Less than a year after starting my journey as a speaker, I was offered the chance to become a “mystery speaker” in a Toastmasters club. As it would be my sixth Toastmasters speech, and the one which would enable me to enter the international speech competition. I said yes to this opportunity, thinking that I would only be delivering a speech at another club. What happened instead surpassed my expectations.
My speech was used for target practice by the contestants of the evaluation competition. Instead of receiving verbal feedback from only one person, I received feedback from five people. I walked out of the meeting buzzing with excitement and with a newfound appreciation of my qualities as a speaker. That evening in 2014 I received plenty of good feedback and this is why this experience stands out to me.
The value of different perspectives
Since then, I did many target speeches for evaluation competitions in Toastmasters. What stood out almost every time is that even though I may have had as many as ten people evaluating me. The feedback delivered by each of the speech evaluators differed and sometimes did not overlap from one person to the next. I still have the notes from this speech in 2014. Reading them now, I see that the first evaluator focused on my language, the second one on my speech’s structure and the last one on my energy levels. Because my speech and my delivery were looked at from different angles. I learnt far more about myself as a speaker than would have otherwise been the case.
It is impossible to look at anything from only a single angle and to hope to grasp the bigger picture fully. In the case of this speech, the bigger picture was that it was a good speech but which needed significant work on its contents and delivery. But, had I only received feedback on my energy levels. I could have walked away thinking that the speech content didn’t need many changes.
Another way to look at this is to look at the image above in isolation. The columns indicate a possibly ancient building, possibly sitting in Rome or Athens and built centuries ago during the Roman Empire. The image description contained the keyword pantheon. In my mind, I was looking at the columns of Rome’s pantheon. Except that the Roman pantheon columns don’t look like the ones above. These columns belong to Paris’s pantheon, which is a far more recent construction.
Had I looked only from one perspective, I would have believed that this building was in Rome. Just like anyone seeking feedback from only one perspective, will find themselves learning little about their speech, themselves or their leadership style. Yet I am always impressed when I witness people who do just that. This brings me nicely to another facet of this experience from 2014.
Good feedback will make you feel somewhat uncomfortable
I initially did not agree with all the feedback I received this evening, and even verbalised it in the heat of the moment. Now, looking back with hindsight, I see this speech as one of the turning points of my speaking journey. Before this speech, I thought that “more of everything” was the way to become a great speaker, and this speech taught me that less is more. The purpose of feedback is to help us improve to help us change our ways. Telling someone to change is one thing, but making them feel that they need to change can be a far more powerful trigger. Feeling uncomfortable can be a powerful trigger to change, and this is especially true for aspiring leaders.
I have said before that leadership is hard. One of the hardest things about leadership is working with others. Blending in hard skills such as strategic thinking, with soft skills like communication or persuasion is especially difficult. Yet just like the most powerful computer cannot run with a proper software. Leaders need to master both to be successful. Nevertheless in my observations, most leaders lean towards being strong with soft skills or with hard skills. Leaders who can successfully master both strong and soft skills are rare creatures. I would classify myself as leaning towards mastering hard skills rather than soft skills. This situation and leadership specialisation can present a unique challenge when seeking feedback.
Because we tend to shy away from criticism and from making others feel too uncomfortable. Leaders who are weak in soft skills are unlikely to receive feedback in that area. Even though they need it the most. Conversely, leaders who tend to be weak on hard skills may be lauded for their warmth or human touch. But may rarely be called out for lacking in strategic thinking. This situation is not helped by a tendency not to give feedback to leaders. This tendency is itself accentuated by the fact that leaders don’t always ask for feedback. Yet leaders more than anyone else should be actively seeking feedback.
Feedback is what makes us grow
One of the most interesting exercises I did when leading a team of 50+ people a year ago was to submit myself to a 360° feedback exercise. I knew in advance that I would get some uncomfortable feedback. My expectation was that I would come out as strong in vision and direction, but weak in terms of interpersonal relationships and listening skills. Yet, to my surprise, the feedback I received differed with these expectations. Interestingly, I rated higher on soft skills than I braced myself for, and was even praised for my listening skills by some. Looking back at the results today I still find them useful, and inspirational as they highlight how much more I can grow.
It is deeply wrong in my opinion not to ask for feedback or to challenge feedback which makes us feel uncomfortable. The best feedback I have received came from personalities that are very different to mine and can see me from new angles and perspectives. While opportunities to receive feedback don’t always abound. Leaders have the opportunity to create them through the following methods:
- Being humble and open-minded.
- Incorporating regular 360° feedback exercises within teams and across the organisation.
- Using surveys and focus groups to gather opinions, thoughts and feelings about the overall performance of the organisation and its leaders.
- Leading from the front and meeting directly with the teams and people who make it all happen.
- Using personality tests to uncover new insights about one’s personality.