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Performance Reviews on Steroids

Art Kleiner, author of The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, uncovers an effective and ongoing way to create employee alignment and accountability in Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions, by Gary B. Cohen.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Anyone with direct reports faces a perennial problem: How can your subordinates learn to see things the way you do, and to be accountable the way you need them to be? And, at the same time, how can you learn to appreciate the way they see things, and the possibilities that they can bring to fruition that you might never otherwise imagine? This short excerpt from a book of questions titled Just Ask Leadership has what I think might be the answer. It proposes replacing annual performance reviews with monthly ones. Monthly! The heart stops at the thought. And yet...take a look at the process the author describes. The reviews are conversations about the best way forward, not critiques of the past. Look in particular at the issue of timing. Might not this approach, if practiced regularly, lead to a whole different way — a much more mutually appreciative way — of looking at the job and the task at hand?

— Art Kleiner


Excerpted from chapter 2 of Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions


Henry Chidgey, who once ran several railroad and diamond companies, advocates monthly performance reviews. These reviews need not and should not be complex; they work best when kept extremely simple. Maximum accountability is the main goal.

Here’s how the process works. The day before meeting, your coworker brings you a list of five or six key objectives, detailing her progress on each. During the review on the following day, you simply assess the data and discuss how performance compares with objectives. Depending on the employee, this can be a short thirty-minute process, or take as long as two hours.

When an employee comes into your office, she should always bring a pen and paper and be required to take detailed minutes of the meeting. Once the meeting is over, the employee should make a photocopy of the minutes for your file. The reason for this is twofold: first, the notes allow you to verify the individual’s understanding of the review; second, the notes increase consistency from one review to the next.

There are three [sic] key questions to ask during the meeting:

  • How well did you meet the objectives we mutually agreed on?
  • Choose one of the following:
    • If you’re ahead, how did you get ahead?
    • If you’re behind, how did you get behind?
    • If you’re on target, is there anything I need to know?
      1. If yes, discuss further.
      2. If no, extol the virtues of coming in on target.
      3. If you’re not meeting your objectives, what’s the root cause?

The [final] question should trigger a discussion. In it, remain objective and listen, giving your coworker time to sort through her answer. If you can accept her explanation of the “root cause,” you allow it to be the actual root cause. If you can’t accept this explanation, you become her coach, helping her better understand the situation.

Don’t provide solutions; the employee needs to do this. If you tell rather than ask, you will not have accountable employees. Be patient. Having employees solve their own problems is the key to building their accountability.

Once the employee develops a solution, coach her through the following steps:

  1. Establish an action plan.
  2. Establish a deadline for implementing the action plan.
  3. Schedule another meeting immediately after the deadline.

With difficult employees, you may need to increase the pressure, particularly if they consistently fail to meet goals. Pressure can be increased simply by increasing the frequency of reviews. The process can occur every two weeks, every week, or even daily, if needed. It’s unlikely that daily reviews will continue long term, as an employee at this stage is usually on the way out.

The key is to remain on board with the employee, instead of playing the heavy. Let the progress reports do the hard work. An added benefit of the reports is that no goal will be overlooked for long without action being taken.

You might wonder, “If I manage like this, how will I ever get my own work done?” Consider the alternative. If your coworkers aren’t accountable, you’ll be doing their work for the rest of your career. Practice this management style consistently, however, and most of your coworkers will require very little of your time. In fact, they will likely become apostles of accountability, replicating your style throughout the organization.

— Gary B. Cohen


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