25 Stories About Work – Getting a Review and Thinking Like Your Boss

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Chicago, 1990s through today

If you are ever looking for a great book to read, I would recommend High Output Management by Andy Grove, the late former founder of Intel. I picked up a hard copy on the internet for just a few dollars including shipping and although it was written in the mid 1980s (and updated in the early 1990s) much of the book is completely relevant for both new entrants to the work force and those that have been engaged for decades.

Andy Grove had a passion for getting the most out of his employees, since he was focused on productivity and his staff represented a large cost (and opportunity) for his organization. He approached productivity in two main ways 1) by leveraging process and eliminating bureaucracy he could move faster at lower cost 2) by training and motivating his staff, he could achieve greater outputs. For the purpose of this post we will focus on #2, although it should be remembered that Andy Grove also essentially popularized key elements of the “open office” plan where executives sit amongst their staff which I will cover in a future post.

For his employees, he defined motivation as getting the maximum that he could achieve. His motivation would broadly be considered “engagement” in the modern definition. “Engaged” employees go the extra mile and are passionate and drive for results, while “dis-engaged” employees are an active drag on the business and your company would frankly be better off if they just stayed home. Most employees are in the middle of the spectrum, neither actively engaged nor disengaged.

Training and feedback are the key elements of this post. Andy pushed training in his business and held his executives to a standard that they needed to teach and be part of the process of investing in employees. I remember when I was starting out in my master’s program many case studies held up Motorola as ahead of their time with the “Motorola University” of classes to train and advance their employees. All of this was done before the internet with papers, books and physical classes and it represented a significant investment for the company. Today, these programs have mostly been minimized at large corporations, although many service firms (financial and technology) still invest heavily in training and grooming their own staff, and most large internet / technology firms have more extensive orientation and learning methodologies.

For feedback, there is a template for an annual review in this book from the 1980s which contains all of the key elements of an employee review that you might receive today. The employee is supposed to do a self-review prior to the meeting, and the manager goes through the strengths, weaknesses, and areas of improvement and seeks out feedback from peers in order to develop a thorough analysis. Andy Grove mentioned how important employee development and feedback was to him and how he forced other top executives to be part of and even care about the process although many of them did it in a perfunctory manner (complying with the process but not the “spirit”).

From my personal experience and from those of my work acquaintances across many industries, the formal personnel appraisal has been dying for many years and is usually done in a perfunctory manner if it happens at all. If you are in a services business (consulting, law, finance), your personnel review is essentially done for you in the course of your engagements, since “good” staff are selected for teams and “poor” staff are shuffled around and / or “ride the bench”. Leaders have an incentive to collect (and shield) the best staff because they make the most money for their groups by pleasing clients and billing lots of hours while the poorer performers are not selected and (mostly) find their way out of the organization (or into the back office bureaucracy where they don’t face clients). While the service firms’ HR departments would vehemently deny this statement, it is the “broad” truth.

But if you are in a corporation or smaller business that is not service facing, you will be most impacted by a poor or minimalistic review process (as an employee), because you won’t get valuable and direct feedback that will help you grow and improve. In today’s corporate environment, re-organizations are frequent and managers rotate through departments (or are thrown into direct work), so supervision routinely moves to the back burner. There is little incentive to groom and work on staff (as a manager) if you aren’t going to be around for 2-3 years in the same job because it takes time to invest in staff and improving processes and behaviors and there is no purpose in putting in this sort of investment if you are just going to move on to the next job anyways.

As an employee, a key element of the review process is GETTING OUT OF YOUR MENTAL SPACE AND THINKING LIKE YOUR SUPERVISOR. When you are working day to day, dealing with your customers and fellow employees and the frustrations of the modern workplace, it is easy to keep a heads down approach. However, the most valuable thought process is to look at the world from the perspective of your boss, and how you can make his / her life EASIER. How can you do this? Here’s some starting ideas…

1. Don’t behave badly in public or via email – often times the only key data points that get escalated to a supervisor are these sorts of public events or a poorly thought out (whiny) email. In a sense you are creating a negative start to your own personnel review by leaving these artifacts around, because your supervisor will already be on the defensive when he / she is calibrating your review against your peers
2. Solve problems for your boss and be part of the solution – your boss is likely very busy and consumed with their job and their own bureaucratic turf battles. Don’t create NEW problems for your boss, solve existing problems and make their life easier
3. Tell your own story in frequent updates – Don’t wait until personnel review “season” to tell your story. Create documents and emails that explain your successes and send them to your boss in regular intervals. Even if the boss doesn’t seem to reply, keep doing it, and at least you’ve tried to set a narrative that they can use to help your career. Worst case, if you have a bad boss, you can use this as a defense when they ignore your achievements and go after you for failings
4. Give your boss a heads up before they get blindsided – if something is going badly, it will often get to your boss through the informal “water cooler” gossip highway quickly and they might look bad to their peers or their supervisor. No one likes to get surprised, and they will be irked that they don’t have a story / excuse ready and at hand to shield or defer themselves from criticism. After all, your “mistake” (whether that is true or not that is the perception) is their problem since you are their responsibility. This is a fine line to walk since you don’t want to escalate “all” issues because many issues “die on the vine” and you are also essentially giving your boss negative feedback that they can use against you in the review if they choose to do so
5. Remember, your boss likely doesn’t know how to be a supervisor – very, very few folks nowadays know how to be a good boss and have seen positive role models in their career for these sorts of activities. Your boss likely dreads your annual review and does not like to give you negative feedback and probably doesn’t know how to handle sensitive discussions. Since the annual review process has become perfunctory for many companies, bosses pay it lip service and do the minimum and just want to get it over with. By doing 1-4 above, you can make your superior’s life a bit easier
6. Finally, you don’t have to be the best, just better than your peers – Like school, business is often “graded on a curve”, and if your co-employees are whiny and not doing items 1-4 above, then you will stand out as a “good” employee. It often doesn’t take much to be better than the rest, just some self-reflection and the act of putting yourself in your boss’s shoes
Cross posted at LITGM

12 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Getting a Review and Thinking Like Your Boss”

  1. In an environment with organizational instability (caused by frequent reorganizations and/or mergers & acquisitions), the individual’s ability to sell himself becomes much more important. If someone works for the same boss for 5 years, then the boss will likely be able to understand his value, even if he (the employee) is low-key. But if there is a lot of shuffling, self-selling becomes critical.

    Also, organizations which are extremely complex put a premium on self-selling and emotional intelligence, i.e., figuring out who the key influencers of a particular decision *really* are.

  2. In Tom Wolfe’s classic 80s Esquire article, ‘The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce’ he gave a vivid description of Grove in the early days of Intel and the culture he was shaping at the company,

    Grove was the most colorful person at Intel. He was a thin man in his mid-thirties with tight black curls all over his head. The curls ran down into a pair of mutton chops that seemed to run together like goulash with his mustache. Every day he wore either a turtleneck jersey or an open shirt with an ornamental chain twinkling on his chest. He struck outsiders as the epitome of a style of the early 1970s known as California Groovy. In fact, Grove was the epitome of the religious principle that the greater the freedom- for example, the freedom to dress as you pleased- the greater the obligation to exercise discipline. Grove’s own groovy outfits were neat and clean. The truth was, he was a bit of a bear on the subject of neatness and cleanliness. He held what he called “Mr. Clean inspections.” showing up in various work areas wearing his mutton chops and handlebar mustache and his Harry Belafonte-cane cutter’s shirt and the gleaming chain work, inspecting offices for books stacked too high, papers strewn over desktops, everything short of running a white glove over the shelves, as if this were some California Groovy Communal version of Parris Island, while the chain twinkled in his chest hairs. Grove was also the inspiration for such items as the performance ratings and the Late List. Each employee received a report card periodically with a grade based on certain presumably objective standards. The grades were superior, exceeds requirements, meets requirements, marginally meets requirements,and does not meet requirements. This was the equivalent of A, B, C, D, and F in school. Noyce was all for it. “If you’re ambitious and hardworking,” he would say, “you want to be told how you’re doing.” In Noyce’s view, most of the young hotshots who were coming to work for Intel had never had the benefit of honest grades in their lives. In the late 1960s and early 1970s college faculties had been under pressure to give all students passing marks so they wouldn’t have to go off to Vietnam, and they had caved in, until the entire grading system was meaningless. At Intel they would learn what measuring up meant. The Late List was also like something from a strict school. Everyone was expected at work at eight A.M. A record was kept of how many employees arrived after 8:10 A. M. If 7 percent or more were late for three months, then every body in the section had to start signing in. There was no inevitable penalty for being late, however. It was up to each department head to make of the Late List what he saw fit. If he knew a man was working overtime every night on a certain project, then his presence on the Late List would probably be regarded as nothing more than that, a line on a piece of paper. Noyce and Grove knew that penalties were very nearly useless. Things like report cards and Late Lists worked only if they stimulated self-discipline.

  3. Agreed on influence. That is a much more complex topic that I may try to tackle in a future post. This was hopefully for someone newer to the work force who is struggling with the review process.

  4. Best “appraisal feedback” that I’ve heard lately.

    Appraisee: “What do I have to do to become a Director?”

    Appraiser: “Sign the contract.”

  5. <>

    A slight bone to pick here. The draft lottery was first conducted in December of 1969, and applied to men born between 1944-1950. It determined the order for induction for 1970. A second lottery was held in 1970 (I drew #321, heh.) A third in 1971 for men born in 1952.
    A fourth lottery was held in 1972 for men born in 1953, but none were inducted. I don’t know it to be true, but I am inclined to think that
    grade inflation wasn’t widespread at the time.

    My older brother was a Senior at Caltech for the first draft and drew an at-risk number. I don’t know what exactly transpired, but an orthopedic
    surgeon acquaintance of my father provided sufficient documentation that
    my brother was classified 4F. When he was awarded his Master’s in Solid State Physics in 1971, I helped him pack up his belongings to move up to Santa Clara where he went to work for Intel. His first year there Intel had revenue of $12 million.

  6. This portion of Grurray’s post got dropped somehow:

    “In Noyce’s view, most of the young hotshots who were coming to work for Intel had never had the benefit of honest grades in their lives. In the late 1960s and early 1970s college faculties had been under pressure to give all students passing marks so they wouldn’t have to go off to Vietnam, and they had caved in, until the entire grading system was meaningless.”

  7. That could be Wolfe embellishing, as he and the other non-fiction novelists were known to do.

    However, it’s not the first time I’ve seen that. It’s possible Noyce believed it, whether it was actually true or not. One of the main themes of the piece is that his Midwestern dissenting Protestant upbringing uniquely prepared him to develop an organization dedicated to relentless, disruptive innovation. He and Grove, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust and fled the Soviet invasion, were probably not too keen on pampering new recruits. In that respect, maybe they prefigured notorious tech task masters like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.

  8. Off-Topic, but about grade inflation: I’d always thought the grade inflation tale was true.

    The people that entered in 1963 were the baby boomer cutting edge; we were told that 1/2 to 3/4 of us would flunk out the first semester – the hysteria in the dorm may have come from being told that but I’m pretty sure it was the grades we got as well. A good percentage were gone that spring and more by the next fall. (I don’t remember that appeals were possible.)

    That year’s applicants were too numerous for land grant schools and the classes at night and on Saturdays were stuffed; then about everyone was accepted, if you were less serious you went to a teacher’s college). And a lot disappeared (I heard that was true at UT & A&M as well as Nebraska – I know some first rate scholars that are my age and flunked out their first semesters some place or other.) Of course UT & A&M are now competitive, though Nebraska remains closer to open admissions.

    To give you an idea of how much academics think in terms of stasis, my freshmen English teacher had us all teach a class on Victorian lit because, he thought, we’d all end up college teachers since the demand was huge and we were honors students. (I had a terrible crush on him and he was a great teacher; later he’d become president of AAUP. He wasn’t a bad guy, of course, he just thought things would continue. He was on the tenure track & ABD; in the 70’s you were less likely to see that.)

    I graduated in ’67, haphazardly began grad school but came back in earnest in ’70. That was when we were divided into groups in one class and the teacher left the room so he wouldn’t influence us in a 17th century poetry class and another teacher, of Milton, allowed a student to read the list of those dead in Viet Nam at the beginning of each class (don’t ask me why the 17th century seemed to have more than its share of loons). Maybe it was meant to encourage those passing grades to potential draftees – there was much anti-war talk of course. By the mid-70’s expansion had stopped and departments had found the wonderful relief from comp courses in using grad students (and in some schools adjuncts). The break in other traditions & definitions of education came then, too. But of course, the whole culture was changing and expecting rigor was a sign of an authoritarian personality.

    Anyway, for people that saw the changes like me, the idea of grade inflation seemed about right, but I don’t have any stats. I can say I didn’t see any “self-graded” classes as an undergrad but heard more and more about them as a grad.

    And, of course, I avoided STEM courses and my friends, even the brilliant ones, were in liberal arts & fine arts. (The one with a Woodrow Wilson and the one who won the Rome Prize in composition had over 4.0 averages; when we began, the scale was a 9 point one, with only extraordinary work getting a 9; in ’65 they changed it to a 4.0 scale & halved the previous ones.) I suspect that says something as well. (On the other hand, the year I carried a full load, fell apart in a melodramatic relationship, I ended up on sco pro.)

  9. “In Noyce’s view, most of the young hotshots who were coming to work for Intel had never had the benefit of honest grades in their lives. ”

    That was definitely not the case in the 50s and early 60s. Still, I did get a possible freeby from one professor. I was going to start medical school in September and had to get all my requirements finished. I still had not taken the second semester of inorganic chemistry and I asked him if I could just take the final. He agreed and I studied for a couple of weeks and took the final. Looking back, I wonder how he could have flunked me after letting me take the final without the course. Anyway, I passed and got 28 units of A that spring.

    Then, in August, my Air National Guard unit was called up and I spent a year on active duty doing almost nothing. The medical school held my place for the next year and I finally got to go.

    Grurry, Avrech doesn’t mess around with his politics. Or religion.

Comments are closed.