Exploring a True Win/Win for Leaders
Most performance review systems and classroom grading models are based on a normal distribution or bell curve. When plotted on graph paper, this curve resembles the shape of a bell with a bulging middle that’s tapered on both ends or “tails.” This shape represents the majority of individual performers who cluster around the middle of the “bell” with select higher and lower performers scattered in its respective tails.
Grading on the curve forces evaluators to assign rankings in a highest-to-lowest order measured against the entire data set, which may seem fair at first. But is it really? This is the question raised in Ken Blanchard’s latest book Helping People Win at Work. Blanchard postulates that the generally-accepted performance review process is flawed.
Hiring Winners –– Evaluating ‘Losers’
Early on, Blanchard effectively undermines the performance review model of force ranking employees when he asks managers during his live seminars, “How many of you go out and hire losers so that you can fill the low [evaluation] slots?” The absurdity of the question generates laughs because his managerial audiences strive to hire the best performers with solid track records or potential winners who can thrive with appropriate coaching.
Blanchard goes even further when he discusses his years as a college professor. During his tenure he would give students a copy of the final exam during the first week of class. He would then spend the entire course helping them develop answers for those questions ––virtually ensuring every student earned an “A” grade.
This unorthodox approach evoked criticism and disbelief from fellow faculty, but Blanchard believed it helped his students learn in a positive, constructive manner.
Most of the remainder of the book, co-authored by Garry Ridge, CEO of the WD-40 Company, which makes a line of consumer packaged goods, is comprised of Ridge’s musings and the application of Blanchard’s leadership principles within the WD-40 Company.
In fact, Ridge discusses a key learning moment shortly after he took over as CEO that shaped his leadership outlook. He was at a London hotel relaxing in shorts and a t-shirt after nearly 48 straight hours of meetings and travel. At which point, the hotel fire alarms started going off. As a frequent traveler, Ridge relied on past experience, assuming that after a few minutes the alarms would stop and be followed by an apologetic announcement for the disruption over the hotel loud speakers. That didn’t happen. This time the threat was real and hotel security evacuated all guests — including the underdressed Ridge — out into the cold air.
Ridge writes that he was unprepared for this outcome because he chose to ignore the alarm and rely on past assumptions, which then leads him to ask the reader, “Which alarms in your own life are you choosing to ignore?”
This refreshing style characterizes Ridge’s discussion of how he implemented a performance review system at his company called “Don’t Grade My Paper, Help Me Get an ‘A’,” which was based on Blanchard’s teaching philosophy. Ridge states how his organization’s employee evaluation program strives to promote a sense of belonging, caring candor, continual learning and dogged persistence, as well as willingness to attempt risk in the face of failure.
Ridge attributes the successful adoption of these principles to his company’s impressive sales growth from $100 million to $339 million since the program’s inception.
For Whom the Bell-Curve Tolls
Blanchard returns in the final section of the book to outline “12 Simple Truths” gleaned from his own previous writings and Ridge’s experience leading the WD-40 Company. These truths comprise varying conceptual combinations of performance planning, proactive coaching, respectful dialogue, positive reinforcement and situational leadership.
This is the first book in Blanchard’s Leading at a Higher Level series. Each installment will explore a complex leadership issue within a single organization.
It’s evident the insights in his premier effort seem to sound the death knell for traditional, bell-curve-based performance reviews.