Guest Blogger: Ben J Kelly
Ben has a wide range of job experiences including as an officer in the Australian Army and working as an instructor and Business Development Manager for Outward Bound Australia. He currently teaches at a secondary school in Perth, WA.
In 2007, I had applied to become a staff in training at Outward Bound after 10 years as an officer in the Australian Army. Applicants were asked to attend a weekend recruitment experience as a great way to ensure Outward Bound Australia’s future employees were in it for the right reasons. We had gathered together at the end of a weekend experience for a final workshop. Sitting on the floor in a circle – much like on an Outward Bound program – the facilitator started to speak about apples and onions. ‘Apples and onions’ was a metaphor describing the most important elements of providing others with feedback – blending positive feedback with constructive ways in how a person can improve. We all then had an opportunity to provide feedback to those around us. Creating a safe environment for feedback with teams and participants is one of the most powerful elements of an Outward Bound experience and was a strong reminder of a lesson that I had learnt as an Army Officer many years before.
One of my most powerful lessons in leadership was delivered to me during my very first ‘real’ job. I was a freshly trained Army Engineer officer, 21 years of age, sent off to lead a group of 30 personnel help a flailing democracy stand on its own two feet. I had been told I was in charge and had been trained for four years to take the lead, make decisions and deliver results. And that is what I did.
My teacher was the experienced and affable non-commissioned officer. He had four-fold my experience in the Army and a genuine rapport with the rest of the team. Three weeks into my 4-month overseas deployment, he delivered the most profound feedback session I’ve ever been part of and flipped the conventions of my officer training on their head. Don’t make decisions without us, he says. The men are sick of you telling them what to do, he says. Consult, don’t dictate, he says. And so, it went on.
On face value the Army officer experience and the Outward Bound instructor life would appear poles apart. But the lesson in leadership I learnt as a very green Army officer was reinforced and consolidated almost a decade later when I sat in that circle at Outward Bound. The connection and power of that lesson could not have been stronger between these two very different organisations. Feedback is something that guides and helps in any relationship or team environment. It ought not only apply to you if you’re at the top of the pay scale – it applies even if you’re starting out on the bottom rung. It has been a lesson that has stayed with me for life.
Feedback. Learn how to give it, learn how to take it and do both – regularly. What that man did for his team and for my development trumped every technical skill or strategic decision-making expertise and training I had developed or undergone up until then. He had the courage and communication skills to step up and invite me to see what he saw and what I was blind to. He respected our positions in the structured and hierarchical system of military rank, but he spoke with honesty and genuine concern for the team he worked with. I will never forget the message he spoke about but more importantly I will never forget the value and power of his honest feedback.
To go back to Outward Bound’s motto: ‘To Serve, to strive, and not to yield’. By serving and striving to achieve great outcomes it is essential colleagues feel confident to feedback to each other with respect. Organisations that help colleagues create respectful and honest relationships bring out the best in their people. Great people make great organisations. Feedback and its essence of honesty and forthright communication develops trust, resilience and make us all better people.
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