Thought Leadership In Unexpected Places

(Reposted from 2017) We often think that true innovation in higher education has to come from Harvard, Wharton, or Stanford. Not so, apparently. Meet the people of Mountwest Community and Technical College.

Dr. Keith Cotroneo heads this school that once belonged under the wing of Marshall University (yes, the same one in the Matthew McConaughey movie, “We Are Marshall”). Some years ago, however, the school was legislatively spun-off and is now on its own. The main campus sits atop a mountain in Huntington, West Virginia, looking down on some of the most beautiful rolling green hills you could ever imagine. Mountwest serves students who are working on associates degrees or some form of vocational certification.

It is certainly a nice enough place, just one that you probably wouldn’t expect to take an innovative approach to performance appraisal. But they have. Stephanie Neal, Director of HR, called me a month ago to ask all sorts of questions about implementing Big Five Performance Management. It seems that they have been using the process since January, have now gotten comfortable with the basics, and wanted to take their program to the next level. I gladly excepted their invitation to visit and assist. Having now spent a couple of days with them, it is easy to see why they are, individually and collectively, thought leaders.

Are you a thought leader? Here are three things Mountwest does that you will want to consider.

1. They fill the void.

Both the state legislature and their own board policy require completion of employee appraisals on an annual basis. The state attempted an effort a couple of years ago to create a standardized model/template/process. The effort apparently failed as they could not reach agreement on a form or process–such a surprise as the rest of the world has such an easy time administering annual appraisals! Yes, sarcasm. But Cotroneo and Mountwest moved forward, researching their options, deciding not to wait or be deterred by the vacuum. They decided on Big Five and have moved forward.

You don’t have to be elected or endowed with authority to be a thought leader in your organization. As a matter of fact, I will wager that most of the opportunities you will have to demonstrate leadership present themselves in more ordinary, less prestigious ways. These situations will most often occur when there is a simple lack of any other formal direction or leadership. Have the managerial courage to move forward, filling the void.

2. They keep it simple.

I visited the campus with the hope of installing Big Five Works, the software we have developed to support the Big Five process. Honestly, they don’t need it. Why not? They use a simple Excel spreadsheet, one worksheet per employee per year, with twelve tabs, one for each month of the year. Team members complete the appropriate tab for the month and share the file with their manager who responds to the employee report. The data fields they include are pretty much the standard fields you would find in any Big Five report- Top Five Accomplishments from last month, Top Five Priorities for this month, and comments spaces for both the manager and team member. They may want to pick up the app in the future as they grow but for now, their simple spreadsheets seem to work well.

Are you considering a change in your performance appraisal system? If so, chances are that you are considering one of the “big box” solutions to drive your process (PeopleSoft, Cornerstone, Insperity, etc.). Why? Are the features and benefits so beneficial that you absolutely have to have them or are you blindly following the thundering herd to an expensive but inefficient solution?

3. They are willingly vulnerable.

This is rare in the corporate world but almost unheard of in academia! To admit that you don’t know something; that you don’t always have the answers is a true sign of emotional intelligence. The leadership at Mountwest freely admit that they don’t have all the answers and embrace the possibilities that others might.

I speak to so many HR professionals who are stuck in their old paradigm. Their stories are all very similar. While they have no data to support their beliefs, “They know their people and their current appraisal system works wells.” Wake up! The data is overwhelmingly negative. Could your team use a dose of Mountwest humility and outside-the-box thinking?

Thanks, Mountwest, for being great hosts and colleagues! Apologies for the thundering herd reference (Marshall’s team name/mascot, for those who are unfamiliar). I couldn’t help myself.

Thanks for your time and have a great weekend!