It turns out that in addition to making fun music videos for company events, that Nick and I have another thing in common: we both wrestle with finding the right balance in listening to feedback. Since this is a topic I’ve pondered quite a bit over my 12+ years as a startup CEO, I thought I’d share those thoughts in this post.
First, you don’t get to be CEO of a startup by not caring. You want your company to be great, you want your customers to be delighted, and you want your employees to be happy working at your company. So I think most CEOs will have that same natural tendency towards immediate action that Nick mentions.
But CEOs who overreact both irritate employees (“so you’ve heard one side of this and it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind”) and, more dangerously, are easily manipulated. If you find 3 people outside your office before a big meeting, each hoping to the last one to talk to you before it begins, then I’d view that as flashing yellow sign that you might be an overreactor.
On the flip side, there is some chance that the feedback is an outlier, and that reacting to it would be a mistake, particularly in terms of the opportunity cost of not having focused on something more generally important.
Finding that balance in the middle is indeed the hard part. On one hand, CEOs are action-oriented and if they hear something plausible, they want to immediately dispatch someone to fix it. On the other, CEOs get lots of feedback and it’s a little too easy to create a platitude shield around yourself that rationalizes feedback before it gets through — e.g., salespeople are never happy with their comp plans, employees generally don’t like their bosses, and customers always want more for their services dollar. If you gave me 30 minutes I think I could generate about ten platitudes that would screen out 90% of feedback. And that’s not good either.
So what should you do to find this balance? Here are some tips:
- Listen to everyone, all the time. Ask open-ended questions. For example: “how’s your experience been working here”, “what are we like to work with as a customer”, or “what do you think we can do better.” Rule 1 is you’re not listening if you’re talking, so speak little and listen a lot. Try to set up meetings as listening or feedback sessions as opposed to the default that “our CEO wants to come in and talk to you.” Reframe it: “our CEO wants to come in and listen to you, hear about your project, etc.” The more feedback you get the harder it is to overreact to any one piece.
- Remember that people have good days and bad days so do not overreact to any one incident. (If someone really unloads on you, listen politely, take notes, and set up a follow-up call in a week or two to check back in.)
- Listen no matter what you’re hearing. You might hear things that are factually wrong. You might hear things you find offensive. You might hear things you immediately want to explain. Recognize these as defensive reactions (even if they are appropriate defensive reactions) and remember Rule 2: defensiveness kills communications. Shut up, let the other person keep talking, take notes about any points you want to clarify, and discuss them at the end of the conversation.
- Ask the “dead moose” question. Is there any issue so big and glaring that we’re afraid to talk about and it’s like a giant dead moose in the middle of the conference room table that we’re all ignoring as we converse? This gives people permission to put the big, often obvious, but potentially dangerous issues on the table — and get the moose off it)
- Remember that people sometimes have agendas that shape their feedback. Not all feedback is “pure” or unbiased in the sense that it’s a neutral voice wanting what it perceives as best for the company. Maybe a customer is in the middle of negotiating a big contract. Maybe an employee is angry about having missed a promotion. Maybe a manager is trying to reorganize a department. There’s nothing wrong with having an agenda, but it helps to know what it is when processing feedback. Ask: is there any bigger picture item that’s shaping this feedback overall?
- When it comes to employee incidents, remember there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and what actually happened. If you react to the first person you hear, then you’ll be teeing up a race to your office after every dispute because (as with patents) the first one to the office wins. When faced with interpersonal disputes, remember my friend Martin Cooke’s favorite question: “so what did Joe say when you spoke to him about this?” If they’ve not spoken yet, then send them off to do so.
- Beware hearsay. It’s not allowed in court, so perhaps it shouldn’t be allowed in your office. I don’t want to spend time with Pete saying he heard Paula say something offensive to Joe. Tell Joe to come see me. Or go find Joe yourself. But we’ve all played the telephone game and know what happens to messages as they told and re-told through layers of people.
- Remember that “not reacting now” is not the same as “not reacting.” This is very important because “not reacting now” is probably the right answer 90% of the time. Write it down. Think about it. Schedule a meeting. But resist — and I know it’s hard — any action-oriented tendency to “do something” right now. Once you get a reputation for going off half-cocked it’s pretty hard to shake — and very easy to get manipulated. Time is usually your friend.
- Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data. Hearing the same story or opinion two to three times doesn’t automatically turn it into data. Use surveys to gather data and use all your feedback conversations to guide topical questioning in those surveys.
- Go get data. You should already be running quarterly customer surveys and bi-annual or quarterly employee surveys. Study the data in them. Use what you’ve heard listening to people to drive special, topical lines of questioning within them. Or, if indicated, do a special topic survey. Once you’ve done the survey, call an optional Town Hall meeting to discuss the results.
- Remember that 80% of an employee’s experience at your company is shaped by their manager (and, as a corollary that 80% of a customer’s experience is shaped by their account manager). Ask specific questions about both in your surveys and when hot spots light up, go dig into them (i.e, why are so many of Joe’s employees rating him poorly on management). Most companies are small enough that the digging can be done by live 1-1 meetings or phone calls.
- View external data with a skeptical eye. You can’t ignore the fact that product and company review sites exist. All review sites have limitations — competitors can launch coordinated attacks to decrease your scores while HR can launch proactive programs to increase your scores. My controversial advice for CEOs is to ignore these sites yourself and put your VP of Marketing in charge of product review sites and your VP of People on company review sites. If you start to personally and immediately respond to these public posts, you are basically incenting employees to raise gripes in a public forum, as opposed to a private one such as your employee survey or coming to you directly.
Let me thank Nick for putting an important question on the table. If you have other tips on how to answer it, please share them here.