“Mrs. Rumbley: When I made arrangements with you to return this year and take the present work, of course I did not mean that you would be retained in the position throughout the year regardless of the way you perform the service. When I said to you a few days ago that no change would be made to interfere with your plans it was on the supposition that you would do the work properly. When you returned from Mrs. Adams’ I had a conversation with you in which I told you plainly that the teachers department went more smoothly while you were away, because Miss Jones gave more personal attention to the work. You seemed to see the point and promised to make it go more smoothly. Since then you have not given the attention to the work that I thought you would. For example, you are almost never present to overlook and see to the preparation of breakfast…Your work needs to be systematized. This can be done by making a study of what will please the teachers. The teachers do not complain of the quality but it is the way the food is prepared. I still think that you can make a success of your work but in order to do this you must become interested. In order to make it a success I shall do all in my power to help you in any reasonable way. Yours.”
-Booker T. Washington, [Tuskegee, Ala.] October 10th 1888
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
In addition to his other more externally visible tasks of speaking, writing and advancing and developing the institution, Mr. Washington was also responsible for the internal management of personnel. And this rather lengthy excerpt taken from Mr. Washington’s correspondence to an employee at Tuskegee Institute, who served in the capacity as a cook, is an example of strong yet supportive management of personnel. First, he makes it plain that retention “in the position” was not “regardless of the way you perform the service,” and that the underlining premise of the employee’s appointment was “that you would do the work properly.” (Positions and appointments are rarely perpetual but are contingent upon performance.) Second, Mr. Washington had a direct and honest conversation regarding his assessment of the work. (He did not avoid being earnest with the employee for Mr. Washington was managing a major institutional enterprise comprised of many interchangeable functions. The function-not feelings-is of paramount importance in the successful management of an organization.) Third, he provided an example of what was not being done properly. (It was neither rumor, second-hand observation nor innuendo but a tangible and objective example that could be readily observed.) Fourth, he provided a recommendation to the employee. He recommends that the work should be “systematized” and that a “study” of the employee’s constituents-namely the teachers-would reveal a possible way for solving the problem. (It is important for managers to not simply point to the problem but to provide a solution as well. And what better recommendation than to go to the constituency group who roundly described the services performed as a problem.) Lastly, he provides a final word of encouragement and a willingness to provide additional help. (Though the very best leaders do not avoid tough conversations about performance, it is imperative to provide a sense of hope, help and encouragement to employees who instead of retreating may actually re-double their efforts to set the matter aright.) In the end, Mr. Washington’s correspondence provides an insight into leadership that is rarely seen because of its sensitive nature but is absolutely necessary for managing an outcomes oriented organization in the 19th, 20th or 21st Century.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University