Giving Feedback

Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things.

Even the most basic CEO building blocks will feel unnatural at first. If your buddy tells you a funny story, it would feel quite weird to evaluate her performance. It would be totally unnatural to say, “Gee, I thought that story really sucked. It had potential, but you were underwhelming on the buildup and then you totally flubbed the punch line. I suggest that you go back, rework it, and present it to me again tomorrow.” Doing so would be quite bizarre, but evaluating people’s performances and constantly giving feedback is precisely what a CEO must do. If she doesn’t, the more complex motions such as writing reviews, taking away territory, handling politics, setting compensation, and firing people will be either impossible or handled rather poorly.

Giving feedback turns out to be the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built. But how does one master the unnatural?

The Shit Sandwich

A popular and sometimes effective technique for feedback beginners is something that experienced managers call the Shit Sandwich. The technique is marvelously described in the classic management text The One Minute Manager. The basic idea is that people open up to feedback far more if you start by complimenting them (slice of bread number one), then you give them the difficult message (the shit), then wrap up by reminding them how much you value their strengths (slice two). The shit sandwich also has the positive side effect of focusing the feedback on the behavior rather than the person because you establish up front that you really value the person. This is a key concept in giving feedback. The shit sandwich can work well with junior employees but has the following challenges:

  1. It tends to be overly formal. Because you have to preplan and script the sandwich to make it come out correctly, the process can feel formal and judgmental to the employee.
  2. After you do it a couple of times, it will lack authenticity. The employee will think, “Oh boy, she’s complimenting me again. I know what’s coming next, the shit.”
  3. More senior executives will recognize the shit sandwich immediately and it will have an instant negative effect.

The Keys

To become elite at giving feedback, you must elevate yourself beyond a basic technique like the shit sandwich. You must develop a style that matches your own personality and values. Here are the keys to being effective:

  1. Be authentic. It’s extremely important that you believe the feedback that you give and not say anything to manipulate the recipient’s feelings. You can’t fake the funk.
  2. Come from the right place. It’s important that you give people feedback because you want them to succeed and not because you want them to fail. If you really want someone to succeed, then make her feel it. Make her feel that you are in her corner, and she will listen to you.
  3. Don’t get personal. If you decide to fire somebody, fire her. Don’t prepare her to get fired. Prepare her to succeed. If she doesn’t take the feedback, that’s a different conversation.
  4. Don’t clown people in front of their peers. While it’s okay to give certain kinds of feedback in a group setting, you should strive never to embarrass someone in front of their peers. If you do so, then your feedback will have little impact other than to cause the employee to be horribly ashamed and to hate your guts.
  5. Feedback is not one-size-fits-all. Everybody is different. Some employees are extremely sensitive to feedback while others have particularly thick skin and often thick skulls. Stylistically, your tone should match the employee’s personality, not your mood.
  6. Be direct, but not mean. Don’t be obtuse. If you think somebody’s presentation sucks, don’t say, “It’s really good but could use one more pass to tighten up the conclusion.” While it may seem harsh, it’s much better to say, “I couldn’t follow it and I didn’t understand your pint and here are the reasons why.” Watered-down feedback can be worse than no feedback at all because it’s deceptive and confusing to the recipient. But don’t beat them up or attempt to show your superiority. Doing so will defeat your purpose because when done properly, feedback is a dialogue, not a monologue.

Feedback is a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

You may be the CEO and you may be telling somebody about something that you don’t like or disagree with, but that doesn’t mean you’re right. Your employee should know more about her function than you. She should have more data than you. You may be wrong.

As a result, your goal should be for your feedback to open up rather than close down discussion. Encourage people to challenge your judgment and argue the point to conclusion. Culturally, you want high standards thoroughly discussed. You want to apply tremendous pressure to get the highest-quality thinking yet be open enough to find out when you are wrong.

High-Frequency Feedback

Once you’ve mastered the keys, you should practice what you’ve mastered all the time. As CEO, you should have an opinion on absolutely everything. You should have an opinion on every forecast, every product plan, every presentation, and even every comment. Let people know what you think. If you like someone’s comment, give her the feedback. If you disagree, give her the feedback. Say what you think. Express yourself. This will have two critically important positive effects:

  1. Feedback won’t be personal in your company. If the CEO constantly gives feedback, then everyone she interacts with will just get used to it. Nobody will think, “Gee, what did she really mean by that comment? Does she not like me?” Everybody will naturally focus on the issues, not an implicit random performance evaluation.
  2. People will become comfortable discussing bad news. If people get comfortable talking about what each other are doing wrong, then it will be very easy to talk about what the company is doing wrong. High-quality company cultures get their cue from data networking routing protocols: Bad news travels fast and good news travels slowly.

Making the CEO

Being CEO also requires a broad set of more advanced skills, but the key to reaching the advanced level and feeling like you were born to be CEO is mastering the unnatural. If you are a founder CEO and you feel awkward or incompetent when doing some of these things and believe there is no way that you’ll be able to do it when your company is one hundred or one thousand people, welcome to the club. That’s exactly how every CEO feels. This is the process. This is how you get made.