Unplug Your Ears and Listen

Harvard Business Review

There's a wonderful scene in The Odyssey when Odysseus prepares himself to steer his ship and his men past the treacherous Sirens, creatures who sing a seductive song that can lead a person astray. It's a great moment in literature — and an extremely useful image for managers intent on ferreting out the feedback they need for career advancement. To prepare for his challenge, Odysseus orders his crew members to put wax in their ears, but to be able to hear the Sirens' message, he leaves his own ears unplugged. But he asks his men to strap him to the ship's mast to prevent him from recklessly heeding the Sirens' call.

Managers, like Odysseus, need to hear what people have to say — and be able to filter the messages. Those who solicit career feedback are likely to hear many, often conflicting messages and need to be astute in sorting out the most critical input to avoid careening off course. To succeed, as Odysseus did, keep three things in mind.

Appreciate the Source's Perspective — and Potential Bias. If you speak candidly with a manager's direct reports about his development needs, their comments tend to focus on a fairly predictable set of issues: fairness, delegation, openness to their ideas, the quality of performance feedback, coaching, and career guidance. Staff members also crave clarity regarding the unit's strategy and consistency in its priorities.

Speak to the manager's peers and co-workers, and you're most likely to hear comments about teamwork, collaboration, listening, awareness of peers' objectives, and the ability to work through strong differences of opinion.

A manager's superiors — although not immune to her management style and relationships with peers — tend to focus on different issues: quality and speed of decision making, thinking strategically, finding the next breakthrough innovation, and upgrading the caliber of the organization.

Any manager has numerous development needs: areas where she's not strong or needs to get stronger. The trick is to identify the two or three areas of development most critical to accomplishing your goals. To do so it's important to filter the feedback carefully with an understanding of the source and any inherent bias stemming from the source's perspective.

Think Clearly About Potential "Derailers" versus the Factors of Executive Success. Over the last few years excellent work has been done to identify those things that can derail or stall a manager's career progression. And they are far from trivial. Arrogance, abrasiveness, and insensitivity will come back to haunt an aspiring executive when the troops rebel or his peers tell his manager they'll go on strike if he's named as their leader. It's important to address such issues since they may in fact hinder your career progress.

However, the intensity of people's feelings about a manager's flaws tends to drown out other, potentially critical development needs. Also, keep in mind that while a serious deficiency may hold you back, showing improvement in a derailment area won't necessarily propel you ahead.

Understand the Difference between Development in Your Current Role and "Prospective" Development Needs. If your boss levels with you in your performance review and provides feedback about where you need to improve, consider yourself lucky — such candid input is typically not the norm. And pay attention to the results of a 360-degree feedback review based on surveys from your boss, peers, and subordinates.

Just realize that both sources of feedback suffer from an inherent bias: they tend to focus on your development needs in your current role and at your current level since that's the frame of reference most colleagues have. Again, if the issues have to deal with potential derailment factors, that's extremely useful. However, the feedback may entirely miss skills you'll need to develop and display to be a top candidate for promotion to a higher level.

For example, imagine that you've developed a reputation as a manager who can predictably implement the most complex corporate initiative. You stay close to the work of your troops, and you're an expert at creating metrics and follow-up mechanisms to make sure "the wash gets out the door" on time. That's terrific — but it may cause senior executives to question whether you can succeed at a higher level where the priorities shift to building a strong team, delegating accountability, identifying the next big breakthrough, and spending time on high-impact strategic issues. Although not currently leadership deficiencies, these may be the "prospective" development areas you need to exhibit in order to advance.

So how can you sort through the welter of messages you get when you seek out feedback about where you need to improve? It may take the emotional equivalent of strapping yourself to the mast, but try to meet with more-senior managers who know your work to get input. Work hard to convey your sincere interest in candid feedback--and avoid defensiveness (which will quickly shut the executive down) or any hint that you're simply angling for a promotion. End each productive conversation with a useful summary question: "What one or two things — above all others — would most build confidence in my ability to succeed at higher levels within the organization?" Listen carefully for the consistent themes that emerge. Do they have to do with addressing potential derailers, performance in your current job, or skills that will be needed at higher levels?

In some organizations it's extremely hard to get others to give you the straight scoop so if you have the chance to work with a third party who'll interview a number of your colleagues, that can be very helpful. Just make sure that resource has the organizational perspective to help you sort out the wheat from the chaff and fully appreciates the core factors that senior executives use in making promotional decisions — as well as the bias inherent in others' perspective.

What I've described isn't easy. It demands focus and the ability to listen attentively to often contradictory pieces of feedback. But if you exercise the wisdom of Odysseus, you'll be well on your way to your career destination.

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