Best Use of Surveys by Leaders

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, the title character delivers a famous speech. “We few, we happy few, we Band of Brothers” he says, and goes on to address every concern that his soldiers have, putting their fears to rest and infusing them with enthusiasm and hope. They go on to win a great victory over a numerically superior enemy.

How does he know what to say? How does he know that his speech will touch on the things that his men actually care about?

Quite simply, he conducts an anonymous survey.

In a preceding scene, Henry V disguises himself and walks around his soldiers in the darkness, visiting campfire after campfire, and asking his men what they think. And every concern they raise that night, he answers the following morning.

To be effective, leaders need information they can count on. One of the sources that every leader should use regularly is, the statistically valid professional survey.

I believe you should routinely survey your customers, and periodically survey your employees. And senior executives in particular will benefit from the Executive 360-degree Survey.

My first guest was John Russell of The Russell Consulting Group. He ran three successful businesses, was regularly invited to give talks and interviews about that success, and started fielding questions from other business owners.  He now practices out of Austin, TX and works regularly in San Francisco and Prague, the Czech Republic.

John quickly found that the challenges of the other businesses — from landscaping to camera shops to international consumer goods companies — are largely the same.  There needs to be clear vision and that vision needs to be reflected by the strategy and the daily operations.  The employees need to be engaged.  The customers need to be happy.  And of course your marketing and advertising messages have to be reflective of how your happy customers see you.

John sees the challenges as being fundamental to the principles of business success.  The differences are solely due to size of the business, sector, culture, and other local variables.  If you understand history and the way history repeats itself, you’re starting to get some visibility into these universal rules for business success.

One of John’s clients was a chain of delis, and their market share began to decline as Starbucks and Peets moved in down the street.  John used a customer survey and a mystery shopper program to gather key data.  It turns out customers saw nothing unique at the deli in the morning, and felt that the competitors provided better coffee, gave better customer service, and were cleaner.

Then John posed as a shopper and visited a store.  He asked the store manager “how long those cobwebs have been on the ceiling?”  She hadn’t noticed.

John sat down with her to ask her about her experiences as a manager, and after about 20 minutes she stopped and said, “May I show you something?” She went and grabbed a notebook where she’d been writing every day, all of the things that were being done wrong in the managing of the store, and how they could be improved — if only she were empowered to fix them.

And this is so typical — for business owner to have an incredible resource like this manager, under the owner’s nose, wanting to do a better job, collecting detailed list of ways to make things better, and it simply doesn’t come out. The owner somehow isn’t accessible, or the manager doesn’t feel brave enough or respected enough to bring the information to the owner.

The next step was to survey the owner, and get him to look deeply inside himself.

John finally discovers that the owner of the deli chain really don’t want to be in this line of work anymore. He’s tired of owning delis. Is it any wonder that is attention to detail is going down? Is it any wonder that he’s detached from his managers?

In this case, the solution was simply to sell the stores, and the former owner retired and now lives in Italy.  None of this would have unfolded without the surveys, and the information from the surveys, and the insights that flowed from that information.

In another case John did a customer survey for an acupuncturist, and reaped two big rewards — first, over a dozen customers who provided glowing testimonials and referrals, and second a discovery that the demographics of the actual client were different from who they thought they were.  These two results allowed them to immediately grow the customer base, by harvesting the referrals and using the testimonials, and to refine the marketing to make it much more effective.

Are there questions every customer survey should include?

Certainly every customer should be asked if they have a testimonial and if they have referrals, and who that would be.  Beyond that and some other customer-service basics, surveys really need to be customized to the specific client.

Customer surveys work better when they are anonymous and when they are collected by a third party.  In particular, if you as a service provider say “please tell this third party what you really think, we really want to know your candid opinion” then that can give the customer permission to open up.

The third party (i.e. consultant) also offers the irreplaceable value of detachment and perspective.  You can never see yourself as clearly and as dispassionately as a third party can.

Finally, when conducting the employee surveys, the written or online questions need to be augmented with in-person interviews.  After you establish rapport, which usually takes about 20 minutes, you will get an outpouring of very detailed and very candid feedback about concerns and problems.  “They will tell you everything,” John says.


My second guest was Francie Dalton of Dalton Alliances, Inc. Her articles on Executive 360-degree Surveys were very impressive to me, and I’ve been forwarding to some of my clients a copy of her excellent article on how senior executives can free up their time.

When Francie started her business, she did it by offering two workshops.  She then realized that this was backwards — she was offering transactions, workshops, when she could start with an assessment that would reveal what transactions would be most valuable.

There are still folks who are convinced they know what the diagnosis is and only want to pay for treatments.  However, the higher in the organization you are, the less vision you are able to have into the far reaches of your organization.  And a rigorous survey will reveal ratios and relationships that can be found in no other way.

Francie points out that, even if you are right — even if you are the new CEO and your diagnosis of the firm’s ills is perfect — you do not have one other thing that the survey process gives you, which is the buy-in and consensus of your people.

If you are ego-driven and want to prove to the world that your diagnosis is correct, then jumping straight into treatment could be tempting.  If you are results-driven and you realize that you need the enthusiastic cooperation of your people, then you will give them a role in uncovering the needs and reaching the diagnosis.  That will turn them into committed partners in the treatment phase.

Without buy-in, you’ll either get resistance or at best compliance.  Only with buy-in, can you get commitment.

Francie suggests that, even if your analysis is perfect, it doesn’t matter that you’re right — it still more than pays for itself to engage everyone in a process that gives folks a stake in the problem and in the solution.

Francie mentions that two of the five truths about scrutiny are, that the more we need it, the less we want it; and the more successful we are, the less open we are to it.  The more uncomfortable the idea of scrutiny makes us, the more we need it.

This indicates that surveys deliver more than actionable information.  They also deliver credibility, buy-in, consensus, and the preconditions that allow for team commitment.

Like John and me, Francie agrees strongly that anonymity is vital for a good, honest survey.  One way to gain workers’ trust in that anonymity is to write into the contract that the surveys will be anonymous, and that management won’t even ask for the identities of respondents. Then, the boss should read that part of the contract aloud at the rollout meeting.  This will give employees greater confidence that there is a contractual guard in place to help guarantee anonymity, and that confidence will lead to more candor and honesty, and thus a better and more useful result.

A recurring theme this year is that successful leaders do have weak areas and blind spots — just like everybody else — it’s just that the successful leaders take the initiative to identify them, back-fill them, find partners and helpers who are strong where they themselves are weak.

To do that, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses.  A great way to accomplish that is with the 360-degree Survey.

Executive 360-degree Surveys are currently out of fashion, in part because they’ve been done wrong so many times.  They are inherently very dangerous — they can be very threatening to the person being examined.  Francie goes so far as to say that the first 360 should ONLY be given to the person being surveyed, and not to his boss.  Only the second 360, performed 18-24 months later, should be shared with the boss.

This is because all of us have blind spots, all of us have weaknesses, and we need a fair chance to work on them.  When the first 360 is done and if it is misused, it can simply make the target defensive, and can harm his relationship with his boss.

There was so much more — I urge you to listen to the full interview here.

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