Jane Sparrow, culture expert and author of ‘The Culture Builders: Leadership Strategies for Employee Performance’, examines what business can learn about performance management from the sporting elite including insight from Steve Williams OBE, double Olympic gold medalist.
Despite the growing appetite for a more dynamic approach, performance management in most organisations remains a static process at the heart of which lies the annual appraisal, by which time, whatever the employee could have been doing to improve performance and drive the company’s growth, is a ship long sailed. It’s 6am and another training session completed, Steve Williams OBE is standing on the riverbank with team GB’s coxless four rowers, pre Beijing Olympics 2008. They’re panting from a strenuous session, dripping wet, shivering a little and huddled together ask each other, what could we have done to make the boat go faster? Examining individual actions as well as the group effort, it pulls no punches but it’s honest, open, positive critical insight and it’s vital for gold medals.
Fast forward to a little later that morning and the quarterly management meeting for the top 100 has just taken place at company X. The delivery team is exhausted from the preparation in the weeks and days leading up to the event and, as well as being glad it’s completed, now have a pile of work to turn to which has been neglected as the management meeting has taken priority. The next they will talk of that management meeting will be next month when they have to start thinking about the next one.
Spot the difference?
We don’t often draw parallels between elite athletes and high performers in the workplace but why not? When you think about the incremental gains sportspeople focus on, every individual action that will, in Steve Williams’ case, ‘make the boat go faster’, it stands to reason that a similar attitude in the workplace will drive performance. There’s a lot of boardroom talk about the annual appraisal being ‘dead’ (if only it was!) but the bigger trend here is the move away from performance management as a tactical, static series of events and a move towards performance enrichment as a dynamic, ongoing, fluid process. Eventually, the annual appraisal may be a thing of the past but in the meantime it shouldn’t contain any surprises with plenty of interim interactions taking place between managers and employees to ensure they are continuously receiving constructive feedback and being steered in the right direction.
High performance cultures are about putting in place the right ongoing processes to support a culture of constant performance review and feedback that drives performance forward, continually. Thinking back to our Olympians on the riverbank and an immediate mop up around what will make the boat go faster – it’s being hungry for improvement and constantly focused on what will drive it. It’s not enough to say that managers should be having regular conversations about performance – we need to get specific and change the mindset of both managers and their teams. What should we be talking about? How can we approach that? What support is required for our line managers to achieve it?
Steve Williams OBE, double Olympic champion, and long term business associate, is evangelical about ‘positive critical insight’. For Steve and his team, this would be dripping wet on the riverbank, immediately post practice. How did we do? What went well? What could we improve? For businesses, this could be immediately post completion of a significant meeting, project, event or sales call. How was that meeting? Did we achieve our objectives? Where can we improve? What can we learn? In the same way that Steve Williams and team undertook positive critical insight in the immediacy of the action to make the boat go faster, this fluid approach of performance enrichment in organisations has the potential to drive individual performance and business growth, on a daily basis. It’s a true learning culture in action.
A key part of managers being successful in delivering positive critical insight is being comfortable to deliver it but also receive it. Continuous performance enrichment means inspiring managers to seek feedback about their own performance, for their own growth and to inspire those around them, as well as having the confidence to provide ongoing insight to those in their teams. It’s about both the larger scale input and the informal course correction. Some corporate organisations have got a little too comfortable, a little too friendly and managers may worry about having this kind of dynamic, constructive conversation. This is where training and development is essential to give both competence and confidence for such conversations.
Performance management is a big topic and challenge in many organisations. We’ve all been involved in conversations about how it could be done differently and the level of resource required at the point of the annual appraisal in order for it be valuable. Well, flip it on it’s head, split it into a million pieces and think of the value that can be delivered, each day, through immediate, insightful, wash ups. After a presentation, a team meeting, an important sales call, whatever the action might be, there’s positive critical insight that can be given to contribute to the growth of that individual or individuals.
If we look at not only high performing athletes but elites in any field e.g. a pianist or a world renowned chef, they are thirsty for feedback and seek it all the time, to help them be the best in their field and there is much for corporates to learn here. The lightbulb moment for companies usually comes as they realise that those who give 110 per cent each day and are committed to the growth of the organisation – we call them ‘investors’ – are always actively looking to get better and grow. They want constructive feedback, they’re looking for challenge and input and if they don’t get it where they are, they will look to get it elsewhere. Like Steve Williams, and our Olympic rowers, they’re striving for personal best.