David Nelson | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Nelson


The Massachusetts College of Art & Design is a publicly funded college of visual and applied art, founded in 1873 as the nation’s first independent public college of art and design.

The Mistake:

I think I've lived a fair amount of my life expecting that people can read my mind or read me, that they knew if I was happy or sad or glad or angry—but apparently I have quite a poker face. As a result I may be incredibly disappointed with someone and they think that I'm just fine. Or I may be wildly pleased with them and they think I'm just fine.

In a previous role, as a provost, I think the mistake I made is I assumed that those who worked for me knew what I appreciated about them, and that they also knew what I wanted them to improve. Yet I think I was giving them signals rather than direct feedback, and the result of that was some high performers who felt under appreciated and some under performers who believed they were doing better than they actually were.

Two deans who worked for me come immediately to mind. One was simply stellar at her job. In her first year alone she accomplished things I thought that it might take years to accomplish. And at our one-year evaluation, when I explained how impressed I was she was shocked, because I hadn't really given her any indication about my satisfaction, previously. I thought she knew how satisfied I was with her work, but she was worried that I was dissatisfied.

That was just an awakening for me. So that helped me realize I had failed to do something that was pretty important for them to help them. Just imagine the drag of thinking your boss doesn't really approve of what you're doing when in fact you're doing a really fine job.

And then another dean was surprised when I explained how much I needed them to improve their work, which had to do with declining enrollment. That came as a surprise to them. I think [the individual] was a bit hurt that the review was going that way, and even said to me, “You've never been that clear with me before.”

I think in that case my failure to communicate clearly about what needed improvement actually kept this person, who was a very capable leader, from succeeding in the way that they might have. And I think in both of those cases, I was sending them signals about my satisfaction or lack of it but it wasn't clear to anyone, and of course signals can be up to interpretation.

As much as we may not like hearing critique, we all need it in order to succeed.

The Lesson:

The lesson for me is, it's not just “communicate clearly”—that's kind of the easy thing to do here. I think actually what I learned in that was the necessity of setting clear expectations and giving clear feedback. I don't think this was a matter of just giving pats on the back or whatever. The lesson I came away with was being able to state to somebody what needs to be accomplished, what the expectations are, and then giving routine feedback that helps people to know where they are. I think I changed the way I worked with people from that time on.

Everyone wants to succeed, and as much as we may not like hearing critique, we all need it in order to succeed. And it's an executive job to provide helpful feedback so people can do their job well.

Maybe the biggest lesson I've learned along these lines is that this kind of clarity and transparency about expectations and feedback not only makes an organization better at what it does, it makes it a better place to work because employees are more successful and we get to celebrate everyone's success.

Follow Massachusetts College of Art & Design on Twitter at @MassArt.

Photo by Webb Chappell.