Performance Management in Crazy Times — 1-on-1s, forms and Layoffs

Performance Management in Crazy Times

Effectively managing performance today is a bear. It’s tough. And can feel thankless… sometimes even pointless.

It’s also one of the most important things we do as senior managers – setting, and managing to, performance expectations.

Why, then, do we anguish about it so?

The problem, of course, is we frequently confuse performance reviews with performance management. We make the appraisal process so onerous that no one wants to do anything but the appraisals… forgetting, of course, why we do those troublesome things in the first place.

It’s because we don’t take ownership of the process. It’s not the form we use, the rating scale identified, nor the percentage of pay increase associated with various rankings. It’s that we just don’t see the process as significant in our pursuit for business success.

It is, however, as necessary as breathing for an organization’s success, so let’s stop complicating it unnecessarily. It’s actually pretty damned simple.

In that vein, I’m not going to offer some academic treatise BS here; I’m just going to share what I believe are the components of applying successful performance management. Here goes:

There are three key components to this stuff: Communication—Feedback–Assessment.

Communications are the foundation. Negotiating, then setting, clear expectations is where it all starts. Frequent follow-up conversations are essential, as is some method of tracking so all can keep an eye on progress. Your regularly scheduled 1:1 conversations are a big part here.

You are having regularly scheduled (weekly preferable, no less than monthly) 1:1 discussions, aren’t you?

Feedback is essential for calibration. This includes briefs and debriefs of events, like key meetings, project completions, necessary interactions, obvious conflicts, etc. This event feedback is some of the most valuable fodder for learning – don’t miss out.

I had a board chair once tell me his role was to simply “tap the rudders” behind the ship. This is what feedback does. It allows for target assessment, recognition of successes and opportunities, and allows us to use “tracer rounds” to focus our efforts.

Assessment occurs as an amalgam of expectations, tracking and feedback, Here we determine “good,” or “needs improvement;” “on target,” or “3 inches to the left;” “success” or “do-over.” It must be clear that assessments use clear expectations as the yardstick, and that well-intentioned failures are a path to success, not a clear shot to termination.

But Kevin, what about our corporate Performance Review form? Where does that fit in? Well, frankly, it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t need to. All that form should be used for is to memorialize the ongoing communication—feedback—assessment that occurred throughout the year (quarter, month, whatever).

Nothing new. No surprises.

Realize that the goal here is not a form… it’s managing/improving performance. Oh, yeah… we sometimes get so lost in the process, that we forget the real purpose. To manage and improve performance.

Let’s not lose sight of that objective.

And as presented in a recent AMA on “Should Performance Reviews be used for Layoffs?” – No, that performance review should not be the sole determinant for a layoff, nor should they be “shifted” in focus or substance at the end of a review period.

Performance management is essential for growth, improvement, and success. Performance reviews are a repository; a memorialization of ongoing performance management. Know the difference.

Performance matters. We all know this intuitively, yet we wrestle with the best way to manage that performance in our workplace. Own the process, decide that it’s about success, not perfection, and schedule the conversations.

Effective Feedback in Today’s Crazy Times

Effective Feedback

Feedback’s not getting easier, just a damned sight more essential.

Tom Peters once described a really unique method of communicating at a client company… he said they talked to each other. Now this was some years ago, so talking may have morphed into various forms today (email, text, etc.), but the concept is still true—personal communications is a necessity and will be crucial for leadership success in the future.

This is where you slap your head, à la Homer Simpson, with a resounding D’oh!

Our biggest challenge with feedback is usually the definition: it doesn’t mean “talking to someone,” and it certainly doesn’t mean “telling someone what you think.” Both of those may to the untrained observer, look like feedback. Neither actually is.

And it’s not simple criticism, either. See my AMA video for a discussion on this.

Let’s cut to the chase:

Feedback is information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve.

Do I need to repeat that?? If you aren’t trying to help someone grow and/or improve, it isn’t feedback. It may be something else (and likely not something good), but feedback?


Feedback neither requested nor expected is for the sender, not the receiver. Telling me that I’m fat and ugly (a bald-faced lie, by the way) does nothing to help me improve, which should be the cornerstone of any feedback effort.

And saying “well, it’s true” is no defense. Too many people wield the “truth” like some invisible sword and shield. It’s not. And in feedback, it must be balanced with the overarching need to help. So, how do we do that?

Make it personal. Feedback needs to be directed to someone specifically to be relevant. All-hands communications are so frequently ignored, they’ve lost all effectiveness for real feedback. Though face-to-face is best, video works well also, as can telephone or emails, or even text (decidedly least effective) directed to a specific individual, with specifics on the feedback topic.

And never forget; we need to communicate in a manner that can be best received by the other person. Decide in advance whether you’re trying to win, or to change behavior. Your communications—style, method, frequency—will then drive how you execute that feedback.

Be timely. Note, I didn’t say immediate. If you are so fired up right now because someone made such an egregious error that you would like to strangle them, “timely” means waiting until you can give feedback in a way that can be best received by that same person (see above). Preferably sans strangulation.

Being timely also means delivering feedback when its relevance can be understood and acted upon if necessary. This usually (barring the notable “strangulation exception” mentioned earlier) means as soon as practical to the event, behavior, or action driving the feedback subject.

Feedback must be two-way. Here’s the formula: The more we share relevant parts of ourselves—what we like, don’t like, expect, demand—the more others understand and trust us. The more they trust us, the more they share, and the more we share together, the higher the overall level of trust between us.

Trust is the very currency of leadership; we simply cannot succeed without it This is one of the few things that will not change in future years. What may evolve, however, is the manner in which trust is created, built, and fostered.

We must accept—insist on—regular feedback from those we lead. Find a way that works; you can always start with getting good at providing feedback yourself, and consistently asking for same. Some may still be hesitant, and you’ll need some help. 360s are a great tool for this. My Start-Stop-Continue worksheet can sometimes lower the resistance.

Feedback—helpful, relevant, and regular—will be essential to building trust today, tomorrow and beyond, and trust is essential to leadership. Without trust, there can be no discretionary effort; without discretionary effort, we only get what we pay for. Is that really what we want?

I vote no.

Team-Based Leader Development: Why together is better…

Team-Based Leader Development

Educating executives, managers, supervisors and other leaders remains a major concern for companies eager to keep their organizations afloat or even thriving in a challenging economic environment. Frankly, the limiting factor for most organizations continues to be leadership.

Leader development is not a new concept.  It continues, however, to be practiced in ways that – at best – do little to develop successful leaders and – at worst – damage functional relationships by allowing learning to exist in silos and independent “vacuums.”

The problem is not content. Adequate topical content is a dime-a-dozen and represents time-tested applications and concepts that have not changed much in a couple of millennia. Any of several firms create and publish reasonably valid content.

The principal challenge around effective development is relevancy. The content mentioned above is generic and must be made relevant for a specific functional or hierarchical group, within a specific organization. Then, when properly facilitated, we can at least hope to successfully develop a group of leaders.

The biggest issue, though, in effectively developing a group, team, gaggle, or flock of leaders is making sure they all learn the same things, the same way, and in the same context. Further, they should be able to test relevant applications and concepts together, for best learning and application.

Enter Team-Based Leader Development.

Now, I’m not speaking of team-building, per se, nor am I talking about campfires, challenge/ropes courses, falling-backward trust exercises, or other hardly-effective methods of development.

Those have value in team-bonding, but not real team development. And no, bonding and development are not the same things… in fact, it’s not actually a team just because you call it a team. See our article on The First rule of the Leadership Team.

I’m simply talking about developing a team or group of leaders at the same time, together. At our firm, we see more and more organizations wanting – needing – content specific for their groups; you just can’t get there when sending people out to some public session or seminar trying to be all things to all people.

You need your leaders developed together, learning applications and concepts relevant to your organization. By using team-based leader development, all leaders of a particular level or function learn these things at the same time, in the same room, using each other as learning tools.

The advantages of this approach should be obvious, and include demonstrated successes in:

  1. Improving communication flow within the team and out to the organization. This can occur naturally, and in a less stressful, facilitated environment. Conversations like this…
  • …benefit the organization, by providing calm discussions among leaders of similar hierarchical or functional levels, about just about anything important occurring in the organization today, and
  • …benefit the specific leaders involved, as they not only are discussing new learnings and applications, but they now have the opportunity to discuss things not normally discussed.

For example, without a safer venue, how many mid or senior-level managers would ask a peer “Hey, John, what’s the best way for me to resolve a conflict in my department?”  Or “Say, Susan, I’m having some issues in driving empowerment to my hourly employees – any suggestions?”

I’m guessing those conversations/questions, in the midst of our brutally hectic workdays, would be damned rare.

  1. Fostering mutual accountability for behaviors and results. One of the biggest advantages in having all these leaders in one location discussing the same things is that accountabilities can become institutionalized. It’s one thing to make a casual mention in the hallway; another thing altogether to commit to a group today, then speak with them a month or so later about your progress.

Also, this close-in work environment creates team ground rules that foster cohesion; if we agree in a group that behind-the-back caucusing is not something we’ll do, then having those back-stabbing conversations later just doesn’t feel right. Further, open communications in a facilitated setting inevitably translate to more open conversations in the open workplace.

  1. Faster assimilation, shared accountabilities, and increased understanding. This is the financial “why?” answered. Homogeneous participants learn faster, and the learning is more relevant. Therefore, an organization’s return on those development dollars is quicker, and the skills are more appropriate for the organization’s needs.

Understanding is accelerated; participants can discuss/explain with each other on various points and concepts, making sure that the meaning is the same for all, and that more realize how they can actually be used for leader success.

Participants in team-based development are able to identify their primary strengths quicker, and better understand how building on those contributes to higher levels of personal satisfaction and team success.

In short, all win. And the organization is better for it, all the time.

For additional insight, see the incredibly old-but-still-relevant Houston Business Journal’s feature article, Many companies now leaning toward team-oriented training.

(If link above doesn’t work, you can download pdf version at

Leading in the New Year — Let’s do it right!

Leading in the New Year

It’s December. The current year is almost in the can, finished. Stick a fork in it, it’s done.

A new day has dawned. The new year is upon us.

Soon, we’ll be discussing how fast January flew by, then Q1. The great hamster wheel of life.

Have you made plans? Personal goals are great. Business objectives are super. But do you have specific plans to “do” leadership better in the upcoming year?

No? Why not?

Many of us create detailed plans for the new year. We spreadsheet various categories like personal, family, business, spiritual, health, etc. But we need to add one: Leading. What can you do differently this year to improve your personal impact? “Get better at it” sounds great but is woefully unactionable.

How about I suggest a few things for you to consider?

  1. Address a specific people problem. Take that toxic employee or the just-barely performer into a private office and have that tough, courageous conversation.

Advise them, coach them, counsel them. See brief excerpt of a recent workshop we facilitated on Courageous Conversations.

But it’s get better or get lost.

You’ll be potentially helping someone otherwise unaware of the negative impact or poor performance they demonstrate. And trust me, those around that person will sing your praises.

  1. Mentor someone. I mean really mentor them. Take them under your wing and help them grow.
    • Be present, and pay attention. Listen closely, make sure you hear what that mentee means, not just what they say. Take notes so you can follow up when appropriate.
    • Deliver genuine feedback. Tell them what’s working, and what isn’t. You need to be the truth-teller in their life, don’t let them down. Direct feedback is essential to effective mentoring.
    • Inspire and motivate. Mentoring is not coaching, and it’s not therapy. You should advise based on your experience. That’s the real value of mentoring, answering WWYD… What Would YOU Do?
  1. One-on-ones. Start having them if you don’t and make them better if you do. Some things to consider:
    • Regular, consistent scheduling with all of your direct reports. Weekly is great, but consistent, recurring biweekly is better than often-cancelled weekly.
    • If you schedule it, be there. No exceptions. Reread that sentence. 30 minutes is the right duration, though many have been successful with an hour.
    • Ask for a brief email update a day in advance. It allows you to be prepared to ask a few quick questions on daily operational/functional stuff (10 minutes, tops), then spend the remaining time on being a human.
    • Employee drives the agenda, not you. This is their one-on-one, for them. “So, how are things going?” and let it develop from there (I have a more thorough checklist with sample questions available—just ask and I’ll send it).
    • End with, “What can I do to help you?” Prepare to be surprised.
  1. Get some feedback from others. We’ve been doing a lot of 360 surveys lately, with pretty astonishing results. You can somewhat DIY with our Start-Stop-Accelerate worksheet.

Get off your butt and do something. Leading is not a passive activity, and if you aren’t growing up you’re falling back. Remember too that employees’ expectations increase as your ability and impact increases. Such is life. Plan on leadership success as much as you do everything else.

Besides, do you really want to run a marathon in this upcoming year? Hell, I get tired driving 26.2 miles…

But that’s just me…

Elon Musk, Twitter and Culture

Elon Musk, Twitter and Culture

Culture is driven 100% top-down.

No matter what BS you hear to the contrary, culture begins – and is perpetuated and maintained – by what occurs at the top of the heap.

Any ideas about driving culture “from below” is an amalgam of wishful thinking and consultant crockery. And only shared by someone trying to sell you something that sounds easier than the real work.

Take Elon Musk, for example.

Now, you can argue that Twitter is an appropriately regulated social media outlet, accurately praised for preventing ne’er-do-wells from propagating hateful messaging and disinformation.

Or, you can see Twitter as moving too far out of its lane, censoring freedom of speech that should promote differences of thought, ideas and opinion.

I’m cool with either. You do you. (See what I did there?)

Musk, if we are to believe media reports, seems to fiercely believe the latter, further contending that the root cause of the problem is the fabric – the very culture – of Twitter today. And he wants that culture changed.

His first official act then? He whacked a bevy of senior-most execs, including the CEO, within hours of closing the long-awaited purchase.

Again, argue whichever current state for Twitter you choose. Float your own boat, amigo. But if Musk wants a radically different culture, he’s going about it in the most expeditious, if not dubiously effective, manner.

What would clearly not work is a conflict or tension at the top of the organization regarding culture direction or emphasis.

Culture, like any major change initiative, is driven (again, from the top for those skimming) most quickly by simple a simple performance approach:

    1. Setting clear expectations,
    2. Managing to those expectations, and
    3. Consequences or rewards for not meeting, meeting, or exceeding those expectations.

Clear expectations are a must. It’s hard enough for folks to follow our vision when everything remains constant; when changing, they have no hope to follow us if they can’t see it, and see it plainly.

Be clear. Give examples of success. Be explicit about what failure looks like. Use English, and small words. If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough (nod to Einstein).

Managing to those expectations is next. Here, we have metrics to help measure success and failure, based on the clear expectations outlined earlier.

Frequent calibrations allow empowered people the opportunity to align their efforts with our desired direction(s).

Specific targets here are again a must. Downrange visibility cannot be cluttered with a lot of bureaucratic bullshit.

Finally, consequences – both positive and negative – must exist so others can personally feel the effects of success and failure. Rewards and penalties. Carrots and sticks. Call ‘em whatever. Just know they are essential, as culture change and reinforcement are driven most quickly via consequences and rewards.

That actionable piece, often skimmed over quickly in glossy culture tomes, is where things really change.

If rewarded for bad behavior, that behavior will continue.

If penalized for positive efforts, future efforts will be less positive.

This is where things can get really interesting, as the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head.

Rewarding individual performance sounds great but can work against the larger good of a successfully working team.

Rewarding cost savings or cuts can lead to a reticence in appropriate investments, allowing needed positions to go unfilled, terminations without sufficient forethought, or really idiotic spending restrictions.

Unintended consequences.

There will always be some instances of these unintended consequences. The key, then, is to set opposing rewards and consequences to allow for and balance the effects.

Example: Individual performance can be rewarded, but only after team performance triggers and award.

Cost-savings can be rewarded, but only within specific, agreed parameters (profitability, headcount, average SG&A, etc.).

Just a couple of examples – the devil is in the details, and your mileage may vary.

Bottom line for us… whether you or Elon Musk, $54B company or $100M, culture begins and is reinforced from the top of any specific organization.  Ergo (my favorite useless word), Musk whacking the top of the Twitter food chain was a necessity if he firmly believed that the culture needed to be changed drastically. And quickly.

There’s a lesson there for all on top of their pyramid, so read it closely.

Now, it gets a bit complicated when we start discussing where the organization hierarchy actually starts and stops, but that’s for another article.

If Musk can do it, you can too.

Just stay focused, like Elon Musk. Assuming you can call electric cars, boring, brain chips, rockets and social media “focused.”

When does the guy sleep??

Stupid should hurt… Learn from your business mistakes.

stupid mistakes happen

I was recently involved (as a participant) in a strategic planning event; the facilitator, Alan Pue, was discussing many of the ways that planning — and its subsequent implementation — can go wrong.

In part of that commentary, he mentioned as an example a firm’s inability to adapt to a necessary change in the market, and how that inability adversely affected their performance. Alan wasn’t sympathetic to their plight, nor even empathetic. In fact, he made it clear that the problem was their own doing, and the resultant pain was of their own creation. They did it to themselves, have no one else to blame, and these lessons — though valuable — can be painful.

I agree.

When we act so dumb in business that we can’t get out of our own way, the resultant pain is our own doing. Sort of like touching a hot stove, we hopefully learn that we shouldn’t do that again.

Stupid should hurt.

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