Colleges and universities face unprecedented change on campus in their current context and require leaders who can support them in effectively responding to those changes. In this environment, effective leaders recognize the forces of change around them, respond to that change, and have the ability to move the organization forward to collectively accomplish strategic goals. One of the most effective ways to harness the forces of change and to advance the mission of an organization is to establish a culture of continuous improvement and professional development built on a foundation of authentic feedback.

Mastering the art of giving and receiving authentic feedback is one of the essential elements of effective leadership; however, it is one of the least understood and most poorly applied (Weitzel, 2000). If giving and receiving feedback is so effective, why do leaders seldom employ it – often limiting its use to emotionally charged corrective situations or at the annual performance evaluation? Understanding the value of authentic feedback and mastering the art of delivery and receipt is one of the most effective ways for a leader to move from average to excellent, to become masters of the cycle of change.

Establishing a culture of authentic feedback within an organization can positively influence the overall culture in a number of ways. Positive derivatives include trust, open communications, transparency in decision making, effective teams, a culture of continuous improvement, and a fully engaged workforce. Authentic feedback is a rich form of communication, and is one of the most effective ways to face the change process with skill and finesse. In a culture devoid of regular feedback, people are often left to create a narrative of their own, usually through observation and attempts to interpret random behaviors in various contextual settings. Because of the constant pressure of change, and in the absence of transparency and open communication, the organizational culture may become something very different from that intended by the leadership team. The open communication that occurs through authentic feedback can be one of the most effective ways a leader can strategically influence organizational culture. Of all the various forms of feedback, multi-rater or 360° feedback is a powerful developmental tool.

In many cases, leaders find themselves virtually alone when seeking feedback about performance and striving to further their effectiveness in their roles. In the best-case scenario, a leader will be lucky if his or her supervisor provides periodic feedback at random intervals (Berger & Berger, 2011); at the annual performance evaluation, or when brought on by a negative event, and from a single perspective (Atwater, Ostroff, Yammarino, & Fleenor, 1998; Bailey & Fletcher, 2002; Brown, 2011; Insler & Beacom, 2011). The 360° assessment, on the other hand, if used correctly, can provide some of the richest feedback possible regarding the performance of an emerging or established leader, and it can serve as a springboard from which the individual can pursue further development of his or her leadership effectiveness (Haid, 2011).

The 360° assessment and feedback process is a leadership and personal-development tool that can be used in a variety of settings. The most popular place for its use is in the corporate world as a means of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of executives and managers in order to facilitate their improvement as leaders (Lepsinger & Lucia, 1997; Edwards & Ewen, 1996). The 360° assessment process solicits honest and authentic feedback from a variety of people who know the individual in numerous contexts. It is called a 360° evaluation because feedback is sought from a wide range of individuals with whom the leader interacts: staff, colleagues, supervisor(s) and others  (Van Velsor et al., 1997). The peer group can include co-workers, mentors, and anyone else that would/could offer multiple perspectives to the individual.

While the leader will invite “observers” to provide feedback, ultimately the feedback provided is anonymous – with the exception of the supervisor. The anonymity of the feedback process allows and encourages observers to provide straightforward and honest feedback. Once the assessment is completed, the information is gathered and compiled into a concise report that gives the individual an in-depth inventory or assessment of his or her capabilities and performance as a leader (Weitzel, 2000).

Once the report is received, the leader has a few choices as to what they do with the data. They may:

      • use it as a tool of personal professional development and create an action plan for the year ahead;
      • develop an executive coaching relationship to hold them accountable and support them as they carry forward their action plans;
      • share the data with their colleagues and use it as part of team building;
      • use it as part of the annual review on the effectiveness and purpose of organizational development.

Personal Professional Development

The 360° feedback process is a valuable tool that can be applied in the process of personal professional development (Atwater et al., 1998; Atwater & Waldman, 1998). A deep and accurate knowledge of oneself provides a platform from which a leader can launch forward in their leadership journey. With regard to developing self-awareness, the 360° assessment can serve as a transformative approach to personal and leadership development (Edwards & Ewen, 1996). Obviously, it is not the only approach, but is a place to begin the discovery, strategy, and developmental processes of leadership development. As a developing individual reviews the results of his or her 360° assessment, perhaps many of the perceived weaknesses are more a case of underdeveloped skills and potential strengths (Edwards & Ewen, 1996, Rath, 2007, Rath & Conchie, 2008).

Executive Coaching

Another effect of the 360° feedback experience is that, if used correctly, the process can lead to some of the most effective coaching relationships in the lifespan of a leader. This process can inspire leaders to engage an executive coaching, or approach someone to serve as a mentor as they carry out their new leadership action plans. When it comes to the development of leadership talent, the value of mentors and coaches cannot be understated (Kunneman, Turchetti, Cresswell, & Sleezer, 2011). In a study by Santeusanio (1998) wherein he assessed the impact of a 360° evaluation process in a Connecticut school district, he found one of the four major outcomes to be that the entire process “shifted administrators’ roles from judge and jury to coach and mentor” (p. 31). In this manner, the 360° assessment, combined with personal development, can serve as a powerful tool in accelerating a leader’s growth and development.

Team Building

360° reports are confidential, however the individual has the option to share relevant data with their colleagues. It is common for campus Presidents and their cabinet members to go through the 360 process together and gain insights into their team culture. This data is also used to bring the team closer and move them to be higher performing.

Annual Review

Since change is inevitable, the data collected through individual 360° reports does not remain static. Seeking this feedback is most helpful if it is included in a leadership team’s plans on an annual basis. This data will help inform the individual, and organization, if changes implemented are yielding the results intended, or if they need to do more work. Leaders develop their action plans with this authentic feedback enabling them to lead their teams as they carry out the Institution’s strategic mission.

Transformation is the heart of the 360° assessment; it is an agent of change (Lepsinger & Lucia, 1997). Its primary purpose is to give the leader detailed information that they can use to design their own strategic leadership development plans. As the forces of change act upon a leader, one of the best ways to strategically guide that change is through a leadership development plan built upon authentic feedback derived from many different perspectives.


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