As you rise up the ranks and settle into your executive career, you begin to notice that something’s missing: direct, structured feedback on your performance.
Now that you’re at or near the top of the organization, it’s likely that no one’s giving you direct performance feedback any more. Well, at least not officially, anyway, since your boss likely travels, probably skips one on one meetings frequently, and, if they’re like most top executives, rarely does a written review. You can always ask for feedback from your boss or peers, if you’re curious, but often that portrays a lack of confidence at the executive level.
So how can you know how you’re performing as an executive, when you’re not getting the same level of feedback as you did earlier in your career?
At the executive level, performance feedback typically shifts away from a top-down, more formal process that’s applied to more junior colleagues. Instead, executives rely on subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues from other executives to glean how their internal reputation stands on any given day.
Within executive teams, a few patterns repeat across all organizations. One thing struck me about these teams. Always, there’s a core team of executives – the inner circle – and that inner circle rarely changed over time. The group stuck together, relied heavily on each other, and although they ribbed each other aggressively, they appreciated each others’ performance contributions.
Around that tight-knit inner circle, however, revolved an outer ring, a cast of leaders who came and went, or who were favored or not depending on their performance and alliance with others. Others often know far in advance that one of these outer ring executive’s performance fell below expectations. Yet, that executive often had no idea that others were concerned, or worse, conspiring to remove him or her.
Instead of waiting for a review that may never materialize, here are some ways to know how you’re performing as an executive:
- You’re in the inner circle. This is one of those “if you have to ask, you’re not there at the moment” kinds of categories. You know already if you’re the right hand person to the CEO, or on the short list of the top 5 people he or she consults. If you’re not, that doesn’t mean you’re performing poorly; it just means you need to look for other clues to your performance. Also, make sure to align yourself with people who are definitely inside that inner circle, and you’ll have an enhanced perception of your performance.
- You’re invited into key conversations regularly. If you’re a valued executive, you’ll be included in early rounds of conversations about a wide variety of topics. You’ll be one of the first to know about key developments, strategic plans, or organizational decision points. In fact, people will stop conversations mid-stream to call you, or hold off on having a full conversation until you’re part of it. Conversely, if there’s a hot topic that even remotely touches your area of expertise and you hear about it way after the fact, trouble might be brewing for you professionally.
- You get “glad you’re on the team” kind of comments. You may get these accolades by email, instant message, or an office fly-by from a peer. Although they’re welcome, these brief comments may serve as your entire review for the year, in some situations! If someone’s going out of their way to say this to you, you’re likely doing great work. If you’re on the outs, you won’t get that kind of praise, so soak it up if it comes in your direction.
- You’re regularly expanding your responsibilities and contributing to new developments. At the executive level, there’s no “set it and forget it” happening when it comes to your job. You drive new projects, systems, and innovations, which continuously shift what you’ve got on your plate professionally. That doesn’t mean your title or your direct reports need to change regularly, but your actual role should constantly adjust to marketplace changes. If you find yourself being told “that’s not your role” or “stay in your sandbox,” that might be a sign that another executive is too territorial – or it might be a sign that you aren’t managing your current responsibilities as well as they’d expect.
- Your bonus (or other stock/financial award) tells you what you need to know. When it’s bonus time you absolutely get insight into how your boss (or the board) or your team thinks you’re doing. An above-average (or above-OTE) bonus means either that the company’s going gangbusters, or you exceeded expectations, or both. If a company gives you a below-expected bonus, and the company’s doing well financially and not reserving cash for a major strategic move, it’s a sign that someone may not be pleased with your work.
- Your group’s hitting (or exceeding) its goals. You know that the executive suite loves data. Instead of looking to others for feedback, look to the data points: your KPIs and growth measures. Barring serious personality issues with others on the team, your performance against these data points also speaks for itself.
Still not sure? Look for interpersonal and cultural clues
When it comes to your own role, you’ll want to watch for subtle interpersonal clues about your own performance. You may realize that your boss drops in to chat regularly (a good sign), or copies other executives on emails calling you out on something (obviously a clear signal all’s not well).
As an executive and people leader, your role requires you to read between the lines and interpret nuances of interpersonal relationships, and the same holds true within your executive peer group. Your feedback, instead of being a documented exercise, now consists of hundreds of smaller clues throughout your week.
The good news? You don’t have to wait until your annual review to learn how you’re doing.