Year2022

One Rule for Performance Reviews: No Surprises

Regular performance reviews, while often criticized, offer a repeatable and transparent process for building more effective organizations. Systems and teams, big and small, require feedback to adjust and improve. Sports have scores, cars have speedometers and engine lights, and businesses have financials. Issues arise when appraisals or feedback occur inconsistently or without clear expectations. Regular reviews, when done well, support and serve the needs of both employees and managers.

No Surprises

No surprises! This is the fundamental tenant for ongoing manager/employee relations. You don’t fire people at performance reviews. You highlight, reinforce, appreciate, and coach. You agree on priorities. You listen. We owe it to our teams to avoid surprises. This starts on Day One for a new employee.

When you hire someone, you get their standard of performance, so it’s the role of the manager to clarify expectations.[1] How do we to this? First, define success. Second, agree on what success looks like when it is delivered. Third, confirm how it will be measured and when. Weekly meetings help support this.

Weekly Meetings

Brief, weekly meetings are a fundamental building block for two-way communication. They keep the line open and the temperature down. If your direct reports are not important enough to meet with regularly, then who is? Weekly check-ins establish a pattern and provide milestones. They show you care about the individual and their results. This process also provides structure for the manager, who should be tracking successes and things to review with each direct report on an ongoing basis. 

One of my direct reports role-modeled for me how to manage our check-ins based on how she manages her team. Now, my weekly process with each person includes the following three questions:

  • Personal: How are you doing?
  • Current projects: What are you working on? (And what’s on the horizon?)
  • Support and resources: What do you need? How can I support you?

If I have specific items to cover, they typically line up with something the person wants to discuss anyway. If not, I will raise the issue when we discuss current activities.

The impact of feedback is greatest when received close to the behavior in question. While better late than never, delayed feedback withholds from the person an opportunity to improve. And if you don’t communicate feedback at all, the issue remains yours, not theirs. Regular meetings help mitigate this.

Conclusion

Successful managers provide timely and constructive feedback to their employees and colleagues. They deal with tough issues quickly. Employees in these businesses know that performance is valued, and underperformance will be dealt with. Don’t let things fester; handle issues as they arise, acknowledge effort and performance, and focus on actions not people. As a manager, you get the performance you deserve. Regular check-ins keep the stakes low, minimize surprises, and strengthen the team.


[1] My essay “Notes on Managing a Business” includes this and other lessons related to communicating effectively at work and leading a team.

How Do You Know What to Do Next?

Seneca wrote, “do not be unhappy before the crisis comes…” Avoid imagined sorrows and anticipated anxieties. Be present. See the big picture. Understand how things work. Control what you can.

Thanks for the fortune cookies, Brooks.

Yeah, I hear you. But I also hear you expecting the worst from the news, medical tests, and return policies. I hear you project stress about returning unwanted calls, choosing from new menus, and hosting in-laws. We seem to have an addiction to expressing our overwhelm and finding reasons to feel flustered.

When untethered, I find relief by intentionally owning my responses and focusing on what I control. In any situation, we rarely have a lot of options, especially if clear about our goals. [If you really want to sleep/exercise/read more, then stop talking to me and go sleep/exercise/read… 🙂 ]

Some practices, such as journaling, help tidy our thoughts and rekindle motivations. We benefit from anything that provides perspective or reinforces a good process for moving forward. 

Context

Seeing others perform well can help us appreciate our own strengths and clarify next moves. As a teenager, I heard a story after the 1986 Major League Baseball All-Star game that stuck. Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets and Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox were the starting pitchers. In that game in Houston, pitchers hit for themselves. Playing in the American League day-to-day, Clemens normally had a “designated hitter,” so this was one of his only at-bats since high school.  

Clemons stepped to the plate. He watched a Gooden fastball blaze by. Shocked by the power of the pitch, Clemons turned to home plate umpire Bruce Froemming and asked, “Do I throw that hard?”

Froemming responded, “Yes, Roger. At least that hard.”

Clemens’ at-bat against Gooden offered invaluable perspective about what batters saw when facing him. It gave him tremendous confidence about what to do next and how to approach his work. Clemens went out and pitched three perfect innings, throwing 21 strikes in 25 pitches, and earned the All-Star MVP. That season, Clemens also won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.

Control

Context and perspective, in turn, enable us to focus on what we can control. Tennis great Serena Williams, who spent a collective 319 weeks (six years!) ranked as the #1 women’s singles player in the world, has a real-time process, brief checklists, for correcting parts of her game. 

With groundstrokes, forehands and backhands, Williams knows that if hitting too long, she needs to “cover the ball” by getting under it to add top spin. If hitting balls into the net, she knows she’s “hitting too flat” and finishes higher when following-through, getting her elbow up. If making mistakes, Williams employs her technical and intuitive understanding of how things need to be to systematically self-correct.

Conclusion

Instead of worrying about bad outcomes, about things that may never come to pass, embrace a process for staying on track. Remember and enjoy your strengths. Understand how things work. Develop a plan with context. Focus on what you control.

Three Reasons to Pick Up a Pen and Write

Introduction

Deciding to leverage your lived moments into wisdom, insight, and appreciation rather than choosing the passive habit of regurgitating op-eds or puffery means engaging directly with people and ideas. Forwarding a link or liking a post differs from thinking and creating. An active, original mind stitches together a swatch of learning here with our lived experience there to grow and serve.

When it comes to capturing, conceptualizing, and thinking through ideas, few approaches compete with the act of writing. Just as the wisest people I know read a lot, the most creative and thoughtful people I know write regularly as part of their professional or personal lives. In this post, I encourage you to take up the pen and write.

Three Reasons to Write

First, writing cultivates a fertile mind. For example, the simple act of journaling collects thoughts and observations and, when you close the pages for the day, allows them to mix and mingle while you trundle off to conduct your daily affairs. Then, when decisions arise, the wisdom and experiences captured in the journal have a way of synthesizing our experiences. The act of writing lets those ideas simmer, helping us gain wisdom distilled from our own lives.

This blog and my essays are exercises to refine thoughts and capture best practices. They force me to cull the nonessential and reflect on what works and makes sense with the goal of receiving and sharing insights. In this way, writing is a dialogue; it seeks a response.

Second, writing relieves the mind. At times, we get trapped in mental mousetraps, addictively griping over minor grievances, or stubbornly ruminating on things outside of our control. The writing process offers powerful medicine for thinking through a problem in a practical way without perseverating.

The physicality of typing or writing by hand warms ideas and mines the subconscious. It also provides a form of self-administered relief. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends a practice of “morning pages,” which are “three pages of stream-of-consciousness longhand morning writing” that help us clear the mental detritus before taking on the day. Cameron notes that:

“…The morning pages…must be experienced in order to be explained, just as reading a book about jogging is not the same as putting on your Nikes and heading out…”

Third, writing armors you for battle. Regular writing sharpens your language and strengthens your communication skills. Great leaders and orators, from Winston Churchill to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr built their philosophies and communication skills through reading and writing. Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States, said:

“If I went back to college again, I’d concentrate on two areas: learning to write and to speak before an audience. Nothing in life is more important than the ability to communicate effectively.”

Conclusion

Write stuff down. If journaling or letter writing are not your thing, at least carry a pen and notebook for meetings, calls, work conferences, and events at your kids’ schools.  Write down ideas, lessons, and things you want to do. The writing process organizes ideas, identifies questions, and exposes holes. Your value as a thinker, regardless your field, will improve. 

In sum, put pen to paper and build the writing muscle. You will use more of what you write, verbatim, than you ever could realize.

How to Say No (When You Know What You Want)

My Dad taught me the importance of keeping the “end in mind” when managing time. As a result, I pause and think before accepting an invitation. In business school, a friend teased me about this habit, but it was rooted in an understanding of my calendar and my process for getting my reading and work in.[1] With clear priorities and goals, having approaches for saying “no” with respect and rigor keeps your time properly allocated.

No is a resource allocation tool to meet your goals.

However, choosing “no” differs from saying “no.” There are many ways to get the message across. We have options in how we communicate choices. Remember the goal: get to where you want to be, whether at home writing or in bed sleeping or pumping iron at the gym. Just begin with the end in mind.

Three Ways to Say No

  • Leverage the calendar. The calendar documents commitments and obligations. For me, things that don’t make the calendar, whether a workout or deadline or date night, don’t really exist. With an invite, using a calendar provides a reliable, respected, and repeatable process. 
    • “Let me check the date on our calendar and get back to you…”
    • “I would love to help, but I…am booked that day…have a deadline…made a commitment.”
  • Have a policy. For example, at Forisk, we only consult with firms that subscribe to our research. Having clear rules provides clarity and simplicity, and most folks and firms respect this.
    • “That’s past my 9pm bedtime.”
    • “We don’t work on Saturdays.” 
  • Leave the decision with someone else. Typically, we do not operate in vacuums.
    • “My coach…wife…boss…astrologer sets the schedule. Let me check in and get back to you…”

Keep It Simple

Avoid detailed reasons or rambling. Thank the person for the invite, say you’re unable to make it and move on. “Thank you and good luck. Hope the event is a great success!” And you mean that. Be polite; avoid abruptness. It’s simply an offer to respectfully decline because it does not fit with your schedule (and your schedule is set by your priorities, in advance, but you don’t need to get into that story….)

If you want, offer an alternative, which can also create an opportunity for someone else. “Hey, I can’t make this, but Phil on our team would be great for this. If okay with you, let me check with him on his availability…” This can help everyone, as Phil may really appreciate this, too.

Conclusion

Know your priorities. Use a calendar. Grow the ability to say “no” with grace and integrity. Having reliable and respectful ways to say decline invitations saves time, maintains relationships, and keeps you on track. 

“People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’”

Peter Drucker

[1] I HATE going back on obligations, so it was a defensive mechanism, as well.

Write Thank-You Notes

Writing personal thank-you notes remains an effective way to stand out in the workplace. Thank-you notes send several messages, all good. They demonstrate professionalism, appreciation, and good manners. After an interview, they reinforce your communication skills and interest. These notes strengthen relationships with potential employers, clients, and colleagues. Thank-you notes document gratitude.

Write Notes Regularly

When do we write thank-you notes? Often. At a minimum, write thank-you notes (1) after participating in interviews; (2) after receiving gifts; (3) to acknowledge favors (such as referrals); and (4) to thank colleagues for work well done.  Thank-you notes acknowledge the value of what someone else did for you and the team.

We have warmer feelings towards – and are more predisposed to help again – those who thank us with personal notes. After participating in a forestry job fair, I received a thoughtful note from the president of the local Society of American Foresters student chapter. Would I be willing to support their efforts again? You bet.

Choose Your Paper

Use good judgment in choosing the ‘raw material’ for your notes. After a job interview, write thank-you notes on personal letterhead or simple note cards. To thank someone for a gift, an informational interview or support, the note can be written on company letterhead or on personal or plain notepaper.

However, if you interview for a job at ACME Wildlife Services while working for the Timber Journal, avoid writing thank-you notes on Timber Journal letterhead. On the other hand, if you interview an ACME Wildlife executive for an article you are writing for the Timber Journal, it’s entirely appropriate to use Timber Journal letterhead. [The point may seem obvious, but people make the mistake…]

Be Prepared

Often, I travel with a few note cards, envelopes, and stamps to write thank-you notes from my hotel room or on an airplane. For friends or family, I have used hotel letterhead and, in a pinch, cut my own postcards from the individual sized cereal boxes available at some breakfast bars. [They work Gr-r-reat!]

Worthy thank-you notes are direct, timely, accurate, and signed.  They explicitly say, “thank you” and specify the source of your gratitude. They are written promptly and spell accurately the name of the recipient. And they include your signature; an unsigned thank-you note is a glorified form letter. 

Email?

In certain situations (and increasingly), thank-you emails suffice. This is true for longstanding relationships, when your note includes attachments or links discussed in the interview, when firms view email as a preferred form of communication or where your contacts with an individual all use email. 

Conclusion

My parents taught me that people read and appreciate thank-you notes. Time and time again, my experiences have validated this lesson. Writing personal notes in a timely manner will distinguish you and reinforce business and personal relationships throughout your career.