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Academic Interview: Sattar Bawany

SattarBack in 2016, the Performance Magazine editorial team interviewed Sattar Bawany, Adjunct Professor at the Curtin Graduate School of Business, and CEO and C-Suite Master Executive Coach at the Centre for Executive Education – CEE Global, Singapore, for the “Performance Management in 2015: ASEAN Special Edition” report. His thoughts and views on Performance Management are detailed below.
Many companies are investing heavily in tech and forget that it is only an enabler and that they should invest in their people, first and foremost.


  1. Which were the 2015 key trends in Performance Management, from your point of view?

Well, I can only speak from my experience, from the perspective of a performance and talent management specialist. So that being said, I believe that more and more organizations are moving from a closed to an open system. Now, this topic can be explored through two lenses: a Singapore one and a regional one.

Talking from the point of view of Singapore, the main trend in the public sector, for example, has been a focus on closed systems, with the aim of moving more towards open systems.

In the private sector, the reverse stands true – open systems, where employee ranking & rating is the focus of performance review meetings. I honestly do not agree with the nature of such meetings, I do not find them all that useful, but alas that is the current trend in the private sector.

The focus of any performance management discussion, be it in an open or closed system, should be primarily on the professional development of the employee. The line manager should coach, guide and support the individual employee through regular ongoing feedback, so that he or she excels in terms of job or role performance.

Some interesting things about this last point are the fact that many Millennials or Gen Y representatives are now assuming first-line supervisor or managerial roles that want to influence some of the aspects that they find necessary in an organization, from a career development perspective. Adding to this, I see that ratings and rankings are becoming less and less important.

While it’s true that some companies still prefer such a system, many have started changing them or abandoning them altogether and this would prove as quite the challenge – how to convince businesses to leave rankings in the past, whilst still offering their employees opportunities for development.

Other fascinating developments that I see, both in Singapore and in the region as a whole, are increased awareness of Big Data and its uses and managing virtual teams. These type of teams consist of members that are simply not located in the same geographic region as the company’s HQ. This is due to globalization, companies adapting to a more flexible structure overall and learning the value of trust.

Now, many professionals lack this last aspect and in my opinion, this is what keeps them from delivering an effective performance management system.

But if I were to think of one trend specifically, that I see as being widespread, it would be the way managers have started to actually understand their role.

What I mean by this is they have started to put emphasis on three key aspects: putting focus on leaders – what leaders have to do in a company to improve it, then emphasizing employee engagement through managerial coaching practices and continuous feedback and finally, developing more and more managers that are equipped with the necessary skills to be great leaders, coaches, trainers and so on.

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

This is an ongoing process and a very important step in defining key metrics for each level of the organization. It will most likely stay the same for quite a while, which is good, but what might actually change are the following:

– thresholds becoming ever more important

– managers acquiring more and more people and business management skills

These changes though will not affect how flexible the whole process of cascading is and it will continue to work like we have seen in recent years.

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

The major change will be a cultural shift, where the bottom-up feedback will become more important. Unfortunately, it saddens me to say this, but many companies in Asia and even in the U.S. have the traditional top-bottom feedback system. And this is prevalent across all industries, it’s not just one or two.

I do not think it will change too quickly, but what is somewhat refreshing is seeing Gen Y and Gen Z representatives pushing for more bottom-up feedback.

This means that employees are starting to give feedback to their bosses, offering them advice on how they currently see them and how they could change for the better. This is part of the overarching theme of reverse mentoring, where the younger generation teaches the older one a few new things and ideas.


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

I believe three areas are of greater importance.

The first one would be to establish a clear system of compensation, that is separate from performance ratings, because sometimes, due to how these two can intertwine, the end results are not the most optimal. Oftentimes, they are far from even being good.

The second one would be developing greater differentiation between an individual’s efforts and his team’s. This is quite important when considering under-performance scenarios. If each member has his own metrics or indicators, along with some team-based indicators, then it makes it easy to see if under-performance is a result of one individual slacking or the whole team faltering.

Such a method comes in handy when spotting high-performance individuals, whom you know can outperform others, but need to be shown that they are in the limelight and should better start improving their work, as it is not on par with what is expected of them.

The third one would concern the matter of ongoing feedback and how coaching should be done on a daily basis, constantly, continuously. And my interest would be to find out how such feedback and coaching methods have affected an organization’s performance.

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

Good examples here would be Microsoft, GE, Adobe or even Zalora, a smaller e-commerce Singapore-based company. Their Head of HR, Foo Chek Wee, was a student of mine and I have to say that they are doing quite well. One of the things that I kept an eye on, in Zalora, was how the organizational culture impacted the employees’ career development opportunities, and safe to say, it’s quite a successful relationship.

  1. What Performance Management question would you like to have answered by researchers?

How can we disconnect employee rating/ranking from performance management and compensation? I would like to clearly see the relationship between performance and rewards.


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

How do you get leaders to understand that they no longer hold absolute power. The younger Gen Y will constantly challenge one’s methods of measuring their performance and this should show managers that they no longer have complete sway over this topic and that it should be treated like a two-way street.

So, in my opinion, this would be the biggest challenge – understanding and accepting the fact that you, as a leader, cannot have 100% power over everything and that you should learn how to accept different ideas and be prepared to get challenged.

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

First things first, we shouldn’t forget that technology is an enabler, it should not be the focal point of any PM system; that should be reserved for our employees. Many companies are investing heavily in tech and forget that it is only an enabler and that they should invest in their people, first and foremost.

My mantra can be described by the following acronym: PPT – People before Processes and Technology.

Invest in your staff, your system, then afterwards in your technology. Tech should be simple and serve individuals, not the other way around. So from my point of view, the best thing would be to keep technology straightforward and simply as an enabling tool, for an individual’s development.

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

An example of best practice would be creating a culture of trust between employer and employee, where conversations about performance and individual efforts are commonplace, frequent and welcomed. We are working with knowledge workers, they know what to do, at least most of the time, so less instructions, less interventions, more engagement.


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

Teaching would-be leaders how to be effective coaches. Coaching is a very powerful tool and it should never be underestimated, as it helps unlock an individual’s true potential. Couple this with the fact that today’s generations openly embrace such methods, we see that it somewhat becomes a must-have for any leader.

The second thing that I find important is learning how to communicate properly. Many leaders fail to communicate in an effective manner, that gets their employees’ buy-in and thus they may end up losing very valuable individuals.

This is of course part of our cognitive skill set, recognizing when, how and with whom you need to discuss matters more, to reach a better conclusion.

Both of these, developing one’s coaching and cognitive skills, go hand in hand and if a manager wishes to come closer and closer to what is considered the ideal leader, learning how to strike a balance is key. An example would be knowing in whom you should invest your time, as a manager.

Reading employees, recognizing those who wish to better themselves and clearly seeing through others’ hollow promises of improvement is extremely important, along with knowing how to convert your opinions about these individuals, in a friendly and mindful manner.

  1. Which limits need to be surpassed in order to achieve higher levels of proficiency in Performance Management, among practitioners?

I don’t think there is such a limit for practitioners. I would say that companies can be limited, due to their culture. If the CEO establishes a weak strategy, with vague KPIs and so forth, then your whole plan will at some point topple down like a house of cards.

I don’t think practitioners have encountered any self-limits until now; I think most of the times, the company in which they work might impose certain barriers that are counterproductive to their work, so they end up thinking they hit a dead end.

Personal Performance

  1. What is your opinion on the emerging trend of measuring performance outside working hours?

Well, since we’re working with knowledge workers, they generally know their job and perform well, so I don’t know if trying to measure them outside working hours would be good, in any way.

Sure, there are jobs where you can stick to your 9-5 schedule, whilst others require a bit of after-hours work. Even more so, there are situations where workers believe in their company and work even 18 hours a day, to fulfill its goal and objectives.

And as long as they are paid for those hours, it’s all good, but I would not actively encourage this, if you know you can get your job done properly during your normal work schedule.

Now, if your company culture supports and empowers your view, then by all means, go ahead, since you as a knowledge worker know best what you have to do to feel satisfied.

  1. What personal performance measurement tools do you use?

I used to use Oracle, but nowadays I use a simple Balanced Scorecard, for me and my team, which in my opinion is highly effective for tracking performance.

Specific Question

  1. 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)?

Personally, I have not seen any programs that target Performance Management specifically, as these are more tailored towards HR or Organizational Development and any Performance Management topics are integrated in such programs.

One thing that would be quite interesting, on this topic, would be company leaders developing an educational curriculum, for higher education, in which they could emphasize aspects like driving value and employee engagement, redesigning contemporary PM systems, developing methods of accurately evaluating current and future PM processes and emphasizing the importance of coaching and continuous feedback. Coaching especially could be considered a subject in itself, as it is so incredibly vital to today’s organizational success.

These would serve as prime knowledge tools for the new generation of managers, greatly enhancing their understanding of what Performance Management should be about.

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