Michael Hill is a 2019 graduate of the 2-year Holdsworth District Leadership Program.
It’s time for a bi-weekly update with one of my direct reports and my office door is open. I unclip my badge and toss it to the side as the staff member enters.
We don’t need titles or hierarchy at this meeting. I want open and honest communication, not someone holding back wondering, “Can I say that to my boss?”
Getting better is not an option for Arlington ISD, it’s a must. And the only way we get better is by establishing a culture of feedback. We must continually ask ourselves and those around us how we improve as individuals and as a system. That’s how we serve students better.
Inspired by a learning expedition to BCG in Dallas as part of Holdsworth’s District Leadership Program, I have been encouraging feedback among my direct reports through “badge-off meetings,” essentially creating a safe space where my team members feel they can shoot straight with me.
One team member told me, “I know the things you can act upon, you will. And if you can’t, you’ll tell me why.”
This trust did not develop overnight.
I told my team members, “I’m trying to get better and you’re trying to get better, so let’s do it together.” I ask each of them to come to meetings with three things that I can do better to grow in my role. Acknowledging and establishing what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” helps break down barriers of fear and allows relationships to grow stronger.
As a leader, it’s imperative that I continue to grow, and I can do that more effectively when I have something to grow towards. Feedback from my direct reports helps me see things I may not otherwise see and understand where I have opportunities for growth.
Feedback, of course, goes both ways. As a supervisor, I find when I give feedback, the impact is greater when it’s not tied to an evaluation. Delivered in the context of a trusting relationship, feedback is less likely to be perceived as a rebuke and more likely to be seen for what it is – helpful information that contributes to greater self-awareness.
At BCG, we observed a culture obsessed with feedback. Since BCG is a global consulting firm with a wide range of clients, their greatest asset is people who can think strategically and untangle difficult problems. They need their consultants to be growing at all times in what they call an “up or out” culture.
Managers at BCG ensure each case a consultant takes on is not only helping to achieve the client’s goals but is also helping consultants achieve their individual goals. Consultants receive a high frequency of feedback during projects from managers and group leaders, including bi-weekly conversations that cover consultants’ strengths, areas for improvement and areas to focus on in their projects. There are also bi-weekly check-ins that consist of anonymous surveys, one-on-one conversations and team discussions.
The expectation is that everyone gives and receives feedback, within and across levels, through multiple channels.
After the visit to BCG, I could have come up with a formal feedback program, created a PowerPoint and directed my team to take this approach with their direct reports. But I knew the most powerful way to get the message across would be to model the behavior myself.
David Stevens is our director of security at Arlington ISD and when he and I sit down to discuss something like integrating the district’s security systems, there is no tiptoeing around one another. If it’s not my area of expertise, I lean on him to help me understand, and I ask critical questions: Why do we need this? What was the process for landing on this decision? How will it benefit students? What do campus principals think? Once I have all the information, I am able to advocate for things David believes are critical needs for our district.
He recently gave me an encouraging piece of feedback: “Continue supporting us the way you have been. Being able to have direct, candid dialogue with our boss makes us feel respected and valued.”
I’ve been pleased to see many of my team leaders, including David, taking similar approaches with their direct reports. That lets me know the continuous improvement feedback loop is starting to take root in our district.
I see changes at the cabinet level as well. In the past, when data from employee surveys came in, I would react based on my interpretation of the data and come up with a 90-day plan to “fix” the problem. Now, we dig deeper and ask more questions. If there is something we don’t understand, we go to the people who gave us the feedback and ask them. We also ask how they think we can address the issue rather than assuming we know the answer.
Feedback can be anxiety-inducing. I’m the first to admit that when reading survey comments, my first reaction was sometimes, “I can’t believe that was said about me!”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When you adopt a growth mindset, your perspective shifts. It’s not about what he or she said about me, it’s about being honest with myself and everyone else. Am I slow to respond to emails? Maybe I am and can get better. Maybe I’m not and I can take this opportunity to open a conversation and find out why someone feels this way.
Feedback is also about trust. If everyone is genuinely trying to get better, the invisible barriers between supervisor and direct report should fall away. If we sit down with open minds and engage in honest conversations, we will do much to create an engaged culture where everyone is encouraged and supported to do their best work for students.