Todd talks about the typical performance review process, and how it can be improved.

picture of Todd Herman

Recently I've seen a number of articles and blog posts, declaring the annual performance review has become antiquated and ineffective, reminding me of a bookpublished in May 2009 titled Helping People Win At Work. Written by Ken Blanchard (author of The One Minute Manager) and Garry Ridge (President and CEO of the WD-40 Company), the book is devoted to sharing how the WD-40 Company implemented a different performance review system, focused on the concept of "Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get An A."

The WD-40 Experience

Imagine you're back in college and, at the start of the semester, the professor gives you the EXACT final exam she'll give at the end of the course. Then, the rest of the semester, her lectures and assignments are all geared to preparing you to get an "A" on the final exam.

That's the philosophy behind "Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A" – the manager and employee clearly communicate and agree upon the expectations in a Performance Plan. These expectations comprise:

  • Performing essential functions,
  • Meeting key performance goals, and
  • Adhering to overall corporate values.

Using this concept, the Performance Plan is the equivalent of the professor giving you the final exam at the start of the semester.

Other components of the WD-40 performance management system include:

  • Quarterly Performance Plans and Performance Reviews.
  • Short plans and reviews, generally no more than 2 to 3 pages.
  • Carrying out all aspects of performance management in the spirit of helping the employee do their best – and, if someone has an off quarter, communicating this and then helping the employee improve their performance the next quarter.

The THA Experience

Interestingly, an outside consultant and I had concluded – independently of the book – similar concepts would benefit the Todd Herman Associates annual performance review process. In 2009, we set out to devise a different system, one meant to be highly relevant, easily tailorable to all employees regardless of position, short, and quarterly. She and I worked with these five goals in mind:

  • Form – Make it shorter, with the goal of one single-sided page.
  • Timeliness – Make it more frequent, with the goal being a quarterly reviewand plan.
  • Time Required – Make it faster, with goals of no more than 30 minutes advance preparation by the manager and employee, and limiting the meeting to conduct the review and plan to 30 minutes.
  • Process – Make it easy and painless, with the goal of making everything "100% complete" in a single meeting.
  • Intention – Make it a positive growth experience for the employee, with the goal of both rewarding results and improving performance.

We developed the Performance Plan and Performance Review forms and the related process – when it was time to test all this, the guinea pig was ... me! In October 2009, we sat down and used the form we'd developed to create MY Q4 Performance Plan. We pulled together performance goals and objectives as best we could – remember, this was still a prototype – until we were both satisfied with the document and its contents.

And then ... it was time. To make this a REAL test, I needed to OFFICIALLY turn over evaluation of my performance to this consultant. We both signed and dated my Performance Plan, put a copy into my Personnel File, and set a date in early January when we'd meet and she would formally evaluate and document my performance. Despite generating some butterflies in my stomach when I turned things over, the experience turned out well and we have kept this quarterly arrangement to this day.

After two cycles of prototyping the Performance Plan and Performance Review process, the consultant and I decided the form and process were ready to roll out to the firm. We met with them to explain the process, and I began applying the new process with my staff beginning with 2010 Q2. While there have been some minor revisions over the years, the same principles and five goals apply today.

How do my staff like this process? While I can't get a truly objective answer to this question, the consultant can – and she has consistently gotten good comments about our quarterly plan and review process. Here are some typical comments:

  • "I like the fact it's quarterly instead of annual – feedback is very timely and specific, which I appreciate!"
  • "At all my previous employers, the annual performance review was a joke – people went through the motions just to comply with corporate policy, and there was very little meaning or substance to the review."
  • "It's nice to have reviews not tied to my annual compensation adjustment. While I know my review ratings ultimately factor into my raise, this format allows me to focus on my performance four times a year."
  • "Quarterly is a good time frame – short enough I can keep my planned goals in mind, and then actually remember how I did against them at my review."
  • "I like having actionable goals geared to what I can achieve in a quarter – provided I stretch a little, of course!"

Comparing WD-40 and THA Ratings and Ratings Philosophies

Given the book's subtitle – Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A – I assumed the highest rating at WD-40 was an "A." It's not. I learned WD-40's highest rating is an "A+" although other ratings are "full letter" grades – B, C, and L. Managers at WD-40 set goals expecting performance at the "A" level. If all are met, the employee gets an "A." If, however, goals are exceeded, then an "A+" is warranted and gladly awarded. And if an employee is new to the company or in a new position and needs more time to gain competence, the rating is an "L-Learning".

At THA, we use a numeric system with no "plus" or "minus" ratings, with inherent expectations regarding how frequently an employee should achieve a particular rating:

  • "5-Outstanding" – Occasionally
  • "4-Very Good" – Routinely
  • "3-Good" – Rarely
  • "2-Satisfactory" – Almost Never
  • "1-Needs Improvement" – Never

A few words about the "3-Good" rating – I expect everyone to have an "off" quarter once in a while, so a "3-Good" will not hurt a staff member, so long as it has been PRECEDED by a pattern of "4-Very Good" or "5-Outstanding" ratings, AND the NEXT rating is at least "4-Very Good." Two "3-Good" ratings in a row indicate a problem in aptitude or attitude – and possibly both – and definitely puts that staff member on my radar for possible "counseling out."

What You CANNOT Control

Unfortunately, many people reading this article are not in control of their company's performance plan and review process. For such folks, let me suggest:

  • Passing along this article to an executive or someone in HR who can make or advocate changes in the process.
  • Adopting the "Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A" mentality with any staff you supervise.
  • Sitting down with your manager at least quarterly to go over last year's annual performance review, and asking for specific feedback on the areas for improvement noted in the review.
  • Taking the opportunity to share with your manager – on a timely basis – both your successes AND your challenges in your areas for improvement.
  • Reviewing your performance plan monthly and keeping a record of specific accomplishments and challenges.

What You CAN Control

Fortunately, regardless of the performance plan and review system in place, you CAN control several key factors in this process. It is noteworthy that they are all centered on the ONLY thing you can control – and that is YOU!

  • Understand Your Manager Has Constraints – Unless you have a real snake of a manager, your manager is probably doing her best to work within company policies while still helping you. If there is a bell curve and she can award only a certain number of employees with a specific rating, or she has only a small budget for raises, her hands are largely tied. Do your best to appreciate your manager's difficult position.
  • Managers Are Looking For Results, Not Intentions – John Maxwell, one of my favorite authors and speakers, has said: "We judge ourselves by our intentions, while we judge others by their actions."

Here is how we'd LIKE to be rated:

Assessment = Plan vs Intentions
(Subjective) (Objective) (Subjective)

Here is how we're ACTUALLY rated by our managers:

Assessment = Plan vs Results
(Objective) (Objective) (Objective)

Try to view your results through your manager's eyes – while performance reviews will never be 100% objective, your manager's eyes are inherently more objective than yours.

  • Hard Truths Do Have To Be Shared – Managers do occasionally have to deliver some hard truths during a review. In such cases, you can't change past results. What you can control is discussing what can be done differently in the future, and asking your manager to write specific actions for improvement into your performance plan.
  • "Borderline" Means Just That – While employees always want a rating that "could go either way" to be rounded up, a manager may choose to round down – especially if he wants to send a message to you. In cases like this, do your best to determine what this message is, and then ensure your actions demonstrate to your manager you "got the message."
  • Speak Up If You Believe Your Manager Got Something Wrong – I've been on both sides of this situation. One quarter, one of my staff's performance was not up to what I'd normally expect, so I gave her a rating lower than she would have liked. Even so, we signed off on that review and put it in her Personnel File. A few days later, she approached me and asked if we could revisit her review – I told her I'd be happy to do so. She then shared with me several details and extenuating circumstances I'd not known when I originally wrote her review. Armed with this new knowledge, I revised her review, upped her rating, and went back over it with her. We both felt good about the revised review and signed it, and I destroyed the original. While it's best to voice concerns during the review discussion itself, you can still ask for a "do over" – a good manager will allow this and also bring an open mind to the meeting.

In Summary

Hopefully, you'll be able to go into your next performance review meeting with an open and inquisitive mind, listen to what your manager has to say, ask questions, share any facts your manager might have missed, and come out feeling good about the meeting, its outcome, your rating, your manager, and yourself. If you can do this, great – if you can't, consider initiating a meeting with your manager on a regular basis to solicit feedback and review your progress in specific areas.

One final note – while you should no longer be dreading your performance review, butterflies in your stomach are normal! This is especially true during those excruciatingly long few seconds between when your manager pulls out the review and when you actually see your rating. Remember, butterflies indicate you are taking things seriously and want to stretch and improve!



Todd L. Herman