Bill Gates and the Power of Feedback

Bill Gates observed, “You have to be careful, if you’re good at something, to make sure you don’t think you’re good at other things that you aren’t necessarily so good at.”

How do you confirm your sense of what you’re good at? Feedback, of course.

We all feel great when others – colleagues, bosses, friends, and competitors too – remark on our intelligence, skills, or performance. But as Gates noted, therein lies a trap, for we can overestimate or over-generalize our capabilities.

How do we get honest, balanced feedback about areas where we’re not as good as we think we are? Or where we might need to improve or change?

Our friends and subordinates may shy away from sensitive areas. Colleagues and bosses too may be reluctant to have a frank conversation with us about sensitive or problematic behaviors.

Reality Check

This is where multisource feedback programs, sometimes called 360-degree feedback, can help us become better faster. Multisource feedback is just what it sounds: feedback from multiple sources, such as our boss, colleagues, and subordinates. Typically, feedback is obtained anonymously so that the persons providing it are more likely to be honest in their assessment of your strengths and development areas.

Organizations worldwide use multisource feedback as a powerful talent development tool. In particular, feedback enables us to address blind spots and behaviors outside our awareness. Or get a reality check on our over-confidence, that all-too-human tendency Bill Gates pointed out.

What, not everyone regards your sense of humor as witty and appropriate? Without this information, you could continue to behave in ways that others regard as unprofessional and boorish.

Feedback Accelerates Performance

Consider these specific job and career-boosting benefits:

  • Senior executives and managers are able to obtain honest opinions and suggestions that might not otherwise be forthcoming due to filtering of upward information, geographical decentralization and dispersal, or fear of reprisals. Because this group has a tendency to over-rate their performance, the feedback process can be an invaluable means of collecting and conveying success-critical messages to those in top leadership positions.
  • Early-stage managers can use their results to benchmark their effectiveness to date with key partners. In particular, boss and subordinate feedback in the areas of leadership skills, execution, and teambuilding can guide those who are still evolving a personal style and repertoire as supervisors and line executives. If their feedback reveals performance shortcomings or skill deficits, these can be addressed before they adversely affect promotion and career opportunities.
  • High-potential professionals benefit from receiving feedback that helps them clarify and leverage existing strengths and consolidate their career identities. Aspirational next-generation leaders can use their feedback to prepare for expanded roles efficiently and effectively.

Gates has shared many valuable leadership lessons learned at the helm of Microsoft. “Success is a lousy teacher,” he warns. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Feedback Rich

Ongoing success requires lots of ongoing feedback. When the opportunity to receive multisource feedback comes your way, embrace it. Be sure your list of feedback contributors includes all of your key partners, in other words, a full 360-degree perspective.

Reviewing your results with a trained feedback coach can help you get the most from your program, and transform those results into an actionable personal development plan.

Copyright © Susan Battley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Susan Battley

An advisor to Fortune 100 executives and world-class institutions for more than twenty years, Dr. Susan Battley is an internationally recognized expert on CEO and leadership effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, and elite research institutions. She has worked with chief executives, university presidents, Nobel laureates, and prominent scientists, diplomats, and educators. A respected media source for analyzing leadership in the context of news-breaking events and key trends, Battley has been featured in outlets worldwide including CNN, CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chief Executive, Business Week, United Press International, Harvard Management Update, Entrepreneur, Science, Leader to Leader, Investments, and Worth. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a leadership strategy and organization effectiveness consultancy.