Using Feedback to Avoid Career Derailment

Gina was general counsel at a large utility company, until she wasn’t. She had graduated from prestigious schools, worked hard and created an enviable career for herself. After completely revamping the company’s ineffective legal department and creating a strong team, she was suddenly ousted with very little explanation. The CEO told her that she was a “hot-headed Latina” and that her style was not compatible with the company culture. On its face, this sounds unfair, and possible grounds for legal action. Yet, regardless of the outcome of any potential lawsuit, no one wants to find themselves in such a situation.

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Every day, successful lawyers’ careers get derailed, and this happens all the more frequently for women and lawyers of color. Career derailment is when lawyers in senior positions are fired, asked to leave, demoted, or have their careers plateau unexpectedly. This happens for a wide variety of reasons, some internal to the individual, and some external, due to environmental factors. For example, if the individual lacks adaptability or they have some deficits regarding interpersonal communications that impede job performance, those would be considered an internal reason for the derailment. Layoffs due to a merger, changing legal needs, workplace discrimination, biases or sabotage would all be categorized as external reasons. Of course, the reality in many cases may be a combination of internal and external factors. While some layoffs may be inevitable, they can also be a convenient excuse to get rid of someone who is seen as not performing up to par. While some workplace discrimination may be so egregious that no one could salvage the situation, in other cases, discrimination might be surmountable by those with unusually strong interpersonal skills. It goes without saying that this is unfair and places an extra burden on women and people of color.

We have no way to know to what degree Gina might have prevented her derailment. It is possible that any implicit or explicit biases the CEO and others may have held regarding Latinas would have marred her career no matter how perfectly she conducted herself. However, it is also possible that if Gina had approached her position or her communication differently, she could have succeeded in her position and continued on her spectacular career trajectory. Please note that the intention here is not to blame the victim, but rather to add to the tools at your disposal for understanding where you stand within your organization and countering any biases that may exist.

I recommend that everyone who is serious about their careers conduct what I call leadership interviews. This involves sitting down one-on-one and asking for feedback from bosses, colleagues and direct reports. It serves as a highly effective way to better understand how others perceive you and your leadership style. Not only do people learn far more from leadership interviews than they do from typical performance evaluations, but the interview process itself enhances relationships with the interviewees, and fosters more open communication going forward. Typically, both the interviewer and interviewee leave feeling appreciated, connected, and having greater trust in one another than they had previously.

On average, about 90% of the feedback people receive when conducting leadership interviews is positive. This makes the experience enjoyable while also making it easier to really listen to and absorb any constructive comments. Here are questions that I recommend people ask in the leadership interviews:

  1. What do you see as my strengths?
  2. What do you see as potential growth areas or things I could work on?
  3. What kind of first impression do I give?
  4. What does everyone know about me?
  5. What can I always be counted on for?
  6. What can I never be counted on for?
  7. What would be missing in our community if I were gone?
  8. Is there anything else you forgot to say or that I didn’t ask about that you wish I had?

I recommend conducting the interviews with five to 10 people with whom you have a good relationship. This can include friends and family as well as people at any level in your organization, or even clients. The most important factor to ensure that interviews go well is that the person you are interviewing understand that your goal is to gain a better understanding of yourself; it is not a test of their love, a job requirement, or anything like that. Make sure they understand that you are asking for their feedback because you respect them, you think they are smart, insightful, etc. It is also helpful to let them know that you are interviewing them in service of a larger goal, for example, to become more effective in your current job, or simply to enhance your leadership skills. The specific goal you identify doesn’t matter. The important part is that people understand that you genuinely want to hear what they think and that anything they say, positive or constructive will be a real contribution to you and your growth.

During the interviews, it is important to just listen to the feedback and write it all down. Don’t ignore the parts you think are unimportant, censor or edit it in any way. To the degree that you can, write down what they say verbatim. This is particularly important if they say something that seems odd or that makes you feel uncomfortable. Do not argue with them. Just thank them for their feedback and remember that only people who are truly committed to your success in life would take the risk of offering constructive feedback. Being able calmly to hear views or perspectives different from your own is an important skillset and building that muscle also has intrinsic value.

While most people find that leadership interviews require some courage, the vast majority discover that they are far harder on themselves than is anyone else. On the occasions when people are surprised by a piece of constructive feedback, those insights have the potential to save their careers. At the last job I had before starting my coaching practice, I interviewed my boss. I knew that she liked me and thought that I did a good job, but I thought that when asked about areas for improvement, she would say that I didn’t work hard enough. Instead, my boss told me that I talked like a Valley girl and that she wanted me to represent her at meetings, but she thought that my speaking style would give a bad impression. Needless to say, that was a little bit upsetting, but also extraordinarily valuable information. It turned out that my speech patterns and using the word “like” too frequently were interfering with my career opportunities. I had no idea.

You may be thinking that leadership interviews sound redundant. After all, you already get feedback through formal review processes. Your organization may even utilize a 360-degree evaluation tool where you are evaluated by colleagues and subordinates as well as by partners or bosses. Leadership interviews, however, are distinct and serve as a valuable supplement to formal reviews. Here are some of the ways in which leadership interviews are different from what most people already gain through performance reviews.

Future-Oriented Feedback.

Most formal evaluations are tailored to a current position and rarely provide the opportunity for reviewers to comment upon anything outside of the current job description. General impressions and abstract qualities like executive presence or perceptions of fairness are rarely addressed in performance evaluations, leaving open the possibility that someone is good at the letter of the job, but perhaps is not living up to implied expectations. Similarly, the person being reviewed may be fantastic at their current position and praised accordingly, but they may never hear a word about their perceived deficits that would prevent them from succeeding at the next level. Although senior associates may be told to work on business development, exhortations to start networking or to participate in pitches may be good advice but is not the kind of personalized feedback that helps people understand how they come across and fine-tune their style and approach.

More Honest Feedback.

When the person you are interviewing knows that you are reaching out to them out of genuine curiosity and desire for self-improvement, they are much more likely to be honest and forthcoming. By opening the door in this way, you get to hear perspectives that otherwise would not be shared. Furthermore, since anything written in a formal evaluation could affect your job prospects within the organization, and can have legal ramifications, many people will be more guarded in those communications. Since the leadership interviews are self-initiated, conducted informally, and communicated verbally rather than in written format, these elements dramatically reduce concerns about legal consequences and increase the likelihood of meaningful, honest conversations.

Patterns Emerge and You See What is Great about You.

By interviewing five to 10 people, you start to better understand how people see you and begin to recognize what makes you special. For example, maybe you hear from a friend that your demeanor is very calming, then from a colleague that you are excellent under pressure, and from yet another person that you can always be counted upon to stay grounded. Once you hear similar comments from a variety of people, you likely recognize that the qualities you may take for granted or think of as unimportant are actually quite special and highly valued by the people around you. If only one person made such a comment, you might be gratified but might not take it too seriously, but when five people tell you the same thing, it’s hard to deny. After doing these leadership interviews, people have a much clearer picture of what they bring to the table—information that is valuable for marketing themselves to prospective clients, or for finding future job opportunities as well as for success in leadership roles.

Demonstrates Your Respect for Others.

Asking people for feedback sends a message that you respect the person and genuinely want to hear their thoughts and opinions. Many successful lawyers are admired for their brilliance but they may come across as distant or intimidating to others. Being perceived as strong and capable is very important, of course, but showing that you also care about others opinions and ideas can make the people around you feel valued and increase their positive feelings toward you. After doing these interviews, you may find that colleagues more frequently reach out to collaborate, or support your ideas in meetings. Subordinates may speak up with helpful suggestions, be more receptive to constructive feedback or take initiative in ways that they hadn’t previously. Demonstrating respect for people through the leadership interviews engenders greater collaboration and transparency in your work office.

It Includes Friends and Family.

Unlike a performance review at work, leadership interviews also include reaching out to friends and family for their thoughts and perceptions. While the opinions of those closest to you may seem on first glance to be unrelated to your success at work, the truth is that you are the same person at work and in your personal life. Many of your strengths, weaknesses and habitual behaviors will likely be the same in both areas. Furthermore, the same relationship benefits that accrue when conducting these interviews in the workplace apply in one’s personal life. How many painful conflicts with loved ones could have been avoided or diminished by understanding and addressing the issue earlier, or by demonstrating a little bit more respect for the other person’s opinions? Plus, anyone who feels nervous about doing the interviews at work can first practice on their friends. After seeing how rewarding the conversations can be, tackling the workplace becomes much easier.

Even if leadership interviews were not qualitatively distinct from formal reviews, it would still be wise for diverse attorneys to do them. Research conducted by the Stanford VMware

Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab shows that the performance reviews received by women tend to be shorter and the content vaguer than those for men. Comments for men were more focused on specific accomplishments and their developmental feedback was linked to specific business outcomes. In contrast, responses for women were less specific, such as, “You had a great year,” or comments about being “aggressive.” Without concrete examples, it is more difficult to operationalize constructive feedback for future growth, and it is also more challenging to leverage vague praise when looking for a promotion. The more clear and specific the feedback a person receives, the more likely it is that he or she can make any necessary changes, and live up to or exceed expectations. While this research did not specifically address people of color or other diverse attorneys, whatever the source of the differences shown in this study, whether it be implicit bias, divergent expectations or different comfort levels among the boss/subordinate pairings, it seems likely that similar discrepancies would also exist for other diverse groups. If diverse attorneys may be receiving less substantive and useful performance evaluations, one way to rectify the situation is to proactively seek out additional feedback.

Although diverse attorneys are at higher risk for career derailment, it can happen to anyone—even those at the highest levels, like a president of the United States, a CEO, or the managing partner of a big firm. Extraordinary people often create impressive successes which lead to arrogance or inattention to others’ viewpoints. As Bill Gates says, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” For example, John Quincy Adams is viewed as one of the most successful secretaries of state in all of US history, but his presidency is considered a failure. If he had asked for feedback and genuinely considered others’ perspectives, things could have gone differently for him and for the country. What about the leaders of law firms like LeClair Ryan, Dewey & Lebeof, and Dickstein and Shapiro? While many factors are at play in any law firm collapse, poor leadership is clearly a significant factor. If the leaders of those firms had spent some time asking for feedback from colleagues and becoming more self-aware, perhaps the upheaval, embarrassment, and derailment of numerous careers could have been avoided—or at least mitigated.

While Gina made the best of her situation and landed on her feet, her new job doesn’t have the level of prestige as her previous general counsel position. Some career derailments are dramatic like Gina’s, but most are just part of the daily grind in law firms, as diverse attorneys become tired of being passed over for opportunities, feeling like they don’t belong, or that their talents are undervalued. It is not surprising that so many women and people of color voluntarily leave high-profile career trajectories. For many years, countless organizations and individuals have been trying to address this trend, but the statistics have barely changed. Obviously, no quick fix can cure this problem, but the leadership interviews are a useful tool that brave and ambitious individuals can use to understand better how they are perceived, forge deeper connections with colleagues and ensure that their careers stay on track.

About the Author

Anna Rappaport is a former lawyer and the founder and principal of Excelleration Coaching, an executive coaching firm for lawyers based in Washington, DC. Follow Anna on Twitter @CoachAnnaDC.

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