Executive Coaching: Using Interview-based Feedback for Strong Results – Part 1

Note: This the first of two blog posts exploring the best approaches to leveraging interview-based feedback. 

Executive coaches draw on many different methods to support business leaders – including using feedback as data points for guiding leaders around growth, which can be very effective when done well. In fact, without those data – from a competency or leadership model assessment, validated behavioral assessments, or qualitative feedback via interviews –  leaders may miss blind spots that are critical to their own growth and to the business overall.

Over the last year, I have had many conversations with coaching practice leaders, coaching clients and coaches themselves on the topic of qualitative feedback — otherwise known as interview-based feedback. Most agree that this form of feedback can be very useful, and in some-cases, a total game-changer. But alarmingly, the feedback can fall flat at times, and have little or no impact. What’s worse, it can have negative impact when used incorrectly.

In this blog post, I’ll explore best practices for using qualitative feedback — including the elements of interview-based feedback that seem to have the highest impact and the most positive results in executive coaching engagements.

Using Business-focused Data to Identify Meaningful Development Opportunities

We find that qualitative feedback is a powerful way to gain insight on what matters most for key stakeholders (feedback providers) and provides clarity to leaders about what the organization expects of them. But beyond this, how often does leadership feedback begin with an understanding of the challenges of the business?

At Cambria, we believe that the starting point for any executive coaching engagement is to identify the critical business challenges confronting the coaching client. From this context, a coach can surface strengths and areas for development that tie directly to those business challenges. It’s important to go beyond a mere discussion with the leader being coached and their manager about the context of their business. It’s far more valuable to surface those same viewpoints in the feedback process: exploring with critical stakeholders what they see as the leader’s greatest business challenges. Here’s why doing so is important:

The feedback is directly tied to the business challenges and how to address them.
The value of the feedback is magnified considerably, since executing on development goals means better business results and increased success for the coaching client.

Too often, organizations (and coaches) narrow the development approach of key talent to “just” leadership behaviors that appear to be disconnected from the realities of the business. Leveraging a qualitative interview process that overtly identifies critical business challenges for a leader, and the strengths and development opportunities that would directly impact those challenges, reinforces a larger “what’s in it for me” perspective for the leader vs. just becoming a better leader.

Identifying the “Right” Feedback Providers: Organizationally Wise vs. Politically Correct

When organizations think about gathering qualitative feedback for a leader, too often the default mode for identifying feedback providers is Manager, a few Peers and a few Direct Reports – a “politically correct” approach to identifying stakeholders. While this is useful in some cases, we find a more effective way of thinking about whom to tap for feedback is to consider the objectives of the coaching engagement and combine them with known developmental areas. Here’s an example of how that might affect feedback providers:

A leader is having trouble with some peers, and there is also a perception that the leader needs to grow his or her strategic thinking capability. In addition, this leader is earmarked as a successor for a key senior-level role in an organization. In this case, tapping more than the usual peers and senior executives who interface with this leader could surface additional feedback about horizontal and long-range thinking. Engaging a broader range of peers and partners, and more senior leaders has the added value of building relationships with people who have a view into what is really needed at the strategy level. In this case, it could make sense not even include direct reports, especially if the leader has a solid, engaged team.
Another example may be a more “traditional” opportunity for a leader where the development need is more about leveraging and leading a team and grappling with shorter-term business issues. In this example, leveraging the entire stakeholder slate by tapping the whole direct report team, the manager, the HR Director and perhaps some dotted line team members could provide the greatest insight for the leader. Again, it could make sense to not include peers or partners or more senior leaders give the focus of the work.

The key here is to think wisely and strategically about who is going to provide the most valuable, usable feedback to help this leader grow in the direction that the organization needs he/she to move.

Creating an Environment that Supports Development

As we work with organizations around executive coaching strategy, another question that often comes up is: How many feedback providers is enough? The answer is “it depends.” At the top levels of organizations (C-suite and the level below that) it could make sense to tap far more than the usual number of 8-12 stakeholders – not because additional stakeholder data would necessarily provide a lot of new insight, but because the impact of engaging a broader band of feedback providers creates momentum around development for the leader being coached.

The act of gathering feedback in an interview often results in an awareness by the feedback provider that they need to have a conversation directly with the leader, and sooner rather than later. This opens lines of communication and accelerates growth for both feedback providers and receivers in support of the business.

Also, the act of asking people for feedback – especially those who may have issues with a leader – is powerful. It takes courage for a leader to request feedback from someone with whom they have been at odds. This sort of feedback can help break down walls and encourage more cooperative or exploratory conversations that help the business achieve critical goals.

For very senior leaders with global, matrixed positions, bumping the number of feedback providers to 15 or 16 can also generate increased alignment and engagement.

The bottom line: Avoid being overly prescriptive about the number of feedback providers.  Instead, provide general guidance about how you look at 8-12 stakeholders, but leave the door open. Also, be clear about it upfront with the leader, their manager and the coach — in order to massage the number of stakeholders you need for the best feedback.

Look for Part 2

The second of two blog posts continues this discussion with more best practices for leveraging interview-based feedback to optimize impact and deliver results.  That post also includes a checklist for ensuring that happens. Look for that soon.

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