Embracing a culture of honest feedback

NOT so long ago, I had a presentation to a group of graduate trainees going on an eight-week mentorship programme. I intimated extensively the importance of feedback in one’s growth trajectory.

Robert Mandeya

Over the years, I have noticed that most of us intellectually grasp the importance of 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 when it is negative.
Why? Because it is difficult!

Evasiveness to feedback

Many of us do not like hurting other people’s feelings, so we are reluctant and hesitant to share bad news or tell painful truths. This could be influenced by our African upbringing. But is it really?

Generally, people hate feedback. 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 so my many-years career in civil service and leadership consultancy I came across even senior managers, who would not give straightforward feedback when they should have. They were also not interested in what anyone had to say about them. This fundamental unwillingness to tell and/or hear the truth costs organisations dearly over time.

Story of eBay CEO

Let me share with you a story of a female CEO of a leading online trading company who spurred her organisation to greater heights, during her decade-long run as CEO of online trading behemoth eBay. She came across to me as a good example of a leader who not only sought honest feedback, but could not function without it. She listened attentively, mostly to her customers but also to anyone who offered a useful point of view, and used what she learned to create a unique and powerful success story.

Whitman was appointed as CEO in March of 1998. Many sceptics felt that she was not qualified to run eBay for 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 critics, by acknowledging what she did not know and working to educate herself.

Inclusive leadership

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 share ideas on how the website can be more effective. She spent time during these events on the floor interacting with customers.

Interactivity and engagement

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 from 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 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.

Lessons from Whitman

As a leader, if you arrive at a point where you lose interest in feedback — assuming you had interest in the first place — or you say you want feedback but create an environment that is clearly not conducive to share freely, you cannot succeed over the long haul.

Good leaders foster a culture in which employees are free to speak up, even if the message is painful. The 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.

Action points

Whitman is a shining example of 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.

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

Mandeya is a certified executive leadership coach, corporate education trainer and management consultant and founder of Leadership Institute of Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/ or info@lird.co.zw, Facebook: @lirdzim and Mobile/WhatsApp: +263 719 466 925.