How to Get Brutally Honest Feedback and Double Your Results in Interviews, On the Job, and More
Do you know the #1 obstacle you face in winning offers, getting promoted, or even starting a business?
You might be tempted to say, “Pitching myself and telling my story properly,” or “Getting to know the right people,” or “Making a product people actually want.”
And all of those could be obstacles.
But there’s one obstacle that exacerbates everything above and makes it much tougher to fix:
You cannot get brutally honest feedback.
I’ve seen this one firsthand because approximately 90% of the emails we receive contain some variation of: “I didn’t get job offer X or promotion Y or interview Z. What should I do next?”
My response is always the same: “OK, so why did you not succeed? Have you asked anyone for feedback? Have you heard anything?”
And then the person stops responding, sends back a vague response like “lack of fit with the team,” or indicates that he/she has not asked for honest feedback at all.
This is a big problem because you will never be able to improve, or even target more appropriate areas, until you get this type of feedback.
Here’s how to do it properly, get real feedback, and then use it to improve your performance in all areas:
Why Is It So Hard to Get Brutally Honest Feedback?
Mostly because it is incredibly uncomfortable for the other person, whether it’s an interviewer, your boss, your co-worker, or even another friend.
Sometimes it’s because they know you too well and don’t want to offend you (friends), and sometimes it’s because they don’t know you well enough and therefore also don’t want to offend you (networking contacts and interviewers).
Or, the other person may not think you are ready to accept their feedback.
That is what leads to useless ‘feedback’ such as “Good job, nice work. Keep it up!”
Finally, sometimes you are asking for feedback via the wrong channel.
While I’ve recommended phone calls and in-person events for networking, you are arguably better off making an “uncomfortable request” like this via email.
Why and How I Can Get Honest Feedback More Easily Than You
To illustrate why, let’s look at a few fun examples.
Since I mostly get online comments/feedback, people are more “brutally honest” than they would be in real life:
He’s absolutely right: the pacing was too quick in some lessons of the new Fundamentals course, so I’m going back and re-doing significant portions of the course right now.
Here’s another example:
While this one is phrased awkwardly and relates to something that doesn’t really matter (financial models don’t exactly go out of date), it’s one of those “unvoiced” concerns that you’d never hear if you just asked someone in-person.
How to Make the Uncomfortable Request for Brutally Honest Feedback
Unless you know the person quite well and you’ve worked together for a long time, you’re much more likely to get useful feedback via email.
If you finished an interview, felt you did well, but were ultimately rejected, you might write something like this to the interviewer in the next few days:
Thanks again for speaking with me on [Day]. I really appreciate the opportunity to interview with your firm.
I received a notice the other day stating that I had not been selected for the final round of interviews, and I just wanted to get your feedback on that decision.
I am looking to improve my interview performance, so do you have any comments or thoughts on what I might do differently in the future?
Please don’t feel pressured to be ‘nice’ as I am looking for truly honest feedback. No worries if you do not have any immediate thoughts, but I just wanted to reach out and check anyway.
This email shows a few important parts of any “honest feedback” request:
- It Sets Up a “Future Frame” – People are often uncomfortable saying, “You did X, Y, and Z wrong last time,” so you should ask about what you could do differently in the future. It’s still the same question, but it feels easier for the other person.
- It Explicitly States the Need for Honesty – Notice how we are not just asking, “Can you please let me know how I can improve?” or “How do you think I performed in the interview?” Without the last paragraph (“Please don’t be ‘nice'”), those would both lead to less specific / actionable advice.
- It Provides a “Comfortable Decline” Option – Ironically, telling people that it’s fine not to respond often leads to a higher response rate. We’ve also used the word “immediate” to imply that it’s OK to respond with thoughts “later”… if they don’t feel comfortable doing so now.
Here’s an example of an “on-the-job” template for this type of request, which someone on our team actually used with me a few years ago:
[Paragraph 1 – Updates on another project]
On a related note, I will have been working with you for six months at the end of February. I thought it might make sense for us to talk on the phone to see how things have been going and discuss any changes or areas that could be improved – sort of a performance review or “check in.”
We could also use this time to discuss the [XX] project in more detail. Let me know your availability over the next couple of weeks and we can set up a call.
You don’t need to give as much of a ‘preamble’ in this situation because you work with the person frequently; you’re also more likely to get useful advice from a phone call or other live interaction.
If you don’t get a response to a “How can I improve my interview performance?” email, you shouldn’t follow-up with the same person repeatedly.
So if you don’t hear from one person, you could ask another interviewer or someone else at the same level for on-the-job situations (e.g., a different VP if you’re asking why you were not considered for an Associate promotion).
If you do get actionable feedback from the person, you should do the following:
- Acknowledge it and thank the person (“Thanks for your feedback. I will work to improve my communication skills over the next few months, and I will keep you updated on my progress”).
- Then, actually keep the person updated and show him/her that you have implemented the advice. 99% of interviewees will fail to do this, just like 99% of people fail to follow-up after receiving a business card at a networking event.
- And then when you’re up for interviews or promotions again, demonstrate how far you’ve come by applying all the recommendations.
Step #2 above is one of the best ways to “stay in touch” with professionals you meet when networking or interviewing.
In most cases you cannot offer them financial incentives or even save them time, but you can show them you’ve genuinely appreciated their advice and have followed it.
Of course, this only works if you take the person’s feedback and do something with it… which brings us to the next point:
What to Do With This New Information
A lot of guides and articles on this topic take the same approach we assumed and say, “Now take that brutally honest feedback and fix/improve yourself!”
But there is another option: you could choose to ignore it and simply move in a different direction.
It depends on:
- Whether or not your flaws are fixable in a reasonable amount of time;
- Whether or not you actually want to fix them; and
- How big a deal they are (Do they relate to just this situation, or will they hurt you across the board?).
Here are a few examples of real responses to “feedback requests” I’ve seen from readers and clients:
Example 1: The interviewer responds by saying, “You answered the technical questions very well, but you should improve your soft skills and learn more about our firm. Other candidates had full reports on our history, but you didn’t seem to know much about our clients or deals.”
The second part of this is easily fixable with a bit of time and research.
The first part takes more time and effort to fix, but if you really want to work in a sales/relationship-driven field like investment banking, you have to fix it.
You could improve your “soft skills” via activities like Toastmasters (or other public speaking groups), by doing mock interviews with alumni, or even by doing a part-time sales job where you’re forced to chat up strangers.
On the other hand, perhaps this feedback makes you realize that youve never had good “soft skills,” nor do you have any desire to improve them.
This flaw will hurt you in other interviews, but it’s not necessarily the end of the world if you change your focus and go for more “quant”-like or IT-related positions.
Example 2: A networking contact within the firm responds and says, “You know your stuff very well, but you have to chill out more and connect with your interviewers on a personal level.”
This one will actually be the subject of an upcoming article on over-preparation / over-eagerness and how those can sink your chances, but this specific problem is “non-trivial, but still fixable without a ton of effort.”
This is also a problem that will hurt your chances in all interviews, even if you’re going for roles where you don’t have to appear “relaxed,” so it’s in your best interest to fix it by:
- Inserting a personal anecdote or something more “random” in your story.
- SLOWING DOWN and sounding more like Dan Carlin in his amazing podcast and less like a 5-year old child with ADD who’s also on a sugar rush.
- Giving your answers less “upfront structure” so you sound more spontaneous.
- Tossing scripted answers into the fireplace and making only brief outlines, AT MOST.
“Changing directions” makes no sense here, so ignoring the feedback isn’t a real option.
Example 3: The interviewer writes back and says, “Everyone on the team liked you, but we felt other candidates had more relevant work experience and wouldn’t need as much training.”
Taken at face value, this seems like something you could fix in a reasonable amount of time, something that is a big deal, and something that’s in your interest to fix.
BUT you have to read between the lines: this response is often a euphemism for “We don’t think your math / quantitative skills are strong enough.”
If you’re dead set on this role and you are committed to improving your skills, sure, do what it takes: read books, take classes, watch videos, and practice on your own…
But this could also be a wake-up call for you.
Maybe you just don’t like extreme technical analysis and complex spreadsheets, and you’d rather focus on the sales / relationship side.
Example 4: You were just passed over for promotion to VP at your current private equity firm, and the Partner writes back and says, “Thanks for your excellent work here. Unfortunately, there will not be a path to VP for you, so it is time to part ways at the end of the summer. While no one questioned your technical skills, we felt you were not proactive enough on pending deals and were not vocal enough on calls and in meetings.”
The qualities he mentions here are very, very important to moving up the ladder on the buy-side, and if you come from an IB background you’ll almost certainly struggle with them.
You cannot possibly do anything to fix this in the short-term, because they’ve just terminated your employment.
But you can work on fixing these over the long-term, and/or you can aim for roles where these skills are less critical:
- Stay in finance, but go for a highly analytical role at a hedge fund that requires less interaction with executives and more number-crunching.
- Go to a normal company and work in roles like strategy or business operations, which are more about internal analysis.
How to Get Honest Feedback: Don’t Overestimate Yourself
I’ve mentioned repeatedly that you shouldn’t overestimate the competition.
But you also shouldn’t overestimate yourself.
The best way to do this is to ask for this brutally honest feedback from interviewers, professional contacts, and higher-ups on the job.
You may not get an answer you like, but that’s the whole point of this exercise.
The more uncomfortable the feedback, the better.
And just think: if it turns out certain over-hyped fields aren’t for you, you could just join a shiny tech start-up, go to a rotational program at a big company, or even get into commercial real estate.
I hear they’re hiring.
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