In an interview conducted by the “Academy of Achievement” (p.4) the late author Nora Ephron recounted her oft told story of her first day in Mr. Charles Simms’ Journalism class at Beverly Hills High School. Mr. Simms, she says, began the class at the blackboard writing “who, what, where, why, when and how”, the classic six things required in the lead of any good news story. Then he dictated a set of facts involving the school’s Principal announcing that the following Thursday, the school’s faculty would travel to Sacramento CA for a colloquium on “new teaching methods”. Among the illustrious presenters would be famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. The students were then told to write the lead for the following weeks School Newspaper.
According to Ephron, everybody sat at their typewriters and wrote something like “Margaret Mead and X and Y will address the faculty in Sacramento, Thursday, at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal announced today”. “We were very proud of ourselves” said Ephron, but Simms “just ruffled through” our efforts “and tore them into tiny bits and threw them in the trash”. Then Simms said “the lead story is this: There will be no school Thursday!” “It was like an epiphany moment for me”, said Ephron, “Oh my God, it is about the point! It is about finding out what the point is.”
I simply love this story and its point: who is your audience and what is the most important point of your communication. And nowhere is this point more important than in providing meaningful and useful performance feedback to another individual.
Unfortunately, the process and structured format used by many organizations to conduct performance reviews can easily complicate the challenge of arriving at some meaningful overarching point. Many formats I am familiar with contain lists of mandatory categories to address and are often assigned an alphabetical or numerical grade. Overall performance grades or scores are common and written narratives must support the grades assigned. It is easy to see how managers can become so absorbed in getting the format right and the scores to add up, that they fail to identify what Ms. Ephron would have called the right lead for the individual involved.
We all know in our hearts that we humans are not reducible to a grade or score on any performance measurement device. But many individuals nevertheless succumb to the habit of seeing themselves as a test score, letter or numerical grade, or adjectival descriptor. And if there is anything negative in a performance review, those comments can overwhelm anything positive that surrounds it. Thus the lead becomes critical.
The LEAD, as I use the term here, is the overarching characterization — positive or negative — that captures the essence of the individual’s performance under review. Everyone’s performance has some transcendent quality or unique set of characteristics that effectively summarized as a point of departure, should set the tone and context for everything that follows. Moreover, the lead is something the best managers wish a subordinate to remember long after the review session itself.
Getting the lead right is not easy. It demands a thorough knowledge of the individual’s performance over time and the ability to observe and assimilate changes in that performance when they occur; this year’s lead may differ from those that worked before.
But getting the lead right, should help the person under review place the more detailed elements of his or her performance assessment in a context that gives these elements the appropriate weight. Getting the lead right, should help the individual keep his or her own sense of their performance in the appropriate professional perspective. Getting the lead right, should also provide the motivation for a subordinate to continue on the path they are on, or to make the performance adjustments your review aims to encourage.
Regardless of the process and structured format requirements for a performance review, the best managers take the time to step back and determine the appropriate lead for the individual’s performance under review. Then the lead is where they begin the review session itself, it is a theme to which they return whenever they think necessary, and it is often where they choose to end a review session so as to emphasize the lead’s centrality to everything else the review contains.
As you can see, the best managers never bury the lead.