Why should leaders care about performance management?

In our articles to date we made the point several times that leadership and performance cannot be separated. They are joined at the hip, so to speak. It matters not if the leader runs a not-for-profit community outreach project or a multinational pharmaceutical company, a sports team or a municipal finance department – leaders are expected to produce results.

A consistent track record of sound results is the best indicator of leadership potential and capacity. Top-rated leaders are those with a history of repeated high impact results across a variety of contexts and complexities.

Consequently, performance management should be a central issue in every organisation. Sadly, in our experience, this is not so – in a significant number of cases we see leaders covering their incompetence and poor results with blame shifting.

Performance review meetings are seldom welcomed. They are widely regarded as the event about which most employees get no sleep the night before, and most leaders get no sleep the night after. We have observed many organisations in which performance management has been reduced, if not entirely relegated, to a once-a-year paper exercise for a mandatory input for annual salary reviews. We have also seen organisations where the performance appraisal is a one-sided affair in which the manager does all the talking, wanting to get one more unnecessary administrative formality out of the way as quickly as possible. Does this sound familiar?

Helping people achieve the very best results possible is a primary challenge for every leader and lies at the heart of effective performance contracting, reviews, correction and reward.

Here are five tips to improve your management of performance:

1. Reframe the purpose

Performance management should be aimed at the continuous development of people’s abilities. It should yield alignment and enrollment so that people are enabled, empowered and encouraged to be the best they can be. To this end you should also reframe the link to remuneration and reward. Of course, sound results should be recognised and rewarded, but guess what predispositions and attitudes are invited if there is only one appraisal in the year, in the week before salaries are adjusted.

2. Reframe the label

Perhaps your performance programme should be called “Performance Development”, and you should drop the term “management” which, frankly, creates the wrong connotation. Performance management should not be a thing that leaders do to their people. It should be a process to create new insights and forge agreements about how to better serve the organisation.

3. Reframe the timing

Performance management is not an annual event. It should happen all the time. Everything you do as a leader is about ensuring understanding and acceptance of what needs to be done, and how you can support people to deliver great results. Every opportunity to connect with your people is an opportunity to ask “how is it going with the Sekhukune project?” and “how can I/we help you succeed?” But you also need the more formal monthly or quarterly sessions to review, reflect and recalibrate.

4. Reframe the model

If your people are going to own their performance, they have to own the plan. We pointed out earlier in this series that your people’s ownership and motivation go up when they participate in decisions that affect their jobs, careers and ability to perform. Make sure your people can see how their next three months’ work fit into the strategy, and how their contribution will promote the cause. Developing a Balanced Scorecard is a useful instrument to achieve this.

5. Reframe your role

You don’t always know better, and the further you are removed from contact with the customer, the less you will. Your role in performance management is more about coaching and consulting than about telling. Of course you will have firm views about direction, purpose and objectives, and you must display resolve about the results you want. But in between, performance management events are about discovery, reflection and learning.

What we have stressed in this article about performance management does not negate your responsibility to deal with underperformance and incompetence. Our point is, when would you like to discover that your most promising new recruit is a problem – early on, or late in the second half? It is better to support a person’s development at the start, than to punish her at the end of the year.

Each person carries the responsibility to manage her own motivation and ownership. Effective performance management entails a partnership between the leader and members of her team. You would be in a far better position to influence outcomes if you framed and contracted correctly from the start.

Performance management should not be the paper war and administrative slog that so many organisations have made it. It presents a magical opportunity to bring out the best in people as you contract for challenging objectives that will deliver meaningful results.

Leaders deliver results. And they deliver them consistently. Irrespective of title and rank, age or service, those individuals who deliver results through the efforts of others are the people who are leading. Anything else is just make-believe.

Ian Dean ([email protected]) is an independent consultant and a scholar of leadership. He works internationally to help organisations improve the performance of their leaders and businesses. Hennie du Plessis ([email protected]) works as a strategy and performance consultant and uses his corporate experience to help drive positive change in organisations. This the fifth in a series of six articles How we made it in Africa will publish over the next two months in which they share their insights on leadership.