COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

How do I earn an A+?

It may sound simple, but it’s not so easy to do: describe expected performance levels to an employee, and even tougher, what the employee can do to earn the highest marks for contributions. At WD-40 Company, we strive to help people get an A for their performance. But first you have to define what that means in observable behaviors.

We start with the job description, which is the summary of why the job exists at all, what functions it comprises and what the behavioral competency requirements are in order for the person to be able to fulfill all the responsibilities.

We define the knowledge, skills and abilities that are derived from the functions as necessary for full competence. We identify the likely experience and education required to obtain those behavioral competencies. So far so good.

Then the employee asks, “So what do I need to do in order to earn an A+? How do I demonstrate eligibility for promotion?”

If you have taken the time and invested the effort to create a career progression for the particular field, then you are well-prepared to discuss the demonstration of competencies for the next job in the progression.

You can point to the kinds of contributions expected in that next level, and help the employee get some opportunities to gain the required competencies. If there is no career progression — either because you haven’t yet gone to the trouble of composing it, or because there is no business need for it — then the discussion can be more difficult.

And even if there is no need for another level in the career ladder, the employee still wants to know how to excel, not only meet expectations, and therefore earn more.

Sometimes, it’s straightforward. If goals are met ahead of schedule and at a higher metric result than expected, that could form one definition of A+. Making contributions outside of the employee’s career field, without failing to meet all other expectations, is another.

But sometimes you just don’t know what an A+ is until you see it. It’s a bit like art. I may not know how to define a painting that moves me, but I know when I’m moved, and then can likely explain why after the fact.

Supervisors are not immediately comfortable with answering an employee by saying, “I’ll know an A+ when I see it.” But the fact is, it’s not always possible to define the measures of superior performance in advance.

There’s also the issue of opportunity. Performance above and beyond the call of duty sometimes must wait for the demand. For example, if a business crisis erupts, that is often the time when the strongest performers step up and contribute amazing things.

Or if a chance to accelerate the company’s objectives unexpectedly arrives, that is another time when A+ performance erupts from those people capable and willing to do so.

One of the leaders I respect most from my career, Lou Paglialonga, once responded to my inquiry about how to earn more income and excel in the following way:

“Stan, the expectations for your position, as we agreed when you joined, are not easy to fulfill. You’ve been making good progress, and after two years, I’d say you are meeting these high expectations. We all have such high expectations for our roles.

“But I can’t give you a formula for how you can earn a promotion or higher raises. I can give some examples of what might be considered evidence of earning promotion or more income. I can offer advice on how you can invest in your own professional development beyond what you are doing already.

“I can ensure that I’m thinking of you when opportunities for new experiences arise. But there’s no recipe. It’s my job to evaluate how you’re doing. If we communicate frequently and openly, you’ll get where you want to be, because we’ll be figuring it out together as we go along.”

It is the leader’s accountability to be looking for ways to better define A+ behaviors, but because that’s not always possible, it is the leader’s accountability to be willing to explain the ambiguity to her staff. There is no substitute for leadership, and there is no substitute for a leader’s judgment.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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