Leadership & Management

Give It to Me Straight: The Power of Honest, Constructive Feedback

In this episode, David Dodson shares how workplace feedback can be your company’s secret weapon.

July 18, 2023

How do we deal with professional blind spots? According to David Dodson, MBA ’87, we need the panoramic perspective of those who work around us.

“360 reviews, done properly, are a massive competitive weapon,” says Dodson, also a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB and author of the new book, The Manager’s Handbook. Such comprehensive and constructive feedback, he says, can be transformational for employees and managers alike. “The first time I did a 360 review and got feedback was a massive turning point in my development as a manager,” he says. “Had I not had 360 feedback, I probably would have gone a decade or more with ineffective technique.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Dodson shares valuable insights and actionable advice for individuals in leadership and management roles, highlighting the importance of effective communication and feedback in achieving success.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Leadership and management are part science and part art. Today we’ll explore how we can prepare, plan, and execute effective leadership and communication. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. Today I look forward to speaking with David Dodson. Dave is a lecturer in Management at the GSB as well as an alum. He teaches Managing Growing Enterprises, among other classes. Dave won a GSB Teaching Award and is a six-time speaker in the Graduation Last Lecture Series, which is quite an honor.

Additionally, Dave was an operator for many years, starting and running a number of for-profit and nonprofit firms. Dave recently released his new book, The Manager’s Handbook: Five Simple Steps to Build a Team, Stay Focused, Make Better Decisions, and Crush Your Competition. Dave, thanks for being here.

David Dodson: Sure. That was quite an introduction. I wish my daughters were listening.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Well, hopefully they will be. You clearly have spent a lot of time thinking about and sharing ideas on effective management. Your courses and book are full of great advice. When it comes to interviewing, you talk about the importance of deepening and narrowing. Can you explain what you mean by both of these from a hiring manager’s perspective, and what guidance would you give? And then for those interviewing for jobs, how would you suggest they prepare for an interview that deploys deepening and narrowing?

David Dodson: So how this all happened was, years ago when I was managing a company — I was CEO — I wanted to be better — I wanted the whole company to be better at hiring. So I went out to the bookstore and I bought all the hiring books that I could find that I thought were worth a darn. And I told everybody, “You’re not going to see me for a week.” I literally rented a room, locked the doors, and went through about a thousand or so pages. When I used to interview, I had this question I would ask, “How do you know when the refrigerator door closes whether the light goes out or not?” And I thought I was so clever with my question and my riddle. But really, it had nothing to do with the criteria of someone that I was hiring.

Deepening and narrowing is a completely different concept where you have a specific scorecard and you’re concerned about or you’re focused on an outcome that you want, and you’ve got a series of questions that you ask that go deeper and deeper and deeper. So hey, Matt, I’ve got an idea — let’s just try deepening and narrowing, okay?

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

David Dodson: And let’s pretend that I’m hiring you for Head of Sales, okay?

Matt Abrahams: Excellent.

David Dodson: So are you ready?

Matt Abrahams: I am.

David Dodson: You didn’t think you were going to have to do this today, huh?

Matt Abrahams: Hey, it’s all about thinking fast and talking smart. Let’s see what we can do.

David Dodson: So this is for a Head of Sales position. So I say, “Matt, so what’s one of the most important things you do in the position of Head of Sales?”

Matt Abrahams: Oh, absolutely, motivating my team.

David Dodson: Great. So can you give me an example of where you did that?

Matt Abrahams: Sure. We implemented a competition among the sales team.

David Dodson: And how often do you do these competitions?

Matt Abrahams: Well, twice a year.

David Dodson: Twice a year? Okay. And does it involve the whole sales team?

Matt Abrahams: The frontline sales folks, not the enablement team.

David Dodson: I see. And when did you start doing these contests?

Matt Abrahams: About 18 months ago.

David Dodson: Great. And then after you implemented the contest, what was the increase in growth rate?

Matt Abrahams: We got up to about 20-25 percent.

David Dodson: I see. And how did you design that plan?

Matt Abrahams: Well, so a template was given to us from senior management.

David Dodson: Okay. So Matt, we could keep going. But you saw that I learned a lot just with that one example, right —

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

David Dodson: — in a very, very short period of time, including, by the way, that you weren’t the author of the plan, that you were just implementing the plan. So that might be fine, but if creating new innovative programs was part of the job description, I’d say I probably wouldn’t give you a plus. If implementing existing plans, well, it sounds like you increased sales by an incremental ten percent. But that’s a kind of — in real life probably we would have gone on longer in this, but that’s the notion of deepening and narrowing, where instead of you ask 15 canned questions and you just stray for 10,000 feet, you dive in on a few particular subjects and you start to build this mosaic where you really get a sense of whether this person’s going to achieve the outcomes that you want.

Matt Abrahams: So I learned a couple of things from this activity: first, that I would make a lousy Head of Sales, and two, that you’re a very good, thorough interviewer. But what I’m hearing is that as a hiring manager, I need to think about this notion of, as I’m asking questions, I’m going deeper but narrowing it down and really listening to what the person is saying. And as an interview candidate, man, I would have to prepare very differently if I got questions like that versus the way I might have prepared. So really useful information, especially for those who are looking for jobs.

David Dodson: One thing about that too that you made me think, Matt —

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

David Dodson: — sometimes a student will raise their hand and they’ll say, “Well, that seems like kind of an aggressive, in-your-face way to interview. Here’s the thing: The best candidates love these kinds of interviews because they know that they have so much to tell you, and they want to show off, and they want to tell you all the things that they’re doing, and they don’t want to be at 10,000 feet. So the best candidates eat this kind of interviewing up.

Matt Abrahams: Very important to understand, and that means that we need to practice this kind of thing. And I think that’s a really, really helpful insight, for sure. You rightly highlight the importance of feedback in your book. And you’ve developed a six-step framework for delivering feedback. Can you walk us through these steps and provide an example perhaps?

David Dodson: Yes. So in “The Manager’s Handbook,” I lay out a six-part way to get feedback because, as we usually do it is we kind of wing it, and it’s really unclear what the point is. And the turning point for me was when I was talking to Paul English who started Kayak.com, he told me this story about after he had sold an earlier company to Intuit, and he was the CTO at Intuit, and they were selling a company to Oracle, and they met with Larry Ellison. And afterwards in the parking lot, they were walking out, and his supervisor said to him, “Paul, can I give you a little bit of feedback?” And right there in the moment, instant feedback, he told Paul about some things that he had done that weren’t the way Intuit likes to do things. And if he had waited until the end of the year or two months later, even a week later, that feedback would have been so less important.

So I took that lesson from Paul and Intuit and Larry Ellison and developed this framework. So it goes like this: First, you start with the expectations, then measurement — how you’re measuring it, the feedback itself. You ask about any obstacles. You offer your support. And you make sure there’s alignment. So let’s say that you’re the Chief Accountant, Head Accountant, and you’re not closing the books on time. So I might say, “Matt, our expectation is that we close the month within — by the 15th [or] the next day.” Okay, right there, I said to you, Matt, what my expectation was and how we’re measuring it. Are there any obstacles out there that are keeping you from closing the books on time?

Then I say to you — under support, I would say, “So Matt, what else can I do to help you and support you in getting the books closed on the 15th of the month?” You can see how that can be very conversational. But all six of those things are essential. If the person doesn’t feel like they have your support, they’re going to feel like they’re set up to fail. If you haven’t asked them what obstacles are out there, they’re going to go out there and they’re thinking, “Dodson doesn’t really understand what I have to go through.” If you’re not clear on what the measurement is, then you’re leaving it all gray on what your expectations really are.

So just walking through the six-part formula, make sure that you check all the boxes. And, by the way, Matt, once you do this a dozen or two dozen times, it just comes naturally. You don’t even have to think about it.

Matt Abrahams: Dave, I really like how you reinforce some of the key concepts we’ve talked about on this podcast before, that is, having a structure. A structure can really help you. You have a six-part structure for giving feedback, and it’s a very logical structure and aligns very well with my approach to feedback. I believe we should see these situations as an invitation to problem solve. So you’re actually laying out the problem very clearly, and you’re showing that you support the person in trying to address that issue. But at the end, you’re very clear that you have buy-in that the change will happen. I really appreciate that structure and think it’s really important.

I’d like to dive a little deeper into feedback. One very specific type of feedback that many organizations employ is a 360 review. Can you define what a 360 review is for those of our listeners who aren’t aware? And I’d love for you to share your ideas on how to execute a successful 360 review.

David Dodson: The whole concept of the 360 review goes back to the U.S. Army during World War I when they wanted to get feedback from an officer’s subordinates to make promotion decisions. I want feedback from your peers and people that report to you. Typically, the 360 review is not implemented correctly, which is that you use the latest app. Everybody answers some stock, questions. They’re delivered to the person un-curated. Oftentimes, those are hurtful comments, and you don’t really make any progress. So when I describe kind of how to do a 360 process, I talk about what I call the 3 C’s — curate, create a plan, and close the loop.

You take the information and then you give it to either a third party or the person’s manager to curate the information. The idea’s not to dump all of the raw data on the person but to look for themes. So let’s say then that you and I were working on somebody’s 360 and we found three or four themes, and that’s the curation process. The second is to create a work plan. So we’re not just dumping onto you, “Hey, here’s what we heard; good luck,” but “Here would be a work plan on how you could address these three themes.”

And then the last thing that you do is you close the loop. And how you close the loop is you go to the people that offered the 360 feedback, and you put everything in one of three categories — “I heard this, but I’m not going to change because — for the following reasons”; “I heard this and I’m going to make these changes, but I’m not going to be able to make these changes right away because -—.” And the third would be, “I heard this, and I’ll be making these changes right away.”

So in closing the loop, everybody feels like they’re heard, nobody feels like they have a right to demand how you’re supposed to manage or not, and you’ve laid out a timeline of when you’re going to do things and when you’re not going to do things. Three-sixty reviews done properly are a massive competitive weapon.

Matt Abrahams: It seems to me that the type of 360 feedback you’re describing, the active process there, helps people not only to improve, because you get valuable input, but it demonstrates clearly that this notion of continuous improvement, quality feedback is listened to, respected, and acted upon. And that can be a very powerful message for establishing a culture that continues to grow and thrive.

David Dodson: Exactly. And 360 review, you’re trying to make sure that you’re not creating a culture of apology. We’re all trying to get better, so the point is I heard this feedback; I really appreciate the feedback; I want to be a better manager each year. And so here’s where I’m going to take this feedback and improve. You know, the first time I did a 360 review and I got feedback, they told me that I had ice water running through my veins —

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

David Dodson: — because I was very cold and standoffish. Yeah, that did sting a little bit. But that was a massive turning point in my development as a manager, and I realized that I needed to show my humanity and my own personality, and I was withholding that because I thought that’s what professional managers did. Had I not had 360 feedback I probably would have gone a decade or more with that ineffective technique.

Matt Abrahams: I appreciate you sharing your personal experience with that. I too have benefited from 360s and have changed my ways. And I have to say I appreciate a Winnie the Pooh reference any day. In reading your book, I was struck by the notion that preparation is compassion. Now you were making that claim when you were talking about how we let people go, fire or retrench employees. But it strikes me that this notion of preparation is compassion applies to lots of things we do as leaders, including our communication and the way we interact with others. What do you think about applying your notion of preparation is compassion beyond just letting people go, and what goes into good preparation so we can be truly compassionate?

David Dodson: In my class at Stanford, we do a lot of role play. Role play, whether you do it in your head or you do it with someone else, is an opportunity to try out different approaches where the risks are zero. So yesterday, I was talking to a CEO who’s going to have to let someone who knows that they’re going to be laid off what the timeline is for them being laid off. And he and I spent four or five minutes role playing it and talking about what her likely objections are going to be, which means that when he has this conversation with her later today, he’s not trying things out raw on her but he’s thought them through and he’s thought about what her perspective is, what would be meaningful to her. That’s where compassion is.

And also, it makes you a more effective manager because you botch a conversation, and you might spend hours or days recovering from that mistake when all you needed was a few minutes of preparation.

Matt Abrahams: I like this idea of role playing. I think it’s really important. And actually speaking the words to somebody, speaking them out loud, or just thinking it through, really important. We know from a communication point of view that preparation really matters for both planned and spontaneous situations like you’ve described. You have some idea of how that employee is going to respond, but you really don’t know. And I love just framing that as compassion. It’s compassion for the other person. You’re trying to make that circumstance and that situation go better, and that preparation can really help.

David Dodson: Yeah, can I give you another quick example of where that can be used?

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

David Dodson: Let’s say, for example, that you have just bought another company, and you have the company meeting. And if you prepare it, you can finish your remarks and say, “Now I was thinking about what it would be like for me if I was standing there and one of you was up here. And these are the five questions that would really be on my mind. The first one is, what’s going to happen to the health plan?” And then you answer that, and you go through all those questions because you’re prepared so people will think, wow, this person, first of all, answered all of my questions, but second, took the time to think about what matters to me.

Matt Abrahams: I really like that example for many reasons. It definitely demonstrates how preparation, thinking about how the others might respond or the questions they might have, but it’s also a really important skill to have as a leader when you are in a Q&A. There are a lot of reasons people don’t ask leaders questions, none of which have to do with the fact that they don’t have questions. And so thinking that through, demonstrating that, great example of preparation is compassion. You make a strong assertion that I agree with: You assert that to be successful at work, you need to be a fanatical custodian of your time. What do you mean by this, and what are the best ways that we can maximize our schedule and be efficient?

David Dodson: You know, I stumbled upon this study that was done by a friend of mine, and they looked at 27 high-performing CEOs. They watched what they did in 15-minute increments, and they acquired 60,000 hours of data. One of the conclusions was that they were ruthless about their time, and they didn’t use fancy apps or anything like that or any tools. They used just basic time management tools. I’ll give you a really simple example: Take your 30-minute meetings and turn them into 20-minute meetings. Take your hour-long meetings and turn them into 40-minute meetings. And I realize that that one change would save me 70 minutes a day, over an hour a day.

And by the way, there was an interesting sort of byproduct to that: If you say that you have a meeting from 11 to 11:20, people show up on time, they end on time, they get started, they don’t talk about the weather. And then add to that the amount of time that we spend in meetings every day. I think it’s 12 hours a week, and of those meetings, executives self-reported that 40 percent of the time was wasted.

Matt Abrahams: I want to dive deeper in what you talked about with meetings because, for most of us, meetings are really challenging and difficult. They’re often inefficient, undirected, and lead to more chaos than focus. I know you offer some very specific tips for better meetings. Do you mind sharing a few of those?

David Dodson: Yeah. So what I did is, everybody knows meetings are broken. So I studied people like Jeff Bezos, for example, and how they ran meetings, or Steve Jobs and how he ran meetings. I harmonize those into seven simple steps. One step is when you start the meeting before people dive in and start discussing, you go around the room and ask for clarifying questions. Another example is you need to make sure that everybody participates. And generally speaking, it’s better to bring in the voices from the least senior to the most senior because if you start with the most senior person, there’s a natural tendency for people to morph their position into what that person stated, which is not the way to get the best information.

That’s something that John F. Kennedy did. He always called on people in reverse order of seniority because he didn’t want people to get influenced by what they’d heard from someone else. There’s a simple technique that the Founder of General Motors used to summarize each meeting. And once I started using it, nobody wanted to go back to the old wasteful meetings.

Matt Abrahams: I love that you’ve codified effective meetings. And I like that you tested it out. And you’re really living and doing that, what you talked about — preparation is compassion. It’s thinking about how to do these things effectively to save people’s time, to make sure that you’re efficient, and that you accomplish things. I love that notion of being mindful of status and power in the room and actively working to reduce some of its impact by having the people who might be more junior go first. And it certainly seems to me that planning is key in all that you talked about there. So thank you for sharing that. Often, those very tactical, practical bits of advice are the ones that our students really remember years later.

Before we end, Dave, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everybody on this podcast. Are you ready for that?

David Dodson: Bring it on.

Matt Abrahams: If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

David Dodson: It would be something that I learned from Peggy Noonan, who was Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter. She said, “People talk about Ronald Reagan as having a great style for speaking.” But what she says is the most important thing is content and have something to say. Worry less about style and more about making sure that you have content, something that’s interesting, something that’s useful to the listener.

Matt Abrahams: So you’re flipping on the head the advice that we often hear — style over substance. You’re saying substance over style. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

David Dodson: The communicator that I’ve learned the most from is one of our colleagues at Stanford, Irv Grousbeck. He’s very economical with his words. Every sentence matters. And he’s got this affect about him that makes you know that you matter to him. And that sort of clear, simple, you matter-to-me style is something that I’ve tried to model myself after.

Matt Abrahams: Irv is wonderful. And his students say something very similar. So the ability to connect, the ability to focus, really important in the way he communicates. Question number three: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

David Dodson: The first one is you want to be very well prepared. The second is to think about what matters to them. We have a tendency to think about what matters to us. So you have to imagine yourself as the listener, as the other person, the recipient of the information. The next is when you begin your communication, you have to connect with them. You have to give them some reason to trust you. And the last is to make sure that they feel like they’re having a unique experience, that you’re not just giving them the same information that you gave somebody else. So I know I cheated, Matt, and I gave four there.

Matt Abrahams: So we’ve heard before the idea of preparation being audience-centric, making sure it’s relevant. I’d like for you to expand a little bit, Dave, if you don’t mind, on what can we do to make it unique because that’s a very special thing, that notion of immediacy and intimacy that you’re talking about. What have you found helps make it feel like you’re uniquely connecting with someone?

David Dodson: Well, Matt, let me use an example from our podcast. So we talked about the importance of role play. Well, to make that a unique experience, I referenced something that happened yesterday, a conversation that I had with a CEO yesterday. So your listeners know that they’re having a conversation with me that they’ve never had with anybody else.

Matt Abrahams: Bringing in the real world and what’s happening immediately or recently can really help people feel as if the conversation is unique and special and not just a formula. Dave, this has been fantastic. You have given us so much input and practical advice that we can deploy, not only as leaders but also as employees in organizations. The notion of preparation, the idea that we can be more efficient in our use of our time, and to really think through how we give feedback can help us all be more successful. Thank you.

David Dodson: Thank you, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Riley, and me, Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit GSB.Stanford.edu, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media at stanford.gsb.

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