We’re Doing CEO Feedback Wrong

The annual CEO feedback ritual is largely a waste of time. Three fixes can change that.

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Maybe this sounds familiar: Once a year, your company’s leadership team takes an online survey or participates in individual interviews with the board chair or a leadership adviser about the CEO’s strengths and weaknesses. The resulting feedback is analyzed, prioritized, and then delivered to the CEO by the board chair: “You’re great at setting strategy, but your listening skills could be better.” An action plan is created and, with luck, revisited once or twice.

This standard procedure is largely a wasted opportunity. For one, CEOs generally know their strengths and weaknesses pretty well; they’ve been getting input on them for decades. As one CEO privately told me, “I believe in the value of the process for my employees, but frankly, I don’t get a lot out of it myself.”

Second, the CEO role is, by nature, uniquely broad in its reach, and involves dealing with a wide variety of stakeholders. But this is not reflected in the typical feedback process: Most companies interview only the CEO’s direct reports and the board members, thereby emphasizing the interpersonal dynamics of that small group. The resulting output can quickly feel like an exercise in corporate navel-gazing.

A third, more subtle issue relates to how the raw input is filtered. The CEO typically gets a list of the top three areas for improvement, prioritized based on either frequency (the number of people who said it) or emotional intensity (how strongly someone felt about it). Neither approach centers on the truly important thing: the needs of the business.

As a result, CEOs and boards alike tend to bring an earnest but dutiful “check the boxes” mentality to the feedback process rather than seeing it as a genuine opportunity for change. The perceived lack of value is also reflected in the follow-up process, which tends to be fairly haphazard (or even nonexistent).

There is a better way. During the past two decades, I have worked with CEOs and senior leaders across the globe to experiment with new approaches to feedback and assess which approaches work best. The key to the approach introduced here is to use what I call mission-focused feedback. It starts with either the board, the CEO, or HR leadership recognizing the opportunity and proposing a change to the process.


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