My most dreaded day in high school was always the day the nuns handed out report cards. Inevitably, mine would be filled with Bs and Cs, the record of a less-than-motivated student. So it may seem odd that I've been eager to get a report card from my employees on the eve of my first year as the editor-in-chief of Fast Company. But I've been determined to work on my leadership skills.
When I found ImproveNow.com, an online service that anonymously lets employees send their boss a performance review, I immediately bought in. Getting a quick bottom-up review for $9.95 per person seems like a bargain to me, whether you're a CEO or a team leader.
There's another advantage to this test as well: These results won't end up in a computer file in the human resources department. They are for you—and you alone. If you accept them in the spirit of constructive criticism, you can use the results "to make your shared work environment happier, more productive, and more fulfilling for everyone," explains ImproveNow.com CEO and executive coach James Povec. Or that's the theory, anyway.
All told, I asked 11 employees to answer 60 questions in 12 different categories put together by experts in organizational and career development. They ranged from assessing my ability to "generate trust" to my skill to "invent the future," i.e., create an inspiring vision of what's next. In the "exploit moments of truth" category, my team members were asked, "Is your boss open and supportive when you have to inform him of errors or problems with your work?" and "Does your boss see problems as opportunities rather than an embarrassment or annoyance?"
Obviously, some of these questions are right on target. Others were less meaningful, at least to me. I got one of my lowest grades, a D+, in response to "Is your boss training you to do his or her job?" I'm still kind of new here, thank you, so my priority isn't to develop these team members as successors, but to get the product right.
The first time I logged on to see my grades, I had that sinking high school feeling. In almost all cases, they were Bs and Cs, with a plus or a minus here or there. I got a measly C grade for planning, even though we've never missed a deadline since I've been editor. And I thought the nuns were tough! Even knowing that most bosses average C+ grades didn't help. As the editor of a magazine devoted to smart and enlightened leadership, I wouldn't ever want to be merely average.
My highest grades? The team awarded me an A- on three questions: "Is your workplace free from abusive and demeaning behavior?," "Does your boss love his work?," and "How well do you understand how your company makes money?" Thank God for that.
Much more helpful than the overall grades, though, was a brief coaching session I had with Povec (obviously, there's an extra fee for that). He urged me to share my results with colleagues and publicly vow to improve. "Thank them for the high scores and their vote of confidence," advised Povec. "Once people feel you're being authentic and genuine, you should apologize for letting them down on your weaker scores." I'll do that and more—and have already begun to address some of those weaker scores.
The whole process reconfirmed my belief that I need to work harder in communicating with my team. Best of all, this self-test finally helped me see the value of report cards.
The Boss's Report Card
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A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - May 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.