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Want Honest Advice? An Astronaut Taught Me the 3-Step Feedback Rule (and It’s the Only One That Works)

It’s about creating a culture where the best ideas and diverging opinions surface.

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BY Alexa von Tobel - 12 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

As a leader, I think it's really important to constantly surround yourself with good honest feedback from trusted people smarter than you. That's because, as I've said before, I'm always growing and learning and trying to be better.

I couldn't do that in a vacuum. I need a living, breathing, tough-love feedback loop to keep my leadership -- and my work -- thriving.

I once heard the astronaut Mark Kelly tell the most impactful story about sourcing information I've ever heard. He and I were at a conference where we were both speaking. Mark, as you know, is married to Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in 2011.

Mark is someone I truly look up to -- I've always been awestruck by astronauts, having grown up with a dad who was in love with space and the stars.

As an astronaut, Mark recalled, you undergo severe training for stress and anxiety, so that you're prepared for whatever could possibly go wrong. In space, plenty can go wrong.

But the big crisis took place on Earth. His new wife had been shot, and at the hospital he had to help choose between two different treatments. One of the things he remembered under this extreme life stress was that it was important to make sure everyone in the room gave him their opinions.

As he said in his story, he started with the most junior person and asked, "What do you think we should do?"

He knew if he started with the most senior person, it would color everyone else's decision.

What Mark knew -- and what I've come to realize, too -- is that hierarchy impacts thinking.

As Northwestern Mutual continues its exciting journey through our integration and transformation, and as I take on my role as Chief Digital Officer, I think a lot about feedback loops from deep within organizations. So here are the 3 steps I always take:

1. I check my blind spots.

I start with my chief of staff, Kisti, and ask her regularly, "Hey, am I missing something? Do I have a blind spot on this?" I do this all the time -- because I deeply respect her opinion, and because she knows me well. Sure, I'd love to be right every time. But I'm not. (Again, I always like to hire people smarter than me!).

2. I invite feedback -- from everyone.

You have to be proactive about asking people to tell you the truth. One of the things I've been doing, which is not new for any good leader, is holding skip-level meetings. That's where you meet with people across the organization in different functions and invite them to tell you what's going well and what could be better. The trick is to go beyond your own line of command, and talk to people who are really getting the work done.

3. I take the good, but really want to hear the bad.

I don't hold these meetings to hear that everything is great and that we should keep up the good work. Sure, I hear about successes, but active debates surface, too. So do conflicts. And I can cast light on them by explaining why company decisions have been made. It creates organizational trust and transparency, and builds voices.

During these meetings, I think of my friend Mark Kelly, who reminded me how important it is to develop these feedback-seeking muscles. I couldn't make my best decisions without them.

How do you source feedback within your organization? For me, this column is a valuable feedback loop, too, and I'd love to hear from you.