The power of honest feedback

JUST recently talking to a group of graduate trainees going on an eight week mentorship programme, I intimated extensively on the importance of feedback in one’s growth trajectory.

People Management Issues with Robert Mandeya

Over the years, I have noticed that most of us intellectually grasp the importance for success in business particularly that of giving and receiving honest feedback. But so few of us do it well or receive feedback with an open mind-especially if it is on the negative. Why? Because it is difficult.

Many of us are averse to hurting someone’s feelings and so are reluctant to deliver the full truth as we see it. This attitude might be influenced by our African background. We also generally loathe receiving feedback ourselves. It can be embarrassing and unpleasant. How many people (both supervisors and employees) actually enjoy the annual review process, which is all about feedback? Not many that I have met.

With all that said, I am still struck at how often in my so many-years career in civil service and leadership consultancy I have come across even senior leaders who would not give straightforward feedback when they should have.

I have also come across leaders who were not interested in what others had to say about them. This fundamental unwillingness to tell and/or hear the truth costs organisations dearly over time.

Let me share with you a story about a female chief executive (CE) of a leading online trading company who spurred her organisation to greater heights during her decade-long run as head of eBay. She comes across to me as a dramatic example of a leader who not only sought honest feedback, but could not function without it.

She listened carefully, mostly to her customers and anyone else who offered a useful point of view. She used what she learned to create a unique and powerful success story.

Meg Whitman joined the company as CEO in March 1998. A number of skeptics felt that she was not qualified to run eBay because of lack of technical expertise. She quickly demonstrated her willingness to roll up her sleeves and learn. In mid-1999, the eBay site crashed for 22 hours, and weeks of uncertainty and instability followed. Whitman sat through endless technical discussions to get to the root causes, pulled all-nighters with the team and, when she did sleep, she did so on a cot in the office. The problems were fixed and Whitman impressed everyone, including her detractors, by acknowledging what she did not know and worked to educate herself.

Whitman was also quick to credit eBay’s success to its enormous community of buyers and sellers, who in essence run the business by determining which transactions will take place, and by managing inventory and shipping. The power of the business model, Whitman said, “is in the community of users who have built eBay.”

Whitman spent considerable time monitoring feedback from buyers and sellers by perusing discussion boards. She said: “The great thing about running this company is that you know immediately what your customers think.” She organised annual member conferences that brought thousands of eBay customers together to swap ideas and learn how to more effectively use the site. She spent time during these events on the floor interacting with as many customers as possible.

Numerous sellers have been able to make a handsome living trading on eBay full-time, and Whitman enjoyed interacting with them. Whitman declared, “Actually, most of these sellers know more about eBay than (eBay) employees. They use it every single day. They are the experts… The businesses that have been built on this platform are remarkable.”

Whitman oversaw explosive expansion at eBay. In 2002, for example, revenues rose 62% to US$1,1 billion, with an earnings jump of 172% to US$249 million. By the time Whitman resigned her position in 2008, eBay had 15 000 employees, just under US$8 billion in revenue, and 300 million registered users. Whitman was honoured as Fortune magazine’s most powerful woman in business in both 2004 and 2005.

Much of what she accomplished can be attributed to her desire to hear what people were telling her, learn from it, and take appropriate action based on that new knowledge.

As a leader, if you arrive at a point where you lose interest in receiving feedback – assuming you had interest in the first place – or you say you want feedback but create an environment that is clearly not safe for providing it, you cannot succeed over the long haul.

Good leaders foster a culture in which it is okay to speak up, even if the message might be painful. The very best leaders not only accept feedback but actively, even proactively, seek it out. They cannot function without the information they receive, virtually always from multiple sources. It is like the air they breathe. They use that data to drive change in themselves and their organisations.

Whitman is a shining example of just such a leader. She constantly sifted through countless bits of information, especially from her customers, the buyers and sellers who were foundational to eBay’s success. She used what she learned to create one of corporate America’s all-time growth stories.

Two final questions are critical: 1) Do you have someone in your professional life – at least one person – who pushes you and provides you with genuinely honest feedback? If yes, good for you; 2) If the answer is no, why not and what will you do about it?

Mandeya is a an executive coach in human capital development and corporate education, a certified life coach in leadership and professional development at the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. — lead.inst.dev@gmail.com, mandeyarobert@gmail.com.

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