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Jun 8, 2016

It is time for all good consultants and vendors everywhere to jump on the performance management bandwagon. Accenture led the cause by retooling their performance management system, and the business media grabbed the topic and ran with it.  Now, everywhere I look there are articles, journals and webinars that promise to revive and improve this apparently terminal process.

I’ve been reading them (as much as I can – there are a bunch) to see what has really changed. Is anything new and different? Last year I eagerly read about Accenture’s transition, ready to hear new and different. Instead, I read it was increasing the frequency of the performance dialogue and adding a simpler documentation process.

Hang on a sec, isn’t that what we HR types have always tried to espouse? More frequent conversations and better documentation? I read more and found little else new. What did stand out to me is that the change came, not from HR, but from the organization itself – from the operational leaders who were dissatisfied with the bureaucracy of the current program.

The ‘why’ is the secret

Perhaps there is a little secret hidden there. Perhaps the program, however it is designed, is nowhere near as important as ownership of the program by the operational business leaders.

But I will wager that HR teams, reading about these changes and wanting to improve their own internal processes, will use this as a “best practice,” touting the success at companies like Accenture, Adobe, Deloitte and more recently GE (everyone watches GE, don’t they?)

And I will up that wager to say that those changes driven by HR won’t really change anything. Why? Because the operational leaders don’t see the purpose.

Last year at a SHRM conference, a young lady in my audience said she recently moved from operations into HR, and after being there a few months, she realized why performance management was important. In her years as an operational leader, she was taught “how” but never “why.”

Many of our clients engage us to develop performance management programs. In each case, we go to the employees to see what they need. In almost every case, we hear that employees want constructive feedback that helps them grow and develop in their career. That insight is a turning point for the leaders; it begins the subtle shift from “bureaucratic process I hate,” to “something my employees want and need.”

Managers get closer to the work

Bringing leaders back to the “why” helps them create their own process, supported, of course, by HR.

In one case, leaders decided to adopt monthly “check ins” (and this was before we heard about Adobe) with each employee. The first few months, the HR director said she was hearing a lot of grumbling — “I don’t have time to do this.” So at the six month point, the company put the concept of monthly check ins up for debate, and debate they did. They ultimately came back to the point that the employees were very thankful for the opportunity to talk about their work and their development, and that the leaders were actually closer to the work, and therefore more able to suggest corrections before things went totally awry.

Doing a good job in performance management is one of the most important jobs of anyone leading people, but it is also hard work and time consuming. Whether or not the leaders can be successful depends upon their professional skills, but also on how the organization positions itself to make accountability a clear priority. Here are some key factors that influence the effectiveness of accountability systems (a.k.a., performance management.)

1. Leadership role

Sounds like a no-brainer, but I cannot tell you how many leaders step into their role without a clear understanding that shaping the behavior and performance of their employees is their #1 job. Without a skilled and productive team, the leader will fail.

2. Leadership time

We burden leaders with reports, being a “working leader,” and meetings, meetings, meetings. If all those reports and meetings were valuable, that would be one thing, but (having spent 40 years reviewing reports and attending meetings), that is rarely the case.

Too often, leaders who have dozens of direct reports are the same ones burdened by reports and meetings. If you want leaders to develop skilled and productive teams, they need the time to do so.

Do an inventory of reports and meetings effectiveness – you just may find some time to free up.

3. Leadership skill

Giving feedback is a skill. It is also an art. Giving good feedback that is two-way, that is given in the spirit of helping, and is frequent and authentic takes practice. You wouldn’t send a pilot to fly a plane with a classroom lesson and no feedback would you? Why would you put a leader into a position without the right tools and resources to succeed?

4. The infrastructure

This includes the culture of the organization (is performance important?), the systems and processes (do our rewards match our stated objectives?) and the tools and resources available to leaders and the workforce. Putting a leader into a role with 40 direct reports (yes, indeed, that does happen) and expecting them to put careful thought and attention to giving feedback, writing reviews and making pay decisions is setting that leader up to fail.

If performance is important, and if leaders are the key to driving performance, give them what they need to succeed.

5. Buy-in trumps design every time

The design of an accountability process is far less important than the buy-in from those who have a vested interest in making the process work.

There are no perfect processes. The closest an organization will come to a perfect process is one where those who will execute, evaluate and measure the process’ effectiveness have set clear expectations for outcomes, continually measure progress, and collectively hold each other accountable for ensuring that the process is accomplishing its mission. If this is left to HR without leadership ownership, it will continue to be a bureaucratic, administrative burden.

Whether you call it accountability or performance management is irrelevant. What you do to communicate expectations, develop talent, and hold leaders accountable for results is what will make a difference in business success.

If you’re in HR and tempted to adopt one of the myriad new systems touted in the media, at least figure out a way for your leadership team to own it.