Learning from Sherlock

By Scott Westerman
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“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Sherlock Holmes – from A Scandal in Bohemia

One of my favorite phrases comes from Ken Blanchard, author of  The One Minute Manager: “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

I love the BBC reboot of the Sherlock Holmes series. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman channel Conan-Doyle’s sleuths with 21st century precision. Sherlock’s agile brain has been laser focused to make a productive difference in the world of detection.

He gets the job done.

He is also aware of the weaknesses inherent in being a “high functioning sociopath”. Sherlock can be difficult to work with. We endure him because of his proven ability to deliver amazing results. In reality, it’s his ability to seek and receive feedback that is the key to his success.

Serving the need is the foundation of our great American system, and figuring out how to do it can make you rich. By the same token, not paying attention to what you’re customers are saying can destroy your brand.

The great motivational author Norman Vincent Peale wrote, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Being open to feedback, whenever and however it comes at you, digesting it and acting on it, can be a powerful success tool.

Thankfully, I learned this lesson the hard way relatively early in my leadership career. I was managing (not leading) a small group and thought I was doing a great job. One day, my boss called me into his office and presented me with three single spaced legal pages of feedback on all the things I was doing wrong… As told to him by my team!

I was stunned. But after I got over the shock, I realized that I had not set up effective feedback mechanisms to get course corrections from the people I was being paid to serve.

I went back to the team and wrote all the common points on a flip chart, apologized for being such a poor leader, thanked them profusely for reaching out for help and promised to try to be a better listener going forward. I also empowered them to give me their candid input immediately and often.

Within 12 months I got a promotion.

Bill Gates notes that, “Once you embrace unpleasant news, not as a negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren’t defeated by it. You’re learning from it.”

Here are some tips on how to make sure you’re getting the feedback you need.

  • Declare to your boss, your peers and those you serve that you’re a feedback fanatic. Encourage them to give it to you straight.
  • Preserve confidences. The worst feedback killer ever is acting on information in a way that ‘outs’ the person who gave it to you.
  • Have a third party conduct an anonymous annual 360 degree survey, giving your team and your boss and your customers a chance to tell you how effective you are. There are several companies that do this inexpensively and the data you get will be enlightening.
  • Collate key feedback points and share them with your team, along with your action plans to improve how you serve. It’s best to do this live with your group so that you can ask clarifying questions and respond to additional input.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. There are a ton of leadership books out there, but in reality, interpersonal interaction is as much an art as it is a science… especially when you’re trying to modify your approach.
  • Be open and transparent. When you go down an unproductive path, say so. Saying,  “I screwed up, I hear you, and I’ll try to do it differently next time” can be one of the most empowering things you can do.
  • In your weekly one-on-ones with direct reports, make sure that the opportunity for feedback exists. “How can I better serve you?” Or, “Is there anything I’m doing that’s worrying you,” are a couple of good discussion starters.

If you seek feedback with gusto, two things will happen:

By modeling the behavior, you’ll eventually create an atmosphere where feedback is welcomed across the organization. People will follow your lead. At first it may be uncomfortable, but folks who don’t buy-in to cultural change have a way of self-selecting out of the organization.

More importantly, you’ll become more effective and have more fun. A team that communicates is much more likely to deliver results, work well together and enjoy themselves in the process.

Dick Cavett says, “It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear.”

Be one of those rare people.

Feedback: Its the shortest word in the English language that uses the first six letters of the alphabet.  It’s part of the culture of winning institutions like Google and the Ritz-Carlton. Make feedback a part of your daily diet and you’ll quickly get a step closer to where you want to be.