What a Fourth Grade Report Card Can Teach Corporate America

We just received Maggie’s fourth grade report card. She gets rated on a scale of 1 to 4:

  1. Not meeting grade level
  2. Approaching grade level
  3. At grade level
  4. Above grade level

I am sure there are parents who open these reports with an anxious pit, praying for no 1s and 2s; I’m not one of them. Both of my kids have always been good students. What I look for? 4s in the ‘shows effort’ columns, Es (for Excellent) in all behavior columns (but I’m at peace with G(ood)s too), and a complimentary write-up.

On that last point, typically the end-of-year report card carries with it some generic paragraph void of any detail that might separate my kid from her classmates. Like the time Frank’s and his best friend’s first three sentences of their five-sentence paragraphs were nearly identical. “Frank/Henry makes me smile…” I get it – there’s a ton to do at the end of the year and when you’re a public elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, you have 29 students to write about. I’m sure it’s overwhelming. Perhaps I would repeat a few lines on each review myself? No, I wouldn’t actually, so I won’t gift that excuse. But it’s become my expectation, and so it was that much more touching to have read this from Maggie’s teacher yesterday:

IMG_2437Maggie, Your big smile and attentive posture in your chair is how most of our days began and ended. Thank you for being receptive to feedback and being so eager to learn more. Your friendly disposition and positive attitude were an important part of our class. Thanks for sharing your creative ideas and being patient with your classmates. Who else could have started off our musical theater show with such excitement? I am so happy with your increased confidence this semester. Please tap into that confidence at the start of your 5th grade school year and remember that you can do it! Have a wonderful summer. – Ms. Ambris

This is a story about my daughter. Not just one of 29 students, but Maggie Kain. I get from this that Maggie gave this class a special energy, that she was kind and helpful to her classmates, some of whom struggled, that she was respectful of her teacher, that she displayed the same kind of creativity we see at home in school, and proudly shared it, that she blossomed throughout the year, and that my wee-sized ten-year-old is indeed ready for all that fifth grade will bring (and at the moment, all that sleepaway camp is bringing!) I got all of that from one short paragraph.

Similarly, a month or so ago I received a phone call from Frank’s Spanish teacher. I’ve actually never received a call from either of the kids’ teachers – ever. So my body went a little weak when she introduced herself. She quickly leveled that this was a good call, and then proceeded to tell me that Frank was one of the best students she’d ever had. That he was a natural leader and an absolute joy to have in class. That he shows more effort than anyone and that it was clear to her how much he loves the language. She said she was almost crying talking about him. That whatever we’re doing at home, keep doing it because we have a great, great kid. Wow.

I am so appreciative of the time these teachers took to shower my kids, and yet I couldn’t help but think not only how many times my kids have been jipped out of this positive reinforcement – the kind with a lasting effect that makes them stronger, more productive, more confident, more proud: even better students! – but also how many times adults have been jipped out of this in corporate America.

Over the past two years, I had the benefit of working at a firm that had transitioned over time into what was a highly effective review process. They had done away with forced ranking, where only 5% of the firm could be considered outstanding, another 20% above average, and then the rest were average, below average and the fifth bucket? Well, destined to be fired. Fun was the annual meeting where you fought with your colleagues, saying horrible things about their directs to make space for your own in the high buckets. Those experiences made me regret having let go weak links months before, for at least they could have served a purpose of filling up the bottom buckets.

OppenheimerFunds’ review process was rolling. We had to both self-review and review our directs at the end of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd quarters, and then do an annual wrap up. As part of the wrap up, we had a multi-hour meeting with our group to talk about each of our employees, as a helpful way to force the 360-degree input that’s truly required for a fair and honest assessment. In these meetings, perspectives were shared and debated, a democratic process that naturally stripped away individual bias. Having the 1st and 2nd quarter review to refer back to at the end of the year ensured that the wrap up was indeed reflective of the whole year, rather than just easier-to-recall November and December, so no accomplishments were forgotten and improvements were clear. Self-reviews throughout allowed you to point out successes your supervisor may have missed, but also to think about what more you could be doing. Like Maggie’s and Frank’s teachers this year, OppenheimerFunds recognized that the review process isn’t just a summary of where you’ve been, but it should serve as powerful motivation for where you can go. And still, even OppenheimerFunds’ review process was only as effective as its employees cared to make it.

1s. 4s. Gs and Es. Checklists of accomplishments, quantifiable ones a plus. This stuff is all really important to create a record of what has been done. But it’s not specific enough to describe who has done it. What you do and who you are, are equally important.

Since becoming a boss 20 years ago, I’m proud to say I’ve always spent more time on reviews than I have on just about anything else. This was true at agencies where a formal review process didn’t even exist, to companies that used the dreaded forced ranking approach, to my latest experience at OppenheimerFunds. I approached each review as a creative writing exercise, stripping away generic fluff through the revision process and crafting stories about each of my directs in such a way that a theoretical new boss would be instantly familiar with the accomplishments, dynamics, personalities, approaches, and yes, of course, challenges of the team s/he was taking over. And most importantly, in such a way that showed my co-workers how much I cared about them as individuals, and about their careers. Adults need all of this as much as 10-year-olds, arguably more so given financial compensation is often at stake.

Words mean a lot. As fourth grade teacher Ms. Ambris shows above, you don’t have to use a ton of them to get your points across. Just use them thoughtfully, wisely, precisely. The more we do this for our own people, the more they will do it for theirs. And the more all of us will come to expect better.

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