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Posted: July 08, 2011

Top seven ways to make the most of performance reviews

They take practice

Todd Ordal

Do you remember your first date? I can almost guarantee it went poorly. But I suspect you kept trying and got better. Maybe you even bought a book or went to a seminar. More likely, you stumbled through a few more, and trial and error turned you into a real charmer.

How well did you do when giving your first performance review? I bet it was about as awkward as your first date. I recently heard a management professor on the radio adamantly argue that performance reviews were a waste of time. "Why don't people just talk honestly?" he asked.

He talked about bosses and employees like they were different species. He spat out the word "boss" like it was sour milk. The station then took phone calls from angry people who had bad reviews - the show was during the day so I suspect some were out of work - as the professor piled on more negative statements about how bad "bosses" were and how stupid performance reviews were.

He quickly dismissed those who called to support reviews or complain about never getting one. I guess, by his logic, we should eliminate stop signs because so many people cruise through them, and we should give up trying to be good because we occasionally want to murder someone. (Back me up here ... you have those thoughts, don't you?) However, I know that the school where the professor teaches gives out grades.

I don't believe performance reviews are bad. I believe bad performance reviews are bad. This professor/management guru recently published a book, so I appreciate that he was trying to market his wares and that contrarian thoughts make headlines. I pity, however, the young manager who used this show as an argument to scrap performance reviews.

In a previous life as a line manager, I delivered hundreds of performance reviews and also received many of them - some bad and some good, but most of some value. I don't care what data this professor conjured up; I strongly urge you to review performance in your organization. If you feel it works better, split up reviews and development conversations.

From an old P&L guy's perspective, here are seven things that worked well for me and for organizations I now work with:

1. Give honest feedback. You can't avoid hard discussions, and you must be assertive. If you have managers in your organization who don't do this, train them, support them and maybe even put a gun to their head. It they still can't do it, they're not really managers.

2. Start at the top. As the CEO, you must model the correct behavior. Trickle-down economics may be suspect, but trust me, management practices do trickle down.

3. Employ a 360 feedback tool. This is about development more than performance - though contrary to many, I believe it plays a role in both. This isn't easy to implement, especially if you have a screwed-up culture. In that case, you must first fix the culture. If you're the CEO and you have a screwed-up culture, you have work to do - and you might be the cause.

4. Don't have any surprises. People shouldn't be surprised in their performance review. I recently worked with an executive who had a boss thousands of miles away who had no clue what my client was all about. A week before his performance review, I asked him how he thought it would go. "Not a clue," was his answer. Not good. By the way, having no surprises means you have clear objectives, which requires planning.

5. Look for strengths. Though you should address weaknesses, it's more important to identify strengths and how to leverage them. You'll get a lot further than beating someone up.

6. Talk frequently and honestly. This strongly correlates with No. 4. I poked fun at the "professor" - deservedly, I believe - but one of his strong messages was to develop open communication. You need to have one-on-ones frequently with your team members.

7. Practice before you shoot live rounds. If you're new to this, get some coaching and practice giving both positive and negative feedback.

The fact that many performance reviews are poorly done doesn't mean they shouldn't be done, rather that they should be fixed.
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Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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