How would you feel if, for the last 10 years, you had no feedback on your leadership at work? As one friend responded “I prefer to live in ignorant bliss that I am a managerial genius.” Tempting to think that, isn’t it.

As the CEO of a startup and now rapidly growing early stage company, I really haven’t had any leadership feedback since starting co-founding Embrace back in 2003. The feedback has tended towards either the company  (“find the magic distribution channel and then we’ll invest” or “grow fast but profitably”) or our company results (“xxx job” with xxx being “great” or “disappointing”, paradoxically sometimes in the same year) rather than something I personally can use in my leadership role.

This year, I decided no more excuses. Being small and with fewer resources than most (our Controller does our HR role, for example) is not a valid excuse but how do I ask my direct reports to critique me freely and honestly. As you can imagine, they admitted they would feel awkward sitting one on one with me and pouring out their opinions and experiences of my weaknesses.

So what to do? At Embrace, we’re not in the position to have HR systems to “mask” the feedback (which often has the end result of blurring it so much that it’s hardly useful, in my opinion), so I finally decided to have the Embrace manager do for me what they do for themselves – a SWOT analysis. Every year, the Embracers go through their own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats with their manager as part of their annual review. It’s the easiest and most effective way to get at development goals for the coming year. And it’s always an interesting conversation, if a little nerve wracking for the less experienced staff (heck, for all of us, if we are to be honest with ourselves.)

In my case, I had the company managers come together and create a combined SWOT analysis for me and then two of them were nominated to present it to me. Before the review meeting I did my own SWOT so I could see if I was at least seeing me in a similar way as my managers. The results were the best gift my managers could have given me.

For example, one of my weaknesses I am always working on is listening. I really could do better at that, both in my work and personal lives, and my manager SWOT placed that as a strength in their opinion – score! It seems my efforts are paying off there. On the other hand, a weakness pointed out was the “occasions of harsh tone both verbally and in writing, perceived as talking down to people” – ouch! But very true I must admit, painful to recognize as that is.

Apart from some new weaknesses and opportunities to work on, I gained several aha moments out of this experience.

First, the managers really enjoyed working together on my SWOT – talk about the ultimate team building opportunity. They really took the task seriously and came up with some excellent and useful points. More importantly though, not only was it time together to speak freely about their CEO (one can only imagine the conversation), but they believed it would help the company and that their feedback was valuable. Now it’s up to me to prove them right.

The final point that shouted out loud and proud, ultimately the Embrace culture and core values allowed our managers to feel comfortable enough to speak honestly and without fear.

Now that’s something to cheer about.

Laura Bennett is Chief Executive Officer & Co-founder of Embrace Pet Insurance. She is also a 2012 Women in Insurance Leadership winner. 

Readers are encouraged to respond to Laura using the “Add Your Comments” box below or starting a discussion on the WIL LinkedIn Group.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking NewsWomen in Insurance Leadership program. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

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