ATD Blog

What We Can Gain From a 360 Leadership Assessment

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It is important to realize that the higher one rises in a company, the less honest feedback one receives. When I read this in Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, I recognized the truth in it.

We don’t want our people to just tell us what they think we want to hear or to filter information. It is what happens, though, and it limits our effectiveness. But how can we turn this around and maximize our proficiency?

There may be no better approach to improving our business leadership and organizational culture and spirit than a 360° leadership assessment for senior executives. Done well, a 360 can have an amazing transformative effect on executives as leaders, on their teams, and on their companies as a whole.

What does a good 360 look like?

The assessment is referred to as a 360 because it involves gaining the perception of a person’s leadership strengths and areas of potential improvement from a circle of eight to 10 colleagues, specifically those who report to the executive, several peers within the company, the person’s boss, and maybe even the boss’s boss. For example, in the case of a CEO, it could be feedback from the Board chair.

It is important to know that the results of a 360 assessment belong only to the executive. A copy is not given to or discussed with anyone else. As a result, it cannot be used in determining promotions or compensation.

First, let me say that not all 360 assessments are created equal. Some seem to be non-events—for several reasons. Perhaps the assessment is not done well; perhaps it is not done by an experienced coach facilitator.

Another reason may be that the assessment is conducted with the executive, and that’s the end of it. The executive learns the perceptions that colleagues have of her strengths and areas of potential improvement, and the experience ends there. There is no follow-up or ongoing coaching.

A third reason a 360 may not result in improvement is that the executive may not be ready for it. Certainly, the discovered areas for improvement often involve deeply ingrained habits that are hard to change. So a leader has to really want candid perceptions of her leadership competencies, and she must be open and receptive to the experience—appreciating that this specific knowledge will help her to strive to be her best and help her team succeed.  

In order for the executive to welcome this feedback from colleagues, she has to have or develop humility coupled with inner-confidence.She must have the humility to accept that while she may be good at what she does, there is always room for improvement. And she must have the inner-confidence to accept constructive feedback from others.

It takes work, I know. Believe me, I have been through it myself. As a leadership coach, I have been trained to help people change ingrained habits, and I have worked with many executives to change long-standing behaviors. Time and time again, I have seen that when an executive is welcoming, accepting, and appreciative of constructive feedback from others, she gains the respect of her team members.

Bottom line: poorly done assessments or assessments that are not acted on are a lost opportunity.


What’s the procedure for a 360?

The 360 begins when the executive selects her colleagues—the people who know her work and leadership style well. She then explains that this will be a unique personal development opportunity and asks that they be thoughtful and honest, explaining that this will be most helpful to her as she strives to be her best.

The assessment is anonymous; questions are either answered online or during a meeting with a coach. The questions involve perceptions of important leadership competencies, such as:  

  • executive’s strengths
  • areas of improvement
  • communications
  • inclusiveness
  • ability to deal with problems
  • composure under pressure
  • listening skills
  • offering helpful feedback
  • readiness to ask for input, ideas, and advice
  • effectiveness in motivating others..

The questions can be tailored to be specifically helpful to the executive. I am all for the executive helping to craft the questions.
If a leadership coach has administered the assessment, he will be the one to collect the answers. When the answers from everyone are collected, the coach prepares a summary report outlining the general themes of what was shared, as well as any specific advice that has been offered. The summary does not include who said what; that is not necessary.

The importance of this anonymity is discussed with the executive upfront; that all she needs to know are the perceptions. If, in fact, she gets angry, defensive, or wants to know who said what (which rarely happens), the 360 will have been a waste of time for all involved. It is important, therefore, to make sure the executive is ready.

Yes, it takes strength to accept honest perceptions. It does help to know that colleagues admire executives who allow themselves to be vulnerable and welcome learning the perceptions of others in order to improve. This honesty and aspiration for excellence often has a wonderful cascading effect throughout the company. This is where leadership truly shines a light on what excellence looks like.

When the executive receives the summary report, there are usually no surprises. Sometimes, there are blind spots. We all have them. It is so powerful, though, to receive that summary document.

For example, maybe you know deep down that you are not a great listener, that you are thinking ahead while someone is talking, or that you often have your mind partially on your to do list. Yet when you see in writing that your team members say they wish you were fully focused on what they have to say, and maybe that they feel you are not interested in their ideas, it can be a jolt, a needed jolt, to want to become a better listener.

Let’s remember, the path to success is striving for continuous improvement.


What are the benefits of a 360?

One great benefit, then, of doing a 360 leadership assessment (if it is done well) is the learning. A second benefit is the respect gained from colleagues when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable by accepting the opinions of others, even anonymously.

A strong leader may share her learning with others and ask for their help. For example, someone might share that she learned that people do not think she is fully focused when listening, and she is trying to improve in this area, so she says to her team, “Please let me know when you feel that I am not giving my full attention. I want to know and will be appreciative.”

A third and very important benefit for the executive doing the 360 is the opportunity for critical conversations down the road. When an executive has shared that she is striving to improve, and that she values helpful feedback, this opens the door to trust and cooperation.

Many times, months after I’ve done a 360 with someone who had openly acknowledged to her team that she is benefiting from the constructive feedback, I’ve seen that same person sit down with someone on her team and say, “Now it’s my turn to be helpful to you. Let’s talk about something that will help you improve.”

It works, it really does. This is the fourth benefit of a 360, which is very significant. When an executive works on the results of her 360 assessment, the effect is contagious. The fact that she is striving for continuous improvement is inspiring—and isn’t that what we all should be doing, individually and as a team?

I have been privileged to work with Billy Casper Golf, the leader in the field of golf course management. It is a large successful company, about 6,500 team members in season, with amazing teamwork. It is a team that is quick to offer colleagues constructive feedback, a team that genuinely cares about and wants to help one another.

I do not think it is coincidental that the top 30 leaders have all asked for and received 360 leadership assessments in the past three years. These leaders know they can always improve and they have shown how to strive to be their best.

Even when just one executive in a company demonstrates leadership by being willing and eager to learn how she is perceived and how she can improve, this can have a major impact—not only on her own leadership, but also on the spirit and performance of her team members.

 I do not know of a more powerful opportunity for a leader to effect positive change within her company. I encourage you to give this serious thought. Ask for a 360 assessment. You and your company will benefit from this investment in you and in your leadership for many years to come.

About the Author

John Keyser is the founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership. He works with executives, helping them to develop organizational cultures that will produce outstanding financial results year after year, as well as ongoing employee and organizational improvement; [email protected].

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Very informative and inspiring reading indeed.
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Very useful thoughts and very interesting experience John.
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