Asking for feedback isn’t always easy, but if we don’t know how we are coming across, how can we improve?
Last week I was working with a group of senior managers on leadership. They were a passionate and committed group of people keen to make a difference. One of them was a mixed race American woman I will call Janet, who was a general counsel and number 2 to a dynamic female boss.
During the three days we worked together, she kept coming to my attention. The first time was when she stood up and went to close the windows that were open to the hotel garden. I was a little cold at the time and was glad that she had. I noted that even though I was also cold, she had taken the initiative and I hadn’t. Later she again stood out when she offered, unbidden, to email the whole group with some useful information that affected them all.
The point at which I clocked that this woman was an unacknowledged leader was when we did an exercise where the group together were required to solve a problem. As the process proceeded it became more and more obvious that this woman was a natural leader. She contributed in ways that gained the respect and liking of the group, and facilitated an effective outcome.
When I spoke to her afterwards, it was surprising that she didn’t realise how effective she was. She had no sense of herself as a leader. Her role was an especially busy one, giving legal advice, at the drop of a hat, to people who often didn’t really know what they needed but whatever it was, needed it now. She handled those situations well, but had little sense of how much of a contribution she made.
I asked if she would like some feedback. She took the opportunity, and I told her in as specific a way as I could what I had noticed about how she had made a significant difference to what was possible for this group of people. In the conversation that followed, it emerged that I was not alone in noticing her qualities. She had been approached that day by a local European Radio station, which had asked her to comment on the (second) Obama election, which was reaching its final stages. She had been singled out as someone who had presence, was well informed, and could communicate in a powerful way.
Her immediate impulse was to demur, as she found it difficult to identify with this role, but following our conversation she thought she might give it a go. Later my comments were confirmed in different ways by the rest of the group, when we ran an exercise where each participant sought feedback on behalf of their buddy for others in the group.
Until the point at which Janet had received specific feedback from me, I don’t think she had seen herself as anything more than a no 2. To my mind she was a natural leader, who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the group, and as the event progressed, the possibility I had raised in her mind of going further was strongly reinforced by the reactions and feedback from her peers.
The case for coaching
Yesterday she sent me an email saying she was making the case to her boss for executive coaching and understood that he was going to support her and make it happen. I am delighted as both she and her organisation will now benefit from the difference that she will inevitably make. All because of a little bit of feedback!