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Award winning performance management

Jane Sparrow

It stands to reason that the highest performing companies are doing something right when it comes to performance management – but there’s no one size fits all with a variety of factors coming into play. Contributor Jane Sparrow, Founder – The Culture Builders.

How do you know what performance management approach is right for your organisation? What are the key elements to consider when looking at a redesign? What outcomes are you trying to achieve? And critically, how can you change attitudes and behaviours to ensure your new approach is understood, supported and delivers its full potential? Put simply, how can you build a process that engages all involved and delivers measurable outcomes for your organisation?

In early 2016, UKTV, now one of the UK’s leading independent commercial broadcasters, was five years into a cultural transformation. Under the leadership of CEO, Darren Childs, the organisation was reporting record profits and had overtaken Channel 5 and Sky in share of commercial TV viewing. Times were good. However, one thing that hadn’t yet evolved was UKTV’s approach to performance management.  

Claire Astley, HR Director for UKTV says: “Our existing annual, paper based performance management approach was quite old school and corporate – totally out of kilter with the culture we were creating. It felt quite passive and very one way – like it was being done to you. It was also onerous, so neither managers or their teams enjoyed the process. 

“In order to support the high performance, ideas focused culture we were building, we wanted to create something much more dynamic to stretch and grow our workforce, a performance and development journey that people felt they owned and were in control of. Really importantly, our future performance management approach needed to flex with evolving business priorities and align everybody with the company’s objectives.”  

As part of The Culture Builders’ wider support programme on developing UKTV’s culture, we helped Claire Astley and her team with the strategy around UKTV’s performance transformation. The unproductive annual appraisal process, which, for an organisation with a young workforce, was just far too long to wait, needed to be brought to an end. A completely new system was needed so UKTV started from scratch. 

Claire Astley says: “Establishing a set of key principles from the outset helped us with three things. Firstly, everybody’s goals were aligned with the overall company objectives. Secondly, we had absolute clarity around desired outcomes, enabling people to determine how goals were achieved. And thirdly, we had a new way of tracking all of this alignment using a new tool that was bespoke to us.”

Contrary to many other organisations, something really powerful happened first. Darren Childs, CEO, ripped up the rule book on the annual appraisal and began having six weekly conversations with his reports about their performance. That went down really well, delivering almost immediate impact. What followed was an appetite from his leaders to replicate the approach and a desire to roll it out across the entire organisation, forming the heartbeat of UKTV’s future performance management approach. 

Any effective approach to performance management (and culture!) needs to be based on three pillars – what we believe, how we behave and the tools we use. This first step in UKTV’s performance management transformation was so significant because it was a clear signal from the CEO of the business that UKTV believed in an approach to performance management that was people focused (not system focused), dynamic (not static), flexible (from both an individual and company perspective) and outcomes focused (with crystal clarity on what good looked like). That belief was also strongly supported with a clear set of role modelled behaviours from the very top of the organisation. So many organisations take a ‘system’ first to performance management and wonder why that tool isn’t being embraced.  

Also contrary to many other organisations, something else incredibly powerful happened next. Claire Astley pulled together a working group of UKTV employees to co-create the new performance management approach and help the organisation to launch it.

Claire Astley says: “In order to create an approach that was engaging, intuitive and right for UKTV, it was a no brainer for us to get our people involved. We pulled together a group of employees who has been on the management academy the previous year who then helped us structure the approach, tailor the supporting platform and road test it. 

“The most powerful thing they did was stand up in our Tuesday Morning Meeting to launch the new performance management approach. Their stories of frustration with the old system and excitement about the possibilities of the new approach meant it wasn’t seen as a HR initiative, driving that sense of ownership from the start.”

UKTV’s new performance management approach, named ‘My Personal Best’ by its people,  was centred on regular conversations (every 6-8 weeks) with your manager that were goal orientated, coaching style sessions. These conversations were supported with a custom made tool, encapsulating a learning log, as well as capturing feedback on both things that were going well, and areas for support and development. The end of year review became a much lighter touch summary of all of the conversations that had happened throughout the year.

As any HRD out there will appreciate, moving people from a once a year performance review to a conversation every 6-8 weeks is no mean feat, requiring a wholesale change in attitude, mindset and approach. A number of things happened at UKTV to make this shift successful including the right leadership behaviours, comprehensive support for managers throughout the organisation and a constant line of sight back to the ‘why’. 

From a leadership perspective, as I mentioned earlier, Darren Childs kicked off the whole process by leading from the front with six weekly goal focused conversations with his reports, which then filtered out from there with all of their teams. This ‘do as I do’ approach with an ongoing demonstration of the right way to have these conversations meant that quality, dynamic, meaningful conversations were role modelled from the start. 

We also delivered leadership development sessions to support the whole leadership team on related areas including giving and receiving feedback, managing difficult conversations and having the right conversations. Individual leaders were supported on specific challenges through one to one coaching, where required. The real power in this approach was that Darren, the CEO could set clear goals for the executive, totally aligned with company strategy. He could then coach, support and track performance against those agreed goals. 

Claire Astley says: “The challenge, as everyone will appreciate, is always to keep the conversations up. We’re a lean business and, if you’re having performance conversations every 6-8 weeks, it can feel like they come round awfully quickly! We’ve worked extensively with our people managers to help them make these performance catch ups part of the conversations they are having with their people all the time and to ensure every conversation is as effective as it can be. 

“The most important thing is that the conversations are taking place – and the associated coaching and support. The HR team has regular catch ups with different managers, as well as our original working group, to see how Personal Best conversations are going, the nature of the output and any more general feedback.”

In any organisational change, an understanding of the ‘why are we doing this’ is integral to buy in. Something UKTV has been outstanding at is creating a line of sight from every element of its cultural transformation back to the ‘why’, the organisation’s overall ambition. The performance management approach was no different, with  conversations evolving over time to be about not only what people were achieving but the way in which they were achieving it, as part of UKTV creating a culture where people could fully explore their potential. The values and associated behaviours were baked into people’s individual objectives and bonus structure, alongside recruitment, retention and induction processes. 

The new performance management approach at UKTV was trialled for a year, with a deep dive review part way through the year where people across the organisation were invited to give more formal, in depth feedback. This proved an invaluable process with both some further tweaks made to the tool and some development undertaken on the guidance notes. The approach and supporting tools are reviewed every year, with the objective of keeping them as light touch as possible. 

I asked Claire what her top tips were for HRDs looking to overhaul their performance management process. She said: “Make it collaborative and work with your people to design it. Don’t over engineer it. Keep it simple and light touch. And training. Training. Training.” Sounds like good advice to me!  

Clear goals and opportunities for personal growth are an essential part of what motivates us in the workplace (and in life!). For the generation entering the workforce now, the very idea that a conversation happens once a year about how they are performing and developing is kind of absurd. UKTV knew this and, as part of it’s ambition to create an environment when people would do their best, most creative work, and where the industry’s best talent would want to be, it created an ongoing dialogue about performance – a dynamic conversation about personal best. A conversation where managers are clear about what excellent looks like at the start of the year, not the end.   

1.The Culture Builders 2012

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