A Master Class in Feedback

Every year, 25 to 30 aspiring singers participate in local auditions for the New York Metropolitan Opera. The judges are deeply experienced opera professionals who are credentialed by the Met to judge in these kinds of events around the country. The auditions are remarkable for many reasons, and it has been my privilege to play a very small part in the planning and staging over the last few years.

After the awards are announced and the singers feted, the judges make themselves available to provide feedback to each of the singers. This year, I helped time feedback sessions and manage the lines. So I was able to eavesdrop on many of the conversations as the judges gave young aspiring singers feedback. Most of the conversations were great examples of powerful feedback, delivered with skill and impact.

“Here is what I wrote down …” Since the judges had their notes with them, they were able to share very specific observations about what they heard, saw and thought. This was not the New Age “give them three positives for each constructive feedback.” The judges were very clear about what worked and what did not.

Because each of the judges has his or her own perspective, the feedback for each singer was different. But in all cases, they were clear, direct and fearless in owning their own knowledge of the art and their authority as a judge. No one was vicious or cruel — but there was no sugarcoating.

“What I think you should do is …” Each of the judges had clear recommendations, based on their notes and their conversation with the singer. Teachers, exercises, repertoire changes, physical presence, pacing and a dozen other areas were in bounds for suggestions. In many cases, they could coach directly through an exercise that would demonstrate the impact of what they had suggested. So along with the observations went ideas for making changes to improve.

“I want to encourage you to …” While there were no false compliments (usually a tool to make the feedback provider more comfortable anyway), much of the feedback focused on doing more of what worked. Encouragement about what was possible and letting go of limiting beliefs and habits was common in these sessions. Despite getting very challenging feedback about what was not working, the singers got solid encouragement about improving.

Not everyone in the group has a future on the Met stage. Only three were sent on to the next level of auditions. Yet I never heard anything approaching “Don’t give up your day job, kid.” To be fair, it would be rare to have a singer in the competition who did not have potential, but my sense was that any of these judges could provide tough love if they had to.

“Please let me know how it is going …” This part of the conversation varied. If a singer engaged well and responded to the judge, it was not at all uncommon to hear some added encouragement and accountability. “I want to hear you sing again in the next year” or “Please try that for six months and let me know what differences you see” were heartfelt and generous offers in this environment. The judges have no obligation to follow up or ever connect with the singers again, except for their desire to mine young talent for the sake of the art. This kind of offer is not just encouragement, but a subtle form of creating accountability. To a young singer, aspiring to a big stage, being on the radar screen with someone who is both knowledgeable and powerful in the community creates a huge motivation to improve — as well as a belief that he or she can.

Skilled and purposeful feedback is the foundation of growth and purposeful change. Giving feedback in clear and actionable style is the responsibility and obligation of leaders. The model above is a great way to begin building a feedback structure no matter the size of the organization you lead.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, January 25, 2016.