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How Feedback Can Help Your Employees Succeed And Grow


With August now coming to a close, many of us – myself included – are feeling that bittersweet tinge that comes with the end of the summertime period. Indeed, contrary to so many of those back-to-school commercials, I personally am not eager to see the summer break come to an end for my daughters because I love having them around. Then again, as my wife likes to say, I’m not a fan of things ending.

The end of the summer period also brings to mind another ending that was marked this month – the end of Jon Stewart’s 16-year tenure at The Daily Show.

Now, to be clear, this piece is not about Jon Stewart’s legacy and whether you agreed or not with his socio-political viewpoints. Rather, it’s about an unscripted and honest moment that happened during his final show, and what we can learn from it about the nature of giving feedback and how it can help those we lead to grow.

The moment I’m referring to was when Stephen Colbert shared with the audience how Stewart made a point of telling his employees to never thank him because they owed him nothing, an idea Colbert said Stewart got “dead wrong” for the following reason:

We owe you because we learned from you. … All of us who were lucky enough to work with you for 16 years are better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours. And we are better people for having known you. You are a great artist and a good man. … I know you’re not asking for this, but on behalf of so many people whose lives you’ve changed over the past 16 years, thank you.”

It was a wonderful, heart-felt moment that gave us a glimpse into what it was like to work under Jon Stewart’s leadership at The Daily Show. Of course, it also gives rise to a question about how will our leadership be viewed when we’re done – namely, what will be the impact those under our care remember the most about our leadership and what will that say about the legacy of our own leadership?

Granted, such questions can be quite daunting if not a luxury for many leaders to ponder given the complexity of today’s interconnected, global environment where things happening halfway around the world can wreck havoc on our strategies and plans here at home.

Indeed, if today’s leaders can’t always anticipate, prepare, and ascertain what’s to come because of the constraints of their own experiences and insights, how can we possibly expect them to foresee the long-term impact they will have on the career paths of those they lead?

But this is where one of the truths of succeeding at leadership today comes into play and what this tribute from Stephen Colbert helps us to appreciate about how to use our leadership to bring out the best in those you lead: it’s not what you know, but how much you inspire those you lead to freely share what they know [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. How much you’re able to help those under your care to believe in themselves – not just in their current competencies, but in their potential to be more in the future.

It’s for this reason that feedback has become such a critical cornerstone for leadership in today’s organizations – and contrary to what some pundits like to push forth, it’s not simply because Millennials want to know how they’re doing.

On the contrary, this is something we all want – Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and whatever catchy name we ascribe to the next generation. And the best leaders intuitively understand this – that feedback is more than telling people what they got right or wrong; it’s about helping them grow [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] to become better than they are today.

Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Walt Disney, Winston Churchill, and yes, even Jon Stewart understood that their job was not to simply to tell those they lead what to keep doing or to stop doing.

Instead, they recognized the importance of communicating a vision of what we could be in the future; of the raw potential that exists within each of us and then providing that nurturing, supportive environment where we could challenge our assumptions, learn from our failures, and grow into the kinds of people they know we can become.

Each of these leaders understood that feedback is only effective when it leaves people hungry to learn more about themselves [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That people embrace what they’re being told because they see how it can help them to succeed not only in the short-term, but over the long-run because it helps to strengthen the foundation on which they’ll build their future.

When feedback is not about what we approve or disapprove of, but of how we can help those we lead to be better than they are today, it becomes easier for people to welcome what we share because they see it’s about what they need and not about what we want.

Clearly, this is something that Stewart understood which is why he told those on his team to never thank him for what he did because he understood that it was never about him. Instead, it was about being that kind of leader who could create this creative, collaborative, and open environment where people wanted to bring their best selves to the work they did.

And not because it would help Stewart look good, but because those who worked for him understood and recognized the value of their contributions. Of how their ideas, their concepts, and their humour would make the show the kind of influential thought vehicle that so easily polarized people because it mattered regardless of your social or political leanings.

Indeed, the best leaders are not concerned with looking good, but in helping those they lead to be good [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] – to be good collaborators and contributors, to work cohesively as a team so that everyone has the chance to succeed and thrive by doing their best work.

The fact that Stewart told his employees to never thank him shows that he understood that successful leaders are not driven by getting thanks, but by the pull to help others grow and evolve [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Why? – because the former focuses on fuelling our personal ego, while the latter focuses on fuelling the internal drives of those under our care.

The fundamental truth of our humanity is that we all want to be a part of something bigger than us [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. It’s a truth that the best leaders among us intuitively understand and are able to tap into to inspire us to commit our best to their vision of the future. Leaders like Walt Disney keenly understood this which is why after his death, there was no question that his vision would go on and grow even beyond what he was capable of creating.

Leaders like Walt understood that their role was not to supply the answers, but the questions that would capture the imagination of those under their care. Walt understood that the power of innovation, of creativity, and organizational success lies not with one person, but in the collective pursuit and drive of everyone who steps forward and says ‘I want to make this dream our reality’.

Walt Disney understood that by making his dream live in the hearts of every employee who worked at his organization, his vision would not only live on long after he was gone, but it would grow and evolve into something more fantastic, more amazing that what he had ever imagined or conceived.

It’s this very philosophy of leadership that I saw past and present team members of The Daily Show celebrating on Stewart’s last show.

Regardless of whether you agreed with his socio-political viewpoints or not, it was clear that here was someone who understood the ability to succeed not just in the short-term but over the long term is not dependent on your own singular talents and expertise, but in your ability to tap into the native talents, creativity, and insights of those around you and then amplify it into something even greater.

To do that, of course, means that we need to understand that the feedback we give has to not only inform, but nourish those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter] so that they are driven to not only do better, but to challenge themselves to be more than they thought they were capable of.

And if this is something that Jon Stewart was able to do, then all of us should have hope and determination to recognize the potential exists in each of us to do the same for those we lead as well.

So while we say goodbye to another summer season, here’s looking forward to the final quarter of this year and with it, the chance to provide our employees with opportunities to challenge themselves along with the feedback and guidance to help them to evolve and grow into those better versions of themselves.

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