Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First Time - Part 14: Evaluations and the Like

This is part 14 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Evaluating the people who work for you may be the most important thing you do as a boss. It not only affects the lives of those you work for, it also directly affects the organization you all work for. It is also probably the most difficult thing you will do. And you should, in fact, be doing it constantly: evaluating your people and providing them guidance, helping them to improve.

In most organizations – outside of manufacturing plants and sports teams – it is not intuitively obvious as to what standards an individual is being measured against. While there are some exceptions to that rule: sales personnel, manufacturing plants, sports teams, (and even in those cases it may not be as easy as it seams); it will be your job to either establish or clarify those standards.

You may be one of the lucky people to arrive at a job in which the previous occupants have established clear, sane and readily accepted standards for all to work towards and achieve. If so, congratulations, and you should thank your predecessor because such a situation is a rarity. (I have never arrived at a job in which there were any useful standards of performance.) It is more likely that you will find either old and outdated standards (that some believe they are still working towards), or no standards at all.

Your first task is to review the existing standards; they will at least provide a starting point from which you can deviate. Compare them to the goals as stated by your immediate boss and by the overall boss - the CEO, the Chairman, the Mayor or the Governor, the General, the Commissioner, etc. (If you notice a clear conflict between what your boss wants and what the overall boss wants, go talk to your boss right now; you need to clarify that situation immediately.) Now, restate these goals in terms of ‘what that means to my organization.’ What tasks are assigned to you, what are the timelines, what are the standards for acceptable actions or products?

This may seem easy, and in some cases it is. But in most cases, it will require numerous iterations. That’s all right. Draft a proposal and then talk it over with your boss and with your peers; include your personnel office (HR) and a smart guy from the legal office to give an unofficial review. Then incorporate their inputs. Now comes the hard part: tell the people who work for you.

They will certainly know you are working on new standards; you may well have talked with them already. But you need to get them ‘on-board.’ This is a dialogue and you need their input. If you are open and fair, they will quickly move past any fears that you are ‘after them’ and will contribute real substance. As the conversation moves forward they will be able to tell you where you are ‘pushing too far’ and where you aren’t pushing ‘far enough.’ Give people some room to show their creativity. In 9 cases out of 10 you will be pleasantly surprised by people’s desire to show how much they can do.

After a month or so as boss, spend a day reviewing and discussing the standards – tear them all apart and put them back together again – you really want this to be right – both assessments for job performance and bonuses, and what you are looking. It is particularly true that if you have a few people who work for you as supervisors of others, you and your supervisors need to be clear as to what standards you are looking for with regard to recommendations for new positions, promotions and bonuses.

Talk with your people – constantly. Performance reviews really aren’t a tool to fail people, they are a tool to make people better at their task. Don’t look at it as a grade you are giving ‘John Doe,’ look on it as the grade you are giving your whole organization, and yourself in particular. Think of it in these terms: if John is not performing up to the standards desired, there are only a few possibilities: 1) he is truly not capable; 2) it is impossible; 3) he is improperly trained; 4) he doesn’t care.

If it is #1, then the fault lies with you – John shouldn’t have been placed in that position and should be moved to someplace where he can be more productive. Don’t ask the master welder to do brain surgery or the brain surgeon to weld. If #2, either your standards are too high or you have not invested in the tools or assets that would make it impossible. (A stone mason, no matter how talented, will achieve little if his only tool is a tack-hammer). If #3 the fault also lies with you, your expectations don’t match your investment. Even if the cause is #4, the fault may lie with you: have you spent the necessary time to communicate the organization’s goals to John and have you tried to motivate him? It may be that John simply doesn’t care, and won’t no matter how hard you try. But you need to be able to prove that both to the organization if and when you get around to firing John, and to yourself, if you intend to keep looking at yourself in the mirror.

As you can see, the real issue with evaluations for performance and for bonuses and promotions really isn’t about the evaluations, it’s about you communicating with your people as to what you expect of them, setting and maintaining clear standards, and establishing and maintaining clear communications with your people. Work out standards: standards for performance, standards for consideration for this or that job, standards for bonuses. This won’t be easy; it will require constant effort and constant ‘tweaking.’ But it has to be done. Talk to your people. Every time you meet is a chance to evaluate their performance. And their performance is really a statement about your performance. If you are succeeding at your task of communicating and motivating – of leading – then they will also succeed. If you fail, you will notice it because they will fail.

Finally, avoid complicated forms and jargon and the like. Set clear standards, speak straight to people, and make your forms and paperwork as clear and as simple as you can. And keep things simple: there are a few people who can provide a performance assessment and a promotion recommendation and a bonus input all on the same page; they are rare and it is likely that even if they can, the guy reading it a day or week or month later won’t be able to accurately parse the document. So keep it simple.

And Communicate.


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