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Elva Ainsworth

Talent Innovations

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

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Eight steps to engaging senior leaders with 360 feedback projects

By engaging senior leaders with the 360 feedback process, you can ensure the smooth running of the programme throughout the organisation.

Senior level leaders are crucial for a 360 project to be successful but they are sometimes the hardest group to work with. This article covers why the most senior need special treatment and the eight actions you need to take to ensure they get positive value from such a process.

You may think that your senior people are the ones who are most in need of 360 feedback, but it is not so easy to include them in a way that truly works for them and for you. For a 360 programme to be successful you need to have genuine buy-in to explore the data and a significant degree of control and choice for the participants, as well as totally relevant and current content. In addition to this, you need the right conditions and integration of the programme within the wider talent development strategy. All of this is difficult to achieve for your most senior folk, but not impossible.

This group is operating at a special and critical level in the organisation and, as such, requires special treatment for the purposes of 360. 

The top level of leadership is inevitably at a different confidence level to your usual manager, as well as being more visible and more vulnerable status-wise. More crucially, they are often at a sensitive and difficult point in the careers – either happy where they are until retirement or carefully waiting to make a political move inside or outside the company. These ingredients do not make for true readiness for feedback and contribution and even if there was a genuine thirst to learn and develop, there is likely to be a serious need for privacy and strict confidentiality beyond the bounds of your typical 360 project.

Despite these challenges, your most senior people are a precious asset, so it is worth getting this right for them. Here are eight tips to help you get it just right for your most senior executives.

Protect confidentiality and visibility

Use an external party to administer a 360 project at this level, as a senior executive (and their reviewers) will feel more comfortable that their data is not being seen by anyone internally. This helps manage their engagement and resistance to the process and creates a sense of privacy.

Frame it correctly

Position the 360 as being a critical part of their role in driving a culture of feedback and learning. Their commitment and active participation will make a big difference to the success of the whole programme. At the same time, ensure they can see what’s in it for them – it may be a clarity about their current leadership brand, what is possible regarding their future legacy, how better to deal with the challenges they have running their function etc.

Design specifically for senior leaders

Make sure the survey content is highly current and relevant for this level. Ensure you include sufficient questions on the aspects of leadership that are unique at executive level – strategy, vision, creating and changing culture, external awareness, visibility in the industry, empowering other leaders, spotting commercial opportunities, encouraging collaboration, creating partnerships and managing stakeholders (and shareholders). Also include the basic areas that are essential to every leader – listening, speaking clearly, being open to learning and to feedback, being inclusive and respectful of differing views etc.

Get personal

Encourage each participant to be clear about what is at stake for them in their careers. At this level it is often not a simple matter of wanting the next promotion. There may be nowhere else to go in the organisation so they may be considering other options or long-term retirement – another reason why the involvement of an external party to support the debrief process is advisable as there are risks to exposing these motives too early.

Keep it personal

Senior leaders tend to be highly visible so any perceived loss of status will potentially be more exposed and more painful – there is more ego at stake than usual. Again, handing over the administration and management of the process to an external, expert party is advisable. They will respond more constructively to the data and the project if they feel safe.

Help them

Senior leaders are often not well placed to manage their own 360 set up. They may be used to having someone else manage their inbox and/or they may be used to ignoring email reminders for surveys. This can take careful handling, so the best solution often is to engage their administrative support in the process – an external party being involved can help facilitate this but will sometimes need local HR representative to take a gentle, personal approach to ensure submission of reviewers and completion of own survey.

Include external stakeholders

Senior leaders usually have an important role in relation to the outside world so it is useful to recognise this. Bear in mind that these reviewers may be very high-status individuals and may require special invitation and briefing and, at times, a phone call interview instead of an online survey.

Support them

Ensure each senior leader has support understanding their 360 data. It is particularly important to ensure that the person who runs the debrief is 100% trusted and credible, possibly also external to the organisation. It may be their current coach, although there is something to be gained from a fresh perspective. Experience of working at this level will be crucial so that the relational and cultural dynamic can be brought into the exploration regarding their personal data.

Planning for success means you need to manage your risks but the possibilities and potential rewards are such that your senior execs can gain life-changing insights that literally transform their vision for themselves and their relationship to their work. This group is operating at a special and critical level in the organisation and, as such, requires special treatment for the purposes of 360.  

If you get it right for this group, they will champion the 360 for you and enable a smooth-running programme lower down the organisation – well worth the investment.

Interested in this topic? Read Performance management: why 360-degree feedback says more about context and less about you.

Author Profile Picture
Elva Ainsworth

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

Read more from Elva Ainsworth
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