A Brutal Performance Review Helped Sweetgreen's CEO Manage Everything Better

Jonathan Neman shares what he learned from getting an evaluation from co-founders, employees and family.
A Brutal Performance Review Helped Sweetgreen's CEO Manage Everything Better
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Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

One day in March, I arrived at my Los Angeles office and prepared for an emotional bruising. My executive coach had interviewed 17 people close to me -- my wife, my mom, my co-founders, my direct reports and some other employees -- and it was time to learn what they said. What do they think are my strengths and weaknesses? What are my blind spots? Where do I need improvement? 

I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear the answers.

Related: When to Invest in Your Weaknesses (and When to Save Your Time and Energy)

Recently, I reached what felt like a pivotal time in my career. Over the past 11 years, sweetgreen, the company I started with two friends, has grown to 86 locations and millions of customers around the country, with more than 3,500 team members. I’m CEO, which means everyone comes to me with the hard questions. As we’ve grown, I’ve become ever more aware that every decision I make significantly impacts our customers and our team members. That’s why I got a coach. I thought of it as an investment in myself as a leader. After six months of work, she asked me to submit to this giant personal review. And that’s how I ended up in this nerve-racking position, my hands sweaty as she loaded up the PowerPoint presentation to show me her findings.

The presentation took four hours -- and at first, yes, it was uncomfortable. But as my anxiety lessened, and I was able to focus on the points being made, I realized how insightful it was. When you’re CEO, unvarnished feedback is hard to find. People rarely critique the boss to his or her face. But now I was learning. For example, I don’t think of myself as a micromanager. I want to trust my colleagues and let them find their own way. But the report revealed I wasn’t actually doing that. I was still too involved in others’ work; I needed to step back more. That was good to know.

Related: 4 Things Every CEO Needs to Focus on Daily

Another lesson: Everyone notices when I’m well-rested, and they prefer me that way. This felt counterintuitive. I’d been working 70-hour weeks -- in part because there’s a lot to do, but also to project what’s called servant leadership. I want people to know I’m here and I’m working for them. But sometimes I start the day the way I prefer to, by surfing or doing yoga. When I do, people said,
I arrive at work noticeably more energized and impactful. I was setting the wrong example, it turns out. Instead of being the tired CEO, I need to be the one who takes care of himself as much as his company. 

After reviewing the report, I made changes. I stepped back on many tasks, trying to find that balance between leading and executing. (For example, do I really need to be interviewing every corporate office job candidate? No.) And I kept my early-morning schedule mostly meeting-free.

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

But the hardest part was yet to come. I sat down with everyone my coach interviewed and took them through the findings. I’d never felt more vulnerable, talking with people about my weaknesses laid out bare. And yet it prompted the greatest realization of the project. I’d always wanted sweetgreen to be a company that takes risks -- because risks are what’ll keep us fast-moving and innovative. And yet I didn’t exactly understand how to create that culture. This process changed that. It made me recognize that to take risks, my team needs to feel autonomy, and to feel comfortable doing things that might fail. That means they need to see me fail first. I set the tone -- and so this report, full of vulnerabilities I must own and discuss, is actually a tremendous first step in that process. Now I think about leadership differently. It isn’t just about working long, hard hours. It’s also about modeling the kind of culture that will help my company thrive. That, I’ve learned, is what happens when you get honest feedback from those closest to you: It may be a shock at first, but it strengthens everyone.

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