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Consultant Interview: Christopher Mills

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Christopher MillsIn 2018, the Performance Magazine editorial team interviewed Christopher Mills, former Managing Director at Core Measures Pte Ltd, Singapore, currently an independent consultant on the international scene, operating from the UK. His thoughts and views on Performance Management are presented in detail below.

I believe that the future lies in employees managing their own performance. PM will become ‘employee centric’ and employees will become de facto project managers.

Trends

  1. Which were the key trends in Performance Management, from your point of view, as seen in 2017?

There have been a number of trends in PM recently, some highlighted in the media through articles and surveys and others as a result of HR staff trying to overcome challenges they face in the workplace. Some of these may seem a fashion whilst others may be a real shift in direction.

I am just going to focus on four areas although there are others. Here goes:

A) Annual performance reviews will continue to fall out in favour of continuous performance management

This statement keeps coming up so there are a number of issues to clarify.

Annual appraisal versus continuous review? If you are in a sales organization you will be giving and receiving feedback with staff on a daily basis, and this will have been the norm since day one. Any organization that is now looking at continuous, say quarterly reviews are doing so because they have an outdated PA, not even PM, system with a once a year review in place and they are just catching up after upgrading their performance system.

Are companies seriously taking away the end of year, end of project review? It’s hard to believe because this impacts other HR, talent management systems where there is a need to make decisions to differentiate performance for budgeting, reward, recognition, training and development, promotion and, yes, termination. Without the appraisal as the recent*CEB survey said it leaves a vacuum or a void and decisions become based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

However, if HR wants to avoid the stigma of an end of year Appraisal, if there is one, then you could just call it another continuous review meeting. HR, though will be still using the data for all those other HR decisions that have to be made at year end.

*CEB Global is now Gartner.

B) Personal development will become as important as performance goals

Personal development has always been important for global and shall we savvy organizations or even countries.

Why, for example, do countries like Singapore spend so much money in upgrading the workforce and subsidizing companies to follow suit? It’s because how a person works and the skills they have impacts what a person achieves. Results impact GDP, personal wealth and self-esteem making everyone feel good. It’s the same reason businesses focus more on personal development. It also helps organizations with engagement, retention, promotion, succession planning and attraction.

C) Employee autonomy will become a huge advantage

Yes, I believe that the future lies in employees managing their own performance. PM will become ‘employee centric’ and employees will become de facto project managers.

However, initially when setting goals, one will still have to be in-line with department and thus organizational strategy. It’s just that employees, once they understand the PM system, should be able to bring a first draft of KPIs, within an agreed framework, to their boss and discuss and gain agreement and likewise agree how they will demonstrate values or agreed competencies.

Then the employee tracks their own performance, collects data using accepted tracking devices and presents real time data to update the supervisor on a regular basis. At the end of the project or financial year the employee again discusses all expected outcomes and presents data to confirm results obtained.

I know this is a plug but my latest book, Performance Management: A Practical Guide, focuses a lot on this concept.

D) Use of ‘traditional’ performance ratings will decline further

I am in agreement related to overall ratings but feel individual ratings still have value.

Let’s take individual ratings first.

Why do we set KPIs? Because the organization’s strategy to achieve certain results deems it fit to do so.

Why do we have individual ratings e.g. does not meet, achieves and exceeds? Because this sets standards of achievement and gauges the level of accomplishment. Without having a gold, silver and bronze in the Olympics there is no challenge for athletes and likewise at work no incentive for an employee and also perceived no retribution too.  The outcome is that the goals may not be achieved and business fails.

Now, let’s consider overall ratings. Why do we have them in the first place? To differentiate performance for recognition & promotion etc and for most organizations to determine or contribute to a possible bonus. The problem is that employees know this, especially on the reward aspect and so often negotiate for higher ratings. Managers do not like to play the bad guy, want to keep their best staff and some may ‘adjust’ ratings, if they can.

My own experience has been that at the end of my appraisal, with a US consulting organization, we never discussed overall ratings but focused on summarizing what went well and identified learning points for the next year. I was perfectly happy with this approach. The difficulty I have found with some organizations is that culturally the overall rating has become so ingrained that the focus is more on designing the perfect overall rating system.

In summary, I would always keep the individual ratings but consider taking out the overall ratings and let HR use the data for their HR reports and decision making.

  1. What are your thoughts on the integration of Performance Management at organizational, departmental and employee level?

Strategic direction whether created through, for example, a vision, values and critical success factor approach or a Balanced Scorecard can be linked seamlessly to department and individual accountability. Do organizations with PM do it, though? That’s another question. Surveys and subsequent reports often highlight that employees do not have ‘line of sight’ to the business direction.

  1. Which will be the major changes in managing performance, in the future?

Employees will manage their own performance in the future. I talked briefly about this at the start of the interview. Let me explain. The boss is not necessarily the subject, product, or role specialist and often bosses just manage or supervise the specialists. In fact, the employee may not have a boss. The employee’s role is changing; talent management has seen to that.

Staff members take care of a portfolio of responsibilities What is more logical is to introduce the concept that every employee is a ‘project manager’. Staff are thus empowered to manage their own plans throughout the year, providing feedback to their superior, and at appraisal they have to give a presentation comparing results

At review time, leave the platform to the employee; it’s their performance plan, and they know what is going on. Let them give a progress report whilst the manager just manages the meeting and asks questions where necessary. At appraisal it’s not like the old days when an employee takes the flak and listens whilst the boss talks. OK, the appraiser may still have veto, but the appraisee should take centre-stage and make a presentation based on the performance plan that was agreed.

A caveat is that from my experience, PM practices are often country and even ethnic specific. However, many empowered organizations’ already utilize such an approach. With increasing cross-cultural fertilization, I believe, employee centric PM practices will become the norm.


Research

  1. What aspects of Performance Management should be explored more through research?

Any aspect of research which looks at the criteria of an effective PM system and its impact on results.

For example; create a hypothesis linking the impact of an organization’s level of cultural unity vs. performance achievement or compare organizations’ natural or skewed bell curve of employee ratings vs. organizational results.

  1. Which organizations would you recommend be looked at, due to their particular approach to managing performance, and their subsequent results?

I am not sure I would want to focus on any specific organization because their present situation may not mirror the circumstances that you face. For example, in 2017 everyone is saying they are giving more feedback. Well as mentioned earlier, if you are in a sales business your managers are demanding and giving feedback on a daily basis and this may not be appropriate in another organization. However, to answer the question keep an eye on any company that links cultural values to support performance achievement and look at their success in results and employee retention levels.

  1. Which of the existing trends, topics or particular aspects within Performance Management have lost their relevance and/or importance, from your point of view?

The last hundred years have seen the waysides of literature littered with discarded approaches in an attempt to find the elixir to managing employee performance. An area that should be abandoned for executives and management is the Trait based system, typical of the 1950s but, unbelievably, still in use today.

Traditionally, organizations would (and many still do) focus on assessing the qualities or ‘traits’ of an employee. Typical areas of trait measurement include:

  • Quality of work
  • Quantity of work
  • Conscientious
  • Dependability
  • Energy
  • Loyalty

However, evaluating an employee’s traits as a form of appraising performance may not be acceptable today. Why? Because it is felt that it is better to measure a person’s ability on the job or a person’s competence rather than on their personality and what someone brings to the job.

Perhaps the main reason, though is that the trait approach is not relevant to department/organizational goal achievement There are also concerns over the ability of the appraiser to measure accurately. i.e. no proof, allowing gut feel and the appraiser being able to play favourites.  Incidentally, my experience is that it the trait approach has often been favoured by unions. From this summation the reader should be able to guess why.

N.B. Interestingly, measuring a person’s traits is back in fashion now but not for appraisal but when looking for high potential in a candidate, using psychometric assessment.


Practice

  1. Which are main challenges of Performance Management in practice, today?

Lack of or poor coaching. Coaching is an important role that anyone who supervises others has to undertake.

This includes coaching employees to achieve KPIs and targets and to demonstrate values, competencies, and behaviours. This also means giving feedback and this is what organizations are saying they are focusing on in developing PM in 2017. So are managers good coaches? in a word, no. So that could mean that all the new feedback that is given may not be of any value.

Based on my research publishing three international and national PM surveys many or even, may I say, most managers are not perceived as good coaches. Coaching skills have always had low ratings in PM surveys. Why is this?

Employees are rarely promoted to supervisor status because of their coaching ability. They will get promoted mainly due to their technical ability, subject knowledge, skill, and motivation, but not for coaching.

When do employees learn about coaching? At school? -No. Do they pick up coaching tips during tertiary education? Unlikely. Well, what about during their early years in a job? Usually not. So why doesn’t a person learn coaching skills during these times?

This is often because they are too busy filling their brains with knowledge and skills to pass exams and then do the specific work they are paid to do. Except for certain professions which provide coaching courses, such as teaching and sports coaching, there is no ‘school’ to go to for the every-day employee to learn coaching skills.

When an employee is promoted to manager and sees the need for the staff to develop certain skills or to do something better, what does the manager do? Often the boss tells them what is required, or sends them on a course, does it themselves or just hopes the person will improve.

So, if managers are not good coaches and coaching is an important part of achieving PM goals how should organizations try and remedy this? Firstly, conduct a coaching survey to see if this is an issue. If so then conduct focus groups to drill down to find out specific problems and get recommendations how and when coaching should be given.

Next have the training department devise and facilitate skill based coaching training related to different scenarios in PM where coaching/feedback is required. The training should be in small groups for maximum effectiveness. Then set a KPI for managers to improve their percentage point on coaching skills at the next quarterly/ half yearly coaching survey.

  1. What should be improved in the use of Performance Management tools and processes?

Training. I just mentioned it to do with managers inability to coach effectively. Without in depth training performance management briefings to staff may be a waste of time. Otherwise, how can one expect consistency of understanding of the purpose and processes, application and calibration across departments?

Briefings only provide information and knowledge., However, ongoing just in-time, skill-based training in all aspects of the PM system is essential. Each workshop should be based on the concept of behaviour modelling, combining short lectures with examples on key content, video demonstration, exercises, and skill-based practice with feedback using relevant case studies.

  1. What would you consider as a best practice in Performance Management?

Firstly, let’s understand that a best practice can be perceived as a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and has been repeatedly practiced and become a yardstick.

In performance management best practices are likely to fall into at least the following categories:

Strategy & linkage to PM, system design, the planning process, tracking of outputs and competency demonstration, performance review, coaching, appraisal, PM administration and how PM is linked to talent management/ HR systems.

My best practice refers to ‘rating competencies’. This links to both system design, planning, tracking and appraisal. My best practice is concerned with the extent to which an organization gets its staff to overcome rating a competency by just ticking a rating level in a box. In other words, what is the process used by the organization to gain agreement between appraiser and appraisee on the rating level for demonstration of a particular competency.

Now this is where most organizations’ have issues. How can we rate skill or competence without using intuition? Then how do we standardize our managers evaluation so that we avoid lenient and harsh raters? Also, who is tracking competency demonstration, the manager or the subordinate? At appraisal it may be difficult to recall sample behaviours displayed and thus ratings become a gut feel decision. In the end there is a high possibility of rating error unless there is an agreed accurate measurement method.

It is not that competencies are not acceptable but rather than how many competencies can someone be responsible to measure? (the most I have seen on an appraisal form is twenty-four). This is a design issue. Competencies took over from the trait based format in the 1980s. This was replaced with the hybrid system using a grid format comprising KPIs and a set of competencies. Many companies’ then developed role or level specific behavioural and functional competencies. As a result, the PM form became unwieldy and difficult to measure with so many competencies and behaviours.

However, the hybrid ‘PM’ approach may be as good as it gets for most organizations but this is not ‘best practice’.

Nevertheless, appraisers generally like it. With competencies, they can just tick a rating level. It may seem rational, logical, and fair, with all key areas covered. However, this approach has a high potential for rating error and focuses more on the person than performance. Also keep in mind that today’s savvy subordinates now expect substantiation of a rating. One cannot simply say, ‘It’s based on my general observations throughout the year.’ One has to have examples. This means tracking of competency demonstration and collecting examples of evidence.

At present the only ‘best practice’ way that is acceptable proof as a competency tracking device* is the S/TAR concept, the updated version of the critical incident technique (Flanagan,1954). This approach needs to be self-managed by the employee. This means self-tracking of competency demonstration and self-review, keeping a log of competency S/TAR examples and sharing periodically with the manager (not just the other way around).

I was privileged to have worked in such a company where employees tracked competencies using the S/TAR format. The rating system was linked to core competencies demonstrated consistently throughout the year.

When I work with organizations I encourage department heads to switch roles and review different departments each month with individuals presenting, in S/TAR format examples of when they have demonstrated values.

Appraisal then becomes a breeze because there is a S/TAR log of employee value demonstration. Those who excel at supporting the values can be applauded at a cultural recognition award evening. This approach drives the culture change. It is just like seeding grass: it spreads if ‘watered’. I have introduced this with organizations to influence culture change and the approach develops high morale, a good work ethic, and low turnover of staff and, of course, supports KPI achievement.

However, to ensure staff demonstrate competencies or values needs effort although its easy once you know how. This is my ‘best practice’ and I recommend and introduce it wherever I feel an organization is prepared to overcome competency box-ticking and gain the many benefits from it.

N.B.: To overcome competency boxing ticking you need to replace all employee competencies from the appraisal form with the organization’s values (usually 3-5) to support culture change. Then have a separate ‘personal and career development’ meeting whereby there is a review of an employee’s behavioural and functional competencies with a competency development plan being the outcome coupled with a KPI.

*The other tracking device used is the multi rater 360 approach but this can be an administrative nightmare. However, very useful in high potential assessment as part of an assessment centre.


Education

  1. Which aspects of Performance Management should be emphasized during educational programs?

Firstly, student’s need to know that aspects of performance management will be with them throughout their life, and someone somewhere will be measuring them.

We are appraised even before we are born and when we start to make those first tentative steps to walk, also with exam results at school or university, performance expectations at work, on-going feedback from our spouse or partner and even our mortgage advisor or through a doctor’s assessment.

Secondly students need to understand why we have PM in organizations.

This should be explained thus. Primarily, all organizations have a goal of some kind whether profit or non-profit. The organization will need people to fulfill certain functions to achieve the revenue or profit target. So, each person is given a job description of some type with expected outcomes to accomplish.

Then the outcomes are reviewed in line with the organizations expectations. As a result, the person may be offered continued employment based on results (or could be asked to leave due to not meeting expectations).  It’s all about a performance cycle that is both organizationally and individually results-based.

  1. What are the limits that prevent practitioners from achieving higher levels of proficiency in Performance Management?

The impact of human nature at appraisal time. – what I call ‘the ATM or cash machine Mentality’.

Like it or not but many employees view appraisal as a way to determine a better bonus. They have high expectations and see it as a great way to get more money. At appraisal time, employees fight for higher ratings, sometimes completely irrationally, just because they believe the overall rating is linked to a dollar value. Employees become upset when the rating does not match their feelings of self-esteem, self-worth and their length of service, age, education, or social status.

The fact is that many employees may still not have a complete understanding of the system. They may or may not have started to use a tracking process to record their demonstration of behavioural and functional competencies. Employees are usually not trained to collect data, so they become frustrated with biased, non-specific feedback.

If the system design is flawed and the appraiser senses that gut feel is tolerated, then rater inconsistency and leniency becomes a problem. If the appraisal process is applied inconsistently across departments, rater calibration becomes an issue, and the hope for a natural distribution disappears. A skewed bell curve is the result, and the final insult is for the manager to be told to force-rank the staff.

To get back to the ATM mentality which can create all these issues I can recall a very senior manager at a multi-national saying to me when I was re-designing their PM system. ‘Chris, I don’t mind what you do with the system as long as you don’t mess with my bonus’.


Personal Performance

  1. What is your opinion on the emerging trend of measuring performance outside working hours, during our private time?

When I was at school we were give a small diary where every day we had to write down all the key activities that had to be completed. This was called a ‘route list’.  This had to be shown to the teacher in-charge of morning roll-call every school day.  Nowadays, I use an updated approach with ‘to-do or achieve’ notes on my computer screen.

To explain another approach, I recall meeting someone on the streets of Hong Kong who had been at a seminar of mine and we got into conversation. He pulled out from his jacket pocket a piece of paper with his ‘goals’ on it. This list included to grow his company to 10 million dollars and to pay for his apartment before he was 35 etc. He said he looked at his goal card every morning and evening and visualized achieving his personal KPIs.

Subsequently I have read a lot about this approach. I do something similar myself as a result. The repeated habit and visualization are important to make it work as this kindles the constant desire to take action.

  1. What personal performance measurement tools do you use (i.e. gadgets that track blood pressure, steps taken, heart rate, burnt calories or tools that help with one’s finances or personal skills)?

I am beginning to consider smart home devices with apps controlled via a smart phone.


Specialization Specific Point of View

  1. Academic Point of View: We are developing a database of subjects/degrees in Performance Management. What are your suggestions relevant to the database (i.e. subjects/degrees such as the Masters in Managing Organizational Performance)?

Such post-graduate degrees, often MA or MSc go under names including organizational leadership, organizational management, and industrial psychology. Many of these programmes are designed for working students, and there are also quality online master’s in organizational behaviour degrees available for students who need flexible schedules. These are available in the USA, UK, Europe, Australia and some developing countries.

  1. Consultant Point of View: What are the processes and tools you look at, in order to differentiate a successful performance management system, from a superficial one?

I always want to see if the organization completes a bell curve analysis of employee ratings at the end of the financial year. I am looking for a natural distribution of results without use of a forced ranking system. If there is a forced distribution system in place I want to know why? Usually, it means that the present PM system is not working allowing leniency in rating with a skewed bell curve the result.

Accordingly, HR or Finance has then made an executive decision to push the bell curve back to the centre, usually for bonus reasons. Unfortunately, this can affect employee morale, motivation and staff retention.

Image sources:
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