The ABCs of Employee Evaluation

How to identify the untapped potential on your team.

Ed Eppley
June 27, 2018

How to identify the untapped potential on your team

There might be capacity on your team that you haven’t been utilizing. Identifying it can bring a quick win in productivity and results. To identify untapped potential on a team I use an approach I call the ABCs of Employee Evaluation. Let me walk you through it.

  • “A” is the rank for an employee who is competent. She or he is doing her job at a level that meets or exceeds expectations.
  • “B” is the employee who is not doing the job at a level that meets expectations. This person is technically not competent, but you believe that with time with coaching she or he will become competent.
  • “C” is the employee who is not competent and never will be competent of doing the job as it is currently defined.

I use this ABC ranking to rate each of my employees two time. First, in the job they have. I also rank them for their potential to do the job above them, whether that is my job, or the job that would be a promotion from their current job. In other words, I rate every employee with two letters. If you follow the logic that other than very rare cases, a person is never going to be more competent in a job a level above them than they are in the job they now have, then your possible rankings are: AA, AB, AC, BB, BC, or C.

By doing this activity, you accomplish two important outcomes. First, you have created a roadmap for the kinds of delegation and development you should be doing to help each person become more productive in their current job. Second, this activity can make evident the hidden potential on your team. It helps you recognize how many people you have who could potentially do your job at some point in the future. If 2 out of 5 of your people have the potential to ascend to your job, then you know you’ve got some talent there. If you realize that you only have one person or none who could ascend, then you don’t have choices and it tells you that you need to bring someone else onto your team who does have that potential.

To be clear, most people on your team are not going to be ready today to ascend into your role.
But as a manager, you need to have one or two people on your team at all times whom you know have the wherewithal to do your job. These are people with fundamental skills, intellect, and ethics that, with the right training and experience, equip them to do their superior’s job.

Here’s how I (affectionately!) describe the various types of employees according to these rankings.

AC: The Draft Horse

Draft horses are low-maintenance animals that will pull a load every day if you give them hay, oats, water and a clean stall. AC employees are often subject-matter experts and the most talented at doing what they do. They take pride in their expertise, and while they might be curmudgeonly about it, they want to see the organization be successful. But they don’t like change, they don’t like to babysit people who aren’t experts, and they generally don’t consider special projects to be a reward. Their mantra is, “Leave me alone and let me do my job.” Every organization needs the AC employee. They’re an A first because they are excellent at what they do. But they’re a C second because they couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do the next higher job in the organization. We love these people because they are dependable and predictable in the results they produce.

AB and AA: Thoroughbreds

These are your high-maintenance, high-performance players. Just like thoroughbreds are raised to race and compete, AB and AA employees need to be challenged and given opportunities to grow. If they’re not going to get a chance “to compete” and to move up in your organization, they’re going to leave. You can throw these folks into the deep end of the pool and give them tough, challenging work. They typically love it. They will find a way to get it done. Of course, the AB or AA who is young and new to their career might have an overinflated sense of their own capacity. Help them grow by teaching them humility: Put them in situations where they can’t win. By learning that they’re not totally infallible, they will begin to recognize their blind spots.

BB: The Colt

The BB employee is the playful youngster in the adult body. They’re genuinely likeable, and when they make mistakes it’s generally due to a lack of knowing better. They’re not bad or incompetent, just inexperienced. They’ve got a positive attitude and they’re always saying, “Put me in, coach!” Indeed, your job as their manager is to find out whether, with time and coaching, these folks can be A employees. Let them drink from the firehose. Give them lots of core competency repetitions. Temporarily delegate work from your AC to your BB to help them grow.

BC: The Horse with No Name

A lot of BC’s were once an AC. You have a subject matter expert who has become a cynic. (Cynics are people who used to be passionate about the job and company but no longer are.) He said, “Leave me alone, let me do my job,” so you did. But we didn’t challenge him to get better, and now the organization has passed him by. His passion for the job has waned, and so has his expertise, so people don’t come to him for answers anymore and he’s bitter. If an AC became a BC under your watch, you need to own it. It might be a tough conversation, but the manager should share the responsibility to fix the situation. Agree to work together for 90 days to change the trajectory of this person’s career. You’ll need to help him understand that, regardless of how long he’s been with the company or what his expertise was in the past, he’s now considered a marginal performer and you want to help him improve.

C: The Ring-Sour Horse

To stick with our equine theme, a Ring Sour Horse looks promising outside the show-ring, but on the job, it fails to perform. Typically, the C-rated employee has kept her job because she’s a good person who’s trying. She probably has a strong fit with the company culture. If she were a jerk or totally incompetent, you would have fired her. But because she fits with your culture and is trying hard, you give her the benefit of the doubt—many times.

In my experience, the kinds of organizations most likely to have Cs are either extremely profitable or fast growing. Highly profitable organizations can tolerate C employees and create systems to work around them. In fast-growing companies, rapid scaling camouflages problems like marginal performance. When you’re expanding quickly, you need a lot of bodies.

Ironically, when a C-performer is no longer in that role, you’ll hear, “It’s about time,” or, “I wondered when you were going to do something about that.” Remember, marginal performance is never a secret, and the biggest thing you risk with the presence of this perpetual marginal performer is the loyalty of your top performers. The people most at risk to leave you when you have a C player are your best performers. It’s very demotivating for your AA and AB people to work alongside a C.

One more thing about a C: If you’ve ranked an employee a C in their current role, you don’t need to bother ranking that person for the role that comes next. Instead, you need to figure out if there is other work they’d be suited for elsewhere inside your organization, or if the best fit for them is outside your company.

Need help evaluating your employees for the job they have now and the job one level up? Share your email address with me and I’ll send you a free tool you can use.