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How Successful Executives Master Performance Reviews

By Jon Patton

The holiday season is here, and you are looking forward to time with the friends and family, as well as some well-deserved rest and relaxation.

For many leaders of people, at some point your thoughts will anticipate the annual performance review process, giving you a gnawing feeling of discomfort.

You may resent the time it takes. Or those difficult conversations.  You know that even good performers can be resistant to development opportunities, especially when they are spelled out in black and white. You turn away the anticipatory anxiety and return to your holiday festivities knowing at some point soon they will have to be faced again.  Even if your performance timeline is different, the close of one year and start of a new one can be an opportunity for reflection on this issue. 

A Reframing Experience

Gordon Smith took an altogether different point of view about the performance review process, and I was fortunate to learn from him directly, since he was my boss earlier in my career.   He regarded the performance appraisal process as the single most important thing he was going to do all year. He explained to his direct reports that his success was largely based on the success of the leaders he manages, and that this year end conversation was one of the most critical points of leverage for each of us to be successful.

For this reason, he embraced the process and willingly devoted quality time to the exercise.  Along with my fellow direct reports, I experienced first hand the art of the review and how meaningful it was.  I saw how it utilized my self-appraisal but went much further, including honest, thoughtful feedback on my performance, as well as specific direction for the new year.  

This experience made its mark, and I continue to do my best to model his example during my career in corporate America, as well as at our small consulting firm.

9 Points of Performance Review Wisdom

Leaders who embrace performance reviews, like Gordon, have similar approaches, which I have summarized into nine key points of Performance Review wisdom that I often share with my clients. It is not necessarily surprising that the points are skewed to performance opportunities as this is often where leaders especially struggle.  However, it’s equally important to recognize and celebrate successes and strengths. 

  1. Seize the opportunity and invest the time. I was with a leader last week who said he spends at least 2.5 hours preparing for each person’s review, and he has a lot of direct reports. He said he gathers all the data and sits down to carefully think about what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. My advise is to relish the opportunity to help your people and realize it directly serves your best interests too. 
  2. Be courageous and honest.  In other words, do not choose the path of least resistance. Very few people enjoy conflict; it makes people uncomfortable. But do not duck bringing up areas of improvement. All of us have been on the receiving end of challenging reviews that made a meaningful difference to our growth and future performance. You may also have seen the opposite, where bosses have avoided being honest and mediocre performers never improve. 
  3. Focus on the how, not just the what. Many companies exclusively assess people based on concrete, tangible outcomes such as the financial targets; they assess people on the what and ignore the how.  But the how people approach their goals is equally important; teamwork, collaboration, influencing, empowering, resilience.  There is always the latitude for these interpersonal elements to be introduced into the performance appraisal and for them to play a key part in the overall assessment.  Without assessment of the how, the unintended consequence can create a culture of results at all cost; delivering in the short term, but leaving metaphorical dead bodies in their wake. 
  4. Make sure important points are in writing.  Some leaders soften the blow of development feedback by mentioning it in the year end conversation, but not putting it in writing. This may at times be appropriate, but people frequently discount feedback unless it makes the document itself.
  5. Avoid “Peaking on Average.” This expression is aimed at people who have a repeated history of not meeting expectations in certain areas of their job.  They often manage to raise performance levels when their performance is under scrutiny, but relapse when attention is diverted.  Make it clear in the performance review that sustained improvement is necessary, and that limited short term improvements aren’t going to be acceptable. Of course, you need to spell out the consequences if it is a serious performance issue.  
  6. Assess the Surprise Factor.  An annual performance review should not contain any surprises.  The important points you make should have been discussed during your one-on-ones, and during quarterly or mid year written reviews. If this is not the case, this is feedback for you, you can make a personal 2018 resolution to having regular and honest performance discussions, so that the next annual review cycle is  a natural conclusion of your discussions throughout the year. 
  7. Review your direct’s reviews. If you are going to have a high performance culture, it is important to have a way of assessing the quality of the performance reviews that your direct reports conduct.  One example clients have shared with me is a process where you read all or samples of your direct reports’ performance reviews. As you personally role model your commitment to the process and have a way of ensuring consistent quality of reviews, people will start following your lead. This alone can begin to drive a performance culture in your organization.
  8. Capture mid-year performance.  I always found that the majority of the time is invested in the quarterly or mid-year review discussions, ideally with written feedback captured.  These discussions can refocus on important goals, and influence performance while there is still time. Then, the annual review is more a question of building on and updating those assessments.
  9. Guide The Year Ahead.  Be sure to include in the Performance Review specific areas of focus and guidance on what is needed to put the person in a position to achieve success in the upcoming year. I always enjoyed writing this section as it is a way of channeling the energy of retrospective feedback into future action, as well as being a great way of laying out expectations.

The common denominator of successful leaders is they want to accomplish things for their organization, and they know that ultimately the most effective way is through developing their people.  The performance review represents a unique and often under-leveraged opportunity to unleash the potential of their people. 

It is also validating to follow my former boss’s career success. Today, Gordon Smith is the CEO of Consumer and Consumer Bank at Chase, where he reports to Jamie Dimon and runs an organization of some 150,000 employees. Gordon has a history of delivering results and is also known as a developer of people. Clearly a connection here!!

As you approach the New Year, I hope these nine points of performance review wisdom will contribute to your confidence in giving this gift of honest and caring feedback to your people during this all too familiar and important, organizational tradition.

Jon Patton
Managing Partner
Stop At Nothing, Inc

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Each person on our team returned with renewed insight and inspiration. HILS has improved communication, developed stronger relationships in the workplace, and helped us to retain key leadership positions.

Connie Hodges

President and CEO
United Way of Northeast Florida