What We Really Want to Hear

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why it’s critical to engage others with intentionality, especially when delivering critical feedback.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

There’s a tug-of-war going on in my house. I like it warm, but my youngest daughter, Olivia, likes it cool. Whenever I walk by the kitchen where she’s studying, Olivia’s head snaps up. And if I dare touch that thermostat, she’s right there to change back the setting.

A thermostat runs entirely on a feedback loop, without anyone thinking about it—constantly responding to the climate, internal and external. And that’s what we need to do, as well: continuously meet others where they are—not where we are—and then transport all of us forward, together.

It’s not simply “feedback.” More importantly, it’s “feed-forward.” This is 2020, after all. We are just trying to help people get through, one day to the next—to see the blue sky through that tiny opening in the clouds.

One-and-done annual performance reviews conjure up images of sitting across a desk with a boss who is reading a list of all the areas where someone needs to improve. Let’s be honest: when anyone says, “Can I give you feedback?” what’s the likely reaction? People grip the arms of the chair and brace for impact—because what’s coming probably isn’t “great job.”

Today, more than ever, we need to engage others with intentionality, as Ann Powell, CHRO for the pharmaceutical firm Bristol Myers Squibb, told me this week. She recalled receiving so much constant feedback from a manager early in her career that it was uncomfortable. When she asked why, the response was immediate: “I push because I see your potential… because I care.” Once Ann understood the manager’s intention, it clicked immediately. That’s exactly how we move forward—with the intentionality of making tomorrow better than today, for all of us.

Just as we say to loved ones, “I’m only telling you this because I love you,” we need to let others know that we care. We want them to succeed—indeed, we want to help ensure they succeed. As Shelie Gustafson, CHRO of the consulting firm Jacobs, shared with me this week, feedback “isn’t about right and wrong, or good and bad.” Rather, it’s about “being a source of information (data, observations, considerations) to give people what they need to ‘adjust their sails’ to navigate” in the moment.

With intentionality and a true connection, we can make explicit what used to be implicit when we were in the same room together. People learn the most from what they don’t expect to hear—and probably don’t want to receive. As one executive shared with me the other day, “My favorite phrase is ‘feedback is a gift.’”

That’s true, even when it doesn’t feel like much of a gift. My daughter Emily, who is a junior in college, was a finalist for an internship, the kind of competitive position where hundreds apply and only a few make it. Despite all the hours of preparation, and then waiting on pins and needles, Emily found out last week that she was not selected.

Amazingly, that news came in a phone call from a manager, who took the time to offer Emily some feedback that will help her in the future. It really was feed-forward. Who does that anymore—especially during a pandemic? I happened to be with Emily when she received the call. Afterwards, I told her, “First of all, I want you to know how proud I am of you.” Then I gave her some perspective: “You will not appreciate it now, but calling you was a very classy thing for that firm to do. Trust me, that call was harder for them to make than it was for you to receive. You’ll understand one day when you’re the one who has to make that call.”

To feed-forward, we connect first, understand second, contextualize third, and provide input fourth. Here are some thoughts:

·  Listen twice as much as you speak. First and foremost, our role is to listen. When a genuine connection exists, people are more willing to share the story behind the story. They may be struggling professionally or personally. When we’re the listener, we may hear things that we are not equipped to solve in the moment—and that’s okay. It’s not about what we have to say. It’s all about how we demonstrate that we care—listening with empathy, compassion, and a genuine desire to understand.

·  Handle with ‘CARE.’ Performance isn’t a once-a-year task—so neither should giving feedback. That’s why, when offering career advice, I tell people not to wait for a summit meeting with their boss. As Lesley Uren, a member of our consulting team based in London, told me, “If the rhythm of their work isn’t yearly, why should their review be annual?” It’s all about providing guidance and support at the point of performance. Michelle Stuntz, a consulting team member in Washington, D.C., further emphasized the importance of focusing on today’s reality: “It’s absolutely feed-forward: this day, this week, this month, this quarter…” In these real-time conversations, the approach should be to “CARE” for others: Candid conversations, Asking people how they are doing, Reviewing how things are going, and Engaging them.

·  ‘Keep it coming.’ Those were three of the most encouraging words I heard this week. It started with a conversation I had with a colleague in which I gave some direct feedback. Afterwards, though, I wasn’t sure this colleague felt any better. So, I made a second call to continue the conversation—to contextualize: “What you have done for us is unbelievable.” I tried to channel my best feed-forward so that, together, tomorrow would be better than today. Afterwards my colleague emailed me: “It doesn’t matter if it is positive feedback or critical feedback. Someone took the time… When people retreat from you, turn quiet, turn off, grow indifferent—that’s when it’s time to worry. Indifference is the enemy. So, keep it coming.”

·  Trusting our radar. When she was seven years old, Linda Hyman, our firm’s executive vice president, global human resources, used to tag along with her father, a radar specialist, when he went into the field to fix equipment. When she asked her father about his job, he explained that he fixed guidance systems: “They help keep people safe. It’s like what your mom and I do when we see your shoe is untied or you should wear a heavier coat because it’s cold outside.” In that moment, Linda told me in our conversation this week, she grasped the importance of guidance—with a loving intention. “That’s a huge shift in a relationship—and probably the most important part of establishing trust so that, together, we can move forward,” Linda said.

Indeed, feedback is a gift. It requires caring on the part of the person providing it and courage for the person receiving it—and a relationship that connects them both.