Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve read some Hemingway before, but I don’t remember enjoying Hemingway as much as I enjoyed this one. Everyone talks about Hemingway’s terse prose style, but here it seems to be used to its best effect. Saying very little but saying volumes at the same time.

I turned her so I could see her face when I kissed her and I saw that her eyes were shut. I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backward as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with brother officers. I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.

This was one of the first signals that I was on to something good here, coming very early in the novel when Frederic Henry first meets Catherine Barkley. They would become important to each other. I knew that, not just because it would be the kind of things that happens in books, but because Hemingway telegraphed it in a way that was clear but at the same time subtle. If I had read this book ten years ago, I don’t think I would have stopped on this paragraph. I would’ve sailed past it.

Now Catherine would die. That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.

It’s philosophical. It’s simple, but philosophical at the same time. And it’s powerful. Life, love, war and death—it’s all powerful stuff, but told simply and with smooth and easy transitions from one scene to the next and pages of nothing but dialogue. Why do I have so much trouble getting from place to place and allowing my characters to talk to each other? Next time I am, maybe I should pull this one down and read a few pages?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

This was a good read with several good ideas for me to implement at work. We’ve just changed our cycle so that performance evaluations for all staff need to be completed at the end of our fiscal year. I saw the form that was used by my predecessor and I hate it. I really want to create my own instrument, which is 10% reliant on an evaluation of past performance and 90% reliant on documentation of future goals and objectives. Here are some thoughts from the book for me to play with in this regard:

Great managers . . . know that the core of a strong and vibrant workplace cam be found in the first six questions:

1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

+ + + + +

Remember the revolutionary insights common to great managers:

1. People don’t change that much.
2. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.
3. Try to draw out what was left in.
4. That is hard enough.

If you apply their insight to the core activities of the catalyst role, this is what you see:

1. When selecting someone, they select for talent . . . not simply experience, intelligence, or determination.
2. When setting expectations, they define the right outcomes . . . not the right steps.
3. When motivating someone, they focus on strengths . . . not on weaknesses.
4. When developing someone, they help him find the right fit . . . not simply the next rung on the ladder.

+ + + + +

How do great managers turn a harmful weakness into an irrelevant talent? First, ask two questions.

1. Is the poor performance trainable? If the employee is struggling because he doesn’t have the necessary skills or knowledge, then it almost certainly is trainable.

2. Is the nonperformance caused by the manager himself tripping the wrong trigger? Each employee is motivated differently. If the manager forgets this, if he is trying to motivate a noncompetitive person with contests, or a shy person with public praise, then the solution to the nonperformance might well lie in his hands. If he can find the right trigger and trip it, perhaps the employee’s true talent will burst out.

If the answer is ‘no’ to both questions, then by default the nonperformance is probably a talent issue. The person is struggling because she doesn’t have the specific talents needed to perform. In this case training is not an option. Given the enduring nature of talent, it is highly unlikely that the person will ever be able to acquire the necessary talent. She is who she is, and left to her own devices, she will always be hamstrung by those few areas where she lacks talent. If success depends on the individual excelling in an area that is a “nontalent,” there are only three possible routes to helping the person succeed:

1. Devise a support system. If one employee finds it difficult to remember names, buy him a Rolodex. If another is an appalling speller, make sure she always runs spell check before she prints. Manage around the person’s weakness so they can spend time focusing on their strengths. As with all focus on strength strategies, devising a support system is more productive and more fun than trying to fix the weakness.

2. Find a complemetary partner. You succeed by finding ways to capitalize on who you are, not by trying to fix who you aren’t. If you are blunt in one or two important areas, try to find a partner whose peaks match your valleys. Balanced by this partner, you are then free to hone your talents to a sharper point. This lesson is applicable across virtually all roles and professions. Since few people are a perfect fit for their role, the great manager will always be looking for ways to match up one person’s valleys with another person’s peaks.

3. Find an alternative role. There are some people for whom nothing works. You trip every trigger imaginable. You train. You find partners. You buy Rolodexes and teach spell check. But nothing works. Faced with this situation, you have little choice. You have to find this employee and alternative role. You have to move him out. Sometimes the only way to cure a bad relationship is to get out of it. Similarly, sometimes the only way to cure poor performance is to get the performer out of that role. How do you know if you’re at that point? You will never know for sure. But the best managers offer this advice. You will have to manage around the weaknesses of each and every employee. But if, with one particular employee, you find yourself spending most of your time managing around weaknesses, then you know that you have made a casting error. At this point it is time to fix the casting error and stop trying to fix the person.

+ + + + +

Although each great manager employs his or her own approach to feedback, their approaches do share three characteristics:

1. Their feedback is constant. They varied the frequency according to the preferences or the needs of the individual employee. But whether the meetings happened for twenty minutes every month or for an hour ever quarter, these performance feedback meetings were, nonetheless, a constant part of their interaction with each employee throughout the year. How much of a time commitment did this represent? According to the managers in Gallup’s study, the total time spent discussing each employee’s style and performance was roughly four hours per employee per year. And as one front-line supervisor said, “If you can’t spend four hours a year with each of your people, then you’ve either got too many people, or you shouldn’t be a manager.”

2. Each session began with a brief review of past performance. The purpose of this was not to evaluate, “You should do less of that. You should fix this.” Rather, the purpose was to help the employee think in detail about her style and to spark a conversation about the talents and nontalents that created this style. After this review, the focus always shifted to the future and how the employee could use her style to be productive. Sometimes they would work together to identify the employee’s path of least resistance toward her goals, but often the discussion would revolve around partnership. What talents did the manager bring that could complement the nontalents of the employee?

3. Great managers made a point of giving their feedback in private, one on one. The purpose of feedback is to help each individual to understand and build upon his natural strengths. You cannot do this in a group setting. This sounds obvious, but given today’s preoccupation with teamwork, it is surprising how many managers forget the importance of spending time alone with each of their people.

One section that I won’t go into detail here, but which I should photocopy and retain for future reference is the chapter called “The Art of Interviewing for Talent.” Another is the chapter called “Performance Management.” The keys from the latter one are what will help me build my own performance appraisal process.