This is the first of three articles designed to support leaders in maximizing the value they receive from participating in a leadership development program.
Leadership programs can take many forms, but one common version involves three key phases: 1) collecting and debriefing in-depth assessment data, 2) building a goal document called a development plan (often informed by the assessment results), and 3) working with a coach to make as much progress against that plan as possible.
In this article, I will offer suggestions on how leaders can prepare for the first of these three phases, receiving in-depth assessment feedback.
One important caveat is that I’m approaching this topic with the perspective of someone who most often assesses executive-level leaders using ten to twenty 360 interviews, combined with several personality inventories. I think many of the perspectives listed below could still apply when receiving even more comprehensive feedback, for example from an assessment centre that combines multiple exercises and tools (often using both 360s and simulations), scored by multiple evaluators. However, some of these points may resonate less with those undergoing more streamlined middle-manager leadership development programs that involve a single questionnaire-based 360 survey.
1. Normalizing emotional reactions:
In my experience, receiving feedback is the hardest part of the leadership development process.
It’s very normal for people to experience strong emotional reactions in this phase, and for those emotions to take on a ‘roller coaster’ trajectory. At one moment, a person may feel elated to receive unexpected positive feedback, perhaps from an admired superior. The next moment they may feel overly criticized in an area they never conceived of as a weakness. Feelings of anger are also normal since it’s inevitable for a leader to receive feedback that they feel is unjustified or unfair.
I always tell leaders if they feel strong emotions in response to the feedback, that is 100% normal. Welcome to a very large club, that includes over 90% of the people I’ve ever worked with! Emotions tend to settle over time, but in the early stages of receiving feedback, expect to experience strong reactions.
2. It helps to review the feedback multiple times:
Since the powerful emotions experienced in the early part of the feedback process can shape the way leaders process information, I’ve noticed it’s helpful for them to return to review the feedback a 2nd or 3rd time, after taking some rest intervals between readings.
This often allows emotions to settle, and for leaders to extract more constructive insights. The passage of time may help leaders distance themselves from the feedback, in a way that makes it feel less personal. That distancing can make it easier to work with the data, and to think about prioritizing themes that could drive possible action. For these reasons, leaders may want to hold more than one feedback meeting with the facilitator/assessor/coach who is guiding them through the process.
In sum it may be helpful to think about the feedback phase as more than a single meeting or reading, and instead as a multi-step iterative process of reviewing and questioning the data.
3. Remember you have agency in this process:
When someone first receives their in-depth leadership assessment data, it can feel like a tidal wave of information and criticism that hits and overwhelms them.
At this moment, I find it helps leaders to remember that they still have some agency and control over the process. They can’t control the themes emerging from assessment data, but they can control what data they choose to act on. Later in the leadership development process, there’s typically a goal setting phase in which leaders translate the assessment data into a set of about three goals including several actions nested under each. The leader gets to choose what goals to include in that development plan. They may receive suggestions from a boss or a coach on what to work on, but the final decision of what data to act on rests with the participant. Although it feels like the feedback is ‘coming at you’ in the early stages of the process, the leader gets to decide what to do with that information.
4. The data is imperfect, but still useful:
The following is an analogy I share with leaders at the start of every feedback meeting.
I mention to them that I think of my role as someone who is trying to hold up a polished mirror to the client. I collect the data, analyze key patterns, and then share back the results. By doing so, I’m in effect trying to polish this hypothetical mirror as much as possible, so that when the leader looks at it, they can see as clear an image of themselves as possible. However, no matter how much I polish the mirror, there will always be blemishes in it.
What I mean by this is that no matter how diligent we are in collecting and analyzing the data, it will always be imperfect and contain error. We only sampled a given number of raters. We only asked a certain number of questions. I only interviewed raters for 1 hour each. Our data is just a snapshot in time, may be influenced by recent events, and may not represent longer term patterns/trajectories. Raters might have their own agendas, which can introduce bias. In short, there are many sources of error in the data.
Having said all that, the totality of the data represents something useful. If we collect and analyze the information with skill, we emerge from a leadership assessment with a reasonable model of how a leader is perceived at work by their most important stakeholders. That’s valuable, and allows us to generate several ideas about possible developmental steps the leader could take.
In summary, it’s important to recognize that the assessment data is flawed and not to overinvest importance in it. And yet at the same time, the results offer a practical working model of how a leader operates in their role, which provides great value for generating dialogue about development.
5. We’re closing the gap between intention and impact:
I gained the following perspective from an executive coach named Michael Frisch who’s supported me with supervision from time to time over the course of my career.
Mike suggested to me that one of the purposes of receiving feedback is to close the gap between ‘intention’ and ‘impact.’
Many leaders experience some gap between what they intend, and the outcomes generated. In fact, I interviewed a senior executive a few months ago, and she shared some examples of being treated with disrespect. She noted that in one instance she confronted her boss about his disrespectful behaviour, and he responded that he had no idea he came across that way and assured her it wasn’t his intention to offend. In other words, the intention-impact gap can be quite wide.
Feedback helps us shrink the gap by increasing our awareness of others’ perceptions.
We can never close the gap, but it’s important to keep trying by collecting and reviewing feedback often, for the purpose of staying calibrated with our social and organizational environments.
6. Learning to 'separate the wheat from the chaff’ when it comes to feedback:
This next point is a bit ‘meta’ yet I believe it’s meaningful and useful.
In my opinion one of the most important skills that leaders acquire in leadership development programs exists independent of any goals they might set based on their assessment results.
In particular, they develop the ability to sort through massive amounts of feedback and determine which parts of that data set are useful to act on.
From the present moment until the day a leader retires, they will continue to receive feedback on an ongoing basis.
One of the great values of leadership development programs that involve in-depth assessment, is they allow leaders to practice sorting through feedback, depersonalizing it, gathering any useful insights from it, and then discarding the rest. Becoming clinical and efficient at feedback use and application is a leadership skill with enduring value.
7. It matters less what the feedback says, and more what you do with it:
Leaders all start from a different baseline. Some have more strengths than others. Some have more derailers than others. At the risk of sounding a little ‘Oprah’ we’re all on different journeys through our careers and lives.
The point of receiving feedback within a leadership development program is to generate action. With that in mind, a leader’s baseline or starting point for their development doesn’t matter.
Some leaders ask me about how their results compare to others. How do their possible development needs compare to other executives I’ve assessed? Do they have more derailers than others? Where do they land when examining ‘benchmarks’?
If the program is being run for developmental purposes, and the data isn’t being used for any other diagnostic or evaluation objectives, in my opinion leaders shouldn’t worry about how their results compare to others.
As a leadership development practitioner, I don’t care what the assessment data says. I only care what the leader ‘thinks’ about the data, and therefore what they might want to ‘do’ with the data.
I believe a leader’s success in a leadership development program should be measured not by the content of their assessment results, but by the action they take based on those findings.
8. Zoom in, then zoom out:
It’s great for leaders to understand the assessment data in as much detail as they want. Leaders tend to receive in-depth feedback in rare instances, perhaps only once or twice in a career, so it makes sense to explore all questions and extract as much comprehension as possible.
At the same time, the leader will only carry forward about three key themes to work on in their development plan. Taking on more than three developmental objectives is often not possible based on executives’ bandwidth. Therefore, it’s great to zoom in and analyze the data with as much detail as the leader prefers, but at some point the leader will have to zoom out and pick a manageable subset of themes to act on.
9. Understanding personality feedback as ‘gravitational pulls’:
Personality inventories are used in most leadership development assessments. They often compliment other assessment formats, by helping to triangulate in on key themes. If the 360 and several personality inventories all indicate the same development need, that might be a theme the leader should pay attention to.
An important point to remember when interpreting personality data is that a leader’s results are not their destiny. The personality report will not perfectly predict the future behaviour of a leader. The personality report is not ‘the truth.’
Rather, a constructive way to think about personality results is as a set of ‘gravitational pulls’ that will nudge you one way or the other, based on your default preferences.
These gravitational pulls can be overcome, though it may require some effort. Nonetheless, leaders can choose to act in ways that are different than their profile suggests. Leaders have agency and power to act as they choose.
Being aware of these gravitational pulls can be helpful, in particular if they take the form of risk factors that might impair performance, so that leaders have the option to prepare to manage those tendencies ‘in the moment.’
The purpose of this article was to help leaders prepare for the experience of receiving and making constructive use of in-depth assessment feedback as part of a leadership development program. I hope these suggestions support some of you in becoming even stronger leaders. I would welcome your feedback, positive or constructive, on any of these points, and would love to learn from your unique perspective.
In my next article, I’ll offer suggestions for how leaders can prepare for what is a common next phase in leadership development programs, building a development plan.
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, and quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.