Not McKinsey again . . . Upwards Feedback

A while back I wrote a blog about how it seems to me that McKinsey&Co. is becoming more of a publishing house than a value-add consulting firm.  Well, recently I received another article from the McKinsey Quarterly, this one titled  “Top executives need feedback—here’s how they can get it”, written by Robert S. Kaplan.  Kaplan is not a McKinsey consultant but a professor of management practice at Harvard University and the former Vice-Chairman of Goldman Sachs.

It’s pretty transparent that this article is a promotion for Kaplan’s new book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential (Harvard Business School Press, August 2011).  The Harvard Press and McKinsey have a pretty cozy relationship I would say.

The situation described in this article is an extremely common challenge faced by most leaders, many senior executives and particularly CEOs.  They don’t get enough honest feedback about their management style and daily working behavior and as a result, many keep making the same leadership mistakes over and over again.

When the only feedback you receive is based on numbers, share price and company performance then as long as the company is achieving its targets it is easy to believe you are a great leader.  And when the company is underperforming, most CEOs look at their senior team to find the problem person or area, never thinking that they may be a big part of the problem.

Many years ago, after consulting with senior teams on numerous organizational change programs we observed a powerful principle at work.  We call it “Shadow of the Leader”.

Organizations tend to be shadows of their leaders . . . that’s the good news and the bad news!

That is, the collective and individual behavior of the senior executives has a profound impact on how people in the organization behave and how work gets done.  A senior team with poor communication skills and conflict among themselves sets the tone (culture) for the rest of the organization.  If there is lack of teamwork at the top, there won’t be good teamwork down in the company.  If there are unproductive behaviors and poor management practices at the top, these are the role models for the next layers of management. In essence, the culture of the organization is set by the behaviors at the top.

Robert Kaplan should certainly know this coming from the investment banking world where there are some pretty strong (and not always positive) leadership behaviors at the top!

So Kaplan tackles the challenge of how senior executives can get more honest, developmental feedback in order to improve their impact on people and the organization. He comes up with four recommendations, or “how to’s”:

  1. Cultivate junior coaches
  2. Practice self-disclosure
  3. Improve your ability to frame and discuss key questions
  4. Assess your business with a clean sheet of paper

He then goes on to give an example of a CEO whom he coached to be more open with his subordinates and generate more upwards feedback.  Great stuff.

What is missing from this article is a recognition that creating a more open, feedback rich culture, where honest dialogue can be shared and valued is not just about individual actions.  For example, what if a new CEO comes in and has a very closed leadership style? (Think of Dick Fuld or Conrad Black).  You got it, the organization quickly gets the message that the new leader is not interested in open feedback, personal development or upward ideas.

In my experience, the only sustainable way to create a more open culture and honest dialogue, and thus a more efficient approach to solving business and people issues, is to build feedback and coaching into the “leadership processes” of the organization.  In other words, it’s not just about the individual’s desire to improve, but it’s a part of the expectations, requirements and established processes of the senior team.  That way it becomes part of the culture, not just the style of a particular CEO.

I agree with Robert Kaplan on what needs to be done, but we need to go further and make it part of the “way we do business around here” and embed feedback and open, upwards communication into the fabric of the company through robust business and leadership processes.

Behaviors come and go, but embedded processes build a culture.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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