Give Yourself an “A”

Has anybody read the book by Rosamund and Ben Zander called the Art of Possibility?  Better yet, has anyone watched any of Ben’s YouTube videos of him giving presentations of the principles of the book using music (his day job is Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic) as a medium for the message?  They are brilliant and they are really quite funny.  I had the personal experience of being at a Ben Zander talk at the World Business Forum in 2011. If you want to talk about the art of possibility, who would have thought it would have been possible to have 5,000 type A executives singing together … the Ode To Joy no less … while standing on their chairs … singing in German … at the top of their lungs! 

It was a treat and an experience I won’t soon forget!!

The first principle of the book is “Give Yourself An A”.  Ben runs a class at the New England Conservatory of Music that is very difficult to get into.  The students that arrive are highly gifted and over-achievers.  At the beginning of their term, they are perhaps overly stressed about passing such a prestigious class, and Ben noticed that these highly talented musicians didn’t really perform as well as they can.

Give this guy an "A"
Give this guy an “A”

So he started telling the students from the onset of the program to “give themselves an A”.  In fact, he told them that this was indeed the grade that they would receive at the end of the program. The catch is that their first assignment, due the next day, is to write a letter dated as of the end of the class stating exactly why they got their A.  Why they are an outstanding student and musician.

I’m in the midst of my own “give yourself an A” experience right now.  Our class at the Hudson Institute of Coaching is writing our final exam.  It is an open book, take home exam that we have a month to complete.  It has 68 questions and we are allowed to work with our team within the class to complete it.  In fact it is not even necessary that our team submit unique responses.  All that matters is that we submit a completed exam, signed, by the appointed time and we have been assured we will get an A.

So what’s the point?

It is this.  The Hudson Institute knows that they select candidates that have the potential to be good coaches. They know that they have built an excellent program that instills all of the knowledge and skills to produce good coaches. They are confident that we will all pass the exam proving we are good coaches.

But in echo of my post of last week Good Enough?, Hudson isn’t interested in turning out good coaches.  They want to foster great coaches! They’ve learned that the most effective way to test us is to let us know that we will be successful, and instead turn our efforts to learning as much as we can from the experience of this examination process to become great coaches, great teammates, greater people.

We are trying new forms of collaboration, we are engaged in active debate about the best methods to do this, we plan what we want to get out of each meeting and I’m certain that once we are satisfied with what we will submit as our final paper that we will continue to stretch ourselves in what we can learn out of the process. In short, not only will we have proven that we have the right to an A on the exam, we will have used the testing process as a unique experience to reinforce what we already have learned.

Thank goodness I have an "A"
Thank goodness I have an “A”

What opportunities do leaders have to do this at work? How do we enter into our annual cycle of performance reviews?  Do we enter in thinking that there are few people who can achieve the top rating? Do we prepare people to understand that the second best rating is “pretty good”?  Or how about this one … our HR department tells us that our distribution of ratings among our team cannot vary too far from the norm and thus we can’t give out too many top ratings!!! How is that motivating?

How would we give all our team A’s? What if we said to them at the beginning of that year … you are all top performers and I appreciate you so much! As a top performer, what I would like you to do is write your performance review for the upcoming year now.  I would like you to write exactly what you have done over the past year that has made you proud of what you have done to be rated a top performer. What if we, as leaders, then used that pre-written performance assessment as a coaching guide for the remainder of the year?

I can’t say I’ve ever taken this approach but as I write it I find it exciting and intriguing.  What would happen if we actually did that?  What would it be like if we worked with a team of total A students (A players in the business world)?



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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

16 thoughts on “Give Yourself an “A”

  1. Ian that would be amazing. It’s like writing a vision statement for the year! And speaking of utube; do you know what I would like to see? You and 4999 other executives standing on your chairs, singing Ode to Joy in German at the top of your voices! That’s just brilliant!

    Congratulations on graduating (soon I assume) coach Ian!

  2. After reading this, I was reminded right away about our Career Life Plan (CLP) exercise at work. Although it is not yearly, writing out and discussing quarterly with our managers what we want to accomplish for the upcoming quarter and what we accomplished in the previous quarter is similar to this. When writing down what we want to accomplish for the upcoming quarter, it allows you to prepare a path to set yourself up for success. While at the same time you get to reflect back on the previous quarter and talk about the goals you have achieved. Now that I look at it, our CLPs essentially provide us a venue to give ourselves an “A”.

    I enjoyed reading this one, Ian! Another posting that opened up my thinking process!



    1. Thanks for this Rick. I love your thoughts on the CLP process and by giving yourself an A I think it clears the way for others to do so for you as well! I think the next step in this progression is building towards a leadership process that anticipates great performance and puts that on the table right up front!!

  3. Love this idea!!!! Brilliant. And yes, Zander is amazing — and wow — to have been there! I’m off to watch Diana’s link.

    And… congratulations. You shine in the key of A

  4. Great post as always. Lots to think about and apply.

    in some ways this idea of give yourself an A builds on Kent Osborne’s be the first believer in your people. What if we were the first believers of our people and with that we then gave them an a under the parameters Ben Z describes.

    It remains true, people don’t operate at their maximum ability or capacity, but rather their maximum belief system.

  5. Ian – you have captured the brilliance of Zander and the possibility that lies within when we give ourselves permission to be successful! As we near the end of this journey – you should feel quite that you have realized and actualized that A! Best!

  6. This reminds me of my son’s teacher in grade one (age 6) who was giving out ‘awards of encouragement’ to students who had achieved their best for all sorts of reasons (beautiful drawing, writing their name, being kind to classmates etc) except for my son. He felt dejected and worthless. As my son could already read and write well, was a dedicated learner and an ‘A’ student, this puzzled me. So with the brazen courage akin to the mother of a bear-cub I queried mid-year why my bright-eyed son had not yet received an award. The teacher replied that he was so bright that she just assumed that he would KNOW that he was and would not need an award to prove it.
    To this day I cannot fathom that teacher’s thinking. However, as a leader i sometimes catch myself praising someone who has occasionally triumphed yet forgetting to praise those who always do so.

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