5 Ways to Find a Critic and Why You Need One.

I had the pleasure of hearing Col. Mark Slocum, Commander of the 4th Fighter Wing, speak at a local Leading Wayne event here in Goldsboro, NC this past week. He advocated that every leader should have a critical thinker; someone to poke holes in your ideas. Basically, the opposite of a “yes” man. Every great leader needs someone to challenge their ideas to make sure the ideas are sound. I completely agree. The problem is that it is not the easiest thing to go out and look for criticism. It’s uncomfortable. It’s being vulnerable. It’s being humble. everyone needs a critic

I have to say I face this, to some degree, every week when I send out my blog draft to “Cathy’s Brain Trust” to several old friends from college and beyond. I have to say that the first few drafts (some two and half years ago), received glowing reviews along with a slew of grammatical corrections. So, although I felt vulnerable when I hit the send button, I received mostly thumbs up and was forced to acknowledge the holes in my grammar. There have been many times since those first few posts where there was some not so favorable feedback. Some posts never got published. It was humbling and, at times embarrassing (there is a big difference between roster and rooster). I survived. I have endured. I have learned. And I’m a better writer. And, as with any exercise like this, we have all learned from each other. The group has even admitted to me their discomfort sometimes when contributing but the intent has always been to make things better!

So where do you go looking for the Critic? Here are some ideas:

1. Perspective. Look for someone with a different perspective. In a recent Mastermind (a group of like-minded folks working for a similar goal) conference call, one of the group members had raised that idea that if you are creating a coaching website, it really doesn’t make sense to have other coaches give you feedback about the site. They will come from a coaching perspective and not a client perspective. So go find someone with the perspective of a potential end user. If you are developing a new garden for a senior center, go talk to the seniors that will be using the garden. If you are making a new kid friendly tortilla, go talk to some kids. If you are looking for feedback on the employee picnic, survey the employees and their families. Find a different perspective from those who are invested in the outcome.

2. No dog in the fight. Make sure you are getting feedback from someone with nothing to gain or someone without a dog in the fight. I can remember having a menu tasting for a restaurant I opened some twenty years ago, and we had the staff taste the menu. Probably not the most unbiased crowd to poll. Those folks wanted to get the restaurant open and get paid, they would probably have said that everything tasted great. Come to think of it, I’m not sure we eliminated any menu items from that tasting. Make sure your Critic doesn’t have anything to gain from sitting back and nodding their head. Make sure they don’t have a dog in the fight.

3. Feed Forward. If there is an opportunity, look for feed forward. Feed forward is when you ask for how you could do it differently or more effectively the next time. This is not a deep brutal post mortem on everything that went wrong (although this would be necessary for things like equipment malfunction) but rather a look at what is possible in the future. As Marshall Goldsmith recommends, pick one behavior you want to change like, “I want to be a better listener”. Try it on for size with a few folks that are your coworkers, your boss and your direct reports. Let them know you want to be a better listener and ask them what that would look like to them. Be careful NOT to look back for examples where you were not a good listener. This is all about moving forward (not backwards). Ask them for two suggestions and shut up. Make notes. Thank them. You can ask your participant if they would like some feed forward on something they would like to change. Ask for feed forward.

4. Anonymity. There is also value in having the critique come from an anonymous source. Wiley has an Everything DiSC 363 Assessment where you can have four different groups of people give feedback and all the feedback is anonymous except for the manager. So all the direct reports are in one group, all the coworkers are in another. There’s also the option of including the board of directors, customers and/or a manager(s). They are all asked about the leader’s style in various areas (i.e. collaboration, approachability, directness, etc.) and given the option for various preset comments. I think this is really effective because if 20 out of 25 raters said that, “Joe could be a lot more approachable”; it’s a powerful statement rather than 20 different comments trying to say the same thing. The point is that if there is anonymity, you will receive more honest feedback. This is especially true if you are in a leadership position and your direct reports may feel there will be repercussions if they say anything unflattering. There may be a reason to have your Critic have anonymity.

5. Trusted. Then, of course, there is the trusted group that you know will give it to you straight. There is no way to say how you cultivate this group except that you’ll know when you know. It’s like “Cathy’s Brain Trust”, the group has morphed a bit overtime. A member would never give feedback or I didn’t find value in it. Trust is a two way street. If I received some constructive feedback and blew up in anger or ignored the feedback, I am letting down my side of the bargain. So if you ask for criticism be prepared to receive it graciously and give up on the illusion that you need to be perfect. It’s not going to happen. We all have flaws and, mine in particular, is a grasp of American English grammatical rules. It doesn’t mean I can’t write, it just means I need a trusted English major as a part of my brain trust.

Let me just say that it’s easier to be surrounded by “yes” men. It’s more comfortable to be untested and to ride the status quo. I get it. I still get slightly squeamish when I send these posts for feedback. I love this mantra on criticism from Christine Kane: SWSWSWSW “Some will, some won’t. So what? Someone’s waiting.” There is someone out there waiting for this post on this topic. Whew. What a relief.

Cutting Loose. Lessons From Traveling With My 88 Year Old Father.

My dad’s 87 year old brother passed away suddenly several weeks ago in Florida. My dad wanted to attend the funeral and asked me to assist him. It turned out to be quite the adventure and gave me the opportunity to see my dad in a different light. My parents have traveled the world but in the last 15 years have remained “set” in their day to day routines. In retirement “auto-pilot” of doctor’s appointments, “Civilization” (a computer game), Food Network, checking for the newspaper and mail their rigid schedule is capped with dinner at 4:30…yes, 4:30. In the span of about 24 hours, we had made the arrangements and were prepared to venture beyond the envelope of about a 15 mile radius of our hometown. Ready or not, here we come.

This is my Dad's Thai lunch....ice cream.
This is my Dad’s Thai lunch….ice cream.

The amazing thing is that the trip opened my eyes to my dad’s resilience, adaptability and patience. One would think that one so set in his ways would have a difficult time adapting to modern technology, broken routines and uncertainty. Nope. Not a problem. It made me realized that a guy who traveled to Korea, hitch hiked across the US in his twenties and canoed in the wilderness of Canada…can handle just about anything you throw at him. Just because you usually live in a well honed routine, doesn’t mean you can’t break loose and venture out.

So this is what I learned:

1. Open. You need to be open; whether it’s Thai food, switching seats on the airplane or waiting to find the bathroom. My dad had no pre-set notions and was open to any change in course. I don’t think my dad ever had Thai food before but when my cousin suggested we eat there as a group, he was all in. Some folks sitting in his row on the airplane asked to switch seats…gladly. If we needed to find the gate at the airport before finding the men’s room; no sweat. Be open.

2. Trust. My dad trusted me completely. This was really gratifying. He had unfaltering faith in all the arrangements. I told him to check his bag (although he asked if it was free) he was willing to follow my direction and understood the rationale when everyone else came on the plane lugging a slew of carry-ons. Hotel, rental car, flights, parking, directions…he never questioned a single decision. If you want to break loose, go with someone you trust implicitly.

3. Patience. Pack some patience. My dad has this in spades. Anyone who taught 8th grade history for 30 years, has to have it in their DNA. We had two delayed flights and weren’t sure we were going to make a connection on the way home. He wasn’t anxious for a second. He would just open up his magazine and keep reading. Did I mention he is 88? If you aren’t blessed with the patience gene, try a little meditation.

4. Flexible. Anytime you want to break out of your routines, you need to be flexible. When we were connecting flights in Atlanta, we needed to find some lunch. “What do you want Dad?” Whichever line is shorter. Pizza it is. At a Thai restaurant for lunch but all you really want is dessert…ice cream it is. Three hours to kill? Head to the hotel for a nap. On the way back to Raleigh, we needed lunch again. Chinese food by gate A1 before getting on the plane. Be flexible.

5. Curiosity. When you venture out, make sure you have some curiosity. My dad can talk to anyone…I mean anyone. I remember when we were kids, if my dad was missing in action, he probably met someone in the check-out line. Upon his return, he would regale us with how interesting so and so was. He knew everyone in his row on the plane by the time we landed. You cannot talkto just anyone unless you have curiosity. Pack some curiosity when you break loose.

6. Habits. No matter where you venture to, you need to maintain some habits. Brushing your teeth, showering, and coffee in the morning. My dad has been telling me for years that he does 30 sit-ups in the morning…every morning. Sure enough, there he was at 7 AM in the bed next to me doing his sit-ups. Even amongst all of the travel and mayhem of unscheduled time, he managed to take his daily medications. Habits keep us on track and give us some normalcy amidst the chaos.

7. Prudence. Anyone from the depression era has a healthy dose of prudence. My dad wanted to know if the coffee on the plane was free…and the cookies as well. Was the coffee in the hotel lobby free? Was the breakfast free? It pays to double check. We didn’t realize some of the roads in the Orlando area were toll roads, but my co-pilot was ready with quarters by the second toll booth. It always pays to have a little prudence.

The experience of traveling with my dad was enlightening. I really admire him for his ability to roll with the punches (or plane delays) and his openness to constant schedule changes. Spending those three days with him was priceless. I’m glad we got to cut loose together.