On Pretty Much Being Swiss Cheese

For sev­er­al months I have blogged noth­ing because I have been engaged in the sin­gle largest project of my career: writ­ing 360 degree reports for all 21 man­agers in a small orga­ni­za­tion against a tight, three month deadline. 


The effort intend­ed to give every man­ag­er of peo­ple for this tech­ni­cal­ly dom­i­nat­ed orga­ni­za­tion insight into their per­for­mance as seen by their super­vi­sors, col­leagues and reports. The process was made up of essays com­plet­ed by all the man­agers, 114 inter­views touch­ing vir­tu­al­ly all the orga­ni­za­tion’s employ­ees, 21 writ­ten 3–5 page sum­ma­ry reports with numer­i­cal rat­ings in sev­en per­for­mance dimen­sions accom­pa­nied by an oral debrief­ing, and final dis­cus­sions between each man­ag­er and the per­son to whom they report­ed. The process includ­ed every man­ag­er from the pres­i­dent to those who super­vised only one oth­er per­son. The writ­ing, of course, was the most sen­si­tive, tough­est part. I was devot­ed to get­ting it right for each per­son and I believe I came close.

Now that this project is fin­ished, I find myself reflect­ing, grate­ful and hum­bled to do such work. It was, in a word, inti­mate, to learn how each per­son is seen; how the orga­ni­za­tion sees all its lead­ers at once; to hear the key con­nec­tive themes that define its actu­al (as opposed to ide­al) cul­ture: “the voice of the orga­ni­za­tion,” so to speak.

It was like view­ing a great mur­al — like one of those Diego River­a’s — fig­ures of peo­ple from top to bot­tom the full length of the can­vass, a land­scape or a build­ing jammed with human beings, the whole thing stuffed with ener­gy and effort, lives and work unfold­ing. I did­n’t know it was pos­si­ble to do such a thing as a whole orga­ni­za­tion 360 review. Thanks to the exquis­ite skills of the per­son who arranged my very tight sched­ule, I was able to con­duct all the inter­views, write the reports and meet the dead­line. Whew!

And what did I learn you may won­der? Ask me in a few years and per­haps you will get a clear­er answer, but in the mean­time I can say this: peo­ple are good if they are cared for and if oth­ers are will­ing to tell them the truth, at least as far as they know it. Fail­ure, by com­par­i­son, is held in secret until it gush­es out, often with lit­tle sense of know­ing what to do about it except to judge it. 

Blind spots are the tough­est per­for­mance issues to address. What I don’t know that I don’t know, entan­gled resis­tance and defen­sive­ness, with poten­tial mis­un­der­stand­ings all around like frus­trat­ed gargoyles .

What’s also clear: we all have some­thing to work on as lead­ers — from how to del­e­gate to how to assert your only­ness to how not to block oth­ers’ suc­cess to how to guide group deci­sions. And on and on; nobody’s per­fect; nobody’s even close, and every­one is try­ing pret­ty damned hard to do things right. 

The whole process made me reflect on how lucky I am, how priv­i­leged to see into an orga­ni­za­tion and serve in this way. And as for me and my own strengths and weak­ness­es, my own devel­op­ment? There’s noth­ing like twen­ty-one mir­rors to take you to a place of your own deep­er ques­tions and per­son­al edge of learn­ing. Look­ing into these mir­rors, I see that I, too, am a piece of Swiss cheese. I might even be good cheese — but nev­er­the­less still full of holes.


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