Fish-heads and 360 degree feedback

I’m not a great reader of self-improvement books or tomes on leadership theory. In fact I’d go as far to say that I actively avoid them. You know, the ‘How to live in luxury on a dollar a week’ variety.

If I’m honest,this has mainly been due to pure snobbishness/naivety on my part and for that I blame my aunt who lives in Manhattan. A few years ago she recommended that I visit a well-known bookstore in New York. But at the time the ‘business’ section seemed to be 50 times bigger than the ‘Literature’ section and instinctively I thought ‘Surely that can’t be right …but I guess that’s just America for you…’

However since leaving the security and comfort of a full-time corporate job a few months ago and setting up a media relations consultancy I’ve been a bit less inclined to write them off so readily and now appreciate that like in any walk of life people can impart their expertise and experience for the benefit of others to help them on their own journey. And management is no exception.

During my time at the BBC I worked under a wide range of managers – eight over a seventeen year period – all with differing strengths and weaknesses (sorry, ‘areas for development’). I have hopefully learned positives from all of them. (Well,most).

I’ve also line-managed scores of staff over the years as boss of a BBC radio station where equally I learned more about managing people than I ever imagined you could ever learn from a book.

By far the most USEFUL learning experience was when BBC senior executives required all managers at my level to undergo 360 degree feedback as a way of improving performance and fostering a more creative culture. At the time such feedback didn’t apply to my line manager (!) but nevertheless it was a genuinely interesting and useful exercise. A bit like starting a circuit training cousrse when you think you’re physically fit and then realising very quickly that you’re not.

In retrospect it was painful, but ultimately it made me stronger and I believe made the organisation more effective and me a better manager. Sure, it involved a lot of stress and pain but as the saying goes,”Life isn’t meant to be easy, it’s meant to be lived”.

The feedback from my management team was carried out at a time when I’d just returned to my permanent base having been away on another BBC project for 9 months.

The guy chosen to take over from me at the radio station for this period was a well-respected colleague from another part of the BBC and I was happy that the radio station was being left in good hands.

My rotting fish-head

While I was away from the day job I let him get on with the work of running the radio station and kept out of his hair.

And he did a great job. An annoyingly great job.

It was only when I returned to my substantive role and he went back to his old job that I very quickly realised he’d done a better job than me in a number of key areas. I didn’t want to admit it at first but the reaction from my staff to my first day back at the office was subdued to say the least.

Yes, even I noticed something had happened and, in time, that I needed to act quickly or, to borrow a football saying, I’d lose the dressing room.

It was a strangely disconcerting feeling to acknowledge this fact and once I’d picked myself up I embarked on a 360 degree feedback exercise with the management team just to make sure my original instincts were right. I told them to make sure it was ‘no holds barred’ feedback. I was looking forward to getting some constructive feedback and hopefully make me feel better about myself and regain a bit of confidence.

And they gave it to me with both barrels.

I won’t on this occasion go into all the excruciating, sphincter-tightening minutiae of their feedback (maybe in a later blog when I’m feeling brave or drunk) but suffice to say that it was a chastening experience.

You see, mistakenly or otherwise, I had always prided myself on my ability to communicate with people. I had always thought I was a good listener and delegator.

The comments on the 360 degree feedback form drove a coach and horses quickly through that particular notion.

Exhibit A: ‘You don’t communicate your ideas fully because you always seem so busy on more important stuff’.

Exhibit B:’You don’t seem interested in me as an individual and you roll your eyes when I ask you whether you’ve a good weekend’.

Exhibit C: (The Biggie) – ‘You only talk about problems and mistakes. When you praise me it seems like an afterthought, something you feel you have to do because you’ve just pointed out something negative’.

Exhibit D: “The sh*t sandwich approach doesn’t work; it still tastes of sh*t. Be straight with me.”

OK, I’ll stop now.

Such comments were common to a number of the team. There was a trend here. It wasn’t all bad by any means but it was clear very quickly that there were problems which needed to be tackled.

The worst aspect is that ALL the comments hit home in areas where I really believed I was secure,and NOT in the areas where I thought I was weak.

‘At least I give positive feedback’, I thought.

‘At least I’m interested in their lives outside of work’, I thought.

Yeah.

It took quite some time for the new ‘me’ to re-emerge enthused and engaged after the feedback.

What was particularly difficult was then having to relay their comments to my boss, who as I said earlier, didn’t have to undergo such a process, much to my chagrin.

Thankfully he backed me and supported me in redressing the balance.

The following year the BBC then decided in its wisdom that the 360 degree idea was no longer compulsory for managers and I suspect many of my colleagues breathed a sigh of relief. But looking back I think if anything they should have expanded the system to include ALL managers.

My next mistake was not to do another 360 degree feedback after 6 months,voluntarily. I think I was feeling a bit bruised at the time and I didn’t want to open up that can of worms again, out of sheer cowardice.

I also felt that it I opened the 360 degree can of worms again,it might damage my credibility.

In retrospect, that was the wrong call.

Now I’m older and maybe a bit wiser so I’d like to think it’s not something I’d shirk today. And certainly not now I’ve read Australian business consultant Soozey Johnstone who’s book ‘I Am The Problem’ is about to be published in the UK.

One of her many trenchant quotations perfectly illustrates the value of 360 degree feedback for senior managers and execs.

” The fish rots from the head.
And when it rots, it stinks up the whole place”.

One of her main calls to action is to encourage ALL bosses to undertake 360 degree feedback as one of a number of tools to improve personal, team and corporate performance.

As a former smelly fish-head myself I just wish I had been given such advice all those years ago when I returned to the radio station from my attachment.

And while every boss is different and maybe some will say they’re too busy, or switched-on or too successful to agree, I think she’s absolutely right which is why I’ll be promoting her book when she comes to the UK in December.

“I Am The Problem” by Soozey Johnstone is available on Amazon.

Her website address is http://www.iamtheproblem.com.au/

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