The Outdated Leader vs. Follower Evaluation

I found his performance report laying on the kitchen counter-top. A friend and I had just finished our 5-mile run earlier that morning and were recuperating our sore legs by pacing around his living room. Being the nosy person that I am, I walked up to the counter to take a peek at Bill’s (not his real name, but hey, let’s go with it) performance report from his internship experience at a Fortune 500 company. After skimming through most of the report, it seemed as though Bill was a fairly normal intern. He wasn’t a screw-up. He wasn’t a rock star. He had received a solid rating of 3.34 on a scale from 1–5. He was a “Consistently Effective” performer. However, his rating was not what caught my attention. Under the technical assessment section of his performance report, there was a blurb that read, “Bill needs to be more of leader in his technical space and less of a follower.” Technical assessment score of 2.9. What? Are you joking me? An intern needs to be a technical leader? Isn’t the point of an internship to gain industry experience by learning from other professionals who have been in the industry for some time?

I looked at Bill’s score from the technical assessment section and compared it with his other sections. Bill’s technical assessment section was the lowest out of the other six or so sections, presumably for being labeled a follower. Perhaps Bill’s technical chops did need some work. Perhaps, objectively, Bill completed technical tasks at a slower rate compared to his peers. But the fact that none of the aforementioned statements appeared in the comment section makes me believe otherwise. And if it was the case that Bill’s technical prowess needed some work or if he needed to get work done faster, wouldn’t the critique have been better served with those statements rather than, “Be more of a leader”? At the end of the day, the message is clear. Bill is a follower. Leaders are better than followers. Bad Bill. Be a leader.

I then began to ask myself, why was I so perturbed? It’s not like this was my technical assessment. I was not the one being docked for being a follower. Why was Bill’s follower status having this much of an impact on my morning?

Then it all made sense.

Queue the moment during every interview I have ever had when the interviewer asks, “Describe the leadership experience you had during your senior design project.” Or how about the time when I had to write my personal statement for graduate school, being sure to include “relevant leadership experience you had in your academic or professional career”. What about that age-old interview question, “Would you rather be a leader or a follower on a project?”

I suddenly realized that this notion of being evaluated based on leadership ability, even being a fresh college graduate, has been hoisted upon all of us from the very beginning of our professional careers. But why must we be evaluated to this leadership standard before we have the proper amount of experience from which to lead with? This is an unreasonable expectation to measure prospective talent by and, unfortunately, is pervasive across all companies. Surely there is a better way of measuring the value of a person’s abilities beyond their leadership experience, especially individual’s whose careers have barely started.

Perhaps instead of measuring the value of early professional’s abilities through leadership experience, we should be looking at their potential for growth instead due to the amount of time they have left to devote to their careers. We should be evaluating their eagerness to learn and synthesize new information. We should be evaluating their ability to adapt to the ever-changing world of business we find ourselves in. We should be evaluating how much autonomy they are comfortable with. This should be the yardstick that we measure performance by instead of whether how closely they fall into the ‘leader’ or ‘follower’ mold.

When evaluating the performance of an intern or any other early professional, consider asking the following points to help guide the evaluation:

  • How much has she learned since the last performance evaluation? Does she relish the opportunity to learn something new or does she stick with what she knows?
  • Over the course of the evaluating period, has she become more or less reliant on her peers to solve problems?
  • Was there any unexpected event that caused some disturbance in the group? How did she react? Did she embrace or resist the change?

Driving the focus from leadership ability to growth ability when evaluating early professionals is a necessary step to make in order for evaluations to become more relevant. Not only does it make more sense to use growth as a tool for measurement, but it also puts focus on what matters to the company: that your people are constantly trying to become better over time. Imagine if you were evaluated on how much you grew as a professional every year instead of whether or not you exhibited leadership in your role. What changes would that make in how you approach your role?