Tuesday, November 22, 2016

25 Stories About Work - Getting a Review and Thinking Like Your Boss

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)...

Chicago, 1990's through today

If you are ever looking for a great book to read, I would recommend "High Output Management" by Andy Grove, the late former founder of Intel. I picked up a hard copy on the internet for just a few dollars including shipping and although it was written in the mid 1980's (and updated in the early 1990's) much of the book is completely relevant for both new entrants to the work force and those that have been engaged for decades.

Andy Grove had a passion for getting the most out of his employees, since he was focused on productivity and his staff represented a large cost (and opportunity) for his organization. He approached productivity in two main ways 1) by leveraging process and eliminating bureaucracy he could move faster at lower cost 2) by training and motivating his staff, he could achieve greater outputs. For the purpose of this post we will focus on #2, although it should be remembered that Andy Grove also essentially popularized key elements of the "open office" plan where executives sit amongst their staff which I will cover in a future post.

For his employees, he defined motivation as getting the maximum that he could achieve. His motivation would broadly be considered "engagement" in the modern definition. "Engaged" employees go the extra mile and are passionate and drive for results, while "dis-engaged" employees are an active drag on the business and your company would frankly be better off if they just stayed home. Most employees are in the middle of the spectrum, neither actively engaged nor disengaged.

Training and feedback are the key elements of this post. Andy pushed training in his business and held his executives to a standard that they needed to teach and be part of the process of investing in employees. I remember when I was starting out in my masters' program many case studies held up Motorola as ahead of their time with the "Motorola University" of classes to train and advance their employees. All of this was done before the internet with papers, books and physical classes and it represented a significant investment for the company. Today, these programs have mostly been minimized at large corporations, although many service firms (financial and technology) still invest heavily in training and grooming their own staff, and most large internet / technology firms have more extensive orientation and learning methodologies.

For feedback, there is a template for an annual review in this book from the 1980's which contains all of the key elements of an employee review that you might receive today. The employee is supposed to do a self-review prior to the meeting, and the manager goes through the strengths, weaknesses, and areas of improvement and seeks out feedback from peers in order to develop a thorough analysis. Andy Grove mentioned how important employee development and feedback was to him and how he forced other top executives to be part of and even care about the process although many of them did it in a perfunctory manner (complying with the process but not the "spirit").

From my personal experience and from those of my work acquaintances across many industries, the formal personnel appraisal has been dying for many years and is usually done in a perfunctory manner if it happens at all. If you are in a services business (consulting, law, finance), your personnel review is essentially done for you in the course of your engagements, since "good" staff are selected for teams and "poor" staff are shuffled around and / or "ride the bench". Leaders have an incentive to collect (and shield) the best staff because they make the most money for their groups by pleasing clients and billing lots of hours while the poorer performers are not selected and (mostly) find their way out of the organization (or into the back office bureaucracy where they don't face clients). While the service firms' HR departments would vehemently deny this statement, it is the "broad" truth.

But if you are in a corporation or smaller business that is not service facing, you will be most impacted by a poor or minimalistic review process (as an employee), because you won't get valuable and direct feedback that will help you grow and improve. In today's corporate environment, re-organizations are frequent and managers rotate through departments (or are thrown into direct work), so supervision routinely moves to the back burner. There is little incentive to groom and work on staff (as a manager) if you aren't going to be around for 2-3 years in the same job because it takes time to invest in staff and improving processes and behaviors and there is no purpose in putting in this sort of investment if you are just going to move on to the next job anyways.

As an employee, a key element of the review process is GETTING OUT OF YOUR MENTAL SPACE AND THINKING LIKE YOUR SUPERVISOR. When you are working day to day, dealing with your customers and fellow employees and the frustrations of the modern workplace, it is easy to keep a heads down approach. However, the most valuable thought process is to look at the world from the perspective of your boss, and how you can make his / her life EASIER. How can you do this? Here's some starting ideas...

1. Don't behave badly in public or via email - often times the only key data points that get escalated to a supervisor are these sorts of public events or a poorly thought out (whiny) email. In a sense you are creating a negative start to your own personnel review by leaving these artifacts around, because your supervisor will already be on the defensive when he / she is calibrating your review against your peers
2. Solve problems for your boss and be part of the solution - your boss is likely very busy and consumed with their job and their own bureaucratic turf battles. Don't create NEW problems for your boss, solve existing problems and make their life easier
3. Tell your own story in frequent updates - Don't wait until personnel review "season" to tell your story. Create documents and emails that explain your successes and send them to your boss in regular intervals. Even if the boss doesn't seem to reply, keep doing it, and at least you've tried to set a narrative that they can use to help your career. Worst case, if you have a bad boss, you can use this as a defense when they ignore your achievements and go after you for failings
4. Give your boss a heads' up before they get blindsided - if something is going badly, it will often get to your boss through the informal "water cooler" gossip highway quickly and they might look bad to their peers or their supervisor. No one likes to get surprised, and they will be irked that they don't have a story / excuse ready and at hand to shield or defer themselves from criticism. After all, your "mistake" (whether that is true or not that is the perception) is their problem since you are their responsibility. This is a fine line to walk since you don't want to escalate "all" issues because many issues "die on the vine" and you are also essentially giving your boss negative feedback that they can use against you in the review if they choose to do so
5. Remember, your boss likely doesn't know how to be a supervisor - very very few folks nowadays know how to be a good boss and have seen positive role models in their career for these sorts of activities. Your boss likely dreads your annual review and does not like to give you negative feedback and probably doesn't know how to handle sensitive discussions. Since the annual review process has become perfunctory for many companies, bosses pay it lip service and do the minimum and just want to get it over with. By doing 1-4 above, you can make your superior's life a bit easier
6. Finally, you don't have to be the best, just better than your peers - Like school, business is often "graded on a curve", and if your co-employees are whiny and not doing items 1-4 above, then you will stand out as a "good" employee. It often doesn't take much to be better than the rest, just some self-reflection and the act of putting yourself in your boss' shoes
Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

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