Career Tip of the Week: Actively Seek Embarrassing Feedback

Your performance has been excellent and acknowledged. Until now, you have checked all the boxes on your way up. But your career trajectory has slowed or even stalled. You can’t seem to make it to the next step, and feeling discouraged, you may have interviewed externally with no success. You have no idea which boxes you are not checking.

The answer, according to Harvard Business Review, might be a problem you never even realized you had, but is obvious to everyone around you.

As you advance up the management ladder, seemingly trivial issues that did not impact you negatively earlier in your career could be standing between you and your next challenge, your next learning experience or your next promotion. Like a stone in your shoe, the longer it goes ignored, the more pain it can cause. Once you have been ordained into the leadership club, it becomes harder and harder to get authentic feedback. And often these career stopping issues have nothing to do with your performance, they are all about how you are perceived and whether you fit the company standard.

In interview settings, management meetings, or informal leadership settings, awkward behaviors, uncomfortable attributes, or counter-culture habits will stop your career on a dime. The higher up you go, the more exposed these attributes become and the more visible they are to those who decide if you are C-suite or board material.


Our client, Bob, came to us wondering why his management turned a deaf ear to his requests to be moved onto the executive board. The contributions he had made to global growth and regional EBITDA were far greater than any of his peers and many on the executive committee. His reviews were exceptional, but he could not get a straight answer on why he was not qualified for the next level. He was told that there were no appropriate positions for him, yet he saw others advancing around him.

At our second meeting, I discovered something. As Bob shook my hand, the strong smell of cigarettes wafted through the air. It had been so long since I smelled cigarettes, I didn’t recognize the odor during our first meeting.

I knew that Bob worked at a company where health and fitness was deeply ingrained into the culture, but given his stellar performance, could this really have that much of an impact on his career?

Bob asked us to do a private 360-degree reference check, and the cigarette smoking came up in three out of four interviews. It simply was unacceptable for a member of senior management at the company to be a smoker. Smokers would not be presenting at board meetings, let alone attending board meetings. Bob had devoted over twenty years in the same company working his way up the management ladder, and all twenty years he had smoked. Maybe the norms had changed, but smoking was not a tolerated habit at the executive committee level. No one openly stated the rule. You were just supposed to get it.

Career stoppers are the things that people notice and then talk about when you leave the room. Some of these career stoppers are universal, others are company culture dependent. Here are some examples; a nervous laugh, an annoying phrase that is repeatedly stated, bad breath, thirty extra pounds, being the devil’s advocate, tattoos, sweaty hands, unruly hair, talking louder and over others…etc.

Those that determine if you get to the next level might  assume these “trivial issues” are reflective of character or personality flaws that prohibit you from being C-suite material or they might assume that you don’t care enough to try and fit in.

And if you are meeting with a gatekeeper who is interviewing you for a top job, and you exhibit a “career stopper” trait, you may never get to meet the hiring manager.


Like a poker player with a visible tell, these small things communicate information about you that you don’t realize you are conveying. It’s important to solicit honest feedback about more than just your professional background, performance and resume. Be sure to seek feedback on what your appearance and behavior is communicating about you. Solicit this feedback on an ongoing basis, even if you have not experienced a career slowdown or stall. Given different standards as you move up, behavior that hasn’t prohibited growth in the past, may do so in the future. Feedback in these areas often goes unsaid, since the issues are thought to be too personal for a professional setting.

If you can’t get the feedback you need from those who influence your career moves, seek the feedback from elsewhere. Subordinates may be more likely to tell you to support your career and in turn their own. Or you may need to hire an independent coach or skip levels to a mentor who is very senior and beyond embarrassment. No one likes to tell someone they smell, or that they have an ingrained communication habit which has annoyed everyone in the room for ten years. You must be courageous to both seek and give this type of feedback. Find yourself a straight shooter.

It is scary. You don’t know what you will hear. But buckle up. Remember that one small nervous laugh may cause an interviewer to draw several conclusions that ultimately eliminate you from consideration for a role; at the c-level it can be just that close. Everyone going for the job is competent, but not everyone fits.  It is important to remember that almost all these career stoppers are well within your power to change, but it may take hard work. The biggest issue tends to be not knowing they exist in the first place.


Founded in 2001, Waterman Hurst is a professional services company that provides strategic job and board search services to leaders. We serve CEOs, C-Suite executives, Next Level Executives, and Advancing Leaders who want to transform their careers. We are the first company to provide B2C high end, high touch comprehensive job and board search services exclusively to leadership clients – we provide expertise in branding, strategy, coaching and serve as agents for top talent.

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