Look To The Past or Be Doomed For The Future

By David Hassell, CEO of 15Five

Like much of the working world, I am just about ready to close the books on 2013. As we enter our holiday down-time, I take a look back and reflect on all of the challenges and triumphs, the opportunities for personal growth, and the ways in which I contributed as a leader this year. I feel it is my job to reflect on us as an organization and recap the big lessons, wins and pitfalls of the year back to the team.

This is no easy task. Priorities are constantly shifting, and what may have been a challenge 9 months ago may not even be relevant anymore. As I remember and reflect back on the year behind, I also try to keep in mind that memory can be super tainted by current emotional states. Which has me wondering, how do we get a clear picture of who we are now compared with the ancient history of January, 2013?

The Work Journal

One way to know for sure, is to keep a work journal. Don’t think of it as just another thing to do, but instead, consider it as a great way to record pivotal moments, achievements, and opportunities as they occur. After time passes, the initial excitement, disappointment, or frustration of an experience wears off. I reread my own words and get a sense of my impulses and trigger points.

Work journals illuminate patterns that might not be so obvious through reflection alone. Without the historical record, we often subconsciously choose to see only what we want to see. Confronting ourselves with the indelible truth forces us to see where there is still room for improvement.

Know thy team, know thy self

It is the leader’s responsibility to be the objective record keeper throughout the year and to take an honest look back every December. What went well, and what didn’t? Who lost momentum, who performed, and who thought that I was the one that needed to improve?

There is no walking away from feedback like that. And I have detailed notes from my team to readily determine whether or not I could have done a better job. Where did I fall short? Well, it looks like in April I was tapped out and tired. Why was that? Since I have been on the pulse of the team the whole year, I am able to analyze a detailed record and prevent performance issues in the future.

Leaders are the mapmakers. We chart courses based on information that comes up at regular intervals, not just every December. Regular pulse checks give us a big picture that can be archived and reflected upon at a later time.  Since memory is dishonest, this method is the only reliable one. Looking back is the way of the future.

You need a framework

Take a look back at some internal communications to have a standard for comparison. This one is easy for me. I can look through fifty-two weekly reports to uncover patterns of improvement or opportunities for growth in my team.

We often ask the same questions repeatedly throughout the year. For example, “What are some challenges you are facing?” is extremely valuable. That one may be asked 15 times over twelve months. Did the same challenges repeat? How did each person deal with them, and how did their manager respond? I gain a sense of the growth or stagnancy of individual team members, and the overall health of the organization.

Looking back in this way provides valuable benchmarks for improvement, and clarifies the specific details that might not otherwise be obvious. Reflection illuminates where we need to improve and helps us through our areas of tension. Once we work through those issues, we can lay out a clear map of priorities for the future.

Get feedback

My team knows that they can be transparent and completely honest with me. In fact, I encourage this behavior, as it is the only way that we can grow. For many employees, critiquing a manager or executive can cause anxiety. Here’s how to get the most of feedback for everyone’s benefit:

– Adopt a method that supplements face-to-face communication. Employees often find 1-to-1’s an intimidating time to criticize the organization or its leadership by speaking directly to a manager. Asking specific, open-ended questions in a report or email invites the team to provide the candid information that drives improvement. And that way nothing has to fester or become toxic for the employee.

– Really listen to what is being said about you without judgment to discover your blind spots. Ask the team what they think and be non-reactive, but pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise. As leaders, we don’t have the luxury of acting on impulse. We need to consider what is best for employees, investors, and clients.

– As you evaluate feedback, take a breather and silence your mind. Yes, this is called meditation, but I am not talking about some blown-out new-age spiritual practice. To keep performing we often push our feelings aside. Instead, try to feel into your frustration or anger, connect to the stimulus or thought that triggered it, and make a commitment to improve.

– Thank your team for their candor. When one of my best and brightest goes out on a limb to give me critical feedback about my leadership or decision-making, I make it a point to thank them right away. I want to eliminate the possibility that they will feel anxiety, and that encourages continued honesty.

– Look at all of the feedback to get a balanced perspective. If feedback from a team member is valuable, feedback from the whole team is priceless. Different company initiatives have a unique impact depending on the perceiver. When we allocate resources to marketing, for example, someone on the product or sales team will have a different impression of that decision.

– Get all of the information from every stake-holder and filter it based on the motivations and biases of each speaker. This high-level view will provide you with a more holistic understanding of your decisions, company-wide.

What methods do you use to reflect on past performance? Please share your comments below.

Photo Credit: Paul Stevenson

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