Open and Honest Feedback

ALL I WANTED WAS A COMPANY THAT WOULD FERTILIZE MY LAWN FOUR TIMES A YEAR. Is that too much to ask? Instead, my lawn service hassled me every week with phone offers including: “We noticed you have caterpillars infesting several trees in your front yard. For only…” Or this one: “You have grub worms that could take out large swaths of your grass if we don't treat them right away. Or, yet again: “Did you know you have a sickly tree that needs nutrients to survive if we have a hot summer?” I came to the conclusion that while their stated goal was service, they were actually a non-stop marketing company.

A year after these dire predictions, my trees and my grass are doing fine, not so with the lawn service company as I terminated my service agreement. But it wasn't done with me yet. I received a letter from the company's vice president asking me to contact him. He wanted open and honest feedback, so that he could better understand why I cancelled the service. I was more than happy to oblige, but for some reason, he wouldn't accept my call. Instead, he sicked his general manager on me. I'm not the type to hold a grudge, and I'm not one to name names, but the company in question starts with Chem and ends with Lawn.

I tend to get a little squeamish when management calls for open and honest feedback. I get this unsettling feeling that “open and honest” will somehow get me in trouble. We live in a touchy-feely world, but too much touchy has me crawling back in my shell.

Recently, I was talking with an engineer at a sizeable investor-owned utility. It seems his management made a wholesale changeout at the executive level. Two or three executives were let go, while newly promoted replacements were charged with restructuring the organization and relocating departments. Engineers on the receiving end of this news decided not to wait until the new organizations were announced; instead, they started talking with their feet. After more than one-fourth of the technical talent left, management arranged a series of town hall meetings to clear the air and to gather open and honest feedback.

TOMB SILENCE

The newly minted executives kicked off the meetings by chatting up one another. Then they shared a few insights on the direction of the business unit and opened the floor to questions. Pure silence. After an uncomfortable period of time, the executives interjected with more light banter. Then another request for feedback. Tomb silence so severe you could taste it. An embarrassing silence. No one was willing to break the ice. I expect the ice was too thick. It was certainly frosty in the room.

Maybe a few in the audience already had their concerns addressed. Others might have doubted that their feedback was actually desired. One or two might have feared that their open and honest comments might come back to bite them. A few might have thought the executives had already made their decisions and were just putting salve on the wound. Others might have thought the executives had worked themselves between a rock and a hard place and were looking for a face-saving way out. One attendee stated afterward, “They can't handle the truth.” Regardless, these executives did not obtain the feedback they had requested.

I have another engineering buddy who is suffering in yet another utility shakeup. So far, he has not been asked for his opinions. But he is not waiting to see whether his thoughts will be solicited. He is polishing up his resume and working his contact lists. Maybe things will somehow work out where he is. He works for a utility that has been quite sensible (if stodgy) for many years. I'm not sure why the shakeup. Maybe they have a new CEO. Maybe they will have a new CEO if changes aren't made.

My all-time favorite executive was Russ Weaver. He was vice president of power delivery with Georgia Power back when I was there. Weaver was easy to read. He put it this way: Catch the vision or catch the bus. He never forced us to do anything. If we didn't want to do it, the door was always open. We all knew where we stood. I don't recall him ever calling a meeting. In fact, he sent out a memo stating he wanted fewer meetings and fewer people in existing meetings. Down at Oncor, Rob Trimble is so darn similar it's almost scary. Trimble says what he's thinking. This is one refreshing COO, and people respect him for that. They even forget he is an executive.

So, where am I going with this? I can't imagine why any company should ever have to request open and honest feedback. Feedback should be a way of life that flows in both directions. Once feedback is reduced to a scheduled event, it is likely too late anyway.

If you see one of those touchy-feely (might I say insincere?) executives approaching you with that “I feel your pain” look, head to the nearest door. Fight off the urge to share your thoughts and feelings. What you say just might be used against you. Honest.

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