August 23, 2021

The tool you need to achieve next-level leadership growth

Even the greatest leaders can always be better. I want to share a tool with you that I think every leader needs in their toolbox. It’s called feedforward.

You read that right. Sounds like feedback, but … it’s a little different. Here’s how it works.

Defining feedforward

Feedforward is fundamentally a model for development. And it starts with deep self-awareness. The recognition that you have strengths and a growing edge – and you have the ability to see yourself so clearly that you can identify your own growth areas.

Many people see their growing edge when someone shares constructive feedback about something they could do better (your presentations could be more persuasive, you could do a better job of motivating your direct reports, etc). But you don’t have to wait for someone to identify your growing edge if you can already see it yourself. You can move to a better place, starting today.

As you might have surmised, feedforward is a more proactive, forward-looking process than some of the other growth models we have discussed, which are built around responding to feedback from someone in your life. Those models are extremely important. Feedback is useful, and it’s everywhere. We all need to hone our ability to act constructively on feedback.

Feedforward is simply a more prospective iteration. Rather than starting with something you have done or not done in the past as a catalyst for change, you pivot toward a goal that simply comes from knowing yourself and how you can be better. It is positive, forward-looking and extremely effective.

What does feedforward actually look like?

This concept is collaborative. Say you’re sitting around a table with a group of colleagues. You start the feedforward process by describing a behavior you have committed to changing. Ask one person for two suggestions for ways you can make a positive change. Take notes but don’t comment, other than expressing thanks for the suggestions.

Now you can help someone else do the same thing. They share what they would like to change. You provide two suggestions of how they can make a positive change. They will likely thank you … and you’re done. For the moment.

This is a deceptively simple exercise. You chat briefly, share a little, and walk away with some ideas. But there’s more going on here. Let me explain.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

The process I just described is a common exercise for executives, well known thanks to the work of Marshall Goldsmith, who has observed feedforward extensively in practice. But it can work for any group of reflective, growth-oriented professionals. What it’s really about is a commitment to growth as a way of being – something that is critical to the leadership needed in today’s work world. And it is grounded in deep emotional intelligence, an ability to reflect on your own behavior and see how you contribute to situations around you, and willingness to grow.

Fortunately, these attributes — once seen as markers of weak leadership — are increasingly expected in today’s work environments. As well they should be. They enable teams to function more fluidly and leaders to achieve greater heights for themselves and their organizations.

And as colleagues go through conversations like the one I described above, they contribute to a culture of self-awareness, learning and growth. But leaders must set the tone. As you consider your goals for your team, words like innovative, iterative, resilient and others might come to mind. But it starts with you. Make your own growth your most important goal for feedforward, and the rest will follow.

Next-level growth

This stuff isn’t always easy. And getting to a place where you can grow in this way takes time. As I was thinking about the relationship between feedback and feedforward the other day, I created the spectrum below. This is not meant to poke fun — identifying our growing edge is never easy, and most people have found themselves at level 1 or 2 more than they would like. It is simply my intent to show you that while these are all extraordinarily human reactions, if we are to grow, lead and build growing organizations, we need to be thinking about how to grow and aiming high on this scale.

Here’s how I think about it:

  • Level 1 – Someone offers feedback to you, and you resist and react negatively. (If you find yourself here, try asking for input and then writing down your feelings about the feedback. This allows you to create a pause between getting the input and responding to it )
  • Level 2 – Someone shares feedback, and you listen. You feel defensive but resist the urge to throw a tantrum. (If you find yourself here, try asking for input from someone you know and trust first. And maybe an area of growth would be “I’d like to get better at receiving feedback.”)
  • Level 3 – You receive feedback, and you reflect. You notice there is some truth to the comment, and you decide to do something about it. (If you find yourself here, try finding an accountability partner to help you continue to get input about the outcomes from the action step you are taking.)
  • Level 4 – You know the value of feedback and commit to actively seeking it – such as through a 360 review, team feedback or other type of assessment, and then you reflect and act on it. (If you find yourself here, try creating a set of action steps you want to take using a leadership development plan)
  • Level 5 – You identify for yourself a behavior you want to change. You seek a feedforward conversation, then make and implement a 90-day leadership development plan for bringing your goals to life. (If you find yourself here, don’t stop after 90 days. This can become a way of life that leads to increasing success as a leader, both personally and professionally!)

Wherever you are, you can always take things to the next level. The ideal is getting to a place where you are literally shaping your own future by identifying how you want to be and making it happen. You are taking responsibility for not only your own behavior, but also your own leadership development – and your professional future.

That’s next-level growth.

Leadership through difficult times

Why is this so important? Not just for you, but for institutions and even society?

The world is always changing. We don’t know what the future holds, but we can be fairly certain it will require us to learn on our feet and adapt. When you have brought intention to your leadership development and built a growth habit that is so strong it has become a reflex, you will be as ready as you can possibly be for whatever the wind blows your way.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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