October 2011

Food for Thought

As you probably know, in addition to all the one-on-one and corporate coaching I do, once a month I conduct what I call the Power Lunch, which is open to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Power Lunch always has a theme, and combines a good meal with a roundtable discussion of a subject that is important to the participants. Call it “training lite” if you will, but the benefits are obvious, as these comment from the most-recent Power Lunch attest:

“An excellent way to meet interesting people.”

“A chance to step out of the standard office world, meet people I usually do not come across, and hear opinions outside of the daily routine of my corporate culture.”

“Helps me pay more attention to what works, instead of what I don’t like.”

“I will use the handouts with my team members and my students”

“A great mix of people, professions and cultural diversity.”

“A good way to explore challenging topics.”

Maybe the Power Lunch should be a monthly part of your healthy diet!

Effective Communication

Effective communication is at the root of successful management. Indeed, a large part of managing a successful organization rests on a manager’s ability to provide a continuous flow of information up, down and across the organization. The ability to effectively communicate not only ensures a productive, focused workforce and satisfied stakeholders, but is ultimately also felt by the customer.

Think about all the tasks you accomplish on a daily basis. Whether you are meeting with your staff, writing an e-mail or lunching with a client, your professional success rests on your ability to communicate effectively.

Of course, if you are like most managers, you would probably assess your communication abilities very positively. However, there is always room for improvement.

The following question can help you gauge your communication strengths and weaknesses and determine how effective your communication really is:

1. Could you describe your job (what you do) to your children, and what your company does, in 30 words?

2. How well do you keep your employees / team members informed of new developments in the business?

3. How would your stakeholders rate your communication abilities?

4. Which of the following skills do you think is the most important to your job: speaking, listening, influencing, convincing, negotiating?

5. How often do you invite your banker / accountant/lawyer to lunch just for a chat?

6. Do you have a pile of letters, voice messages and e-mails that you have put off answering?

Have you checked your communication effectiveness lately?

Coach’s Calendar

11.10.11 Power Lunch: Managing Across Gender
13.10.11 Women in Corporate Governance Conference
18.10.11 Training4Success: Managing Your Non-Verbal Communication
3.11.11 Power Lunch: Managing Across Generations
15.11.11 Training4Success: Managing Your Personal Brand
6.12.11 Power Lunch: Managing Across Yourself

Turning Performance Reviews Into Performance Previews

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to catch up with some old friends. One of them, Pavel, is a successful country manager, and in the course of one of our conversations about business he asked me about my advice regarding delivering negative feedback in a performance review.

During an annual performance review he conducted last spring, he evaluated Katka, his sales manager. Among the list of issues they spoke about, he told her that her past quarterly results had fallen short of the company’s expectations, and that his overall impression was that she wasn’t performing as well she used to.

As during the previous evaluations, Pavel expected Katka to acknowledge his points, agree with him on the areas which needed to be improved, and take some concrete steps to ensure that she would meet the agreed targets in the next quarter. While Katka couldn’t deny that her numbers were not as good as they used to be, she wasn’t receptive to Pavel’s comments and analysis of the situation.

Unfortunately, soon after the evaluation meeting, Katka’s behavior changed for the worse. During weekly sales meetings, Katka avoided making eye contact, and instead of taking notes as she usually did, she was making random doodles on the side of her pages. She seemed discouraged and uninspired.

Pavel had hoped that their conversation would motivate her to address her areas for improvement. Instead, it appeared to have backfired and provoked the opposite reaction. Pavel was confused and didn’t know what to do to change the situation. Until now Katka has always been a very efficient and reliable team member and he didn’t want to lose her.

In my years of helping clients prepare for performance reviews, I have learned that most of these evaluations are subjective. They usually seem to measure the boss’s comfort level with the employee as much as they measure the employee’s contribution to overall results. So, more often than not, employees end up focusing on pleasing the boss rather than achieving the agreed objectives.

One of the main challenges of these performance reviews is that they are conducted by the boss with the assumption that he has all the answers. It gives the boss the subjective power to define and judge another’s performance while, in reality, he often has a very biased approach to his team members’ performance. Employees are often intimidated by the whole process and afraid to speak their minds, for fear of negative consequences. Therefore, they rarely share with managers their ideas on how something could be done better or differently.

Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, has examined scores of empirical studies since the early 1980s, and he has “not found convincing evidence that performance reviews are fair, accurate or consistent across managers, or that they improve organizational effectiveness.” While the boss wants to discuss what the employee has achieved and what he needs to achieve in the future, the employee’s main focus is on salary increase and career development. The challenge it to find a way for both parties to meet their expectations.

Focus On the Positive

The traditional performance review’s main objective is to analyze what was achieved, with a focus on what didn’t work instead of what was done right. While acknowledging a problem (the sales are down) and trying to understand why they are down (lack of competence on the part of the employee or a troubled economy) can be useful, this kind of evaluation rarely helps find a solution to the problem.

Remember, employees are focused on making more money and advancing their careers. They want and need to hear how they can keep moving toward those goals. If a manager dwells on the mistakes an employee made, that’s what stays in the employee’s mind, with bad results. It’s up to the manager to make the collaboration work, and there are a couple of easy steps to take:

  • Avoid Criticism: Most people perceive negative feedback as criticism and studies have demonstrated that few people perform better after being criticized. Criticism makes people feel bad and inadequate. They either resist or get defensive when being criticized, and it usually discourages them from trying harder in the short-term, often even long-term.
  • Concentrate on What Worked: If Pavel had spent most of his time identifying the things Katka did successfully and the areas that matched the expected targets, he would have reinforced her confidence, made her feel competent and helped her realize that she is able to find solutions to her challenges so that she can move forward.

By focusing on the positive, employees will concentrate on what worked, and the more time they spend doing things right, the less time they have to do things wrong.

Focus On the Future

In the ever changing business world, bosses are learning the hard way that it’s in their best interest to listen to their subordinates to get the results the company is expecting. Managers now get better results by acting like coaches, providing oversight and support in assisting team members to perform successfully.

To avoid after-the-fact disappointment, I suggested Pavel to replace the usual top-down performance review by a performance preview, a system that emphasizes goal-setting and continuous improvement. This would allow him and Katka to be responsible for setting goals and achieving results.

Instead of meeting with Katka once a year, I encouraged Pavel to meet with her every three months – more often if she suggested it – to give her the opportunity to keep him informed on a regular basis of the challenges she was encountering as well as allowing her to suggest ways to improve the situation when needed.

While this approach will take more time than simply telling Katka what objectives she was supposed to reach, ultimately she will cooperate willingly and be more receptive to his feedback. It will also allow her to be more open about what she can do effectively and efficiently and what support she needs in the areas where she feels less competent and/or confident. Although it is Pavel’s job to ensure the results, he was very much aware that without Katka’s involvement and commitment to the targets, he would have limited opportunity to reach these goals.

At the end of our conversation, I reminded Pavel that it was his responsibility to find a way to work efficiently with each of his managers, despite their shortcomings, to ensure that they also manage effectively their own teams. I encouraged Pavel to set up quarterly performance previews throughout each department. Doing so will motivate all his managers to act more as coaches or mentors and less like directive, controlling managers. With a regular performance preview, each employee will have the opportunity to reverse course during the year when needed, and tell their managers how they can perform to the best of their ability.

In the long run, establishing ongoing performance previews within a company develops and maintains trusting relationships, where all employees feel comfortable and safe enough to ask for feedback and support when they need it, and feel sufficiently valued to accept it.

This article was written for the Prague Leaders Magazine.