Concretized Christianity

Practical Application of the Word of God

The Choice to Grow

“The strongest principle of growth lies in the human choice.”
George Eliot

In my post, A Chain is Only as Strong as Its Weakest Link, I referred to two essential tools every leader should use to “grow” every team member, including him or herself: the performance development plan and the annual performance review.

This post will discuss what these tools are, what their purposes and outcomes should be, the requirements of fully and successfully utilizing them, and their effectiveness with have-to’s and want-to’s.

A performance development plan is an essential part of the team-building/project-management process. What this tool does is provide a framework for building on established strengths and implementing tangible and obtainable steps for improving areas of weakness. The scope is all-encompassing: interpersonal skills, communication skills, work-related skills, and personal skills.

Its title, though, must be the focus: 

  • Performance – The action or process of carrying out or accomplishing an action, task, or function, with special attention to the word “process,” because this is an on-going process
  • Development – This implies at set starting point with the goal of moving forward in one or multiple areas
  • Plan – A concrete and well-laid-out set of steps to achieve these goals

A performance development plan assumes that changes need to be made for the benefit of the individual, the team, the project(s), the department, the business unit, the corporation, and ultimately the planet. How often do any of us think in terms of our individual impacts on the the big picture (e.g., the planet)? And, yet, to really grow that’s exactly how we need to think, because the reality is that every choice, every decision that you and I as individuals make affects others on a much larger scale than most of us ever think about.

If we understood our individual accountability and responsibility in the spheres of influence in our immediate lives and how those intersect with other spheres of influence and so on, I think we would be more careful, more thoughtful, more deliberate about what we do and say and are. A well-done performance development plan is a step toward that conscious care, thought, and deliberation because it focuses the individual’s attention on the big picture and how that individual fits into it and how he or she can improve to add value at every level from personal to global.

Performance development plans should be formulated interactively with full participation and input from both the assessor (the leader) and the person being assessed (the team member). This gets buy-in from both parties. What I always do is hand a blank form to each of my team members and ask them to assess themselves as to what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they do well and what they need to improve or change, and what development goals they want to accomplish. I explain to them that I will be completing the same form for each of them, and then when we have our first meeting to get the plan in motion, we’ll review both assessments as part of the planning session.

The reactions to this always surprises me, even though it’s the way that makes sense since I can’t possibly know enough about anyone to do a performance development plan by myself nor can I understand where anyone sees him or herself in the context of a formalized process. I have to have the other person’s input so that we – not just I – but we can develop the plan together. This invests the team member in the process and gives them accountability and responsibility for ensuring that the goals, which he or she have jointly formulated with me, are met. 

But the reactions and the subsequent input from each team member reveals stark differences between the have-to’s and the want-to’s.

Want-to’s have a hard time understanding that someone is asking for and wants their input and initially they shy away from this part of the process. But in the meeting where the performance development plan is formulated and a review schedule established, want-to’s consistently rate themselves lower than I do in all areas of the plan, are well-attuned to and honest about the areas where they need improvement, and their goals tend to be modest, concrete and achievable.

One want-to in the journey of my career stands out when I think about performance development plans and how necessary they are and how powerful the results can be. She was a little Italian lady, old enough to be just about every team member’s, including me, mother. She was a legacy employee who’d been working for that organization for a long time and had been retained and reclassified when a huge technology shift was made into a technical classification she was not trained for. In every team meeting with that particular business unit, at some point she’d say “I’m not technical,” as both an apology and defense. It drove me crazy every time she said it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

But I watched her work and realized, with a little time, that she had her finger on the pulse of the business unit and took personal responsibility for making sure the administrative resources that were needed for the business unit’s success were always available. None of the “technical” team members did that. And I realized that she saved the business unit manager and me a lot of grief by just taking care of all these little details in an organized and seamless way. I realized she didn’t need to be “technical!”

When we sat down to formulate her performance development plan in my office, I got up from my desk (where I sat for these with the “technical” people, who by and large had egos to spare, so it was a subtle way of conveying that when it was all said and done, I made the final decisions about what would and would not happen) and went over to sit in the chair beside her. I purposely did this so that she would feel at ease and so that she knew I was on her side and this was a partnership between her and me.

Her relief was almost palpable. In a give-and-take fashion, we went through her self-assessment and my assessment. She, as I expected, gave herself much lower ratings in just about every area (ours agreed, predictably, in the technical skills area) than I did. But we talked about each area as we went through them, and I pointed out tangible things that she did to ensure the business unit ran smoothly and was able to draw a picture of her value and contribution to the team that she was not able to see before.

She made the “I’m not technical” statement at some point, and I told her that phrase needed to die right there that day in my office. I explained that every time she said it, she devalued herself to the other team members and it created a vicious cycle of her feeling inadequate and the other team members seeing her as inadequate, when in fact, if she hadn’t been doing the things she had been doing, none of the other team members would be able to do their jobs. I told her I didn’t need another “technical” person, but I did need a resource manager, and she was my pick.

We did a performance development plan based on these responsibilities, which she had already independently taken on, and we addressed the technical deficiencies with a plan for her to take basic software classes that were offered at no charge by the organization. I asked her to pick a class from each quarter’s schedule and I’d ensure that she had the time to go and we’d use her completion scores to assess how well she was meeting that performance development goal.

I had a changed team member from that day forward. She was aware of her value and contribution to the team and she took her performance development goals seriously and went above and beyond to improve in every area. I never heard her utter the dreaded phrase again. And after completing and doing well in several software classes, which she enjoyed to her surprise, she was able to contribute to the team technically as well.

It was a beautiful thing to be a part of as I watched the transformation and, quite frankly, of all the diverse responsibilities I’ve had in leadership and project management in my career, this area, when successful, brought me a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment because I saw the power of a performance development partnership when both parties committed to participating in and working together to complete our goals (her goals were my goals as well, so I had a responsibility to make sure she had what she needed from me to make those goals a reality).

With have-to’s, you can almost see their chests swell with swagger and the exaggerated sense of self they have when given this opportunity. They grab the form out of your hands with eagerness and stop listening at the point it’s in their hands. And in the meeting where the performance development plan is formulated and a review schedule established, have-to’s consistently rate themselves higher than I do in all areas of the plan, have no areas of deficiency, and their goals are nebulous, unrealistic and unattainable.

From the same business unit, my most memorable have-to took his copy of the performance development plan with a smirk and said “this will be easy.” Ironically, I liked this team member as a person, just not as a team member. He had a good personality and he was intelligent. But he had a flagrant disregard for rules and authority (mine included and when I finally had to come down hard on him because reason, logic and gentleness wasn’t working, I came down very hard and gave him no choice but to be terminated or resign and he resigned, never understanding what he’d done wrong) and he had one of the most inflated egos I’ve ever encountered.

In our sit-down meeting to review his and my input, he predictably rated himself higher in most areas (we agreed on the technical skills part of the plan) than I did. He had no deficiencies listed and his one goal was “to have your job.” 

I purposely did this performance development plan differently than the one with my newly-titled resource manager because I already knew this team member was a have-to. He was a flatterer, but like all flatterers, I’d already seen him bypass the rules, the business unit manager, and me and do what he wanted to do.

So in his planning session, which was not interactive – have-to’s don’t partner and they don’t invest, I asked him to give me his input. Behind my desk – he was sitting across from me – I listened and made notes to counterpoint some of his statements while he talked. And talked. And near the end, he gave me unsolicited performance development plans for just about every other team member and the business unit manager. He, surprisingly, had the good sense not to offer one for me.

When he finished and I gave him my input for his performance development plan, highlighted his deficiencies and areas that needed improvement by taking his statements and showing, by example, where they were not true, and outlined the goals that I expected him to accomplish (having my job was not one of them) by the time we got to the annual performance review, reiterating that we would be reviewing, as I did with all team members, the performance development plan to chart progress at the end of each quarter to chart progress, make adjustments, and ensure that we were on the right path.

While I listened quietly while he talked, he interrupted me continually while I talked, arguing with every example I gave for my assessment and improvement plan and arguing about the goals. I reminded him several times that I didn’t interrupt him while he was talking, and I expected the same professionalism from him while I was talking. He kept interrupting and arguing until I finally stood up, leaned over my desk, looked him straight in the eye and said in a firm voice “I will not ask you to be quiet again. You need to shut up and listen.” And it took him aback so he did, but it bothered me that it took that kind of directness and force to get through to him.

And those same behaviors were what he came to projects and the team with and although more slowly than I wanted, we continued to make progress on the project plans and team-building, I spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with issues both on the projects and among the team members that centered around his behavior. He was a constant disruption and obstacle to meaningful progress in both project completion and team-building efforts. And any leader will tell you that the more energy you have to expend on this kind of person and behavior, the more exhausting the overall work becomes.

But a performance development plan is on on-going process. There must be regular and in-depth and quality assessments, input, reviews, and course corrections during the execution to ensure that the goals are being met. I usually met quarterly with most team members, but I had some, that because of where we started the process and how much we had to accomplish to meet the goals of that year, that I met with monthly, bi-weekly, and, in one case, weekly. The bottom line is that it’s not a one-time shot and frequent review and feedback and change is part of the process for a performance development plan to be effective and successful.

The annual performance review is a review of how the performance development plan was executed. The things discussed in this review should be known (neither participant should be surprised by anything discussed here if the performance development plan was executed properly), in-process, and either noted as complete or progress toward completion noted. This is also the meeting where the next blank performance development plan should be given to team members to be completed and the new cycle of performance development meetings scheduled because things will be left over from the previous development plan and new things will need to be added. 

Done correctly and with diligence and commitment by everyone involved – both the leader and the team member have a responsibility – this on-going process, which admittedly takes a lot of time, but in this leader’s opinion is worth every bit of it, even with the wrench of the have-to’s (because there are many and good lessons to be learned there as well) thrown in, has the power to make positive and lasting changes for individuals, teams, departments, business units, corporations, countries, and the world.

But, in the big picture, it’s always important to remember that no matter how good these tools are and how effectively they’re used, they are still humanly-devised instruments used by imperfect humans and so the outcomes, though good if done well, are nothing compared to the eventual outcome we await from the perfect Leader who has the perfect performance development plan, the perfect methodology to execute it, and the absolute and perfect transformation as a result that the whole universe needs.

We human leaders should remember that and stay humble and be focused on, committed to, and constantly participating on our own performance development plans with the Leader of leaders. Otherwise, our efforts will crash and burn because we’re talking the talk (with our team members) but we’re not walking the walk (with our Leader).


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