Performance Assessments: Building Predictable Success

Every organization, division, department, group or team is successful from time to time. However they key to growth and longevity is 'Predictable Success': not just occasional success, but success that can be planned, and with reasonable certainty, achieved, month in month out, quarter by quarter, from year to year.

Why doesn't every organization attain Predictable Success? In my thirty years experience coaching business leaders, I've concluded that in most cases, it's simply because they fail to use the simple tools necessary to achieve it. And the very foundation stone of Predictable Success is that most basic of business tools - the dreaded performance assessment.

What is a performance assessment?
Conducting a performance assessment involves evaluating an employees' performance by comparing his or her actual results with expected results over a historic time frame (most often the previous month, quarter or year).

The assessment is conducted by the employee and their manager, and sometimes in larger organizations an HR manager may also be involved.

Why are performance assessments important?
Put it this way - how many world class athletes do you think simply plunge from contest to contest without ever reflecting on or examining their previous performances? Can you imagine Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal or Michael Phelps leaving the golf course, the tennis court or the swimming pool and never giving another moment's thought to their performance until the next tournament, game or meet?

Not likely. World class performers get there by ruthlessly and honestly analyzing their performances and learning from both their successes and their failures. Your organization is the same - it must systematically analyze (and learn from) past performance.

Why don't more organizations conduct effective performance assessments?
If performance assessments are so fundamental to Predictable Success, why don't more organizations perform them effectively and efficiently? Two reasons:

1. Too much focus on negativity. In many organizations performance assessments are simply about 'what went wrong', with little or any focus on 'what went right'. As a result, the process is negative, and comes to be despised by everyone involved.

This is an enormous strategic error - even apart from the morale issue. The reality is that Predictable Success is built from just that - success. Building Predictable Success means examining how and why we succeed, every bit as much as looking at how and why we fail.

It's vitally important that the performance assessment process provides a deep understanding of our strengths and successes, not just a post-mortem on our weaknesses and failures.

2. A bloated process. In many organizations the performance assessment process gradually grows more and more complicated with more and more measurements, forms and metrics, until eventually it becomes this lumbering, time-devouring monster that everyone wants to avoid.

Here's a four-step plan to build an effective and efficient performance assessment process that won't have everyone running for the hills when review time comes around:

Start with the numbers
A basic performance assessment is based on looking at a few key metrics. Start at the top level by listing out what the 3 to 5 key organizational goals are; maybe in your case they include sales volume, customer satisfaction, employee attrition rates.

Use those key overall goals to establish what each major job function contributes: total sales, sales calls made, customer phone calls returned, etc. Again, stick with just 3 to 5 key metrics - don't try to measure everything.

The more you can break down an employee's job into measurable figures, the easier it is to have an objective discussion on their performance. It's a lot easier to objectively analyze numbers compared to opinion and anecdote.

Establish root causes
Once you've established the key metrics and analyzed them, the next (and core) step is to identify the root causes of both success and failure.

So Harry hit 124% of his target revenues for the quarter. Good boy, Harry, but the 2 key questions are 'Why?' and 'How can we repeat this?'. Did Harry find a sweet price point that we should communicate to other team members? Or maybe he tweaked the sales process to be more upfront about a specific product benefit that brought the results?

Here's Jane, whose customer satisfaction score decreased 12% over the quarter. Not good. But the 2 key questions are 'Why?', and 'How can we fix it?'. Perhaps Jane was snowed with service calls from a spectacularly good previous quarter - so we need to find a way to avoid this cycle in the future.

Over time, honest discussions about the true root causes of success and failure should replace the old model of retribution and excuse that drain 'old-style' performance assessments of any real value.

Build a development plan
Once we know the root causes of both our recent successes and failures, the manager can build a development plan that helps both eradicate previous causes of failure AND repeat the causes of previous success.

Note that this development plan may or may not directly involve the employee: Jane might benefit from some coaching in how to better delegate customer service issues to her team, but in Harry's case, the development plan may be to have some other sales people try out his new pricing plan.

Enforce accountability
No plan will work without those involved being held accountable.

Each performance assessment session should begin with a review of what was agreed in the previous session, and include both the manager and the employee in reporting back on progress in whatever was discussed. Jane will report back on the delegation coaching and how she's doing with that. Harry' manager will report back on how the other sales people did using Harry's new pricing structure.

It is this accountability that builds real, lasting, behavioral change. Without it, all of the good work that has gone into the performance assessment thus far will likely be lost, as the employee (and their manager) becomes too embroiled in the day-to-day, to tackle the areas needed for improved performance.

Les McKeown is a writer, speaker, consultant and President & CEO of Predictable Success(R), an organizational development consulting firm based in Marblehead, MA. He is the author of Retaining Top Employees, The Complete Guide to Mentoring and Coaching, The Complete Guide to Orientation & Re-Orientation. For more on employee retention, visit Les' Retention Secrets website.