Tag: performance review

Q&A with Paul Downs, Author of Boss Life (Part I)

Paul Downs started making custom furniture in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in engineering. Downs has only one line on his résumé, but he has a wide variety of skills gained in twenty-five years of running his business. His clients range from individuals and small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, all branches of the military, and foreign governments. A regular contributor to both Forbes and the New York Times, Downs lives with his wife and three sons outside of Philadelphia. His latest book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, was a Forbes Best Book of the Year and Winner of 8CR Award.
I sincerely appreciate that Paul Downs pulled time away from his business and family to answer some questions for us. First-line supervisors have tough jobs and often little training. I expect that Paul’s comments will resonate with many and hopefully provide insight and new approaches. Paul also demonstrates a level of sharing and vulnerability that we can all strive to duplicate in our lives.
Axtell: Paul, you wrote: “You can’t understand a boss without knowing what he goes home to.” Please share more of your thinking about this.
Downs: You can evaluate a boss with objective metrics: growth, profit, whatever you can measure. And that may be enough. If you want to get a better sense of how someone operates and why they are the way they are, you need to look deeper. Who is that person? Why do they do what they do? Were they born that way or are they reacting to circumstances? And what are the circumstances? Are they only work events or is there more?
Ideally, the time spent away from work gives the boss an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next challenge. However, that’s not guaranteed. Personally, I found that having a special needs child led me to decide not to work long hours and to make sure I didn’t arrive home with my batteries completely discharged. That undoubtedly had an effect on the growth and success of my company.
Axtell: Paul, these three sentences struck me in one part of your book.

The day you have children, you enter a different world.
Every couple has a fight that just keeps coming back.
Keeping a barrier between work and home was a mistake.

How do you see these statements being related, and what did you learn from this?
Downs: There’s nothing unusual about these statements other than that they appeared in a business book. The first two are simply self-evident truth. If you are in a relationship and have had kids, you don’t need any further explanation. And if you aren’t and don’t, now you know what to look out for.
The last statement, that keeping the things that happened to me at work hidden from my wife and children, was a mistake for me. I’m not sure that this is the best approach for all people. If I had been capable of forgetting the stresses of work when I crossed my threshold each day, things might have worked out differently. As it happened, my family lived for years with a man who, on occasion, was upset, distant, and prone to sudden explosion for no apparent reason. Later they got a man who still exhibited those faults and was willing to share the reasons why, and assured his loved ones that they were not at fault. I found that providing a summary of my day, good or bad, allowed me to be a better father.
Axtell: Where does your best thinking occur…on your bike…elsewhere?
Downs: It can happen anywhere, really. My bike ride to work is especially nice because it’s a very low-traffic, flat, easy route. That’s a good time to let my mind wander. But I’m thinking of business problems all the time, and good ideas pop up in a variety of situations.
Axtell: What does a good boss do when an employee underperforms?
Downs: A good boss sets clear expectations from the beginning. When those aren’t met, I first ask myself what I did to contribute the problem. Have I provided the proper tools to do the job? The proper materials to work with? And does the employee have all of the information they need to succeed? Those things are my responsibility, and if an honest analysis reveals that I failed, I correct the situation.
When I’ve done what I should have, then I start with a discussion with the employee. They usually know that they have been underperforming, but sometimes they have no idea. I review the expectations with them and give them a chance to provide an explanation. I make it clear that excuses are interesting, but don’t absolve them of the need to do their job.
If a verbal warning doesn’t work, I have developed a procedure that serves as a formal warning to the employee. I write down what the problem is, examples of when and how it occurred, how this violates our company policies, what would constitute a correction of the behavior, and what the consequences are for failure to correct the problem. I get a witness and bring the employee into my office for a formal review of this document. This tends to be a very scary experience for the employee, which is what I want. Good workers straighten up. Bad workers either quit or have been given notice of the consequences of their actions. If they continue to underperform, I fire them. I make sure that the firing is done the same way: with a written description of the problem, with a chance to respond, but with the final consequence already determined.
Our employee manual has a list of behaviors that will lead to instant firing. When I’ve had to do that, I still go through the procedure: written description and meeting with witness. Sometimes I film the meeting.
None of this is fun, and describing it is a lot easier than doing it. Disciplinary meetings are the worst things I have to do as a boss. However, I believe that the procedure is fair to everyone: to the employee involved, to the company, and especially to the other workers. Bad colleagues make good employees feel bad. The boss owes it to those who are doing a good job to have the guts to discipline underperformers and get rid of people who aren’t working out.

Part 2

Two designs for your one-on-one meetings with staff

Recently, there has been a lot of press about companies and organizations walking away from the annual performance appraisals. I believe there are many factors contributing to this, but I think the most important – and maybe surprising – is the employees themselves. Most people want to know how they are doing in real time rather than waiting six months or a year for a review. They also want to feel a connection to their boss, and that often means talking often enough so that difficult conversations are few and far between.
This idea works well with a recent article that argued for calling these one-on-ones conversations instead of meetings. Since I’m trying to get all meetings to be seen as a series of conversations, I love that idea. The value of one-on-one sessions is that they can truly be a back-and-forth, give-and-take discussion that leads to transparency, clarity, and progress.
To be truly effective, these conversations need to be “filter-less.” By that I mean both manager and staff member agree to speak openly as well as respectfully. Here are some guidelines that you might include in your organizational culture to promote greater levels of candor and permission and to provide the context and tone for your one-on-one discussions.
Let’s be straight with one another…

If you are ever curious or concerned about anything…ask. I’ll tell you the truth.
If I have concerns about your performance or hear any concerns from anywhere in the organization, I’ll tell you within one week.
If something isn’t working for you, let’s discuss it.

Let’s be accountable to one another…

Let’s avoid unfulfilled expectations by being clear and specific when we discuss goals and action items. If it’s not clear… ask.

 Let’s be fair with one another…

Decision making will be transparent and open to input and review, yet not everyone will be involved in every decision. Ask for the level of involvement you need.
Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt… and when we make a mistake, let’s have it be no more than a mistake.

Two Designs for One-on-One Staff Meetings
Here are two one-on-one meeting formats that clients have put into practice with wonderful results. Both are initiated, designed, and led by the staff member, not the manager. While that’s not necessary, there is a powerful level of ownership gained by having the employee be responsible for the meeting.
The Standard Checking-In Meeting
 Action required of employee:

Request time on the manager’s calendar.
Share proposed agenda two or more days in advance of the meeting.

 Agenda Format:
For each topic:

State the issue or topic to be discussed.
Provide enough background or context so issue is clear.
State the desired outcome for this conversation.

Agenda discussion path:

Review recent circumstances and actions
Discuss ideas, concerns, issues.
Review next steps: Who will do, What, by When.

Action the next day:

Employee sends follow-up e-mail to summarize the meeting, if appropriate.

 The 30-60-90: One-on-One Check-In with Team Members
Providing clarity about the future and the focus required to achieve it are important elements of managing people. Three time frames are important—30 days, 60 days, and 90 days—so that longer-term issues get equal attention. These meetings are usually done once each month.
Initiating action required:

The staff member sends responses to the questions below to the manager at least one day prior to the meeting so the manager has time to reflect.

Questions to be answered:

What has happened recently?
What are the desired 30-day outcomes?
What are the desired 60-day outcomes?
What are the desired 90-day outcomes?

Discussion path for the meeting:

Review prior action items.
Discuss ideas, concerns, issues.
Review next steps: Who will do, What, by When.

As you would expect, this format sets up excellent, purposeful discussions which add to the relationship. In addition, the manager can see where he or she might help team members by clearing roadblocks, selling ideas, or obtaining resources.
One final comment: I’m a big fan of having employees design and lead the meetings they have with the boss or with managers higher in the organization. Managers often don’t have time to think about one-on-one meetings ahead of time, and they sincerely appreciate employees who come into each meeting prepared. It’s another way for you to come across as remarkable.