Receiving the results of a 360 review is a difficult experience in self-management. By design, the activity offers a dual focus on your professional strengths and your weaknesses. Human nature trains our attention on perceived threats, the eye goes straight to the areas for improvement, discounting strengths and accolades. It is natural to want to see where our weaknesses lie and then eliminate them to protect ourselves.
Chris, a VP of Client Experience in the throes of a 360 review, is quick to discount the strengths his colleagues point out and focus instead on the areas for improvement. He is dismayed to hear that his peers do not find him acting like a true executive. This is received like a punch to the gut, rendering him flabbergasted. How can he work harder? He already stays up late each night to remain on top of all the details of his job! Chris barely has time to breathe. He spends his days blocking and tackling for his direct reports, advocating for his customers, and responding to whoever is shouting loudest. His leadership ethos seems to be, “You want me to jump? How high?”
Stinging from the feedback, Chris’ imposter syndrome kicks into high gear and he wonders if he has what it takes to meet the expectations his CEO and the C-suite have for him. He feels powerless to shift his trajectory at the company, especially as a recent consolidation of his functional area has tripled the size of both his team and workload. Chris turns his focus toward tasks that need his immediate attention, distracting himself with the crisis du jour. This temporarily pushes his malaise to the back of his mind, but all week he feels as if there is a cloud hanging over him.
After about a week, Chris reads through the findings from the review again, finding that the feedback stings a bit less, though it still makes him feel bad about himself. He notices some details he didn’t see before, nuances that make him curious. He is not sure how to tackle the challenges before him but is eager to close the gap between his current performance and where he longs to be: a leader of influence.
In our coaching, Chris reflects on what keeps him feeling stuck in the patterns that have netted him constructive feedback from his peers. Here are some of the obstacles he identifies:
Sharing leadership responsibilities for a combined customer experience function with a more extroverted co-leader intent on taking the microphone with the C-suite
A dependency of his team on him to solve day-to-day operational problems
A belief that his job is to protect his people and not overload them
A reluctance to speak out in executive leadership meetings when he doesn’t feel he has a strong point to make or hasn’t thought through his point of view enough
A resistance to networking internally with leaders who overwhelm him with their strong personalities, whom he doesn’t agree with, or doesn’t want to bother
A desire to be liked
A humble nature where he wants his good work to speak for itself
A relatively slow personal pace of work, intent on high-quality standards
These challenges seem overwhelming to Chris, leaving him feeling disoriented and disillusioned. When you find yourself in a similar situation, it can be tempting to wonder if you deserve to be in your role. Especially when you compare yourself to others, it can be easy to get discouraged.
The good news is that turning this around, including changing the perception others have of your leadership abilities, is fairly straightforward. In my research, seven particular strategies make the difference in these situations. I call these strategies pillars, as they represent the key support structures to shore up any tricky situation you find yourself in. Here they are, applied to Chris’ situation. Taken together, they make up the core elements of his new executive leader playbook, allowing him to engage effectively with the expectations of others and those he has for himself. This ultimately shifts the narrative from him NOT being a true executive leader to one who is. You can apply these same pillars as part of your professional playbook to shift the feedback you’ve received into a dynamic show of strength.
Pillar 1: Increase your sense of CONTROL by becoming your career’s intentional architect -
Chris is acting like these factors are happening to him, like describing the plot of a movie he is watching rather than being the director of it. His belief needs to shift from thinking that things are happening to him. Instead, he needs to take charge and be the one responsible for changing the situation. If he doesn’t quite understand the feedback, he needs to ask questions; if he wants to be seen as more influential, he needs to take steps to change his behavior to exude more influence. These are the changes to make because he is in charge of his professional trajectory. He needs to move away from being asleep at the wheel and regain control, starting with the decision that the journey is worthwhile.
Pillar 2: Increase your sense of CLARITY by defining your own North Star -
Chris has become overly responsive and reactive to what others want and need from him. The shift is to counterbalance the crushing set of responsibilities imposed by others with what he wants for himself from this phase of his career. The overlay between the two reveals what to optimize for, bringing into focus the horizon line to steady him when he is feeling the pull of overwork. Through journaling, Chris becomes aware his top priority is to drive the strategic imperatives the organization needs to thrive. These imperatives are currently falling by the wayside due to how distracted he is by the demands on his time. Having this compass in hand enables him to remind himself of what he truly wants when he is tempted to prioritize the urgent over the important.
Pillar 3: Increase your sense of STAMINA by filling your tank -
Chris’ current practice is to catch up on his email at 2 am, robbing him of sleep and intruding on his personal time. An active dad of three young children who coaches soccer and is hands-on at home, the cost of late-night work is fast burning him out. The solution is to realize he is running on empty and needs to restore his energy; this energy is needed to be able to try new behaviors that take courage and reasonable risk in service of becoming more impactful and a true executive. Practices that undermine his sense of resilience and stamina are counterproductive to his goal and must be curtailed. There are several ways to do it, but the first step is to identify the behaviors that drain his energy, and then he can tackle resolving them one by one.
Pillar 4: Increase your sense of NIMBLENESS by taking imperfect action -
Chris has high standards for his work and that of his team, which is admirable; however, he has become the bottleneck for various operational matters. The work here is to move from being fixated on avoiding mistakes and doing things perfectly, lowering the stakes on any given activity to make it easier to be considered complete or “good enough.” This involves incorporating ongoing feedback loops with team members, using terms and practices like drafts, completing projects in milestones, and engaging intuition more in decision-making. Chris can collaborate with his team members to timebox effort on various activities and decide on review methods that make sense given the complexity and risk associated with each task.
Pillar 5: Increase your sense of INSIGHT by fine-tuning your powers of observation -
Although Chris is tight with his team members, he has missed the cues amongst his senior colleagues, to the point where he is surprised by their constructive feedback. He needs to shift his attention from the narrow, transactional focus of what his team is working on to the larger agenda that his fellow leaders have, tuning into the spoken and unspoken cues, especially where senior leaders are present. He can expand the view of what he is paying attention to by reading the room in any meeting he is in to notice the body language and being curious about what is driving his colleagues’ behavior, including asking questions to make sure he is speaking to the real issues at play. He can also increase his focus on the real needs by spending a few minutes each day performing a Morning Scan to figure out where his time is most strategically placed to drive forward the big priorities on his plate in service of the organization’s goals.
Pillar 6: Increase your sense of STABILITY by broadening your base of support -
Chris’ lack of awareness of how he is perceived until he sees it in the review reveals that he has no regular patterns of communication with his peers and senior colleagues. If he did, the feedback he is receiving would be on his radar already. The shift is to proactively strengthen the web of connections around him in two fundamental ways: 1) holding regular one-on-one discussions with his peers and superiors where he asks open-ended questions to understand his colleagues’ key challenges and lends his efforts to help solve them while also sharing his priorities and 2) requiring his direct reports and skip levels to do a more effective job of preparing for their interactions with him, being specific with the help they need, and investing in developing processes to take him out of the detailed action for commonly occurring situations in the day-to-day work. By reducing the amount of time he spends managing down into the details, Chris can increase his time with peers and colleagues, becoming more valuable to them while also growing them into advocates for him and his perspective.
Pillar 7: Increase your sense of SELF-CONFIDENCE by sharpening your professional narrative
Chris feels reluctant to speak up in the executive leadership meetings, especially when his ideas do not feel sufficiently thought out or organized. However, this is keeping him from being seen at the leadership table and his ideas and priorities from getting airtime. As a result, his projects are not sufficiently funded or resourced, leaving him in a stuck place. The shift to make here is to craft a compelling story for the initiatives he wants and needs to drive and then find ways to insert those needs into the executive dialogue. He can collaborate with others on his team to help him shape his message into short, digestable content he can share with others, both during his one-on-one meetings with his peers and senior colleagues as well as at the leadership meetings. If he feels like he has not had time to fully digest and clarify his perspective, he can focus on asking open-ended questions that speak to his strategic priorities and help elevate the quality of the leadership conversation for all parties.
Within the pages of my book Your Finest Work: Career Fulfillment in a Complicated World, I detail these seven pillars and invite your attention and effort. Their collective impact holds the potential to transform your daily work experience and address the key attributes of strategic leadership. For Chris, he doesn’t have to negate who he naturally is – a nice guy who wants to do good in the world – to embrace them, either. Each area requires ongoing practice and attention, but over time they become easier to do and embody. From my research and experience walking alongside thousands of leaders guiding them towards more of what they want in their careers and less of what they don’t, I have found that these seven pillars make up the blueprint for success.
Merideth Mehlberg, MCC, author of YOUR FINEST WORK: Career Fulfillment In A Complicated World, is CEO of Merideth Mehlberg Group. An ICF-certified Master Coach, she helps executives look forward to Monday mornings. For almost twenty years, she has walked alongside senior and high-potential leaders to define their career priorities, measure the gap with their current opportunities, and close the space between the two. Clients grow their professional satisfaction, impact, and success, transforming their careers and leadership styles from the inside out.
For more information, please visit www.YourFinestWork.com.