Feedback is an investment, not a gift.


How leaders think about feedback matters a lot. I would like to propose a simple change to a common mindset. While I liked the “feedback is a gift” metaphor back in the day, I now much prefer, “Feedback is an Investment.” Let me tell you why and see if you concur.

For a long while, I have heard leaders talk about feedback being a gift. I liked the idea, and teaching people to receive feedback with grace flowed easily. “Sometimes,” I would say, “feedback is wrapped like a Tiffany box and sometimes it’s wrapped in newspaper. Either way, say thank you.” That worked. It reminded people to make the giving of the feedback a positive experience for the giver. It also made the giver feel generous.

That turn of phrase served us well, but it doesn’t get us far enough.

Why “Feedback Is an Investment” Is Better: No Perfect Deals, No Perfect People

One of the best things about working with very smart people is seeing how they think. An engagement with private equity (PE) professionals a few years back got me thinking differently about feedback, and that shift started with one comment: “Just like there are no perfect people,” a general partner told me, “there are no perfect deals.”

In collecting feedback for PE professionals, it became clear that part of making the leap from Vice President to General Partner was developing and demonstrating an investor mindset, balancing risk and reward, with a skillful drive toward the latter. Vice Presidents were often charged with the due diligence phase. What could possibly go wrong in the deal? General Partners had developed capacity to see risk and reward. They could advocate for a deal as well as argue against one. They were tenacious about figuring out how to drive through problems in a deal to get to the upside. They could engage portfolio executives with savvy and humility. Even if they knew the answer, they learned to selectively comment and pick their battles.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I came to understand that a skillful investor mindset is about seeing what’s wrong and what’s strong, overcoming challenges or problems to get the potential returns, and respecting the executives doing the work.

This strikes me as a much more powerful parallel to people development than gift giving.

A good manager, like a skilled investor, sees strengths, value, risks, gaps, and the person’s potential to add more value. She sees assets that are under-deployed. A good manager can figure out issues or weaknesses without hyper-focusing on them, and work with the team to navigate around or through them. A good manager, like a skilled investor, takes the time to understand what motivates a person – in PE language, “she understands the levers of value creation.” She picks her battles, comments on things that matter (not every little slip-up, but patterns) and focuses, not on being right, but on how to build capacity and enable the team to generate more value. 

Catherine Flavin