Feedback – it is much needed, but it ain’t easy

The general idea of feedback in the context of management and leadership is like motherhood and apple pie. Feedback is good and without it, it is hard to improve. But that does not mean that we are good at giving and/or taking feedback .

Feedback becomes necessary mostly because, hard as we all try – it is really hard to be perfectly honest with ourselves to take corrective action in a time frame that matters. I am in my forties now – and I am perfectly honest about stuff that happened in my teens and twenties. I work hard on fixing some of those “issues” . I cannot say with similar conviction that I am honest about my strengths and weaknesses when I think about say the last 5 years. For that, I need to hear it from others.

People tend to underestimate or overestimate themselves. It is a lot easier to judge someone else ( and also say “who are you to judge me” )  🙂 On the work front – I have had very few managers who have consistently given me useful feedback . People ask me for professional guidance all the time too – and I am sure some of them think I suck at giving useful feedback as well.

Most feedback is pretty useless – generic questions get asked and generic answers are given. My two favorite examples of thoroughly useless feedback from managers to employees are

1. You need to improve your communication issues ( probably present in 90% of all performance appraisals for people in their first ten years at work)

2. You are doing great – keep doing what you are doing and good things will happen to you. ( Run, don’t walk – this comes from lazy managers who have no idea about your work or what they can do to help you get to the next level )

If you only seek or give feedback in long intervals of time, its generic nature is more or less guaranteed. A continuous process – can I make up a term “micro feedback” ? – is a lot more valuable. But for this to work – a few things need to fall in place

  1. For feedback to work – there needs to be mutual trust. And trust takes time. So don’t expect consistent overnight results.
  2. Aim small, miss small. Having a road map to your destination and being pragmatic about diversions along the way makes giving and receiving feedback a whole lot more valuable. Specific feedback is a whole lot easier if your goals are specific. I will go on to suggest – perhaps the most useful feedback you can get is to keep validating whether your roadmap itself is useful anymore, compared to just validating individual goals.
  3. Person getting feedback needs to know that ultimate responsibility of acting on feedback is with them, and not the giver. Its your life and career – no one will take care of it like you !
  4. Person giving the feedback should be comfortable in making the feedback specific or say clearly that they don’t have any good ideas this time. Ideally make introductions to someone else who can help if appropriate
  5. Person asking for feedback should resist the urge to defend themselves to the extent they can. By all means ask clarifying questions though to understand the perspective that is offered to you. As I heard in the Netflix series “The crown” where the Queen mother tells Queen Elizabeth “It takes every ounce of energy not to say or do anything” 🙂 . I know – I have bit my tongue a lot when I have heard candid feedback, and almost every single time it has helped me realize how I was fooling myself.
  6. Rather than defend, I prefer asking for feedback from multiple people and look at it as holistically as you can. If you ask only one person all the time – you are just inheriting their bias. One way that has worked for me in the past is to ask someone close to what I do for feedback ( lets say my immediate manager) , and another one who I know has experience in what I do ( say a senior executive in another company or another part of my company).
  7. If you decide to not follow the advice you got – try to explain it to the person whom you got feedback from. This is best done if you both set up expectations upfront. This is harder than it sounds – but if you don’t do this, there is no sense in asking the same person again. They will tune out at some point. Over time, my own way of asking for feedback is to create a set of options and ask for advice on which one I should choose and why. I am always open to a new option that I might get from this exercise.
  8. While persevering at something is laudable – the pragmatic way to look at it is that not everyone is good at everything. If after receiving feedback and acting on it for a while does not seem to make you good at it – you absolutely should question both the source of feedback, as well as your own ability to improve.
  9. Always have a realistic plan B. Not all ideas pan out even if you do all the right things (including acting on feedback). If you don’t have a plan B, you are bound to be driven by fear of failure and that is not always a good motivator. Best time to develop a plan B is when plan A is working well.
  10. Never be afraid to have a strong point of view. Your ability and necessity to take feedback should not be confused with the need to have your own strong opinions. Just be willing to stand corrected



So you want to join a large company , eh ?

In my couple of decades in corporate world – I have done stints at both large and small companies . I have also hired a lot of people over the years and watched their careers in those companies . These days when I hire – a lot of applicants tell me “it’s a really large company and that worries me” . So here is an attempt to provide some color commentary on this large company thing to help you think through .

Why do you want to work for a large company at all ? 

The truth is that while the company is large – YOU are probably going to be working in a team that is not that large . The better questions to ask is about the team you will be a part of . If you don’t like the team’s mission or the people in it – walk away and don’t look back .

Large companies mostly do things at larger scale . What they occasionally lack in speed , they make up in scale . Scale comes in many flavors and not everyone can deal with scale very well . For example – in last 5 years , I had to run portfolios that were an order of magnitude larger than previous ones . I had to unlearn and relearn a lot to make it work and it was not easy .  I have seen this work both ways – some people feel stifled at smaller companies because they want to change the world and they can’t find an opportunity to do so where they are . Some others at large companies beat their heads against a wall because they can’t move their ideas at the speed they want despite having access to vast resources . Choose wisely ! 

I often get asked “wouldn’t larger companies be really political?” . My answer “absolutely – but not any worse than smaller companies”. Politics is everywhere and you need to learn to live with it and navigate it . Also what is politics for you will be routine for someone else . Don’t sweat too much on that front . My own experience with small companies as an employee – which obviously is not a valid sample – is that favoritism and other political shenanigans are alive and well there , and more magnified because of smaller number of people . 

Another common question is “wouldn’t I be lost in this big ocean?” . And my answer is “yes – unless you show real results”. Large organizations are unwieldy to manage and hence get matrix management structures  . It is very easy to get lost in the system and it’s no fun to work that way . BUT – if you are good at what you do , and can show real results , the system favors you by design and you will get noticed quite quickly . If you are average – you will be the tree that fell in the forest that no one ever heard . So if you are not sure of your abilities to consistently deliver above average results , and if it’s important for you to get recognized – you should rethink the idea of joining a large company . 

Here is another one “I have heard the only way to succeed is to have a godfather in the higher ranks”. Well – having a god father certainly doesn’t hurt . But your real question is how do you get one ? Bosses like team members who make them successful . When you see a top executive giving special attention to someone – don’t just assume sinister things are at play or that the employee is sucking up . While those things all happen from time to time – the majority of cases , that employee had gone above and beyond in making their boss successful and is just getting noticed for good work . Also – sucking up to the boss is rarely a sustainable strategy . A VP of sales cannot “hide” a poor performing director of sales for very long. Unfortunately in very large teams where metrics are not clear – you may run into these bad scenarios . I have witnessed it a few times in large engineering and marketing teams . 

Large companies are often blamed as slow and bureaucratic . There is absolutely merit in that allegation . However , it has a good side too . Large companies are predictable in the sense that they rely on policies and procedures a lot . The policies themselves might be terrible and outdated – but you know what they are upfront . Also – if you run into problems like say a bad performance appraisal , or a commission dispute, you can be rest assured that there is a well defined process to rectify that and at least in my personal knowledge – it mostly favors employees . There are exceptions and those usually get the most publicity . 

One last point before this flight lands – the reason the large companies want to hire you usually is because they think there is something special about you that they value . They are not really looking for one more of what they already have usually . So find that out while you assess your future employer – if you think you have to morph into something you are not , this might not work out well for you or the company despite all the money and titles . I learned this lesson the hard way and hopefully you don’t have to 🙂