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360-Degree Feedback Is Powerful Leadership Development Tool

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When executives undergo 360-degree coaching—receiving mostly anonymous feedback from employees they manage, peers and others—those unfiltered responses can take them to the next level.

The feedback contained in anonymous surveys can improve the performance of an already-effective manager who may have stalled on a few executive training goals. "It helps them get out of their comfort zone," said Jeff Nally, SHRM-SCP, chief HR officer and chief coaching officer at CoachSource, a leadership and executive coaching firm.

This type of coaching can also be used to assess those newly promoted to leadership positions and give them the tools they need to succeed.

But Nally and several others warned against using a 360-degree process as a way to target and weed out ineffective managers.

"If a leader already has some concern about another leader, they should deal with it rather than gather formal feedback from some third party and put it all together under the guise of helping that person," said Andrew Bartlow, co-founder and managing partner of People Leader Accelerator, which is based in San Francisco. "It is often overused and misused as performance management rather than development." 

Executive coaches also suggested ways to implement 360-degree coaching so the leader doesn't become defensive when receiving honest feedback. For example, employees who report directly to the leader in question could respond to surveys anonymously, while anyone above them on the corporate hierarchy could be connected to their feedback by name. 

"You don't want it to be a witch hunt," said Nally, adding that this is a fear of some executives at the start of the process. 

Leader Sets the Tone

Nally said 360-degree coaching becomes a positive experience if leaders sign on to the process from the start. Managers can build goodwill with an initial e-mail to the team, explaining that they are on board and want to grow through the experience, Nally said.

The process is most effective when managers identify two or three goals they hope to achieve. Survey questions can then be composed relating to those specific goals, rather than asking respondents about the executive's management style generally. 

"Without context, purpose or intention, it's really like shooting in the dark and it's really disengaging to the leader. I always advise HR pros and organizations to figure out what they are trying to improve or change," Nally said.

Nally gives these survey questions as examples: 

  • What should this leader stop doing to be a better leader? 
  • What should this leader start doing to be a better leader? 
  • What should the leader continue doing?

These open-ended questions give employees an opportunity to emphasize a strength the leader may not even see in themselves.

Another way to get useful feedback is to ask a question that looks to the future, such as "What will you experience when the leader achieves the goals they shared?"  

Getting New Leaders Acquanited with the Team

Karen Bennett, executive vice president and chief people officer at Cox Communications, said managers at the broadband communications and entertainment company often receive a 360-degree evaluation after being promoted and spending some time with their new team.

"Some managers may have jitters about a 360, but they understand the spirit of it—'We see potential in you because you just got promoted, and we want to make sure you get off to a good start,' " Bennett said. 

Employees who respond to a 360-degree survey may be asked about specific leadership qualities that motivate them versus qualities that make them feel less valued. For example, a manager who believes she is showing interest in her employees' work might actually come across as micromanaging right before a big deadline. Based on that feedback, the manager can adapt her approach and allow employees more autonomy, Bennett said.

After the leader receives the survey results, Bennett recommends that the manager reach out and thank everyone who participated. "You don't have to agree or disagree, but you do need to thank people for giving the time to give them feedback. It shows their commitment to becoming a better leader."

Cox uses external coaches to implement the two or three main points for improvement. 

Bennett said that for midlevel managers, Cox often uses self-administered online assessment programs such as Glint.

Company Coaching Culture

Other companies, such as Boston Scientific, a biomedical and biotechnology engineering firm, conduct 360-degree coaching internally and have invested in training for those who want to become certified executive coaches.

The company also makes 360-degree coaching a requirement for managers in the Accelerated Leadership Development Program. 

Camille Chang Gilmore, vice president of human resources and global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Boston Scientific, said she has both received 360-degree coaching and conducted the process for other leaders.

"In my coaching, I make sure that they have a chance to sit with the information for at least a couple of days before they have a conversation with me so they can get through the emotions," she said. 

Chang Gilmore has found the process helpful in her own professional development. "Coaching is almost like self-care," she said. "How often do we take a moment to get introspective and take a shot on elevating our leadership capabilities?"

Bartlow has seen 360-degree coaching increase in popularity during the pandemic, given the prevalence of remote work and how it has limited face-to-face interactions. 

"The frequency and the richness of contact is different now. There may be a higher frequency of meetings" on Zoom throughout the day, he said, but there are fewer opportunities for unstructured, informal conversations about deeper topics that might not be on the agenda.

Whether a company is working in the office or via Zoom, Bartlow said, the comprehensive nature of 360-degree coaching can bring a team together and, for leaders, introduce opportunities for professional development. 

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.


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