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Performance Management = Leadership Strategy

A well-designed performance system will bring attention to the outstanding and distinguishing aspects of the organization

You want to change the way things have always been done. Go a new direction. Get people to understand how the future holds challenges that require preparation now. Make people more accountable and responsive to what is most urgent and important.

Someone (maybe you) suggests that a performance management program would help. When this comes up with colleagues, one person nods in vigorous agreement but another is just as adamant about why performance management never, ever, works.

Maybe you persuade and convince people to move forward anyway. Despite the naysayers, you find the money, send out an RFP and get some great proposals. A consultant team is hired. You now feel confident you are on the right path to creating a system to reward high performers and get things moving in the right direction. You tell yourself the hard part is done and wait to see the results.

Months pass and now you check in to see how the program is coming along. You wonder just how long this needs to take. What is so hard about developing goals and establishing performance measures? Disillusionment sets in. You hear things like, “what works for one department can’t work for other departments, we are too different!” And, “we just want people to do their jobs, why is this extra work necessary?”  Or, “why do we all need to be punished because of a few bad managers?”

Maybe the program is pushed through anyway and everyone is going through the motions but nothing feels different. Or maybe it comes to a screeching halt and retreats safely to the back burner.

What happened? What went wrong? Now what?

You decide to pick yourself up from your disappointment and look a little deeper into the situation. You research the field, talk to leaders who have been there, done that. Maybe you talk to a few more consultants who are not afraid to be completely candid and honest about performance management systems. As you read and talk to professionals in the field, you slowly come to learn some new and interesting things.

First, you realize that you did nothing wrong. In fact, you stepped up to the leadership plate and dared to talk about how the organization might be more performance driven. This, you find out, can create anxiety in people because it signals change or maybe means they are not “good enough”.  In fact, you now understand it is important to keep in mind that what they feel is more important than what they think. You learn they have other concerns, like, “how do goals, set by leaders, relate to me?”  And, “how is anyone going to know if I contributed to these goals?”

So now you decide maybe it is time to get people together to talk about what a performance system might look like if it addressed these concerns.  You realize that the system should mirror the people who, after all, are the most important part of the whole system.

Next, you realize that you stepped back from the process right when you should have stepped forward. Performance management, as it turns out, is a leadership proposition.  You begin to think about ways you can help drive the performance program by talking about the future, big projects which require everyone’s help and critical competencies that need to be recognized and rewarded.

You vow not to get seduced by unrealistic expectations again. You begin to get clear about what a successful performance system looks like.  So you talk to more people inside and outside the organization.

Here are your notes:

Future oriented!  Set aside time to get people talking about goals and what is coming down the road

Breaks down silos and intergenerational barriers! Focus on collaborative work that requires reaching across departments and generational boundaries

Connects the bottom of the organization to the top! Support every big goal with many smaller goals that reach down to the entry level job

Makes Feedback a regular occurrence! Make every person responsible for giving and receiving feedback about goals

Put soft skills are in the front seat! Make sure everyone knows how well they do in their delivery.

You decide right then and there that you will keep your eye on the prize.  Above all, you have learned that a performance system is successful if it moves an organization in a direction that helps people feel connected to the big picture and share in the wins when they achieve their own goals.

With this in mind, you invite your management team to come together to discuss a few key questions. You hire a facilitator to guide the process so you can lead and take part in the discussion. The facilitator works with you to craft the best questions. You decide on: 

  1. What do we see in the future, with respect to the way we do things, that is different from the way we do them now?      E.g., younger generation likes to work more collaboratively, the public wants easy access to information, technology will be a part of everything we do
  2. What assets will we rely upon to move us forward?    E.g., our employees, partnerships in the community, our infrastructure
  3. What challenges will most likely hold us back E.g., mandates, apathy, desire to maintain status quo, negative politics, lack of money
  4. Where in the organization is there evidence of something new emerging?  E.g., Better communication happening at all levels, management team meetings, open budget process, better customer experiences, more savvy use of social media to promote community and customer responsiveness
  5. When looking at the future, what causes us most discomfort, and/or anxiety E.g., political in-fighting
  6. What would we most like to be recognized for that also fits with our understanding of community wants and needs?  E.g., Being service oriented, quality personnel, responsive, getting things done

Goals workshop

Amazed at the interesting responses of your team and impressed by their willingness to step up to the plate and work with you on challenging questions, you press on and meet with them a few more times to clarify big picture goals for the organization. Although still in draft form, a few of the goals, stated in their simplest form, apply equally to every department in the County, and do not reflect “pie-in-the-sky” but flow from real discussions about things that matter to every person in the organization:

  •        Be responsible stewards of the many and varied assets of the County
  •       Create a collaborative learning environment
  •       Develop positive customer experiences
  •       Form partnerships with communities to address quality of life issues.

 Now you dare to take the next step.

You find a large open space that can hold many round tables and you ask HR to invite a cross section of employees to a workshop to discuss one central question, “what competencies are most critical for success in your job?” You organize the employees into groups consistent with their roles, e.g., administrative support, supervisor, specialist, etc. You give them a sample list of competency definitions and ask them to work together to arrive at a list of their top five competencies along with examples of what those competencies look like in action, i.e., when someone is demonstrating them at a high level.

Three core competencies float to the top of the pack:

  •  Customer Service (internal/external) – Understanding and anticipating customer wants; resolving customer needs.
  • One Team Thinking -The willingness to work with other groups and departments to achieve organization goals, as demonstrated by the “We are all in this together” approach to work.
  • Big Picture Thinking – Understanding how different parts and functions of the organization fit together and creates a sense of purpose for the team. 

At the end of the workshop, when employee after employee comes up and tells you that they have never done anything like that before in their lives, but tell you that they were now VERY EXCITED ABOUT THE PERFORMANCE PROGRAM, you realize you really are going down the right path. You take note of the fact that you have never seen the younger workers more excited or energized. You also look wryly at the senior management team who are still seated at their round table because they are unable to agree on five top competencies. You sigh and realize they cannot be good at everything.

But can you deliver the whole package?  You rely on the best piece of advice you were given: Never let the consultants or the technology experts drive the performance management program. Now you’re your leadership has set the tone, you will lean heavily on them to help you get to where you want to go. Big picture goals firmly established, you let the pros help you design performance measures and guidelines, prepare the competency dictionary to reflect the hard work of your staff and train your staff on how to develop goals to support the big picture goals for the organization. You also engage technology experts to create or customize an application to reflect and support your system.

 You decide, in the end, that maybe it is less important whether the whole system is finalized within six months, but more important to continue conversations between departments and managers about challenges coming down the road. You notice when walk down the hall you now have something important to talk about with every employee. Now this, this feels different. Goal completion, well, that is just icing on the cake.

 Published in the May/June issue of Pennsylvania County News Magazine


Nancy J Hess is an HR Strategist who helps organizations design and implement effective HR strategies that value engagement and whole system approaches to work and community. You can find out more at www.njhessassociates.com



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