Sunday, November 15, 2009

Performance Management

It is that time of the year in the federal government. The recently completed fiscal year has set in motion a cycle of documentation, writing appraisals, holding panels to evaluate each appraisal, providing feedback, and ultimately, determining pay and bonuses. It is a convoluted system that most of us hate (and I won’t use this page for my angst against the time killer that this system has become) but it does have great value and in many ways is worth the investment of key leader time and energy.

Previously, our evaluation system was a waste. Most everyone received top marks, the annual appraisal itself (often the only feedback an employee might get in a year) took only a few minutes to complete, and the system did nothing to reward greatness or to identify low performers. Yeah, we all liked the ability to crank out any number of evaluations without having to engage our brains. But the system allowed us to be cowards, never forcing us to deal with real performance issues. And this made it difficult to recognize true greatness, as superstars often received “scores” and financial rewards at the same level as known slugs! That is not good leadership and has a direct impact on employee morale and performance.

Our current system is not without its faults. But when I meet with my senior leaders to evaluate the files of all the supervisors in our organization (a very talented group of about 80 low and mid-level managers), we truly get after some difficult issues:

-- Evaluate performance of each individual against their agreed upon performance objectives…on a scale of 1-5…and where a “3” is a good score.

-- Greatness requires more than just doing a good job. Recognition as such by a broader group of senior leaders (i.e. more than just one’s direct supervisor) requires measurable, appreciable IMPACT.

-- Superstars are identified and considered within our organizational succession plan. If they have gaps (skills or tools) that they might need in order to advance, they are tagged accordingly for future development opportunities.

-- Employees with low scores are considered using the Jim Collins (Good to Great) analogy with these two questions:
- Is the employee on the right bus? Do they fit with our mission, our culture, our values?
- If yes, is the employee on the right seat of the bus? Is there a position where the demands of their job could better align with their strengths?

Most employees are on the right bus. They could -- and usually do -- add value to the team. But many are not cut out for management (and in fact, if asked, might say they prefer the technical work out in the trenches to supervisory duties). Others have extenuating issues in their lives that make it difficult to perform at the high level (personal problems, poor subordinates, difficult mission). For those on the right bus but the wrong seat, senior leaders need to take action to get the correct alignment.

This sort of thing is hard work. Leaders usually love their subordinate managers and fight to see them rewarded for their hard work. That's a good thing. But there must be a check in the system that prevents against grade inflation such that our evaluations have meaning. And true greatness must be allowed to rise to the top…and be recognized as such.

So what about you and your team? Do you have a system to evaluate talent within your ranks? Is it a “check the block” sort of approach or does it force you to make “hard calls” on superior (and inferior) performance? Are you using some sort of peer comparison to move beyond loyalty to one’s team and fairly evaluate the broader contributions of a team member toward the goals and objectives of the organization? Are you having meaningful discussions about placement on the bus…and who needs to get off at the next stop?

I have no doubt, that no matter the pain of the process (hey…we are government so…we have to make everything difficult), the time spent with my senior leadership team on these sorts of discussions was invaluable. High scores have to be earned, contributions have to be measurable, and success has to have an impact that the full leadership team can appreciate. I gained insights both on my senior leaders and those whom we had gathered to evaluate. That made this week’s session in which we measured subordinate leader performance…Leader Business.


Jo Ann said...

Great post! It is good to see a leader so invested in the system and in the management of human capital. With so much focus about being on the “right bus” and in the “right seat”, you are able to build your organization and create a positive team culture that will significantly influence employee retention. Good leaders surround themselves with good people and this will make that “bus ride” a pleasant one!

Sunny Zia said...

Loved this post, question: how do you measure the impact?

Anonymous said...

I think you are so awesome! I love you

Shelby welby

DeDe said...

This is why you're one of my absolute favorite leaders, my friend. Unfortunately, you are few and far between. I just completed a class (the Civilian Education System Intermmediate Course), and we had a project to develop processes that we can use to make the many different performance evaluation systems fair and equitable, and one thing was evident - it still boils down to leadership and taking the time to accurately assess your staff's peformance. And there are still so many that are just too lazy or too busy - and find it easier to give everyone a 3, rather than reward performers and - God forbid - hold their slackers accountable.
So, I'd work for you anytime!

Tom Magness said...

To "Shelby Welby" aka my daughter...I love you, too! Thanks for being a fan! Ha! Dad

Tom Magness said...

Thanks JoAnn and DeDe. Performance management is definitely an investment. It is hard work but...we have to do it. It is so much more than "performance evaluation!" I appreciate your thoughts! TM

Tom Magness said...

Good question, Sunny. You certainly can't treat "performance management" as an annual activity. It requires regular follow-up: counseling; feedback; coaching/teaching/mentoring.

The ultimate measure of impact is at the bottom line: results. If the employee sustains what you have identified as good and improves in areas that are weak, then we have truly accomplished something. Management -- and the employee -- can expect better performance in subsequent evaluations.

I always appreciate your questions! TM