Performance Management – it doesen’t have to be like this

For many of you, it’s that time of the year when you are required to provide feedback to your reports as part of the annual performance review exercise. You can delay things a bit, but there is absolutely no getting away from it. The easy part is completing the form and if you are lucky, it’s just a few boxes on a sheet of paper to fill in. The real challenge thereafter is to provide performance feedback explaining the rationale for your assessment and its consequences on the annual pay rise. Easier said than done, it is not uncommon for a meltdown of a carefully nurtured working relationship.

That is largely how I felt about annual performance reviews until I had the privilege of working for an outstanding people manager and seeing first-hand how this rather mundane, much maligned and dreary corporate process took on an entirely sublime form. No matter what the feedback outcome, every performance meeting with this manager left one feeling valued and energised, ready to renew their commitment and go beyond the requirements of the meticulously crafted job description. Many years and many managers since, none have demonstrated the art of performance management better. So what are some of the things this manager did with such panache and succeeded in leaving such an indelible impression?

First and foremost you were a ‘person’ and not an inanimate direct report or a depleting piece of human resource. You were genuinely known by the manager; your interests, aspirations and ambitions were all well understood by the manager. Time and care had been taken to get to know you as a human being – simple things like the name of your partner, your kids, your likes and dislikes, your strengths were all well known by the manager. Put simply, you mattered and the manager had made the effort to get to know you.

Second, the manager had provided continuous feedback on your performance throughout the year and therefore the year-end discussions were not anything new. You already knew the good and the bad; the performance conversation was another opportunity to discuss anything that had been overlooked. There were no surprises waiting.

Third, filling and going through the form was merely the by-product of the conversation. It was not the purpose of the meeting. The meeting itself was about how to optimise performance for the future, how to harness your strengths and enable you to develop new experiences to fulfil your potential. The classic eighty twenty rule was tacitly followed. Eighty per cent of the meeting was future oriented and only twenty per cent, possibly even less, was spent dissecting last year’s performance – the proverbial crying over spilt milk.

Fourth, every meeting was a genuine conversation;. The share of voice was always balanced in favour of the report, never the other way around. Every conversation always gently but surely stretched capability, and constantly extended the performance requirements to reflect your improved skills mastery levels.

Finally, there was none of the disruptive parent-child or adult-child posturing. Every conversation was one of equals, free, open, honest and achieving agreement. Trust in the relationship was implicit and carefully built. What the manager said and meant were the same thing and what happened was consistent and in line with what was discussed.

It’s been many years since the time I worked with this manager and while there is the inevitable romanticism of time, it does not come as any surprise that this manager has progressed to exalted heights of global executive leadership.

So, for all those of us out there getting the powder dry for the seasonal flagellation of the performance conversation, it does not have to be quite like that. Invest the time and effort in your people. In return, you will get more commitment and engagement than you had ever bargained for.  Your business results will be better and you will be more successful.

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Is today’s talent also tomorrow’s talent?

As a Sociology student I have always been fascinated by Robert Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage. It illustrates how small initial advantages in trained capacity, structural location and available resources create increments of advantage that, over a period of time, widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

More recently reading Malcolm Gladwell in his outstandingly clever book “Outliers”, the impact of the Matthew effect finally hit home. Early decisions about who is good and who is not good separates the “talented” from the “untalented” and over time, exposure to superior experiences builds an almost insurmountable advantage over others.

This is exactly how many talent programmes work in the corporate environment as well. Assessment centres, line manager recommendations, identification by senior business leaders are some of the traditional ways in which talent is identified within organisations. Over time, investments in talent development widens the gap over others and quite rapidly, this gulf becomes considerable.

But what happens to the vast majority in organisations who have not been identified as “talent”? Do organisations reach out to these people and provide them opportunities to realise their full potential? Can these people make a difference to the organisations they work for? These were the questions I have asked myself and the more I questioned, the more I became unsure if the time tested approaches to talent management were really future proof.

I could see this working in sport where the rules of the game remained largely unchanged. But even here something fundamental could alter the basic profile for success at the game. The introduction of artificial turf in field hockey fundamentally changed the nature of the game. It made it faster and quicker and very rapidly changed the criteria for successful players. Those clubs not able to afford artificial grass struggled to perform even though they had the most talented, rigorously identified and committed players.

Such fundamental changes are quite regular in the corporate world. Within the last decade, innovations in technology, changes in retailing, increased access to broadband, social media and the immediacy of always online combined with the economic challenges of recessions, and banking crisis have quite profoundly changed the world of business. Yet in many organisations, traditional approaches to talent identification continue unchanged.

Clearly there is no one mantra for the identification of talent. Each business will need to tailor its playing ground and within that define the success criteria for its talent. But one thing is clear – today’s talent may not be talent for tomorrow.

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