The annual review is a time-honored tradition at most companies. In some companies, the review is a pencil-whipped standardized form with everyone getting the same above-average marks. In better companies, the review is a thoughtful assessment of skills, abilities and goals that chart a future path to success.

In the best companies, however, the review isn't just top-down. In companies serious about excellence, employees are also asked for feedback on their managers — and the managers listen. Just like other reviews, leadership assessments vary in their usefulness. Here are the components needed for a leadership assessment to be successful.

  • A culture of receptivity

    The key to any leadership assessment is to never ask questions you aren't prepared to hear answers to. If there is fear of executive response to negative feedback, then you will get qualified answers that dance around edges of the problems. People will avoid being forthright with information and suggestions if they have fear of retribution. This can lead to glowing reviews and assessments. Everyone is fooled into thinking how good the company is when that may be far from the truth.

    How have your leaders accepted constructive criticism in the past? Do they shoot the messenger? Do they have dozens of reasons why that information is untrue and become defensive? If this environment remotely represents your organizational culture, do not do an assessment. It will only create greater distrust, may cause more turf wars and will not have the desired effect.

    Have you ever received unwanted feedback from someone you didn't particularly respect? Most often that type of feedback is ignored or met with a lack of openness at best. This situation is no different. Unless leadership desires this type of feedback information and has a culture where people feel free to share criticism, this is a dangerous road to embark upon.

  • Areas to cover

    If you do have the proper situation for this type of assessment, congratulations! The types of questions you want to ask need to cover all aspects of leadership. They should explore how to motivate, delegate, respond to criticism, handle big hairy mistakes and interact with those they work for, work beside and lead.

  • Format of questions

    There are at least three ways to ask a question.

    1. “What are the best things your manager does in a pressure situation?” (Positive)

    2. “When in a pressure situation, how does your manager respond?” (Neutral)

    3. “How would you change the way your manager handles a pressure situation?” (Negative)

    Beware of some professional surveyors. They know how to load a question to get a negative response, and they usually will have an over-abundance of these types of questions. Why? Bad reviews almost guarantee these professionals work within the year resurveying after the company makes internal changes.

    In-house surveys, conversely, tend to take on a positive approach, so as not to get too gritty in the negatives. This can be just as damaging as the negative approach.

    I recommend a proper mix of all three question formats. Certain questions worded negatively can alert the assessor to hidden problems. Positively worded questions can keep the general nature of the questions in the constructive vein, so it doesn't look like you are on a witch hunt. Neutral questions will also give the opportunity for any type of feedback, positive or negative. It's all in the mix and knowing what to ask and how to ask it.

  • Format of assessment

    I choose to use both structured response and short answer by interview. The structured response provides a general assembly of data. The respondent is asked to respond with such words as seldom, always, or never. I then assign a number to each response to facilitate tabulation of the data, but I don't like to ask people to rank anything on a scale of one to five or one to 10. On a scale of whatever-to-whatever is so subjective that one person's five may be the same as another person's seven. Never ask more questions than the participant or the person who will have to review and compile the data can bear. I've seen some questionnaires with 193 questions! Be more concerned with getting the right information than in getting all of the information.

  • Action steps as a result of feedback

    The true test of a leadership assessment is what happens as a result of it. A nice booklet with well-constructed information and orderly, formatted suggestions that sits on a shelf will do no one any good other than the professional who was paid to conduct the assessment.

In any assessment I've ever done, I've insisted on resulting action steps based on the feedback, and a follow-up review meeting three months later to see if the leadership is accountable to their commitment in the action steps. Without this step, behaviors don't get modified because of the daily demands and human nature's ease with falling back into old routines.

Every leader assessed should create a list of action items they commit to with as much sincerity as their annual goals. In fact, tying compensation to the completion of the action steps is one form of accountability that does work.

Be sure you are conducting an assessment for the information to be used for personal growth and improvement, not for the opportunity to say, “We did a leadership assessment.” Your employees will be watching and expect to see their feedback put to use.


Russell J. White, The BIG Guy, is an informational speaker with a humorous style. He's also an author, consultant and entrepreneur. For more information, visit www.thinkBIGguy.com or call (877) 275-9468. E-mail: mail@thinkBIGguy.com.