Published: June 3, 2011
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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What If the Leadership Feedback is Bad... Really Bad?

I stared in dismay at the overwhelming evidence in the 360-degree feedback report I had just written. There was no way around it: this leader was the worst-performing leader I had ever been asked to coach. I poured over my notes again. Perhaps I had forgotten dozens of positive comments, slipped past them in an overworked moment? No. I had included every comment that could possibly be construed as positive feedback.

O.k., it was time to see if I could soften the blow. Maybe the tough points were too repetitious? I meticulously deleted every duplicate or similar comment about his weaker areas, in the hope that the sheer volume of them might come more into proportion with the positive feedback. Alas, this leader’s areas for development outnumbered his strengths by a ratio of 5:1.

This leader had only two strengths, one of which was mostly irrelevant: he was one of the world’s greatest engineers in his specialty (largely irrelevant, given that leaders don’t have to be better at the task than the specialists they manage) and he was a patient, thought-provoking, respectful, and highly effective coach to more junior engineers. In the dozen key leadership competencies valued by this company, that left 10 competencies in which his performance was poor.

As if the potential discouragement and embarrassment weren’t enough for this poor guy, my fellow executive coaches already know the pragmatic problem with this situation: ample evidence indicates that leaders lead from their strengths and achieve the best development results when they dedicate at least two-thirds of their development efforts to honing their strengths, leaving no more than a third of the development efforts to shoring up, improving, or working on accommodations for their weaker areas.

You may be wondering why on earth the company invested in executive coaching for him. In fact, the division’s executives were 100% devoted to doing all they could for him. This man was one of the world’s greatest engineers, whose work had made hundreds of millions of dollars for the company (and would later lead to billion-dollar breakthroughs). He had been awarded one of the highest honors in his profession for his many patents and contributions to the company’s intellectual property. To lose him to a competitor would weaken them and strengthen the competitor, and they wanted him to be happy, successful, and never, ever feel tempted to leave. This man was a star, but he wasn’t shining.

With a heavy heart, I prepared to deliver the news. I warned his boss. The man and his job were mismatched. He would have to work very hard to gain the minimal competency needed to be successful in this role, and the odds were against his success.

As I sat down with him, heart thumping in my chest, I prepared him for what he was about to see in his feedback report, saying solemnly, “I want to prepare you for some very tough feedback in this report. Let’s walk through it, and consider what you want to do with this data and what your options could be moving forward.”

Much to my surprise, he did not react with shock or dismay as we covered one poor performance issue after another. Oddly, he looked relieved. I asked him how he was doing with this feedback, and his answer reminded me that sometimes the best thing an executive coach can do is the opposite of what we’ve been hired to do. Sometimes we have to let go of the notion that our “heroic” work will enable achievement of an elusive goal. We have to abandon the ego-gratifying goal that the business objective will be achieved, the box checked, and simple victory declared, going directly from Point A to Point B – all because of our coaching.

The PuzzleWhat was the comment that reminded me of these important facts? Quite simply, he said “You know, I agree completely with everything they’ve said, and I appreciate seeing it in black and white. When my boss offered me the manager role, I said yes because at this stage in my career, nothing is more satisfying than working with young engineers and developing their engineering skills. I still enjoy doing the work myself, too.

But being a manager was terrible. I hated it. I hardly had time to do the very thing I wanted to do when I had said yes to being a manager. Then the company grew again, and my boss offered me the director role. I said yes because I figured that with a team of managers working for me, I could finally get back to developing young engineers and solving engineering problems, but as a director, it’s been even harder to fit these in to my day. It’s not satisfying for me and clearly the data in this report indicate that it’s not satisfying for anyone around me, either.”

We agreed that his next step was not going to be the standard next step of preparing leadership development goals and an action plan. Instead, he talked with his boss about carving out a role in which he could mentor young engineers and be an engineer again. His boss was surprised and relieved that the solution was so simple. His decision to support the creation of this role ultimately contributed to the establishment of a technical track so that outstanding engineers who love being engineers could progress in their careers without having to take on management and leadership responsibilities that distracted them from their best work.

Sometimes the answer is so simple, it’s amazing, and my only job is get to the truth and shine a compassionate light on it, so my clients can remove obstacles, make the adjustments needed, and get on with the business of leading successful companies.



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