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What about Performance Management?—Part 4

Performance managementIn our last post, we discussed how a role could be defined as a series of outcomes that would provide the basis for an effective performance feedback system. In this post, we’ll consider how to handle aspects of a position that don’t fall neatly into a role definition.

The example we looked at was the role of a project manager. We considered that a project manager might have these desired outcomes:

  • A project plan that is appropriate to manage the project
  • Project team members who are aligned on scope, plan, and responsibilities
  • A customer who is fully aligned and whose expectations are managed throughout the project
  • A customer who can be used as a reference

Performance feedback clearly could be given for each of those outcomes. But in many, if not most, cases, people don’t fill just a single role in their organization. In addition to being project managers, they may also be a team leaders or department heads. They will, of course, also be considered representatives of the organization to the community at large. So how can these or other aspects of a position be incorporated into an effective performance feedback system?

Let’s consider the first of those examples: leadership.

For leadership, outcomes might include an identified and prepared successor or perhaps an informed and aligned team. Those are just a few examples. In either of those cases, feedback could be provided that meets our key principles of being

  • Timely
  • Objective
  • Frequent
  • Helpful

Similarly, other aspects of a position could easily be expressed as a series of outcomes that would enable effective performance feedback.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you measuring objective outcomes or vague traits in your quest to provide solid performance feedback?


What about Performance Management?—Part 3

Performance ManagementIn our miniseries of posts about performance feedback systems, it’s time to consider an alternative. Let’s first consider the basis of most feedback systems and then look at a different approach.

Most appraisal systems have a series of ill-defined traits, or sometimes competencies, against which performance is measured. Some of those traits are maddeningly vague. A couple of our favorites are

  • Strategic Thinking. Of course we want to think strategically, but how does one measure that? Or better yet, how should feedback be given so it will cause improvement over time?
  • Integrity. How can any organization even consider measuring integrity on a one-to-five scale? “Sorry, you only measured a three out of five on integrity this period. You lied to customers and your fellow workers fourteen times over the last year. If you tell the truth more often, you can probably bring your score up to a four next year.” Are you kidding?

Now for the different approach. As an example, consider the role of project manager. If the job of project manager were expressed as a series of outcomes, those outcomes might include

  • A project plan that is appropriate to manage the project
  • Project team members who are aligned on scope, plan, and responsibilities
  • A customer who is fully aligned and whose expectations are managed throughout the project
  • A customer who can be used as a reference

Based on those outcomes, the process of looking at each project planned and managed by a given person and providing objective and helpful feedback would be fairly straightforward. In fact, providing immediate feedback after the completion of each project to give not just feedback but also constructive ideas for improvement would be very easy.

Take the first outcome as an example: a supervisor could easily sit down with a performer and review a completed (or better yet, a draft) project plan with an eye toward how well the plan would allow the project manager to manage the project. So feedback can be timely, objective, frequent, and helpful and thereby meet our four key principles.


Question to ponder:

  • Are your roles well defined enough to provide the basis for solid performance feedback?

What about Performance Management?—Part 2

Performance ManagementLast week, we posed the dilemma of how to reconcile two opposing trends in performance management:

  • Millennials increasingly want performance feedback more often and in a more meaningful way.
  • Organizations are scrapping formal performance appraisal systems altogether.

This is not a new problem. When we were in the US Navy, there was an unwritten rule: the top 50 percent of naval officers were given top grades—often in the top 1 percent. Put another way, if you received anything lower than a top grade, your chances for promotion were significantly diminished. Of course, everyone knew it was a game, and everyone quickly learned how to play.

But that’s the essence of the problem. Performance feedback should not be a game; it should provide meaningful feedback that helps an individual improve his or her performance. Instead, the game is simply who can write the most glowing prose without crossing some imaginary line into pure fantasy.

Performance feedback and the accompanying performance appraisals should follow several key principles. They should be

  • Timely
  • Objective
  • Frequent
  • Helpful

Let’s take each of these separately:

Timely. Feedback should be provided soon after the performance concerned. Waiting months to tell someone he or she had fallen short of the mark is not very helpful. Most of us have trouble remembering last week, let alone several months ago. So feedback should be given in a timely manner.

Objective. This is perhaps one of the most critical, and most often overlooked, points. To be really meaningful, performance feedback has to point to a previously agreed-upon, measurable standard that both the performer and the supervisor view the same way.

Frequent. The often-used once-a-year model is a complete mess. To be truly helpful, feedback should be provided as often as possible. Anyone familiar with steering anything—from cars to boats to airplanes—knows that a series of small course corrections is more effective than infrequent major course changes.

Helpful. This principle is a bit of a touchy one and depends largely on the culture of the organization. In some organizations, performance appraisals are used mostly in a punitive fashion to justify firing someone. In other organizations, the opposite is true, and appraisals are used to justify a promotion or raise. Either way, the feedback culture is one of manipulation. To function properly, a performance feedback system should be viewed by employees as helping them improve their performance.

If these principles are followed, then a performance feedback system should help people consistently perform their jobs to standard.


Question to ponder:

  • How well does your performance management system measure up against these four key principles?

What about Performance Management?—Part 1

Performance Management

Ah, Groundhog Day! That wonderful time of the year when people think about performance appraisals.

What, everyone doesn’t think about performance appraisals on Groundhog Day? Well, they should. It’s entirely appropriate; just think of all the parallels:

  • It comes over and over again.
  • Nothing comes of it. (Think of Bill Murray and the movie.)
  • It’s frustrating. (How many ways did Bill try to kill himself?)
  • The results are usually wrong. (At least, that’s the revealed wisdom: Punxsutawney Phil gets the weather forecast right only about one-third of the time. And many would argue that performance appraisals are only right about the same percentage.)

Many companies, mostly out of frustration we suspect, are doing away with performance appraisals altogether. Given how little value people place in them and how frustrating they are for supervisors to do, complete surrender may be an entirely appropriate solution.

But at the same time, anecdotal evidence shows that millennials want more frequent performance feedback.

So how can you reconcile these two opposing trends: mounting frustration leading to eliminating performance appraisals and performers desiring more frequent performance feedback?

That is the subject of the next blog post in this series. For now, we invite you to ponder these questions:

  • Are performance appraisals appreciated in your organization?
  • Is performance feedback given in a timely and meaningful way?
  • How objective and measurable are the performance measures that are being used?

Stories from the Field


Image courtesy of stockimages at

Sometimes what sets the top performers apart from the average are simply little insights that become obvious after you see them.

At a catalog retailer, a small handful of call center representatives excelled at the upsell: convincing callers to buy additional items beyond what they called to buy. Obviously, that’s good. Selling more items to an existing caller has the least sales cost and offers immediate revenue and profit to the business. But why were some representatives more successful at the upsell than others? Was it something they said? Was it how they pitched the additional items? No one seemed to be sure. All they were sure of was that the top performers were consistently better than everyone else.

So we watched and we listened. We hooked up an extra headset to the phone and sat by the top performers and observed what they heard, what they said, and what they did. The pattern quickly became apparent. And it was surprisingly simple to design the method into the information presented on the representatives’ computer screens and to train the rest of the team to use it.

Before we tell you what it was, stop reading and think for a minute. Put yourself into the seat of a call center representative and think about how you would try to upsell someone. For purposes of this exercise, assume you are taking catalog orders for clothes. How would you convince someone to buy additional items of clothing that they didn’t realize they wanted?

Here’s the technique used by those top performers. The representative would offer a sincere and simple observation about whatever someone ordered. Usually it was something simple like “I love that shirt; it’s one of my favorites.” A statement like that affirms the decision made by the buyer. If the expert who works at the company likes it, it must be a good choice. Then the representative would subtly offer something like “it really goes well with ____” and name another item that complements the shirt. Notice there is no selling pressure, just affirming and then associating the first choice with a complementary item. More often than not, the corresponding item gets added to the order.

Again, we’re talking about simple techniques, figured out by the top performers who drive superior business results.


Thought to ponder:

  • The sales technique described above is also used by successful wait staff in restaurants. Think about a recent restaurant meal and if and how that technique was used.

Secret Sauce

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Image courtesy of stockimages at

It seems that every job has a strong dose of secret sauce included in the recipe. The secret sauce is that one ingredient, usually used sparingly, that brings out the flavor and uniqueness of the dish. Chefs often guard the identity of their secret sauce zealously to safeguard their recipes.

It’s the same way with top performers. They usually have some secret sauce that they use sparingly: that little something different others don’t use or don’t do that sets their performance apart from that of other performers.

In some cases, the secret sauce for a top performer can be as simple as how he or she approaches a particular task. In other cases, it could be a tool or job aid top performers have developed on their own. For example, in working with the top outside sales reps from one company, we discovered that eighteen of the twenty had developed a spreadsheet designed to track particular data elements and to help them focus their time on the most probable candidates. Each of those eighteen people told us they thought they were the only one who used such a spreadsheet, and although it was kind of a crutch, it really seemed to help them. When eighteen of the top twenty people all use some form of the same tool and each feels it’s important enough to devote time and energy to developing and maintaining, you know it’s important.


Questions to ponder:

– What secret sauce are your top performers using? What secret sauce do you use in your role to help you perform with excellence?


Observing for Top Performer Outcomes

Observing for Top Performer OutcomesSurely the best method for identifying top performer outcomes is to watch top performers. It sounds simple, but it works. By watch them, we mean to observe them as they do their work in their normal work environment.

If the normal work environment is a call center, then sit next to them, listen to calls, and watch how they use their IT systems and any documentation around them. Pay particular attention to any handwritten job aids. If a top performer thinks something is important enough to write down, then it usually is a critical item that would benefit other performers.

If the normal work environment requires interfacing with customers (e.g., an outside sales rep) then the ideal method is to accompany the reps on customer calls. See what they do before, during, and after each customer interaction. For instance, what notes do they take and how do they document any follow-actions?

Sometimes the normal work environment is challenging for observations. We’ve worked with top performers everywhere from refineries where we had to take special training and don lots of protective gear to tugboats escorting loaded tankers through Alaskan waters in winter temperatures and very uncomfortable sea conditions. But in every case, we’ve learned a tremendous amount from being present with the top performer and seeing firsthand all of the hints and tricks they leverage.



Questions to ponder:

– Where do your top performers work their magic? Have you observed them as they do their work? What have you learned from your observations?


Interviewing for Top Performer Outcomes

Interviewing for Top Performer OutcomesHow can you find out what outcomes your top performers focus on? The first, and perhaps most obvious, approach is to ask them. Interviewing is a key technique and is usually the starting point for our discovery process.

Top performer interviews differ from other common interviews we usually conduct. For most of us, our interviewing experience is mostly based on interviewing candidates for a position to select the best candidate. In that case, we are attempting to determine whether someone is qualified and, if so, which of the candidates is most qualified.

When interviewing top performers, we are trying to learn what they already know. That requires developing a great deal of rapport and trust during the interview so the performers will open up and frankly discuss how they think about their work.

The most common technique we use is called a framing session. We call it that because we are trying to frame up in our minds the broad outlines of the job through the eyes of the top performer. We commonly ask this person to walk us through a day (or shift or week or month or whatever other time frame makes sense) in his or her life.

As top performers discuss their perspectives on that day, we probe for answers to the following questions:

  • What did they do (tasks)?
  • What did they produce as a result of those tasks (outcomes)?
  • Why did they do a particular task (stimulus)?
  • How did they know when they were done with a thing (success criteria)?
  • What either helps or hinders them (facilitators or barriers)?
  • Who did they collaborate with (team)?

At this early stage, we aren’t focused on getting every detail of every outcome. We just want to get a rough outline of the work so we can identify places to drill into later.


Questions to ponder:

  • How would you describe your job in terms of the bullet points above? Could you?


Uncovering Top Performer Outcomes

Uncovering Top Performer OutcomesA theme running through our book, The New Game Changers, and all our blog posts and discussions is the idea of uncovering the outcomes focused on by top performers. But how is that accomplished; how are those critical outcomes uncovered?

As usual in questions dealing with people, the answer is both simple and complex. Simple because top performers are already focused on the critical outcomes. That means they have current practices that can be observed, discussed, and documented. Complex because top performers rarely think about what they do—they simply do what they do. Top performers usually are what we call unconsciously competent. They do the right things but aren’t really aware of how what they do differs from what others do. The most common answer we get from top performers when asked what makes them stand out among their peers is “Hmm, I’m not really sure. I’ve never really thought about it before.”

But clearly they are top performers for a reason, actually several reasons. First, they focus on different things. Second, and perhaps not as obvious, they don’t waste valuable time on anything that doesn’t matter. And third, they have discovered particular ways of accomplishing those critical outcomes, ways that get around or through the artificial barriers that so often seem to stop other performers.

In the next series of blog posts, we’ll discuss ways that have proven successful at uncovering the critical outcomes of your top performers.


Question to ponder:

  • How you would uncover and document top performer outcomes for a critical role in your organization?

What Good Are Competency Models?

Competency ModelsIn our last blog post, we discussed the things wrong with competency models.  Namely, they are typically

  • too general
  • poorly targeted
  • not especially helpful for improving performance

But then we said we don’t think competency models are a waste of time.  So what gives? If there’s so much wrong with competency models, what good are they?

As usual, the answer lies in the question. Competency models describe general competencies someone should have. But they don’t help people become competent. There’s a big difference between competency and competence.

Competence, we would argue, is the proven ability to do something now. But a competency is the general potential to do something in the future. And therein lies the clue for how competency models can be used effectively: they can filter a candidate pool to find those people who are more likely to be able to succeed in a particular role.  If there are a thousand applicants for three openings, organizations need a way to winnow that pool to a more manageable level. Competencies can be an effective tool to do that.

In fact, we encourage organizations to combine a competency model to identify candidates who have the potential to succeed in a given role with an outcome model of the same job to identify those candidates who have actual experience in similar roles. In other words, the competency model can identify potential, and the outcome model can identify competence.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you using competency models to identify potential or are you depending on them to drive competence?
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