The Importance of Gathering Honest Feedback

Sam Ghods

Cofounder & VP Technology at Box trial for Simon Gong



I'm one of the co-founders of Box. A few years ago, whilst I was working as CTO, we had a back-end engineering manager that I had trouble with. Instead of disagreeing with me and going toe-to-toe, the manager would go behind my back and tell his team to ignore my concerns. It was well-known that he and I did not get along well and eventually the VP of engineering and I decided to let him go. However, the day after, I heard that a bunch of back-end engineers were going to quit.

Actions taken

The engineers were saying it wasn't just the firing of their manager that made them want to quit, but specifically me. I didn't understand why they would quit because of me, so I sat down with each of the backend engineers, as well as a number of other people from all over the organization. Over the course of four or five days, I heard from lots of different people who said that they didn't like the job that I was doing. They thought I was very stubborn, that I played favorites, that I would argue people out of the room and that I wasn't open to changing my opinion. I was shocked. When our company had just had four or five engineers, everyone had been best friends. We all felt as though we could say anything to anyone, and people interpreted this as everyone fighting for the truth and dueling to work things out. However, as we grew larger this continued and I didn't realize that people were taking my title and status into account and that they found the arguing uncomfortable. I had failed to be cognizant of the power dynamic that occurred between a new engineer and me, the company's CTO. I went home and drank a bottle of Dom Perignon - it had been a pretty awful week. Then, I took action. I hired a coach who interviewed 15 people for an hour each to get a ton of feedback on my performance. He then put all of the data into a report that listed my strengths and weaknesses. It was shocking to me, as all of the things I thought I was good at were exactly the areas I had the biggest weaknesses in. After receiving the feedback, I worked very hard on making improvements in my areas of weakness. I realized that leading people isn't about having the best ideas, it's about learning how to work with people. I also started proactively asking for feedback. I had gone for five years without anyone giving me any strong feedback, so I worked on being extremely appreciative and receptive when people took the time to give me feedback. Nobody wants to give a co-founder harsh critical feedback, as they are unsure of how he will respond, so even when I completely disagreed with the feedback I would ensure I thanked them for it.

Lessons learned

Your title and status in your company can inhibit people from providing you with feedback. This is very common in silicon valley, as there are a lot of people who are straight out of college who become engineering directors in two years. They grow up with the company, so as the most senior person in the room, people always give them deference and respect. It's way worse if you're a co-founder, but even if you are an early engineer who accumulates a lot of experience, influence, and seniority, you can also face these issues. You also have to be proactive in reaching out for feedback. It may help to have a third party gather it for you. You cannot expect people to give you feedback unprompted and when people do provide you with it, you should respond extremely nicely. It's fine to go back and forth and ask them what they think about various parts of your work, but you can't reject their feedback or tell them that they're wrong.

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Sam Ghods

Cofounder & VP Technology at Box trial for Simon Gong

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