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Do Better CEOs Get Better Feedback?

CEOs who thoughtfully and methodically approach their staff with specific questions about their company, leadership and strategy can cultivate not only valuable feedback, but build a culture of give and take that may boost productivity and make a good leader into an even better one. Here are some examples of how CEOs have used feedback to strengthen their organization.

Key Takeaways

  • To cultivate candid feedback, target five or six key executives and meet with them one-on-one
  • Home in on the issues you want to discuss by asking focused questions
  • Following up on the concerns employees raise builds a self-perpetuating culture of communication

In attending marketing project meetings whenever his schedule permitted, Mark Pettie, CEO of Prestige Brands at the time, thought he was showing support for the team’s efforts—until his chief merchandising officer leveled with him. His haphazard meeting attendance, said the CMO, was confusing the staff of the $300 million household cleaning products company about what kinds of projects Pettie wanted to be involved in and at what point in the process.

Pettie had cultivated exactly that sort of candid feedback partly by meeting one-on-one with direct reports and asking what he was doing well and “what do you wish I would stop doing?” Now he realized that he needed to make a change. “I became more specific about wanting to be involved in our advertising, packaging and planning and it helped the group a lot in terms of running their projects more smoothly,” recalls Pettie, who left Prestige in 2009. “The tone of the company is really set by the CEO, and it moves out from there and on down the line,” he adds. “If you aren’t getting feedback, then you don’t really know what tone you are setting. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

His takeaway? “Feedback is important because it can have a very positive impact on how an organization operates, its effectiveness and its efficiency,” he says.

But while candid assessments may be invaluable for business leaders, they aren’t always easy to obtain, says Robert Kaplan, a professor of management practice at Harvard and author of the newly released book What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. “To get leadership advice about what you’re doing every day and how to improve, you need to ask for it one-on-one,” he says. “You won’t get it unless you train them.” Kaplan urges leaders to “reach out and help people. Set up a time to talk to subordinates; don’t just pop in.”

Ken Mills, CEO of Mills James Productions, a Midwestern creative- media company with approximately $20 million in revenue, does just that—and more. The need became urgent a few years ago when the company began expanding quickly and in different directions. “I struggled with finding the best way to get through to everyone,” he says. “We have silos and many people only think of their own area.”

Incentives and Internal Communication

Mills decided he needed to do more than “management by walking around,” as he calls his informal efforts to get employees to share their views with him. He wanted to find a way to better connect with the company and he wanted the employees to feel empowered to speak up to help him do it. For Mills, the solution was giving employees a stake in the company. “We developed an employee stock-ownership plan and it made our communication with employees more important because we are all stockholders now,” he says. “We share a lot more financial information with them and have bi-monthly staff meetings.”

Mills also began to make a series of changes in his ability to solicit feedback: He put together a plan to send out internal emails every time the company’s website updated so that employees could see beyond their own department’s work, he improved the company newsletter to include more profiles of employees in different areas so that people could get to know one another better, he began having a few company social events each year and instituted a series of employee committee meetings in the morning with non-managerial staff, including about 15 employees who rotate once a month. “I get a lot of interesting feedback in these ways,” he says.

Nevertheless, he admits there can be a downside to asking for feedback. “Sometimes I’d get depressed after these meetings because people would bring up legitimate issues that were just not easy to solve.” He gives a few examples of the wide-ranging feedback he’d get, such as employees’ need for more personal recognition, smokers getting more breaks than non-smokers, internal communication problems centering on how the company should handle delivering criticism, and a lack of consequences for people not doing their jobs. When that happened, “I’d struggle and think more about the office’s sub-cultures and how they might be better served differently,” Mills reports. Still, he says, “I think the main thing is that even more than what you do is that the people feel like they are being heard. That goes a long way. It makes them feel good to get some of these things off their chests.”

Listen, Learn and Leverage

Jennifer Herring, CEO at the second-largest family attraction in Connecticut, the Maritime Aquarium, says the listening technique she used when she became CEO has served her well. With the Aquarium facing financial pressure, Herring needed to make some cutbacks and changes. To figure out what to do, she met with all of the Aquarium’s divisions and asked the staff, “What is your best experience at the museum?”


Jennifer Herring, CEO Maritime Aquarium Connecticut

She then compiled all the answers into a book and gave it out to each staff member for Christmas. The result: Not only did everyone get to see the staff’s mutual commitment to the animals, but it served to help create a warmer culture and, thus, a sense of shared purpose and commitment to each other and to the museum. That, in turn, created a better work environment and motivated the staff to do a better job.

This new, closer museum culture paid dividends in other ways: With the staff now feeling that Herring listened to them, she was able to ask them for more critical feedback about things that needed improvement. “I’d walk the floor and ask a lot of open-ended questions,” she says, noting that as a result she discovered that the aquarium had “too many silos.” She broke them down by realigning and downsizing management, creating a more integrated management team to further improve communications.

The feedback project also paid off when Herring undertook a community-wide strategic planning process to improve the museum, which generates more than $40 million in economic impact for the state. She shared the “best book” from the staff with the museum’s trustees, volunteers and then the broader community. “It was revolutionary,” she states. “In all, we got 600 participants to answer the same question about our best things and what makes us unique.” That led to a master plan, where all the different parties felt a piece of ownership in the redesign. “Productivity increased gigantically,” she says. “Everyone is working harder; and because of the changes, we have a sense of excitement and understanding about what we’re doing. It was one of the best things I have done.”

Lead By Example

Ken Hall, former CEO
NexCen Brands

Ken Hall, former CEO of NexCen Brands, a manager and franchiser of global brands, including Bill Blass, The Athlete’s Foot and Pretzel Time, also subscribes to the idea that people pay attention to change. He says getting feedback “is not just what you say to them but your actions. Lead by example.”

“I don’t fly first class,” he says. “It might have been the policy in the past, but if I expect employees not to, then I don’t.” He also puts in long hours, saying that he likes to be “the first one in and last one out to set the example of work ethic.”

To make sure that employees get the message about the importance of feedback deep inside the company, Hall had his direct reports each recommend some of their mid-level reports to sit on an operations committee that Hall tasked with some of NexCen’s thorny, tactical problems. One example of a project for this team: Figure out how to consolidate the computer systems for the company’s 1,700 franchisees, which are spread out in 40 countries around the world. “It wasn’t strategic, but it was tactical,” says Hall. “We knew the system was terribly inefficient and led to many errors, but I wanted criticism with a recommendation.”

“If you aren’t getting feedback, then you don’t really know what tone you are setting. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

When the committee presented Hall with its analysis and recommendation, he tasked its members to work as the project management team to get the job done. “It kept our employees feeling involved, engaged and gave them recognition and credit.” That, in turn, says Hall, builds employee confidence and “gets you more candid input.”

Question to Get Answers

As these anecdotes show, CEOs who thoughtfully and methodically approach their staff with specific questions about their company, leadership and strategy can cultivate not only valuable feedback, but build a culture of give and take that may boost productivity and make a good leader into an even better one.

“It pays to ask questions,” sums up Kaplan. “It can make you dramatically more effective. Leadership is not about having all the right answers. Strong leaders realize it is about asking the right questions.”

Where to Find Feedback

The Executive Assistant

“I always placed strong input on my executive assistant because that person is the ‘gate keeper’ and can provide valuable feedback about how other people perceive me,” says Ken Hall, former CEO of NexCen Brands. Hall cultivated the relationship in part by transcending traditional rapport and helping his assistant with some personal issues, but also made sure to maintain confidentiality so that the assistant would be able to continue to collect feedback and hear employees’ comments.

The General Counsel

“The general counsel is an excellent barometer for feedback and critique,” says Hall, pointing out that GCs are usually very polished and are often knowledgeable and astute about management issues and the board. “They want to see the CEO succeed.”

The Company’s “Social Consciousness”

“In every company there is at least one employee who tends to be the social consciousness of the company,” says Hall. That person is often someone who speaks up when he/she dislikes something or is uncomfortable. “Find out who the skeptic is,” advises Hall. “Keep this critic close by, solicit his/her input and let this person have a say so that you can win him/her over.” Finally he says, “Don’t shoot the messenger. Be open and receptive. In this way, you can receive communication through multiple channels.”

Four Steps to Generating Feedback

The following action steps are from Robert Kaplan’s What to Ask the Person in the Mirror:

Encourage junior mentors. Realistically assess your specific strengths and weaknesses and then “develop a list of five subordinates who can give specific feedback—particularly about [your] weaknesses.” Kaplan suggests meeting individually with each person, explaining that you need advice and asking him or her to identify at least one or two specific tasks or skills that each believes you could improve upon.” Kaplan says to make sure to ask follow-up questions and “thank them for their help,” as well as to encourage direct reports to do this same exercise with their own direct reports.

Practice self-disclosure. Think about disclosing one or two fundamental facts that may help subordinates understand you better. Your “personal story, upbringing, likes, passions, pet peeves, aspirations or worries,” are potential areas to consider sharing, Kaplan says.

Frame and discuss key questions. Identify key questions that your team should debate and discuss. Make a habit of crafting one or two such questions before leading team meetings or having one-on-one discussions and taking care to frame key questions, actively listen to the responses and foster debate. Immediately afterward, write down what you learned and identify appropriate next steps.

Use the “clean sheet” technique. Select a small team from your next generation of leaders and ask them to examine a specific issue or assess your enterprise “as if they were able to start from scratch.” Choose team members based on your company’s succession plan—including potential successors for the CEO’s job, as well as for direct reports—and “frame the issues and ground rules for this group up-front,” urges Kaplan. Make sure the team is allowed to operate independently (without your influence) until it reports its findings. Then, encourage subordinates to apply this exercise in their own areas of responsibility.”

Stay on topic. Feedback can sometimes degenerate into a free for all, so be specific about what you’re looking for. Take time to frame your goal before you approach the people you intend to query: What kind of feedback are you looking for? Why? Then craft questions tailored to elicit responses to that problem. The more time you spend thinking through your questions, the more on-target your feedback may be.


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