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Hold Constructive Performance Review And Career Development Discussions

Most firms have ‘performance management’ or ‘appraisal’ systems. They often have a bad name. People complain that they feel like end-of-term school reports. Frustration is caused by endless form filling. They are often backward looking with little emphasis on career development. Appraisers sometimes complain that they feel like ‘God sitting in judgement’. They are uncomfortable and treat the process as a chore to be got over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible. At worst the process becomes a bureaucratic, mechanical and ‘Frankenstein’ nightmare in which the original good intentions of helping people to improve their performance and their careers are almost forgotten in the pressure to complete endless forms and documents. Nevertheless, well-conducted one-to-one discussions with team members are valuable. They provide an opportunity to learn from past performance and to set goals for future work and career development. A record of conclusions and intentions is necessary, but extensive documentation is best avoided. If you work for a firm that requires the completion of large amounts of paperwork, and if people feel that this has dubious value, then why not make the case for its reduction?

When there is an organizational requirement for periodic performance review and career development discussions then there is sometimes a temptation for team leaders to neglect day-in-and-day-out informal coaching. They are not alternatives. Good leaders do both. Regular coaching, done well, helps people to capitalize on their strengths, live up to their potentiality and improve their day-to-day performance. The periodic formal discussions provide the opportunity to take a broader view and to review performance against previously agreed longer-term objectives. They are also useful for formulating new or revised objectives that are congruent with the purpose of the firm and the team and for agreeing personal development goals. They can also be used to discuss and agree desirable improvements in the use of skills. Here are some thoughts about handling the process constructively and sensitively:

Assessing performance against objectives is not done to allocate blame or find scapegoats when things go wrong. It is to identify steps for improvement and agree plans for implementation. Effective team leaders help people to set their own challenging but achievable goals. They make sure that the objectives are written in such a way that results can be measured or assessed against them. They ensure that the objectives for individuals are congruent with those of the team and of the firm as a whole. Good leaders encourage people to evaluate their own performance and they help them if necessary to identify options for improvement.

It is helpful to keep the old management saw ‘What gets measured gets done’ in mind. There is a well-known story, possibly apocryphal but probably true, about a bus company. Complaints from passengers wishing to use the bus service that the drivers were speeding past queues of people with a smile and wave of the hand have been met by a statement pointing out that it is impossible for the drivers to keep to their timetable if they have to stop for the passengers. Far more seriously, in May 2003 it was alleged that a number of the most highly rated hospitals in Britain had the worst patient death rates. The rating system was based on key targets and indicators. But, apparently, none of the targets that hospitals had to meet to get star ratings was clinical!

In a similar vein, if your team members have fee-earning objectives but no marketing objectives, don’t be surprised if they neglect their marketing obligations. Obvious though this is, it is far from unusual to find objective setting confined to the more easily measured financial responsibilities. This happens just as much for individuals as it does for teams. It is probably a good idea to aim for one or two objectives for each major area of responsibility. Examples for professional people might include the amount and profitability of technical work; quality of service to clients; contributions to the marketing effort; contributions to helping others, for example coaching colleagues and supervising trainees; and contributions to firm-wide activities such as projects and presentations at conferences. Objectives for support people will vary and depend on the precise nature of their work. For team leaders themselves, objectives for the leadership aspects of their work are clearly desirable.

It is important for objectives to be accompanied by simple action plans, which indicate what needs to be done and by when. These make it easier to monitor progress. They also provide a check that the goals have realistic time-spans and that they are unambiguous.

Personal development goals are concerned with the acquisition of new knowledge and skills to aid the realization of longer-term career aspirations. They are statements of what needs to be learnt, how and by when. The discussion is likely to include a consideration of learning preferences, organizational convenience and cost effectiveness. Are training courses appropriate or is planned experience through secondments a more attractive option? What part can reading and the use of interactive computer software play in the realization of the goals? Do arrangements need to be put in place for mentoring? Will research projects be helpful?

When you meet with your colleague to review performance and talk about career development it is probably best to start by looking back at what has happened since the last discussion. Why not begin by inviting him or her to make an assessment of performance against the objectives set last time? If you both have the same perceptions then that is well and good. If your team member’s assessment is tougher than yours then it is an easy and pleasant job for you to offer your evaluation. If on the other hand your assessment is that performance was not as good as your colleague believes then you will need to give feedback carefully and constructively in the way that was described in Helping Team Members to Get the Best Out of Themselves . Bear in mind one very important point. If the objectives in the first place were formulated with precision, and are unambiguous, then your assessment and that of your colleague are more likely to be aligned. When performance is not up to scratch you will need to agree on what needs to be done to bring about an improvement in the future. Agood way to do this is to use the coaching style described in Helping Team Members to Get the Best Out of Themselves . Ask questions to raise awareness about the current and desired levels of performance. Explore the options available for making progress and from these seek a commitment from your colleague to specify actions that will result in an improvement.

The next step is to review progress made towards the personal development goals agreed last time. It is not uncommon for these to be neglected in the hurly-burly of the job. The task of the team leader here is to give lots of encouragement and to stress the importance of investing time and energy in becoming more distinctive and valuable. Nobody can rest on their laurels and have a worthwhile professional career these days. There is a huge responsibility for leaders to ensure that their people do more than pay lip service to personal development when the pressures of the day-to-day job often seem to be so overwhelming.

The last point of the discussion is usually devoted to revising objectives and setting new ones for the period ahead. The process usually works better when you invite your colleague to make the running. Once again the coaching style described in Helping Team Members to Get the Best Out of Themselves  can be used to great effect. Your questions can follow the pattern: how are you doing currently; what point do you want to reach and by when; what are the possible ways of getting there; and what will you actually do?

Performance review and career development discussions are useful. The trick is to keep them simple and to the point and to keep the paperwork to a minimum. Conduct discussions with sensitivity, focus on the future and use them primarily to give encouragement and help.

National law firm DLA’s guidelines for its performance management system highlight the main points to take into account. They are:

  1. to assess performance against clear criteria;
  2. to identify opportunities for development so that individual potentiality can be realized;
  3. to identify objectives and establish an action plan to achieve them;
  4. to identify training needs, build on strengths, resolve areas for improvement and ensure progressive professional development;
  5. to facilitate a frank and open discussion;
  6. to ensure that development takes place within the context of the firm’s overall business strategy.

The firm’s guidance notes and training seminars stress that performance management is a process in which the objectives and actions of all participants should be kept under continual review. According to Human Resources Director Robert Halton, this is at the heart of the way that DLA does business:

Our performance management process is the vehicle for delivering the firm’s strategy – it allows plans to be divided into achievable objectives and lets people know how they contribute to the success of the firm.