18 Aug 2016 17:30 IST

Leadership is a team sport

To know your blind spots and improve yourself, partner with colleagues and juniors

Marshall Goldsmith, a world-renowned executive coach had this to say, in one of his widely read articles:

“Leaders who discussed their improvement priorities with their co-workers and then regularly followed up with these co-workers, showed striking improvement. Leaders who did not have ongoing dialogue with colleagues showed improvement that barely exceeded random chance.”

And now, this is an evidence-based gospel truth. Executive coaches who help their coachees improve fastest actually keep this wisdom in mind and help them seek improvement opportunities and improvement progress from their colleagues.

Partnering with colleagues

Partnering with colleagues is something we do to get our jobs done. However, rarely do we partner with them for our improvement.

There could be many reasons for this: including a lack of appreciation of how colleagues can be helpful in our journey to become better. Whether we like it or not, we get a whole lot of advice from our bosses and superiors. Sometimes, we look up to our mentors and seek out their advice.

But in reality, our colleagues (both our peers and direct reports) and other juniors have the maximum knowledge about our shortcomings, from their observations.

Why that is so

Understandably, we put up our best show in front of our seniors — we are prompt in responding to their mails and phone calls; we deliver on our commitments on time; and we pay rapt attention when they speak to us. Therefore, our seniors may have just a suggestion or two for improvement.

However, if we introspect we will begin to appreciate that our shortcomings, which require attention, are more visible to our peers and juniors.

Case in point

At a recent coaching assignment, I had a 360-degree feedback report with me. The boss’ scores on the following were very high.

(a) Keen listening

(b) Attention to detail

(c) Responding with empathy

(c) Sharing information

On the same parameters, however, the juniors — under conditions of anonymity — rated the senior manager very low!

Now, the normal tendency is to either wonder if these observations, which contrasted with those of one’s boss, were to be taken seriously or summarily ignored as irrelevant. As a coach, I know their importance and it took me almost a few hours to convince the coachee manager that the junior feedback was real and that he should improve in these areas.

Don’t let your career derail

But by the time we realise that we should focus on improving in areas that were highlighted by the juniors and other colleagues at work, it usually becomes too late and our careers would already begin to derail. If you think asking for feedbacks from juniors or colleagues is difficult or is too much work, it doesn’t need to be. In fact, it needn’t even be a task.

For, we do not need to wait for a formal feedback survey. We can just ask our colleagues about what we need to improve on and further, take their suggestions as to how to improve further. Marshall Goldsmith has called this process of seeking suggestions as “feed forward”.

We all welcome suggestions on ‘getting better’ and seem to be more open to this than ‘being criticised’. And our colleagues are best equipped to provide us with a few ideas on how we can get better, whether it is for honing our listening skills or showing empathy in dealing with them.

Fixing the blind spot

The key is to focus on improving one or two things at a time, and as we build our muscles on those, we can move on to next two areas. These are typically our ‘blind spots’ that we would otherwise not fix — unless we seek partnership for improvement with our colleagues.

Let me conclude with a story.

More than a decade ago, I had asked my colleagues and direct reports to score me on my listening skills on a scale of 1 to 10.

They rated me 6 and 7. I was not sure if that was good. Then, I asked my wife to score me. Being more direct, she gave me a more realistic 3! She also wondered why my juniors were so generous.

Now I had my ‘blind spot’ identified, loud and clear. I went around and thanked my colleagues for their feedback (and generosity) but did not stop there. I went ahead and asked each of them to give me two ideas as to how I can practise becoming better at listening and what I can do differently.

In less than a year, I became a significantly better listener and this helped my career progress. My decisions became more informed; I avoided a lot of traps, often of my own!

So, beyond management programmes that come at a fancy fee, we have a rich source of improvement learning — our colleagues and juniors! Let us partner with them and invite them to help us get better.