I was asked to assess the performance of a portfolio manager who I have, in the past and for good reason, referred to as The Weasel. He has a tiny face with sharp teeth, small round ears and the blackest of eyes. His neck is thick and his torso slender, so that the one flows unimpeded into the other. He is a silent hunter, skulking around in the high grass and thick hedge. He is a very political creature, squeezing in and out of tight spots, a master of innuendo, implication and impeccable timing. There is no question he gets the job done, but one always has to wonder on whom he is doing it.
I took him out to lunch, a favored custom in The Small Office. Food – going out or ordering in – is not just what we do; it is a way of being. True, it would be odd for it to be just the two of us, but I took him to a restaurant down the street from the office where you can always count on others to be within earshot. In other words, it was very public and perfectly safe. So even a clever beast like The Weasel would not be able to sniff out a rat… which I wasn’t because, in truth, I was being more the weasel. I would be wending my way into his burrow. Those of you who think it takes one to know one might imagine that he would see me coming. But you would be mistaken, for few ever recognize themselves.
He took my casual approach as good news.
My purpose was primarily to get his take on how things were going, how he felt he was doing, where he saw himself fitting in the organization. I wondered if he saw himself at all as others saw him, if he would overrate or understate his accomplishments. I gave no sign, no hint, no inkling of dissatisfaction. And since his ears were always cocked for the slightest sound of shuffling, he took my casual approach as good news. His basic mistake was in gauging my manner instead of reckoning my purpose.
Clearly he believed he had done an excellent job in the past year – even if his singular achievement was in portraying how excellent it was. So it came as a shock to him when he received a 2 (out of 5) performance rating, which translates in The Small Office system as a Requires Improvement. He was too concerned with bureaucracy, procedure and politics to take risks, to think out of the box, to engage in meaningful teamwork, to sacrifice for the good of the whole. He kept valuable information under wraps and offered up insights only when they could be foolproof and fully ascribed to him. All this not only kept back the team, but made us wonder how far he personally could progress. Stalking is, after all, a solitary business.
The Weasel came to me a few days after his appraisal. He wondered aloud why I led him on, why I was not honest with him. He disagreed with our assessment, of course, but that was beside the point. Well, it was the whole point but his questions were fair. I wasn’t dishonest with him, but I certainly wasn’t forthcoming.
Full of courtesy, full of craft, eh? All I could do was shrug.