The Fun and Fright of a 360 Evaluation

by Dr. Nathan Baxter, Executive Leadership Coach


I still remember the day when I received the results of my 360 leadership performance evaluation. I seriously wanted to either quit or beat the stuffing out of someone. The shock and horror of reading how misguided everyone on staff was about my leadership abilities was appalling. Their suggestions on how I could improve as a leader were completely out of line. I loved how they tried to disguise their comments so that I would not be able to figure out who they were. But I saw right through that, of course. I had detailed notes in my mind over the years and quickly identified who they were.

After my wife talked me off the ledge in my mind, I took a second read. I tried to learn what was really being said about me. I called my boss to let him know that I needed a few days to process the information.

You can probably gather by now that I had a few rough edges in my leadership. To be specific, the way I treated people needed to change. I was in complete denial. Although it was humbling, it was one of the best exercises that I had experienced in my career.

Finding the blind spots.

Looking back fifteen years later, I can say that because of the 360 evaluation, I was spared from the negative consequences of my blind spots. You probably have a milder case than I had, but, nonetheless, you have blind spots too. 

Since that time, I have had the privilege of coaching many leaders through the 360 performance feedback process. I have now become convinced that a leader will never live up to their potential without consistent and honest evaluation about their performance.

As a general rule, most companies do not do well in providing honest and helpful feedback on a regular basis. Usually, leaders receive feedback in ways that are hurtful—and many times too late. There is a reason why the phrase “we shoot our wounded” is embedded in many organizations.

There is a better way.

Although the 360 is not the only way to provide good feedback to leaders who are willing to grow, companies should begin to work to make evaluation commonplace if we want to improve their ability to develop leaders.

What is a 360 performance evaluation? Technically speaking, it is an exercise where a leader receives anonymous feedback from those who work around them. This would include those in positions above, beside, and below. The process starts with each person, including the subject, answering a series of questions related to the various aspects of a leader’s primary responsibilities.  The results are then put into a usable format. A professional coach then helps the leader interpret the results and develop a growth plan. This method of feedback is in contrast with the traditional, one-way feedback provided from supervisor to direct report.

For executives, I usually recommend to include 8-15 participants.  The people who participate need to be familiar with the leader’s work. Also, I group the participants into four categories so that we can net out various results, based on their frequency of contact. This helps us properly weigh the results.

If you decide to explore the use of the 360 performance evaluation, keep in mind the following suggestions. They will help you balance out the fun with the fright of the process:

1. Start with yourself.

Owners/CEOs are notorious for talking about leadership development but rarely participating in it themselves. When asked about their own development, they usually mention the latest book they have read or conference they have attended. One should model the 360 evaluation before asking others to adopt this form of feedback. First, because you probably have a few areas that need attention. Second, because you will be a great source of encouragement to those that follow—and you will be able to understand their struggle.

2. Develop a leadership development culture.

Do not use this tool if you have a culture of fear and lack unity. Unfortunately, I have had some companies use this exercise as a means to a dishonest end. Work hard to let your leaders know that you are serious about helping them move towards their potential. Explain that this is simply a tool to help in that process.

3. Use a professional leadership coach.

If not performed correctly, you will have a negative experience and will likely refuse to consider the process in the future.  Leaders need to be shown respect along with being told the truth about how they can improve.  Also, a professional leadership coach has access to the best assessment tools that secure objective and usable data.

4. Be sure to schedule a 720.

If a leader is worth their salt, they will respond (eventually) to the results and will work to improve. They will want to know how they are doing. I usually create a 6-9 month growth plan and then re-test, comparing the results. This is rewarding to the leader to see the tangible results of their hard work.

5. No need to 360 everyone.

This process works best with key leaders. Take a look at your linchpin leaders (those who are most critical to the company’s success) and invest in them. With the rest, you can use the traditional method of feedback or create your own internal version of a 360.

We spend a great deal of conversation, time and money on leadership development but I ask, “are we really spending time on developing leaders or are we just focusing on the concept of developing leaders?” The 360 tool is a proven method of helping leaders who are willing to do the work to get better. The mission of your company is worth it and you need leaders to consistently improve their effectiveness. Let’s give them the tools they need.



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