, skill-building course, say, rather than meaningfully support them in leading a new program – a riskier and more time-consuming proposition.

But the latter is exactly what organizations need to do in order to successfully cultivate workplace cultures that enable individuals to develop as leaders. Unfortunately, our sector is falling short in this area.

So how might we maximize this 70%? By promoting feedback.

For the last three years, Leading Edge has asked thousands of employees at Jewish organizations about their experiences at work. And every year we are struck by a fascinating finding – our managers are well liked by those they manage, but they are not viewed as effective as they can be. Why? Because they fail to provide their employees with regular and constructive feedback.

Don’t get me wrong, we give feedback. We are very good at giving positive feedback. We are simply not adept at giving constructive feedback – the kind that helps an individual learn and stretch and grow. In other words, we are very good at offering the yasher koach – not so good at the challenging stuff.

It’s understandable. Most people, especially those who are drawn to purpose-driven professions like those in the nonprofit sector, don’t want to let people down, hurt people’s feelings, or be confrontational. And giving constructive feedback can be risky, especially if one works in an organization that blends the professional and personal spaces (for instance, when one sees their co-worker at a community event or congregation).

So how might we give better constructive feedback?

  • Ensure that feedback is a gift. Remember, honest feedback helps employees do their best work and grow professionally. But feedback is only a gift when it is delivered thoughtfully. While these conversations can happen in the moment, more involved discussions should be planned with an agenda so that no one is surprised by the conversation’s trajectory.

  • Be mindful. Only initiate a feedback discussion under calm circumstances. Set the tone by ensuring privacy and an ability to focus. Do not sit behind a computer or in a place with many distractions.

  • Make it timely and ongoing. Offering feedback just once a year makes the entire interaction far more intimidating (or even downright scary) for both the giver and receiver. And doing so only when the sky is falling casts a negative cloud around the whole dialogue. Provide ongoing feedback to establish a culture of open dialogue, and to reinforce positive behaviors and shift negative ones before they get out of hand.

  • Focus on behavior. Feedback should be about the work at hand and the employee’s approach and behavior. Use specific examples and talk about what worked and what could be improved. Share observations, but never any judgments, about the person.

  • Be direct. Employees deserve honest, straightforward messages. They should leave with a very clear understanding of what is being asked of them, not a sugar-coated or muddled version of what should have been said. Recap key points at the end of the conversation or ask the other person either to summarize their key takeaways or respond via email after the meeting.  

  • Make it a conversation. Ask for input from the other person. What do they think about the shared feedback? Would they like to take some time and come back for further discussion?

  • Ask for feedback. The most effective leaders and employees are those who ask for feedback. Model an openness to feedback by asking for it regularly and responding positively. This in turn will make it easier to provide feedback to others.

Feedback is the not-so-secret sauce that can super charge our professionals and organizations. Let’s learn how to give and receive it better so that our community can grow trusted leaders and benefit from their strengths.