Lucy Kellaway on 360-degree feedback

Her angle on the perils of 360-degree feedback and other student dilemmas

I am to take an advanced management programme later in the year and will be required to provide 360-degree feedback from colleagues beforehand. Am I genuinely expected to ask a random selection of people? This could prove awkward, given the rather fractious environment where I work.

Lucy’s answer:

No, of course you aren’t expected to ask a random selection. You are expected to ask a carefully handpicked selection that you can just about pass off as random. You should skew your choice towards the least fractious elements of your workforce, but not so outrageously that it looks as though you’ve picked your best friends and mother. These 360-degree feedback exercises are a charade; it is depressing that this course begins with one. For your sake, I hope it gets better from here.

My company has previously sent colleagues of similar seniority to Harvard Business School for short courses. I was looking forward to this but have instead been told my next course will be at a less prestigious local school. Should I insist on HBS – and does it make enough of a difference to be worth rocking the boat?

Lucy’s answer:

Yes, it does make a difference. And, yes, you should definitely stamp your foot. However I’m not sure that you can “insist” on Harvard, as it will be your employer who pays and who will therefore choose where you go. The beauty of the less prestigious school is that it will be far less expensive; if your employer has decided to give expenses a drastic haircut, screaming from you is not likely to make much difference. However, you have nothing to lose by trying. By publicly protesting about being short-changed, you make it a little harder for anyone to short-change you next time – they know you’ll make a fuss.

Having reached management level, I was intending to develop my skills with some short courses at business school. But is it really worth the money when some of the big-name schools offer Moocs – massive open online courses – free?

Lucy’s answer:

It depends on who is paying. If you can persuade your employer to pay, then go for the most expensive course. If you are paying, then it depends on what you want to get out of it. If what you really want is to make friends and influence people then you need to sign up for a proper course. But if you think you have specific holes in your knowledge that you want to fill, then a Mooc is a great place to start. As you say, you get a slice of some great professors from great schools. And if you decide it isn’t enough, then you can pay for more when you feel like it.

We have always used a respected (and expensive) management consultancy to review company strategy, but we are considering bringing in a business school professor instead. He’s a leader in his field and has done some consultancy work – but can an academic with limited practical experience really deliver in the real world?

Lucy’s answer:

If you are already feeling disillusioned with your ruinously expensive consultancy firm, ditch it at once. Give the other guy a go. He will cost far less and his insight might be just as good – or at least no worse. On the question of whether an academic with precious little experience outside his ivory tower could ever help you, the answer is maybe, maybe not. I have another, even more radical idea: save even more money and come up with the strategy yourself. Strategies are two a penny – the hard bit is the implementation. And as it is you who is going to have to implement it, it might be a good idea if it was also you who drew it up.

My employer paid the bill for a very good short course I attended recently. However, I hit it off with a classmate from a rival company that has since sounded me out about an appealing role on her recommendation. Would it be unethical to take it?

Lucy’s answer:

Unethical from what point of view? Do you mean that as your employer has been generous in sending you on this course, it is not very nice to repay that generosity by using the training as a springboard to a better job? If that’s what you mean, I don’t agree at all. These things happen. All is fair in love and war. Or are you worried that the job offer has been as a result of a friendship, rather than a cool assessment of your skills? If so, you should stop worrying at once. This woman you have hit it off with is probably a better judge of what you are going to be like as an employee than any HR person who would be appraising you cold. So give your overactive ethical gland a rest. Take the job if it appeals. And do so with an easy conscience.

As a training and development manager, I’m always asked if the expense of executive education courses can be justified. Do you think it is?

Lucy’s answer:

If you are a tiny organisation with no spare cash, the answer is clearly no. If you are large, rich company that pays vast executive salaries, the marginal cost of a few business school courses is tiny. If your managers learn anything at all on them they are probably worthwhile. The real cost is whether the course makes people feel more loyal towards the company and therefore more likely to stay. Or whether it makes them more marketable, gives them more contacts (see above) and therefore encourages them to leave. There are no data on this; but my gut says it’s worth it. Good employers invest in their people. Good employers are harder to leave.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT associate editor and management columnist and writes the weekly Dear Lucy advice column

Letter in response to this column:

There’s nothing wrong with feedback / From Mr Peter Neville Lewis

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