It was my first performance review in my first professional job and I was nervous. My manager—who is still a valued friend and mentor—sat down with me in a tiny conference room and reviewed the 360 degree feedback I had received from my colleagues. Most of the feedback, in fact almost all of it, was positive, even the so-called “opportunity areas.” But there was one review that was not so positive. I knew who had submitted it and exactly why he had made those comments, and felt it was massively unfair. I tried to explain to my boss what had really happened and why the feedback was unreasonable, but she stopped me by saying, “Feedback is a gift. Receive it as such and then you can decide what you want to do with it.”
My manager/mentor gave me many wise words of advice over the years, but that was the first that really stuck with me. I found it to be an incredibly empowering thought—people may give you all kinds of “feedback,” but it’s up to you how, or even if, to act upon it. Feedback takes time, thought, and often comes from a place of genuine helpfulness so it should never be completely ignored. But not every person giving feedback has the right motivations, the appropriate expertise, or even the personality/style to give useful feedback. Knowing that, you can listen to all feedback cordially, thank the giver, and avoid being defensive.
No matter what role I’ve been in—direct report, manager, external consultant, mentor or mentee— I have found the ability to receive and act on feedback appropriately has been fundamentally important. It is a mark of emotional maturity and professional confidence to be able to accept critiques graciously. A perfectly acceptable response to someone else’s input can be a sincere, “Thank you for that feedback.” You don’t have to explain or defend yourself, but if you find value in the feedback, be sure to let the giver know. And if you really want to impress them, let them know what specific actions you are going to take in the future based on that feedback. If you’ve really thought about it and do not find the feedback to be helpful, feel free to just leave it with a simple thank you or other acknowledgement of having heard and understood the comment.
I have personally found a delayed response to feedback to be a valuable approach. There have been times when I have received feedback and my immediate reaction was to want to justify or explain myself. But, by just accepting the gift and thinking about it more later—I’ve been able to pull out valuable pieces of input to apply to my work or approach. An instant response can be an emotional one and taking time to think about it may lead to a more rational evaluation.
There’s a verse from the Bible that comes to mind when I think about feedback: “Test all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 KJV). When someone gives you a critique, consider it; evaluate whether it is true, whether it is applicable, and how—or if—you should act upon it moving forward. You always have the option to ignore the content (if you’re willing to accept the consequences), but don’t reject the gift.
I grew up in the heart of horse country in Kentucky so was fortunate to have horseback riding as a big part of my childhood and teen years. Like any sport or dedicated hobby, there are always bigger life lessons to take away than simply the information or skills necessary to participate. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned some important lessons about leadership from my horseback riding experiences.
1. “Look Where You Want to Go”
There’s an important concept in horseback riding that riders learn early—wherever you look, that’s where you will go. If you are scared or unsure and keep looking down, eventually that’s where you will end up. If you keep your head up and look at the spot where you want the horse to go, along with other physical cues, the horse will generally move in that direction.
As a leader, you must have a well-defined vision of where you want to go and be able to clearly communicate that vision to your organization to have them follow you. As Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” Painting an inspiring picture of an aspirational future for your organization will not only let them know the destination, but also get them excited about the journey.
2. “Clear, Consistent & Confident Communication”
When you are communicating with your horse, whether through verbal or physical commands, you need to be able to give those commands clearly and with confidence so that the horse will respond. For example, if you want the horse to turn left, you need to not only pull on the left rein, but also apply slight pressure with your left leg and lean slightly left—all of these commands reinforce the same message: turn left. If you pull too hard on the reins and sit back hard in the saddle, the horse will stop or back up instead of turning.
As a leader, giving mixed messages can also lead to undesired responses. Your words and actions have to consistently communicate the direction you want others to take, which engenders both trust and confidence within an organization. Be specific in your communication as well—the more clearly you can communicate, the better the chances of having people move in the direction you want.
3. “Sense & Respond”
New riders can sometimes get into trouble when they are oblivious to the cues their horse is giving them whereas experienced riders can read changes and react appropriately. For example, if you are jumping with a horse and he is giving cues that he doesn’t want to take a particular jump, you can avoid a fall by choosing to go around the jump instead of having him balk and potentially throw you off.
The ability to sense and respond to an individual or organization is key. As a leader, you must be able to read the signs that indicate how people are feeling.Are they motivated and bought in? Or are they reluctant and dragging their heels? Just like company leaders need to sense and respond to market forces (e.g. trends, completion, etc.), being tuned in to individuals and the organization as a whole, can help you make course corrections in a timely way.
4. “Tack Up Your Own Mount”
Any reputable riding school or stable is going to teach much more than how to stay on the horse’s back. Riders learn things like: equine anatomy, the components of a horse’s tack (saddle, bridle, etc.) ,how to take apart reassemble and clean the tack, proper feeding, care and grooming practices, and more. In addition, riders are usually expected to groom and tack up (e.g. put on the saddle and bridle) their own horse before a lesson. All these details can sometimes feel tedious and unnecessary if all you really want to do is ride; however, they play a critical role in creating an accomplished equestrian.
In much the same way, good leaders knows the fundamentals of their business and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty in the details. Knowledge of how things actually get done in your organization and keeping informed on the day-to-day numbers and fundamentals of your business leads to better, faster and more informed decision making.
So whether or not you know the difference between an English and a Western saddle or have ever gone on a trail ride or performed dressage, these lessons are applicable for all leaders. Set a clear vision and also be willing to get into the details. Communicate clearly and consistently and also listen to be able to adjust and respond quickly. Think about the hobbies, activities or sports that you’ve been passionate about in your own life—what other lessons for leadership can you take from those?
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting