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Want to Be a Better Project Leader? Start Asking for Feedback

Want to Be a Better Project Leader? Start Asking for Feedback

Executive Vice President – Enterprise Solutions, IIL

You probably haven’t heard of Barbara Mistick, but she did what I should have done many years ago. She asked everyone who worked for her – and with her – for feedback on her leadership skills.

After all, do you know a better way to get feedback than to ask people?

If you’re only relying on the annual performance review from your boss, you’ll be missing many opportunities to improve on a regular basis. But, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at how Barbara did it as she describes her experience in a recent article in The New York Times.

The first piece of information you should know is that more than ten years ago Barbara was named president and director of the public library system in Pittsburgh, established by the industrialist-turned -philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Interestingly enough, she was only the second “non-librarian” to hold the post. Lacking credentials in the field, she realized she would have to rely on her interpersonal and diplomatic skills to gain the respect of her staff.

We each have more control of our future than we recognize. One of the most powerful ways we can take charge of developing new skills is to ask for feedback.

She also knew that because she was the head of the organization, her staff would want to please her by providing her with generally positive information rather than the critical insights and guidance she needed to make the best decisions. As she remarks, the higher you go, the less likely you are to receive honest assessments on all aspects of your work, especially your leadership style.

Barbara took on the role when it was in the midst of a multi-decade fiscal crisis. Accordingly, everyone was nervous that their jobs were on the line. In such an unstable environment, many people keep their opinions to themselves, try to stay under the radar, and hope it’s the person in the next cube who’s going to get the pink slip.

She was putting out fires day in and day out and never had enough time to make sense of the diffuse and guarded information she was receiving.  Once she had been there for a while, she felt more comfortable asking for feedback and she started with a 360-degree management assessment.

Barbara learned that the 360-degree assessment provided plenty of data about her specific competencies, but little overall direction in terms of the big picture. She’s convinced that when you want input on specific skills the 360 is a great place to start, but if you really want insight on the most important priorities for personal change, “it takes honest conversation with those who know you best.”

Over the years she made a valiant effort to have those conversations. But, let’s face it, it’s not easy for our colleagues, especially those who report directly to you to provide the kind of unvarnished information you really need to improve. But that shouldn’t deter you: identify those folks who will “tell it like it is” and encourage them to be honest.

After six years as the head of the library system, Barbara accepted a position as president of a university. Before she left, however, she asked her direct reports, librarians, branch managers, and employers one and two levels down what could she have done to improve performance. The request caught a lot of people by surprise. But their answers were illuminating and helpful. While it was too late to use that information in her current job, it proved invaluable for her next position.

Barbara’s experience is a lessons learned for all of us as project and program managers. If you want to be a better leader you’ve got to ask for feedback in a variety of ways. The best place to start is with a 360-degree assessment. It’s quick, easy, and yields pivotal information to help you be a better leader. But don’t stop there, ask those who know you best and really want to see you improve. Had I done what Barbara did, I know I’d be a better leader today, and it’ll make you a better leader too.

Learn more about IIL’s 360-degree Competency Assessments at www.iil.com.

J. LeRoy Ward is a highly respected consultant and advisor to Global Fortune 500 Corporations and government agencies in the areas of project, program and portfolio management. With more than 38 years of government and private sector experience, LeRoy specializes in working with senior executives to understand their role in project and program sponsorship, governance, portfolio management and the strategic execution of projects and programs. 

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