CategoryLeading/Managing

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.

Make a Decision and Act: An Ode to Star Trek and Stoicism

Growing up, I enjoyed the science fiction movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The stories combined space travel, advanced technologies and humor with themes that demonstrated a sanctity for life.  However, my favorite was the original Star Trek tv series.

While the futuristic and scientific aspects of Star Trek attracted me, I returned to watch and learn from Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk.

Spock, Doc and Kirk

Spock, whose Vulcan surname is unpronounceable (literally), was the First Officer and Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. In his role, he applied rationality and logic to each situation. His insistent, Stoic method of understanding how things worked and controlling what you can attracted me. As a father, employer, and leader during recessions and COVID and other tempests, I revisit the calm and clarity offered by focusing on what you can control to stack the issues and prioritize.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, emotional and cantankerous, wielded an awesome diagnostic tricorder and quiver of sharp retorts (mostly at the expense of Spock). Dr. McCoy always put humanity and people (and other species) before the protection of equipment or reliance on cold probabilities. McCoy reminds us that the tools and numbers serve our efforts to do what is right. His social conscious and character attracted me to science and research (though, I’m a Doctor of Forestry, not of medicine. 🙂 Thanks, DeForest!)

Finally, the crew followed Captain James T. Kirk[1], the embodied action bias and unquestioned leader on the ship. While Spock always did the math, any potential “paralysis by analysis” or harmful delay in a crisis would lead to a pointy earful from Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk listened to his trusted team, one leveraging the best available information and the other voicing a social conscious, before choosing a course and acting decisively.

Decide and Act

Uncertainty and disruption inform our general state of mind when making decisions. Like Spock, disregard needless enthusiasms and anxieties. Beside the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen, we humans handle uncertainty poorly. So, skip it. A Stoic believes they control their responses to the world, not the world itself.

As a species, when disconnected from social media and cable news, we are incredibly resilient. The great Stoic Epictetus said, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” 

When a Stoic walks into a bar, he chooses from what’s available and enjoys the drink. If the bar catches on fire, the Stoic leaves the drink to help as many people as possible get out safely. We do what we can in the moment.

Conclusion

Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us.  Some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things are beyond our control. In my field in forestry, we rely on the physical facts associated with demographics and forest supplies and mill capacities to leverage data and logic to develop projections. In this way, we avoid lofty assumptions and ground analysis in physical attributes to help interpret the world as it lays. 

We all strive to do the best we can with the information we have, without polluting that information with bias or irrational assertions. Make logical decisions, do what’s right, and move forward.

Live long and prosper! 🖖


[1] T for “Tiberius” for those headed to Trivia Night.

Train or Hire? Both.

During my career in forestry, I learned that managing trees is about managing people. Forest resource managers and timberland investors are also human resource professionals. The work gets done through building productive relationships and teams.

As with a baseball coach, a manager “off the field” continually seeks opportunities to upgrade the skills of the team and develop younger talent for future roles within the organization. This requires a clear understanding of your objectives (“begin the end in mind”) and an assessment of whether or not the needed skills and abilities already exist on your team. Once we identify the gaps, then we can decide how to fill them.

To Train or Not to Train

Robert Mager, in What Every Manager Should Know About Training, specifies training for situations where, one, we identify things that people cannot do and, two, they need to be able to do these things to perform in their role. This framework, while obvious, acknowledges the existence of other ways to improve performance. Examples include coaching and feedback, and performance aids.

Coaching and feedback help us reinforce and enable wanted behaviors. If a member of your team does something well or poorly, tell them. They want, and deserve, to know, and it tells them that you’re paying attention. Sometimes they simply need a little guidance, a sympathetic ear or a resource.

Performance aids, to quote Dr. Mager, “cue people to do their jobs right.” Like a vetted checklist, a good aid reminds people to do the things they already know how to do. As a benefit, simple tools or aids can also reduce the need for excess training.

Train or Hire?

At Forisk, our forest industry research firm, we hire AND train OR outsource once confirming the need for additional capacity. When hiring, the person must, first and foremost, share the values of our team and then have the aptitude and interest to build skills that align with the needs of the business. In our experience with human beings, it simply does not work the other way around. 

When you hire a good person that fits the values of your team, it becomes a worthwhile no-brainer to invest in training. Internal training has, at times, important advantages. When people on the team develop and deliver the training to colleagues for firm-specific skills, it grows them as managers and leaders. In those situations, the entire team gets better.

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Note: in addition to the cited and linked sources, this post includes ideas from the article “Here’s How to Assess an Organization’s Education and Training Needs” by Brooks Mendell and Amanda Hamsley Lang.

Is This Meeting Necessary?

According to the late author and management expert Peter Drucker,[1] “one either meets or one works.”

While our sympathies agree with this, we’ve also experienced effective, well-run meetings that got things done. Meetings either leverage or waste company resources, time and productivity, so the skills required to lead and facilitate meetings have value and import

Diagnosing meeting quality does not require a PhD (few things do). As noted in a previous essay, meetings fail for specific, well-understood reasons

Alternately, meetings succeed if they adhere to a few basic practices. This starts with asking, “is this meeting necessary?” In Loving Trees is Not Enough, I wrote about primary roles served by meetings:

  • Rapid decision making;
  • Sharing information and education; and 
  • Generating ideas and feedback.

We should be able to state, in one simple sentence, the purpose of any given meeting. “We are deciding how to staff this project” or “we are reviewing the audit results to identify next steps.” If we cannot specify the purpose, then what happens if we cancel the meeting? Per Mr. Drucker, we work.

To keep meetings on track, start on time and with an agenda. Remind those assembled (in one sentence) what we plan to accomplish. The agenda serves to clarify expectations in advance. This helps participants prepare and contribute appropriately, in addition to confirming whether or not they should attend in the first place. Everyone should “need” to be there and have a specific role.

At the end of the meeting, ask “who else needs to know?” Then, you can get back to work.


[1] His books, including The Practice of Management and Managing in Turbulent Times, remain relevant and timely to this day.

Managing Businesses that Rely on Creative Activities

This post introduces an essay with ideas on coordinating different types of work.

Aside from the entrepreneurial artist (e.g. Andy Warhol) or writer (e.g. James Patterson) or inventor (e.g. Dean Kamen), most individuals that live off of their ideas operate within some type of organization. How do we corral “creative” activities like writing and research within manageable businesses?

Click here to read the essay.