The managers were meeting as a team to review their employees for the previous year with their management peers, their boss (Director level) and their bosses boss (Vice President) along, with a senior level HR leader. It was arguably the most important meeting for them each year, It would bare open their leadership style, strengths, and vulnerabilities. It was a learning experience for them and their peers, manager and organizational leadership with collective advice, wisdom and suggestions openly shared, and it also calibrated organizational expectations. It helped everyone in every way but they certainly didn’t feel that way because like all muscle building experiences, it was stressful and important from a career standpoint for them and their direct reports. The tension in the room was a palatable.
A few weeks before, in preparation for this meeting, the Managers met with their Director and HR partner on the feedback they were planing to give their direct reports on their individual performance. Key questions to consider: How did they plan to give feedback? Where? When? What did they rate their employees individually; meets, exceeds, or did not meet expectations? How did this communication look in writing? How did it match the self assessment the employee submitted? What promotions, if any, are they asking for? How much money were they giving them in raises and bonuses?
I was responsible for 1500 employees. I believe the most important position in the company is the first line manager. If they lead effectively the performance and culture of the team would align to that level. Companies try all methods and means to gain insight on how leaders lead because it is not always visible. Engagement surveys, 360 degree reviews, open door policies, communication meetings, town halls all blanketed with company values, policies and procedures. The fact is, at the end of the day what matters most to employees is their relationship, expectations and authentic feedback from their manager. That drives culture, turnover, pay and goal equity, readiness, engagement and ultimately performance. However, performance in line with what? The obvious answer is performance to plan; but that is not everything. A manager delivering at or above performance levels may, for example, be squandering employees development (to keep them in the role), micromanaging because they can and creating a toxic culture, often, without even knowing it. It’s a vexing problem every company faces.
It may be considered bold, but in my 25 years managing employees nothing solved it better the what we called Performance Calibration.
Performance Calibration, a process we developed, is simply bringing the 7-10 managers in a geography, business unit, etc., together for a day or two and having them go through each employees’ plan for the previous time period, usually a year. There are many names for these plans; goal sheet, performance success plan, yearly objectives, etc. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. Every successful company has a written process to assess employee contributions and give feedback on their accomplishments. Legal and, HR demand it and if you want scale your culture from 10 employees to 1000 you need to have it. More importantly all of your employees want it, need it and pay attention to it. It’s written feedback and nothing engages employees more than high quality, genuine and authentic feedback from their manager. How am I doing? How do you see me? Where do you see me? How can I be better? I’ll expand on that another day but for now let’s assume some sort of performance assessment plan is in place.
So, back to what we called Performance Calibration. Performance Calibration is simply having each manager stand up in front of their peers and walk through each employees’ plan.
Let’s take a specific example. I had the Southwest sales team come together It would be the six Sales Managers (managing ~ ten direct reports), their manager (Director) and and me (Vice President) along with an HR Director, and often the Service/Support Manager.
The first line manager would present, walking through the actual, form they had prepared for each of their employees, one by one and line by line. Here’s what I was thinking and asking as they did this:
How does the written feedback match up with the commentary I’m hearing? They can be surprisingly different. I would hear “This guy doesn’t communicate enough and it frustrates his team” but no where in the written feedback is this mentioned. Or, “She’s great the way she communicates with everyone on the team.” Again, no where is this mentioned. I remember saying the “the words and music I’m hearing don’t match.”
Are you giving positive and critical feedback in writing? That matters because employees are often too emotionally nervous during these conversations to hear everything clearly. When they go home with written feedback they sit down and read it. It better be aligned to whatever you said or they will get frustrated and confused making whatever you meant to happen not happen. They will probably show it to their spouse or significant other, especially if it’s positive. It needs to be aligned to what you think.
I would look for the employees’ comments which would tell me how engaged they were in this important process. If they just checked the boxes and wrote little if anything I would ask why? Suspecting the employee was not really taking the feedback process seriously. I saw this as a coaching opportuny for the manager.
Is there any resemblance to a bell curve of the sales team in performance and rating? Or, are a few carrying the many? I would ask their peers, HR, the Service Manager to weigh in with what they saw in the employee often giving keen insights to the manager on teamwork, respect and collaboration.
I would look at the ratings by goal. Was it consistent to the standard being held to others on the team? Was it in line with what I thought? Did everyone agree or were we disconnected with the managers assessments and expectations different against the same goal? Often employees miss the goal but the manager says “they worked really hard so I gave them a meets expectations”. What is that saying about a performance driven culture, being honest and goal setting?
Asking questions and facilitating this dialogue is a tremendous coaching opportunity and it conveys clearly to everyone in the room what you expect. It drives consistency in culture. I would share what the executive team was looking for and how they fit into that. It standardizes the messages, gives support to the Directors coaching the managers, drives credibility in the process and develops better leaders. Much better leaders. They listen to each other on how to handle difficult employees. They see how other mangers handle difficult situations and have courageous conversations. In the transparency they gain confidence knowing their employee assessments are consistent with everyone else. The process was repeated later with the Directors on their Managers.
Done well, it benefits the organization and culture in many positive ways. These include: employee engagement, performance management, succession planning and leadership development.
Results? Our regrettable resignations went to almost zero, our employee engagement numbers were among the highest levels in the company, we delivered consistent sustained performance and our leaders achieved high responsibility executive level opportunities in their careers . As I reflect back on my career nothing exceeded the return on the investment of doing these. Nothing.