Facing the Truth: Lessons Learned of the Importance of Feedback

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An Everyone Culture, a new book by Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, was released for pre-order on Amazon earlier this week. Next Jump was fortunate enough to get to know the two authors over the course of several months in 2014, while Dr. Lahey and Dr. Kegan were studying our culture. The research they share in the book argues that the key to building a successful company culture is developing every employee. And one major aspect of their findings has been on the importance of feedback.  

At Next Jump, we have set up our environment to enable the giving and receiving of feedback, and to grow our awareness of who we are. One of the biggest challenges involved in the process of growing our awareness lies in how to solicit truly honest, authentic feedback. I love this quote from our Charlie Kim, our CEO, which sums it up perfectly:

“Most people live in an echo chamber of no honest feedback, which is the single biggest impediment to growth.”

John Wooden, the winningest coach in college basketball history, had a losing record through his first nine seasons as a high school head coach. I am a big fan of Seth Godin and James Altucher – both of whom are very successful entrepreneurs and writers. They each have written about being rejected by publishers hundreds of times, and how these failures helped them to grow. I love how Seth Godin articulates it:

“The person who fails the most wins. Failure is a skill – you can do it successfully or you can fail at failure.”

I have failed many times throughout my life. I was cut from the varsity water polo team my sophomore year in high school, and it still pains me today that my team never won a championship in college. I have seen hundreds of my employees get “let go of” because I failed them as a leader. Failure has been a crucial part of my personal and professional development; it creates urgency and, if internalized, necessitates change. Yet, the majority of those monumental failures that get etched in our memories do not actually happen very frequently (and, perhaps, become even less common as we gain more experience). It is very difficult to recognize the little failures that occur every day, especially under stress – from how we treat people to missed opportunities to poor decision making. 

Personally, I have developed an incredible ability to shut down the truth. I often use lines such as: “I hear you, but…”, or I will deflect or sidetrack the conversation back to a successful situation. By doing this, I’m failing to truly own problems and attack them head-on. If not for the feedback I have received from my peers, I would continue to repeat this behavior without any real sense of how much it impacts my world (and, consequently, those around me).

I am grateful for the environment Next Jump provides in that it has helped me to set up a system of feedback and awareness; what we call a “second-screen.” I need to fight every day to strengthen my second-screen, but here are three lessons that I’ve learned around the importance of feedback:

1. Who we are is a system. 95% of who we are is in our DNA. The other 5% is willpower. I often use that willpower to hide or cover up my true self. For example, under stress I will often steamroll people and situations to get something done. In a crucial moment, this is a blind spot for me. At Next Jump, we have found that when you are stressed and out of your comfort zone, your true self is more clearly on display. That gives you an invaluable opportunity to get curious on who you really are.

2. Develop a co-mentor. At Next Jump, we have implemented a co-mentorship program that we call “Talking Partners.” As a co-founder and current manager of our Boston Office, I would often sit alone in my office, worrying about my problems and receiving very little honest feedback. Eighteen months ago, our Head of HR – Holly Davison – became my Talking Partner. We meet everyday, vent about our problems and get to work on our biggest challenges. Holly’s main role is to always tell me the truth. Today, she knows me better than anyone in the Boston office and – most importantly – knows my “tells.” This has required me to practice being more vulnerable and humble around her, as well as around others.

It is incredibly hard to be critical of someone else. In the military, they identified “being tough on someone else” as one of the hardest skills to actually develop. When Holly and I first became Talking Partnerships, I had not properly set up an environment to invite harsh feedback from her. In that sense, my second-screen did not work. It wasn’t until I created a safe space to invite that criticism and the tough feedback that Holly would actually share it with me. 

3. Power of anonymous feedback. Another effective method of generating feedback is to ask for it anonymously. At Next Jump, a key aspect of our leadership training comes in the form of unfiltered, anonymous feedback. We ask everyone in our leadership group to give each other the unfiltered truth. Below, I’ve included real feedback that I recently received from my fellow leaders in the company. It is amazing how consistently others are observing and picking up on the same theme that I mentioned earlier: my tendency to shut-down the truth. It’s also feedback that very few people would give to my face typically. While humbling, it’s all true, and it helps me to identify an impediment to work on in my path to improve my personal leadership.

Next time: after awareness, comes training…

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