May 25, 2022

The elephant in the startup. Why are we not talking about CEO confidence internally?

Let me paint a picture for you. You’re working for a startup. In the time you’ve been employed there, you’ve received no feedback, good or bad. You have literally no understanding of whether your performance is up to scratch, whether people think you’re doing a good job or not or even whether people respect you. Far from ideal, right?

Now, picture this - you’re the CEO. Possibly even the Founder of the aforementioned startup. The entire company turns to you for leadership, direction and vision. The success of the company falls (to an extent) on your shoulders - and you’re responsible for giving your investors an accurate picture of your businesses growth potential and foreseeing any challenges ahead. And yet… you still have little to no idea as to whether people have confidence in you or not … Sounds pretty hellish, doesn’t it? 

Now allow us to take you on one final flight of fantasy - imagine that the minute one of your colleagues, peers or team members leaves, you get a public review written of you and your capabilities on Glassdoor. And you’re likely learning about this person’s opinion of you for the first time, perhaps without a lot of context and it’s too late to change anything. Sounds like a medievil torture device, am I right?! 

But it does raise some interesting and important questions - If CEO confidence is one of the first questions that Glassdoor asks when you’re writing a review of a company, why are we not discussing or measuring it internally? If people turn to the CEO for leadership, direction and vision, what happens if there is no confidence in that CEO? And, if you’re in that position - wouldn’t it be useful to learn about what you could have been doing better before people leave? 

Now of course, we’re generalising a bit here. But for a good reason! Whilst there are indeed some CEO’s who do a great job of inviting feedback on their performance, based on our experience at Unleashed, we know that most CEO’s (and leaders, for that matter) would prefer to receive more feedback. What’s more, even in companies that have some brilliant feedback practises - 360s, engagement surveys, pulse surveys, it seems that the one question we’re not asking is… 

As a team and a company, do we have confidence in the CEO? It’s the elephant in the startup. 

We asked a friend of Unleashed who previously worked with a CEO that they (and apparently, a substantial proportion of the team) didn’t have confidence in to share their perspective (anonymously) on the impact of that a lack of faith had:

“The impact initially was an internal lingering lack of motivation, and confusion as to whether I was the only one that felt the same, as nothing was seemingly being done about it at an exec/board level despite how obvious it seemed. Over time, people started to share their own experiences with me, and I quickly realised that this was an underground, incredibly toxic part of our culture. These conversations were happening behind closed doors: on WhatsApp, in the kitchen, on Donut calls, sometimes 1:1, sometimes in groups. It was the unwritten rule of our onboarding process: at some point in their first 6 months they will realise the extent of the issues with our CEO, but hopefully they'll decide to stick it out anyway.”

Luckily, this sort of widespread cultural impact is avoidable. But it means asking for the feedback and, more importantly, creating safety for people to give it. 

In case that quote didn’t completely convince you, here’s why you should be inviting (more) feedback as a CEO. 

  1. It’s a pretty lonely job. There’s (usually) no-one else in the business that does the same thing, which can be deeply isolating. In addition, there’s not necessarily a blueprint as to what great, high performance as a CEO looks like, which is all pretty anxiety inducing, especially given a lot of startup founders are first time CEOs. No-one said it wasn’t a tough gig, so do yourself a favour and ask for feedback, if anything for reassurance that you’re doing some things right. 
  2. Simply put, Feedback = information that gives you an alternative perspective. Self-reflection is key - but to unlock real growth, you also need input from people who might experience or be impacted by your behaviour differently. If you’re not asking others what they and what the business needs from you, you’re only getting half the story. Go on - make your life easier ;) 
  3. You’re only human! Feedback from your team is not only going to help you uncover your blind spots, it’ll also give you an insight into your unique strengths and help you hire a stellar team around your weaknesses. Win win.

So what’s stopping you? 

We bet that you’re reading this thinking that seeking more feedback sounds like a no brainer, right? In theory, yes, but in the spirit of acknowledging elephants in rooms - it’s really important to mention that there are a number of barriers to getting good, honest feedback as a CEO. These barriers are far from insurmountable - but they’re important to recognise, so in this section, we’ll be exploring some of them. 

The first barrier worth surfacing is an internal one - our ego. The term ego can often feel quite loaded, but we’re using it neutrally here - ego is just another way of referring to our self-esteem or sense of worth. Our ego acts a bit like a psychological defence mechanism - so when we invite feedback, this defence system is on high alert to shield us from comments that may challenge our self-perception. This is a barrier that is far from unique to CEO’s - but it’s worth mentioning here for a couple of reasons - firstly, that it’s common as a CEO for your worth to feel very tied up in your work (this account is one that might feel familiar to many). Secondly - the ego barrier can feel significantly higher if you’re the one that your team and your investors look to to guide key strategic decisions. The sense that ‘I should know what I’m doing’ can be so strong that it can stop you from seeking valuable feedback that would actually improve your confidence and help highlight areas of development. 

There can also be external or structural factors that make seeking feedback difficult. We’re going to focus on two barriers in particular - levels of psychological safety and power dynamics (they’re linked!). Psychological safety is defined by scholar Amy Edmunson as ‘a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’ - i.e. the ability to speak up and share your authentic opinions and original ideas without fear that you’ll be shut down or ridiculed; feeling like you have permission to take risks; being able to be human and vulnerable. (Side note: we’ve written more about psychological safety here if you’re curious.)

If you think about it - the components of psychological safety outlined above are all prerequisites to being able to give useful feedback - so if the environment doesn’t feel safe, getting good feedback is going to be much, much harder, especially if you’re the CEO. Why? Well to put it simply,  giving feedback to someone who has the power to make decisions about whether you get promoted or even more fundamentally, whether you stay at the company is much more of a social risk than giving feedback to a peer. In an unsafe culture, fear of negative consequences or being treated differently as a result of sharing honest feedback will be very real for your team. It’s important to remember that whilst the levels of psychological safety within your team will vary depending on your working practices and your culture, there will always be an inherent and unignorable power differential due to the nature of the employment relationship. 

We mentioned at the top of this section that these barriers are far from insurmountable - so in classic Unleashed style, we’re going to explain how to move through them and start inviting feedback from your team. After all, it wouldn’t be ‘content’ in our eyes unless we packed it with some seriously useful stuff that you can actually implement!

Here are our top tips for seeking feedback: 

  1. Start off slow. Asking for feedback as the CEO might be a big leap, so start off slow by inviting feedback within your regular anonymous engagement survey. But don’t just slip the new questions in with no communication. As with all People + Culture initiatives, intention and context is key. Make sure people understand WHY you’re adding these questions and what you plan to do with the results. 

Here are some potential survey questions you could use:

  1. Do you have faith in our CEO’s leadership?
  2. Do you feel trusted by our CEO?
  3. Would you feel comfortable saying hello to our CEO?
  4. Would you feel comfortable giving feedback to our CEO?
  5. How satisfied have you felt with our CEO’s level of support and presence over the last X months?
  1. Look for ‘micro-feedback’ opportunities. It is always, always easier to ask for specific feedback than it is to pose a broad question like ‘so how am I doing?’ Look for opportunities to get real-time feedback on specific things, e.g. ‘is there anything you’d like to see me do differently at our next all hands to make my communication clearer?’ You can also limit your ask to one thing - e.g. ‘what’s one thing I could do better at our next all hands?’ Making your feedback ask micro reduces overwhelm and enables you to get feedback on the stuff that you really care about. 
  1. Share your intention. If your ask for feedback comes out to the blue, then you’re less likely to get something that is both honest and specific. Try sharing a bit more about why getting feedback is important to you - and don’t be afraid to be a bit vulnerable here e.g. ‘I don’t think I did the best job of explaining our new OKR’s to the team at our last all hands. If you were me, what would you have done differently?’. Another way to ask for feedback with intention is by seeking it out from others who’s skills you admire and who’s perspective you’d genuinely value, e.g. ‘I’m looking to improve how I communicate with the team at all hands - I’ve noticed that when you’ve hosted, you come across really well - would you mind sharing a bit about how you prepare and what helps you feel confident with presenting?’
  1. Anonymous 360 Feedback Loops. We’re not sure how it happened, but seemingly when the world started doing peer to peer 360 feedback, this somehow didn’t extend to the CEO. But it’s a fantastic route to asking direct questions and getting constructive answers. 

Top Tip No.1 - ensuring the anonymity of each team member is key. Even if you have a super close relationship with your team, there’s still a tricky power dynamic. So don’t pretend there isn’t. Ensuring anonymity will ensure each person feels comfortable sharing with you, including the things that perhaps they’ve been too nervous to share to date. 

Top Tip No.2 - Follow through is as important as asking the questions in the first place. If people share feedback with you but never hear another word about it, they’re going to assume that 1) you didn’t take it seriously and 2) that there’s zero accountability for growth and change at leadership level, but of which will greatly impact how people trust and have faith in you and their willingness to give feedback in the future. 

Here are some anonymous feedback questions you could ask:

  1. What do you like about my leadership style?
  2. What do you think are my biggest areas of development in the CEO role?
  3. What is one thing I could do to better support you to excel in your role?
  4. What have I done recently, as CEO, that motivated/inspired you to do your best work?
  5. What have I done recently that demotivated or blocked you from doing your best work?
  6. What is my most unique strength (knowledge/ or skill related) that you’ve noticed in me as CEO? What impact has this had on you or your team? 
  7. As CEO, do you feel that I consistently demonstrate our Company Values?
  8. Thinking about my role at CEO, my strengths, and our company's goals, what one thing do you think I should focus on most in the next few months?
  1. Skip Level 1:1s. Now, these might be something that you start doing after step 1 + 2. Think of those as your opening act - you’re building trust, psychological safety, and showing people the value of feeding back to you. Following that, skip level 1:1s are a great option. Not only will you be able to ask some specific questions for feedback, you’ll also stay on the pulse of how engaged people are, where there are challenges or blockers, you’ll build trust with more junior members of the team AND you’ll show personal appreciation for the value and work that each individuals bring to the team. Top Tip - Once again, communication is key - both to your team members and your managers. Nothing is scarier than seeing an unexplained, undiscussed meeting in your diary with the CEO (even the most secure and confident employee will fear the worst!) and for you managers, making sure they understand why you’re doing this (ie - to gain feedback for yourself, not to spy on how they are really doing as managers)
  1. Don’t do it alone. Get yourself a leadership coach to help you process and work through any feedback you receive - positive or constructive. As John Donne said, No CEO is an Island.

So there we have it - our no-bullshit guide to seeking feedback from your team!

Written by Unleashed People + Culture Partner, Michaela Bartlam.

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