The Importance of Feedback – Early and Ongoing

The Window of Judgment Slams Shut for Many New Leaders

When we ask our clients how long it takes before their organization informally judges whether its New Leaders "get it" or not, they usually say somewhere between 60 and 90 days in the role. We call that the "window of judgment," and it is a source of great concern. Think about it. This means that before official nameplates are mounted on their office doors many New Leaders are already headed for the exit – a distressing thought for those who significantly invest in recruiting the best candidates for these roles.

And we are finding that the window of judgment is closing much sooner than it used to. Ten years ago our clients indicated that the window stayed open for a comfortable 4 - 6 months. Since then many factors have conspired to speed up the judgment process. This demonstrates how important it is that organizations and leaders understand the implications of projecting negative opinions about New Leaders, and that they learn to identify and head off potential issues.

New Leaders Often "Fly Blind"

If we think about feedback in a mechanistic way, a system monitors some measure of equilibrium (for example, thermostats sense a change in temperature). When the balance is disturbed (the temperature rises), the system sends a signal to compensate for that disruption (feedback to provide more cooling). With that adjustment, things return to a stabilized state.

Now, imagine New Leaders as a part of an organizational system. While we hope they behave in ways that maintain equilibrium, New Leaders may, in fact, do just the opposite. They often lack knowledge about the organization, and interact in ways that can be viewed as disruptive. This increases the risk that they will:

  • Make decisions that are inconsistent with organizational expectations or norms (or are just downright ineffective).
  • Struggle in relationships with people who can either enhance or undermine their success.
  • Overestimate their own capabilities and fail to deliver on important objectives.
  • Exclude valuable sources of information from their thought processes and implementation.
  • Lead their teams in ways that ignore their lessons of experience and take them down the wrong path.

In all five cases above, New Leader behavior creates a disturbance in the system. Unfortunately, our clients tell us that these same New Leaders are rarely given needed feedback in a timely and transparent fashion. In fact, many acknowledge that their New Leaders might operate feedback-free until their first performance review (which could be a year after their start date). It can be devastating for organizations and their New Leaders – equilibrium and performance suffer, and New Leaders flail about.

Insufficient feedback often serves to rob New Leaders of their dignity – experienced colleagues and direct reports already know where they fall short, but New Leaders have no real way to self gauge. This experience can be disrespectful, embarrassing, and pointless. We need to assume that all New Leaders come to their roles with a strong desire to perform in ways that are acceptable to their Hiring Managers and organizations. So, if a New Leader is proven ineffective, often it can be attributed to a broken feedback loop in the onboarding process. Someone is not sharing what is wrong and how to fix it.

Why They "Fly Blind"
There are several factors that can contribute to New Leaders operating without accurate insight into their effectiveness:
  • People are too nice, and don't want to hurt a New Leader's feelings (this is especially true in Midwestern organizations).
  • The prevailing organizational belief is that people who need feedback "don't get it," and are a bad fit for the organization and role.
  • The pace of organizational life makes it inconvenient for others to deliver timely, direct feedback to New Leaders.
  • New Leaders are in such a hurry that they don't foster transparent conversations.
  • Someone that works closely with a New Leader may be unhappy about the appointment. We identify this person as a rival. Regardless of whether or not this rival was a candidate for the role, negative feeling can result in very destructive behavior.
  • In some visible way a New Leader is different from those in the organization. Unfortunate, but still frequently true, some differences may make it difficult to connect and get honest, helpful feedback.

Without the information they need to effectively navigate, New Leaders can "crash and burn."

The Gift of Navigational Tools
You have probably heard someone say that "feedback is a gift." For the well-being of the organizations and their New Leaders, it is crucial to provide early, specific feedback about the effectiveness of their transitions. With that knowledge, New Leaders can effectively navigate – make better decisions, gain needed support for change initiatives, and become firmly woven into the organizational fabric. Some options for feedback include:
  • Helping New Leaders understand why they were chosen for the role, so they can reconcile how their strengths and weaknesses are viewed.
  • Focusing on building strong relationships with key stakeholders, and asking them for feedback early and often.
  • Providing New Leaders with a Culture Snapshot, so they can make accurate appraisals of the effectiveness of their operations.
  • Facilitating a Team Alignment Process, where New Leaders receive anonymous, powerful feedback from their direct reports.
  • Delivering data from LevelSet: Early Feedback when New Leaders have been in their role for only 6-8 weeks. Armed with this confidential and anonymous source of feedback, they can course-correct on one or more of over 30 behaviors that predict their success.

Seeking, being open to, and acting on feedback are essential elements of New Leader success. With a clear picture of how their actions and perceptions impact the organization, New Leaders have the tools to maintain their equilibrium, successfully navigate the organizational landscape, and avoid getting caught in the window of judgment as it slams shut.

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Posted in Advice for Hiring Managers, Advice for Internal Consultants, Advice for New Leaders, How to Truly Understand Your New Role and Operation, Mitigating the Risk of New Leader Transition.