Honest Feedback The Best Policy
Published in the Australian Financial Review 23rd February 2015.
It would take a brave employee to approach the owner of the business they are working for and tell them they weren’t happy with their leadership.
The challenge of how to encourage honest feedback, which could be taken the wrong way, is probably why the principals of many small businesses run their operations without really questioning their management style.
Yet the feedback from employees can be invaluable to a growing business.
“If you have a business and you want to grow it, then you need to consider staff management, accountability and infrastructure and what needs to change,” says Charlotte Rimmer, director of Aide de MD.
As a business management consultant with 20 years’ experience, she says a consistent challenge is chief executives and managing directors’ lack of channels to get feedback – and their lack of awareness of the influence their behaviours have on their staff and business.
“It is rarely deliberate or malicious. A lot of people genuinely don’t see that what they say and do, and how they say and do it, is noticed by their team.” Rimmer says.
A simple example might be the managing director who consistently turns up to meetings late or unprepared. They might think it is acceptable to be too busy to be on time but employees may see it as a lack of respect. Sooner rather than later, everyone may start turning up 10 minutes late – in line with the boss – and a poor pattern of leadership has been set. “It is easier to ask a junior member of staff to prepare thoroughly for meetings, be punctual and stop interrupting others but very difficult for an employee to broach this with the business owner if they aren’t doing the same,” Rimmer says.
Other sensitive issues that regularly arise are employees not being given the roles as outlined when they were interviewed for the job, job development assessments that go nowhere and promised leadership or guidance that doesn’t materialise.
“The chief executive or managing director might be approachable personally but unapproachable from a time or physical perspective,” Rimmer says. “It can be challenging for employees to broach issues that require detailed action or response within a timeline. Prioritising infrastructure within a growing business requires time and attention, which is usually focused externally on clients.”
An ongoing challenge is time directed to revenue growth and infrastructure.
As part of her remit, Rimmer mediates between chief executives or managing directors and their teams. This might involve guiding or advising individuals on appropriate and acceptable ways of communicating with their superiors, as well as managing their own teams.
Mostly she asks MDs to trust her enough to let staff members speak to her confidentially. Her job might involve reviewing staff positions, asking questions such as, “is this the role you expected it to be, are these the business dynamics you envisioned, and do you receive the leadership or guidance promised?”
“The information gained improves retention and ongoing recruitment processes, particularly if (staff) are asked early on in their employment, when tweaking the role is viable.”
“More crucially, it provides feedback to the owner of the business on the strengths and weaknesses of their leadership,” Rimmer says.
“It is a crucial and challenging conversation. If (someone) starts a business, then they are the business and any criticism is often seen as criticism of them.”
Part of Rimmer’s challenge is to help distinguish between personal criticism and professional criticism. But it is what business owners do with the information that counts.
“They can take it on board and use it constructively or they can take it as a criticism and do nothing with it,” she says.
Exit interviews are another tool for gathering valuable information.
If employees are leaving because they are unhappy with the management or the way the business is being run, it is important to have some mechanism in place to gather that information.
In a large corporation there may be a human resources manager who would ask the questions but in a small organisation it might be the owner.
“An open manager who is objective can use that information for staff retention and to grow the business,” Rimmer says. “In some instances, it will be a personality issue but it is more likely to be a business development challenge.”
Rimmer says business owners are more often than not surprised by what staff say and how they are feeling.
“Often it is lack of self-awareness rather than any arrogance. They genuinely don’t feel that their own behaviour might affect the culture of the business and any perceived mutual respect.”
One important outcome of using an external, objective adviser is the message it sends to all employees.
“Staff tend to see this process as an investment by their employer in them and the business. It shows staff they are valued and that their employer listens and is self-aware, which are two great leadership qualities,” Rimmer says.
Mediator helps get business back on track.
A few years ago S2MDigital Recruitment managing director David Jackson noticed that “the wheels were spinning but it seemed what management was planning wasn’t happening” in the specialist recruitment business he had helped start in 2005.
“We got to the stage where we were having meetings but no one was being held accountable for what was decided at those meetings”, said Jackson.
He decided he needed someone to come in as part consultant, part coach, part mentor and objective outsider to help him, his business partner and the recently promoted general managers set the business on the right course for the next five years. So he called Aide de MD director Charlotte Rimmer.
Rimmer put S2M Digital Recruitment back on track by setting a governance strategy, focusing staff on the business, mentoring the general managers and setting up a three-way channel for feedback.
Jackson says while some of the feedback was confronting it was an opportunity to reflect on his management style and what his staff expected of him.
“I don’t work in the office regularly but the comment was made that when I do come in I should make the effort to talk to staff about what they are doing. For a while I looked like the owner who was never there and didn’t care about the people who worked for him, even though we think of ourselves as a family business.”
“We now have structure, are no longer procrastinating, are making decisions on time and driving towards our goals. The general managers are running the business and I’m back to generating ideas. It is all about delegation. If a good managing director can’t delegate and get the troops to rally then it will always be a small business.”