Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The best review I ever had

I've written several posts about how a good manager puts the 'manage' into performance management. I think we can all agree that the manager plays an important role but what does that actually mean when push comes to shove?

If there were a cut and dried formula for good management someone would bottle and sell it. There isn't. While there are definitely some wise guiding princples, different styles and techniques work best for different people.

Here are two examples of management techniques that worked well for me.

Technique 1: Constructive Feedback

When I first entered the workforce I was a process consultant with the company formerly known as Andersen Consulting (Accenture). Andersen did a lot of things right on the Human Capital Management front, from recruiting people who would be successful at Andersen to mentoring and training these people to letting them go graciously when the time came.

Because most of the work at a large consulting firm is project based, staff Androids like me would switch managers with each project. One of my first project managers was Joan and she gave me the best employee review I've ever had. This doesn't mean I got a stellar rating and huge raise, alas, it means her input was so constructive and honest that I keep it mind to this day.

I don't remember the specifics of the review. I received an adequate rating accompanied by some positive feedback about my hard work, discipline and quality output, yada, yada, yada. Then came the useful part that stuck with me.

'I've gotten some feedback about you that concerns me a little,' she said, after all the nice bits. She was quick to reassure me that it was nothing serious or career damaging, just something I might want to keep an eye on.

Apparently I had a habit of asking the same question over and over again in different ways until I got the answer I liked. Several people had noticed this and mentioned it to Joan.

'This isn't all bad,' said Joan. 'A good consultant and project manager needs to be tenacious. But you might want to tone it down a little.'

I leapt valiantly to my own defense: I was just seeking clarification. I was just trying to save everyone from making huge costly mistakes. I was just this and I was just that. Plus, whoever said that was clearly biased.

Joan stopped my outburst with an upheld hand and a suspiciously twitching mouth.

'Stop,' she said mildly. 'I know you have your reasons and I'm sure they are good ones. But here's the takeaway, Grasshopper (she didn't really say, 'Grasshopper'): If one person says something about you they may be biased and you may be able to shrug it off. If you get the same feedback from several people, however, take a mental note and watch yourself in action.'

This excellent advice has served me well over the years in team lead, project management and individual contributer roles. I feel fortunate that I ran into Joan and her constructive, personalized feedback early on in my career because subsequent performance reviews tended to be written by me. And I could never have given myself such great feedback.

Technique #2: Trust

It was a big week in the Munich office. Tom, the VP of Application Development was coming to town. There was a line up of people who wanted to meet with him, to apprise him of urgent situations as well as garner support for pet projects. I somehow scored a morning slot, and not right before lunch, either, so I was feeling pretty good.

Tom's claim to fame did not lie in his organizational genius, fiery temper, decisive decision making or skills on the golf course. He didn't even check his email on his Blackberry during our meeting, which was a bit disconcerting at first. He was soft spoken, polite and an excellent listener. He asked intelligent questions about my presentation and listened carefully to the answers.

At the end of our meeting, when a decision had to be made between A and B, he looked at me and said, 'I trust you. You make the call. It's OK if you make the wrong call, just make sure you have a good reason for making it.'

Then he shook my hand and thanked me for my preparation.

Incidentally, I made the right call.

Tom never came back to Munich so that was our first and last meeting. And yet, ten years later he stands out in my mind as one of the best managers I ever had.


  1. I think that more managers need to learn from Tom - that it is OK to fail as long as we learn from our mistakes...

  2. Toni knew a smart person when he saw it. I try to also trust a bright person to lead us on the right path.

    .... I just have not found many in educational administration :-( We have a lot of ex coaches guiding down a road to...

  3. I am dealing with some new management at my new shift, and it's been a struggle. Not a lot of positive reinforcement.

  4. thought-provoking post -- thanks!
    (I just started reading this blog, and don't know much about this field of HR)
    Anyway, question for you: how do you find a good manager? My organization is a tiny (staff of 3) non-profit, and our Operations Manager just quit -- now we need to find a new one.
    What qualities to look for?...

  5. I also miss having Tom for a manager ;-)


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