The Red Pen Story
The brisk chill of feedback can be hard to bear, and despite every instinct warning you to tuck and run, sometimes the best decision is to walk into the storm.
I have a friend and former colleague who went beyond learning that lesson. He embraced it.
After years of working in academia and consulting, Richard became a vice president younger than most and quickly found himself leading the peers who had surrounded him.
During his first year as a VP, Richard’s company conducted its usual employee opinion survey and – lo and behold – his score was among the worst in the company (if not the worst). That realization stung. He thought he’d fostered the right blend of authenticity, thoughtful guidance and camaraderie. He had done all the things he’d seen other leaders do.
Richard was a top performer and was used to succeeding. In this situation he decided to forge his own path instead of doing what others would do (ignore it and hope it went away).
He decided to lean into the negative feedback.
Using his knowledge of research and analytics, Richard created a program designed to improve his leadership. Despite advice to the contrary, he shared every detail of the survey results with his team and was dogged in his requests for examples of where he’d gone awry. He wanted even more feedback.
Some may have viewed this approach as rather masochistic. Thoughts of, “Please sir, may I have another,” come to mind. But Richard was determined, and he approached his leadership improvement the way he approached other work challenges: he created a program with a memorable acronym: REMAPP, or “Research Employee Morale And People Process improvement.”
Well, REMAPP unearthed some surprising results – and behaviors Richard realized could be addressed quickly and easily. In fact, some of the feedback was so obvious, Richard wondered how he hadn’t thought of it himself.
First up: ditch the red pens!
Richard’s team despised the red pens he often used to review their work. Of course, this was a practice from academia, and he’d even seen other leaders at this big company do it. But his team was very proud of the work they did and didn’t appreciate the feedback in the form of red ink bleeding across their carefully crafted materials. So, Richard upcycled the red pens for the kids’ artwork at home. Check!
Next on the chopping block: “adding value.” He realized he’d been tackling work projects from his former perspective as a consultant, and in that role, he needed to be the smartest person in the room. In his new role? Nope. While researching ways to improve, Richard came across this Marshall Goldsmith quote that resonated with him:
“While the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent, her commitment to execute it may go down 50 percent. That’s because it’s no longer her idea, it’s now your idea.” Got it. Input is not always helpful.
Now, most people may have quit at this point, believing they had leaned in quite enough. But not Richard, whose natural tendency to over-achieve includes self-help. The last lesson really required his natural tenacity. And that last lesson was perhaps the toughest of all to hear.
“You’re arrogant,” they said. One stinging quote from a direct report said he handled hiring a new director like a hunter dangling pieces of meat for their dogs.
But Richard had come this far and was not about to back away. He embraced the feedback and, through this new lens, found himself revisiting meetings and remarks he’d made along the way.
He thanked his team for their honesty. Rather than retreating, he made a regular practice of asking for feedback. Over time, his team continued to share feedback and saw no hint of retribution. If they had, both the feedback and their renewed commitment to succeeding with Richard would have stopped.
Based on his REMAPP discoveries, Richard publicly committed to a new set of leadership principles for his team. He never stopped asking how it was going and was committed to change within himself.
One year later, Richard’s scores were in the top half of the company and continued to improve in the years to come. More importantly, the lessons he learned have stayed with him. Richard lives his values by showing how much he cares about people throughout his organization. He has learned how important it is to see, hear and celebrate his colleagues.
Instead of cowering from that negative review, he pursued it – tell me more! He was vulnerable in admitting faults and consistent in changing behavior. Allowing his team to see his sense of humanity built trust and engagement.
Embracing feedback is rarely easy, but the payoff is transformative. We have the chance to be thoughtful leaders who support and inspire our teams. Just ditch the red pens!