Note: I am repeatedly reminded of how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such great people. The below post (my second guest posting) comes from a Shipmate whom I have known since 2005. A leader, a critical thinker, and outspoken thought leader, LCDR Kevin Ernest is now serving as the Executive Officer at the Center for Information Dominance Unit Monterey, CA.  We are very fortunate to have a leader with such incredible  character, humility, and passion for truly serving his Shipmates, helping to shape the minds of every new linguist joining the Navy.  This post is further demonstration that Kevin is not afraid to question the ways things have always been done and he is equally willing to offer solutions to any and all areas for improvement. Thanks for making the time to share your thoughts, Kevin…

Letters of Recommendation – many of us have had the opportunity to be associated with them by writing, or receiving them, or perhaps both. Many of the programs the Navy offers require letters of recommendation and we uniformly believe that you simply have to ask for one and within days you’ll be presented a page filled with superlatives describing yourself. Similarly, when asked to provide a letter of recommendation, most of us simply comply with the request and fill the page with the superlatives. Easy process, not much thought or effort required.

Several weeks ago, I was privileged to have the opportunity to write a letter of recommendation for a protégé seeking admission to the Stanford University Graduate School of Business MBA program. After I agreed to write the letter – I’ve known him for several years and consider him to be an excellent candidate – the protégé told me that he would send an email with all the instructions for preparing the letter. Instructions for writing a letter? I thought that meant he’d provide an email address for where to send the letter. When I received his email I was surprised to find to a lengthy transcription of an interview with a Stanford admissions officer describing Stanford’s requirements for letters of recommendation,as well as instructions for completing a leadership behavior grid.

As I read the transcript, it occurred to me that that much of what the admissions officer was saying should have been obvious; things like are you willing to write the letter and, if, not are you honest enough to tell the person not only will you not write the letter but why you will not give them a recommendation? But much of what Stanford is looking for in letters of recommendation is not what you’ll find in a typical Navy letter of recommendation.Summed up, Stanford is looking for recommendations where, “…the person jumps off the page and they really come alive. I feel like I know them; I know the good, the bad, the warts; if I walked into a room, I could almost pick out this person.” To meet the goal of getting the person to jump off the page, Stanford wants the writer to answer four questions:

1) What’s the context of your relationship with the applicant that you’re recommending?
2) How has he/she performed versus his/her peers?
3) Tell us about a time you’ve given constructive feedback to the candidate. That helps us see how the candidate has grown over time.
4) Finally, we ask an open-ended question to give the recommender a chance to comment on anything else we should know about the candidate’s performance, potential or personal qualities.

And, Stanford doesn’t want just a list of superlatives; they want evidence to support those superlatives. They want the writer to describe the how the person made an impact on the organization. As I was writing the letter, I realized that the Stanford model of letters of recommendation is a useful model for Navy use. It’s a going in assumption that each candidate for each program has many great qualities that supposedly qualify them for whatever it is they’re applying. But we never talk about the areas where a candidate can improve. I believe it’s this type of information that would allow selection boards to make better-informed selections. For example, if a candidate has a 4.0 in computer science from MIT and paints swing sets at the orphanage but routinely exercises questionable judgment and decision-making at work, the selection board can use that information to compare the candidates more completely.

We read and hear a lot from senior leadership that we shouldn’t have a zero-defect mentality, but we also know that if we submit letters of recommendation with anything but superlatives in it, the candidate’s chances for election drop precipitously. It’s time to embrace the idea of accepting our people for everything they are, and then making the proper recommendations for them, their warts and all.