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Mission & Motivation: Recreating the Performance Measuring Stick

By Net Assets posted 10-09-2018 08:07 AM

performance measuring stick

Human Resources |

Judge as we would wish to be judged: For this head of school, performance assessments are highly personal — and highly effective.

Article by Renata Rafferty, Saint Gertrude High School 

From the September/October 2018 Net Assets magazine

Very good … excellent … needs improvement. Eight … 6 … 9 … N/A. The one sentence “comment.”

Reducing our most valuable asset — our people — to “judgement via template” is one of the most effective means for eroding motivation, energy and dedication to school and mission. That is why the process of performance evaluations deserves a major overhaul.

An employee does not leave their job. They leave their boss.

An employee does not leave their job. They leave their boss. And as much as performance evaluation appears to highlight the power inequity between employer and staff, we “evaluators,” too, are measured by our employees in the way we engage the process.

I have never been a proponent of template-style evaluations. Early in my career, I found them confusing — one supervisor’s “6” could be another manager’s “9.” Overused phrases such as “great team player” did not necessarily give me any insight into how I needed to develop in order to become a great team leader. And I hungered for a clearer sense of how (or if) I was uniquely valuable to the organization as I struggled to map my career journey. I realize in retrospect that the manner and form in which my supervisor handled the assessment process — and not the “report card” itself — was often the thumb on the scale of whether to grow in place or move on.

So from my very first supervisory appointment, I committed to finding a way of making performance assessments for my team members extraordinarily clear, highly personal and aspirational. I scouted through scores of templates and forms to find one that could capture all that I wanted to convey. By their very nature, however, templates reduce everyone to assessment-by-common-denominators, and I was looking to build a team of uncommon professionals. I stopped looking for the perfect assessment tool and committed to preparing annual “narratives” for each person who reported to me, regardless of rank or position.

Over the years, I’ve developed a format that guides the narrative, resulting, usually, in a two-page communication. It does take far more time to complete the assessments, but it elicits a far more effective response from recipients.

The first half of the written evaluation highlights the employee’s key accomplishments and contributions that benefit both their department and the entire school. I also reference specific challenges or obstacles they had to face (or face down), even admitting that sometimes I have been that challenge.

I then reflect on how they interact with their colleagues, how they have lived or modeled the values that we uphold at our school, and what their broader contribution to the school community has been.

The narrative shifts to areas in which they could develop further professionally (I cite specific examples), as well as addressing any behavioral or communication adjustments moving forward. I'll mention specific opportunities (classes, webinars, etc.) that the school could support to help them grow or develop in those particular areas.

It does take far more time to complete the assessments, but it elicits a far more effective response from recipients.

Finally, I devote several paragraphs to specific actions, goals or benchmarks (or changes in behavior/attitude) that I will be looking for from them over the coming year. And, most importantly, I confirm that I am here to help, motivate or brainstorm as they move through the year working to meet those — and their own — expectations and career goals.

The narrative concludes with a thank you for their many contributions to our community and my looking forward to working together in the coming year.

As head, this style of evaluation for my administrative leaders was a big change from what they experienced previously, and they really appreciate it. They find this format very personal, professional, supportive and specific. And they recognize the thought that has gone into this type of written feedback.

I do not ask for a written self-evaluation from each individual, but prior to meeting with them I share a few questions I would like them to think about. The questions, very generally, cover the same areas as those in the written narrative. Our session starts with a conversation around those questions, and it almost never fails that they highlight the very same things I intended to address with them. I then present them with the written assessment, and we silently read through it together. We discuss any questions or insights they might have, and they sign a copy acknowledging they have received it.

Some years, a check-off evaluation form looks very enticing because I know I could complete those much faster (I have eight dean and director-level reports). However, their post-assessment appreciation, performance improvement and energy are so much higher since moving to this format that I would never go back to a form.

Renata Rafferty is head of school at Saint Gertrude, an all-girls’ Catholic high school in Richmond, Virginia. This column is based on a post she contributed to a discussion on NBOA Connect. Prior to her shift to education, she was an authority in the field of philanthropy, advising large charities, foundations and high net-worth families around the world.
 In Mission & Motivation, an independent school leader shares a core belief and/or source of guidance or inspiration. Interested in contributing? Please email In the subject line, type MISSION & MOTIVATION.

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