Skills Experts Advocate 360-Degree Feedback
To Assess Leaders' Development Needs
By Timothy Bentley
To develop effective leaders, organizations should invest in 360-degree feedback to diagnose their development needs.
That's the advice of Jocelyn Bérard, national practice leader of Optimum Talent, who has championed the use of feedback to drive personal development.
"Self-awareness adds a great deal to the growth of leaders," he says, "and 360-degree feedback, accompanied by an effective debrief, makes a world of difference there."
"If people are not self-aware," Bérard points out, "or don't realize that they need to improve, they may not see training and development as aligned to their needs. Or worse, they may not see any need for improvement.”
"That's why, if you have X amount of dollars to spend on developing people, you should use a good proportion of it to assess them, raise their self-awareness, and make their boss aware of what they need. And then move to the development solution.”
"In our work, 360-degree feedback provides a valuable diagnostic stage in leadership development, coaching, and succession management," Bérard says. His consultants and facilitators exploit the system's flexibility to create questionnaires that precisely match their diverse leadership development and succession management solutions.
Combine coaching and 360
Joan Taras, a certified coach and Client Solutions Director at Global Knowledge, has extensive experience combining coaching and 360-degree feedback. She advises client organizations that they will get superior results if each participant has a coach to help work through the 360 results, and suggests they continue coaching if it uncovers further opportunities to pursue.
For instance, some participants are taken aback to discover that they rated their own skills higher than anyone else did. "For some people I've worked with, it's been a bit of a shock," she says. "At first, they're surprised that their view of themselves as leaders is different from how others see them.
"Self-awareness is a big part of being an effective leader, and this can be quite an eye-opener and opportunity for development," she says. "Working with a coach helps them understand how they're operating in the workplace."
Another situation she encounters is where participants receive better 360-degree feedback from their managers than from their direct reports. "These are often people who are good at working up, but they're not so good at working down. They tend to focus their efforts on having good relationships with their leaders, rather than on being good leaders themselves."
Without coaching, Taras says, they may not understand the patterns that show up in their assessments, or know how to change their behavior.
She tells organizations that the success of their 360 projects will always depend on how effectively they have communicated and attracted buy-in from the participants.
Bring the boss into the picture
Bérard takes an unconventional, collaborative approach to coaching. "After I finish debriefing the 360 with the participant, then I bring his boss into the meeting room, and give her or him the highlights of the results.
"There's always a risk that if no one else follows up on the 360, all the training or coaching you did is going to vanish with no impact. I tell the participant, your manager needs to know the results, so he or she can function as your ongoing coach or your support internally."
Just as coaching is enriched by 360-degree feedback, he says, 360 gains from coaching. "360 is like a look into a mirror. You don't look better just because you look at yourself. You don't necessarily change your behaviors because of an assessment." He sees coaching as providing the structure to help leaders make changes suggested by their feedback.
Use aggregate results to build the case
For Jeff Cole, the most exciting aspect of using Panoramic Feedback is that he can mine the data provided by its aggregate reports. These reports combine the data for all participants in a given 360 project, displaying organizational trends without compromising individual privacy.
As a Client Solutions Director for Global Knowledge, Cole uses aggregate reporting to help executives build a business case for training in crucial soft skills, such as leadership. It has traditionally been difficult to measure the success of leadership training, he says, but with aggregate reports to provide the benchmarks, he has the data to demonstrate the impact of his company's courses.
Global Knowledge trainers often take a first 360-degree feedback snapshot of participants prior to presenting their leadership courses, he says, then another after completion.
"The first round takes a current look at the observable behaviors and perceptions of those within the organization. Many of our clients use the aggregate reports from this initial 360 as a guide to how we can move the needle back and forth to make changes.
"What I do initially is to look at the gaps that exist between various raters and explain that if it's large, then there's plenty of room for improvement.
"Then, 6 to 18 months after we deliver the courses, we'll take a look at whatever gap exists between those raters afterwards. That allows us to demonstrate the value of soft skills training and leadership training to the organization."
Bérard points out that before-and-after 360s can be equally valuable for individual participants. They answer the questions, "Am I actually getting better at something?" and "What do I need to work on, to get better still?"
"At the same time," he notes, "we need to take into account any changes that might influence the second assessment, such as a new leader, changes in the team dynamic, and morale issues linked to business results."
Benchmark against other organizations
Cole describes using a large-scale aggregate report recently to help a client see how it could progress relative to other organizations.
"We created an aggregate report of all the people in many different organizations who had used a 360 with us between 2006 and 2011. And then we compared it to the aggregate results for this particular client.
"Of course, I cautioned them that it's not a psychometric way of evaluating how you stand with respect to other organizations. But really what they wanted was a comparison between the perceptions within other organizations and those in their own organization.
"They appreciated that, because it not only validated some of things that they had been doing, but it also helped them answer the question, how can we move the needle forward even more?"
Build strategic skills
Another of Cole's clients wanted to build a business case for a new emphasis on strategic capability. To support them, he added strategic questions to the organization's 360.
Cole describes the impact: "The client looked at the results, and their benchmark data told them which strategic behaviors were weakest and which were strongest. They said, we now know exactly how to build our program, based on our specific context and culture.
"The result was that the budget was opened up for the initiative."
A subsequent benefit was that he and his colleagues were able to use the 360 data as a guide to developing the strategic coursework.
He appreciates being able to customize his group reports to each situation. "I like working with Panoramic Feedback's aggregate reports because they provide an excellent opportunity for analysis. And I really appreciate their flexibility."
Exploit that flexibility
For Bérard as well, flexibility in the 360 system is a major benefit. "As an example, we were doing a succession management project for a company recently, but people were slow to respond with their feedback. After the deadline, with the project already closed, they came to us and said they still wanted to provide their comments. So our provider re-opened the questionnaire for us.
"That kind of responsiveness is exceptional. I don't want to do that all the time, but I want to have the flexibility, because if it's too rigid, we'll lose great opportunities." Bérard highlights a special section at the end of the feedback report that summarizes the participant's highest and lowest rated behaviors on a single page. "That really speaks to our people," he says.
Global Knowledge has over 15,000 reasons to believe that 360-degree feedback makes a big contribution to the development of leaders. For more than a decade, they have experienced its impact firsthand: providing individual and group diagnostics, increasing leaders’ self-awareness and readiness for learning, and supporting training design.
Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback