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Excelling at Senior Performance Reviews
6 tools & tips for positive and engaging performance conversations in leadership
Performance reviews have a bad reputation.
Overly bureaucratic, they fit into the ‘well intentioned’ category that often feels clunky, centered around a process rather than the person on the receiving end.
And rarely are these processes developed with the senior team in mind.
But for leaders, reviewing performance is just as important.
“We’ve just started introducing performance reviews and I’m struggling to make them work for my team” one of my clients, David, a CEO, recently shared with me.
“I want to have an open, and real, conversation with my reports, but the form on our new HR system has so many boxes and fields we need to complete, I feel like I’m getting lost in the process”.
As the CEO of a small but growing tech company of 60+ people, David aspires to get performance conversations right and lead by example.
His approach is rarer than you might think.
Not least because all too often taking time out to have a meaningful review performance at a senior level, can get overlooked; not being deemed necessary at such a senior level; or because the individual ‘knows they’re doing a great job’; or simply because the process that exists doesn’t fit.
But regardless of your level, a purposeful conversation that takes stock of how you are doing, shares your aspirations, and identifies how you can be an even more impactful leader is valuable.
Yet reviewing performance regularly, and periodically, doesn’t need a process.
And if it feels like a check box exercise to ‘show’ that you’re leading by example, it will do the opposite.
But if you aspire to build a leadership team who are effective and aspiring role models for your team, like David, it is essential you lead the way.
You’ll find six tools to help you have better performance conversations, and start to change the culture of your performance review process below.
Simplify: Performance reviews needn’t be complicated. In fact, simple questions often produce the most thought-provoking responses.
Here are four questions you can use to guide any performance conversation.
You might use them to explore the last quarter’s performance in respect of the areas above, as well as your goals. Or to explore the last year and career plans ahead.
Play with them, add to them, and make them your own.
What went well, and why?
What didn’t, and why?
What have you learned?
What do you want next (and why)?
Expand: It’s likely that the results you’ve achieved and the outcomes you’ve delivered will be top of the list when you review performance. ‘What’ you have achieved is important.
But focusing exclusively on what you have delivered overlooks key aspects of what makes you the leader that you are and how you have grown. There are emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual parts of you that all come together to help you live and lead well.
To achieve the “Ideal Performance State” - peak performance under pressure - all levels must work together, in harmony. You can read more in Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s piece The Making Of A Corporate Athlete.
What would a performance conversation look like for you that included all four of these elements?
Scale: Whilst it’s common to review individual performance, it is less common to review senior team performance.
You might choose to invest a few hours in doing a full performance review, or you could choose a theme to deep dive into. Perhaps you might review the way you’ve communicated. Or your effectiveness at making decisions.
Take the four questions above and use them as a twenty-minute deep dive to hone your performance together as a collective.
What could that make possible for your leadership team?
What message could that send to the rest of your organization?
Lead: A recent Director level client of mine, let’s call him Bob, shared with me how frustrated he was at having to chase up his direct reports to complete the performance reviews for their teams. He’d been clear with them about how important he viewed the exercise and had resorted to asking his HR counterpart to investigate.
I asked Bob how many of his teams’ performance reviews he had personally needed to reschedule or push back. When we delved into his diary, five out of seven of Bob’s performance reviews with his senior team had had to be rescheduled from their original time slot due to something else which, in the moment, was deemed a bigger priority.
Should Bob have been surprised that his team didn’t prioritize the performance reviews with their own teams? Perhaps not.
It’s worth remembering that your team is a direct product of you.
What you are committed to and what you follow through on will be replicated with a domino effect throughout your business.
If you want something to happen, make it your own priority first.
What do you notice in the way that your direct reports carry out performance reviews?
To what degree is that representative of the way that you lead?
What do you want to see in your senior team that you can work on role modeling more?
Change: When you talk about performance reviews in your organization think about the conversations, email exchanges, and leadership discussions that you are involved in. Count them if you like.
Do they centre on the process, or the person on the receiving end?
Most businesses (and especially HR teams) invest heavily in getting managers to understand the review process, what needs to happen when, and why - rather than actually shifting managers’ mindsets to build periodic performance and career conversations into their core work.
Think for a moment.
In the next 12 months, if periodic reviews of performance were to become part of the way you do things, without a process, what would be occurring then that isn’t occurring now?
What would that feel like for the leaders, managers, and team members involved?
What shift would it require in terms of skill and mindset?
What would be the first action step?
Inform: As much as you can judge your own performance, success in business is not singularly about what you think. And most leaders make a proactive effort to seek out feedback ahead of a review.
But if you want to be different from most leaders, make a proactive effort to seek out feedback year-round. Reviewing the impact periodically, big shifts then emerge.
You can find six practical tools to help you weave feedback-getting into your day-to-day, here: