Prepare Leaders for Continuous Performance Management

Leaders are employees, too. Don't underestimate the amount of coaching and support they need for performance management conversations.

Continuous performance management is a process you engage for your organization that embeds discussion about employee performance throughout the year versus in the traditional annual format that many of us have experienced and managed. Performance discussions in a continuous performance management process are typically forward, development-focused conversations rather than backward-looking assessments of how the year went.

I am passionate about continuous performance discussions because I have seen the outcomes of continuous performance management do a better job of improving:

  • employee performance through frequent feedback

  • trust between leaders and employees, thus increasing employee engagement

  • expectations set between leaders and employees, clarifying work deliverables

And these three things work hand-in-hand to improve business results due to increased productivity across all parties. The work we do in talent development should always be focused on increased business productivity and employee support. Moving your organization to continuous performance management can do just that. I'm glad you're here to learn more.

This article is Step 6 in an eight-step series on designing and implementing a continuous performance management process for your organization.

  1. In Step 1 we Designed a smashing program.

  2. Step 2 covered gaining Alignment for our ideas.

  3. In Step 3 we assembled customer feedback in focus groups and surveys to Discover their perspective.

  4. Step 4 taught us about Learning on the Fly with pilot groups.

  5. Step 5 got us thinking about change management and Over Communicating with our participant groups.

In this step, Step 6 - Prepare Leaders, we are brainstorming how to set leaders up for success as they engage in a continuous performance management process.



Supporting Leaders

Leaders do not magically know how to conduct performance conversations. We, Talent Folk, know this, but we forget it after leaders have been through the requisite management training.

Conversations on performance are awkward. They just are, even if the news is excellent. So, we avoid them or put them off. Really, we do this for all hard conversations. Thus performance conversations are usually the worst, because we haven't addressed stuff throughout the year. I've experienced this in every organization I've been a part of, and I've talked about it with many of my talent colleagues. Often with sarcasm and eye-rolling. But we shouldn't scoff - even we Talent Folk shirk the hard conversations at times.

This step in how to design and implement continuous performance management is all about supporting leaders with the tools they need to successfully engage with the model. We all work better if expectations are clearly defined. Your task in preparing leaders is to set clear expectations and get them started with how to engage in successful, less awkward performance conversations.


Set Expectations

In the new continuous performance management process, how often have you determined that leaders and employees should meet to review performance? Write it down in a simple process document or job aid. Be explicit.

I like to use a timeline for the year with specific milestones for when conversations should happen. You might work that into your talent planning calendar for the year. Here's an article on how to set a talent plan for the year.

Note specifically and communicate any accountability for these conversations. For instance, how often will you be checking on them to ensure they are having conversations and how well they're going? Will you use a survey, questions on the employee engagement survey or another tool? Will you be reporting results to their leaders? Be clear on your plan and then be sure to follow through with it.

Another tip here for accountability is to set-up the senior leaders within a department with talking points or questions to ask the leaders within their organization. Not only should they also be hosting performance conversations, but they should be checking into how it's going with the leaders in their group.

Heard the phrase "what is measured is done"? I find it to be true in business contexts. We will make time in our packed calendars to meet objectives for which we'll be measured - especially if it impacts our bottom lines - our compensation.


Invest in Their Skills

Ensure that the leaders you support know how to engage in difficult conversations. Give them a model to rely on and build up their skills. Don't assume they will give it a go on their own. We know from experience that they don't. Even when they've attended training on how to go about it, they will shy away from the difficult conversations. Give them time to practice - maybe a role play with others at their level to get used to using the model. If you know they have a particularly hard conversation on the horizon, ask them how they've prepared for it. Talking through the approach they'll take will help them build confidence and not shy away from the specific feedback they need to share.

Skills to build up in your leaders to help them navigate continuous performance management include:

  • Self management, empathy and relationship management, ie emotional intelligence

  • Listening

  • Providing & receiving feedback

  • Navigating difficult conversations

  • Articulating expectations clearly

  • Synthesizing thoughts so that employees get the message; checking for understanding

  • Documenting employee conversations

I'm sure you can identify others. Make sure you have skill-building opportunities available for leaders as they engage the new program. I recommend offering several options before the program is implemented and tailoring other options for just-in-time access as they need them - maybe a quick online refresh or two-minute pep talk.

I also recommend building a brief, engaging module on the continuous performance management process itself. One module for both leaders and employees works well. Let both parties know how the process should ideally work and help them with conversation starters and timelines on when they'll be meeting. Get your learning team on board and in the storyboard for the module build in an example of a conversation gone right and one that didn't pan out so well. Let them "see" the process in action and envision themselves engaging in it.


Get Them Started

Most leaders want to comply with new programs and genuinely want their employees to do well, yet they might not always know how to begin a conversation or move the discussion along. Helping them out with a one-pager of questions to ask during a performance discussion is a great way to give them a go-to resource should the conversation get off to a shaky start or lag in the middle. It also gives you some assurance that discussions will go as intended.

For our program at Southwest Airlines, the team created a one-pager for leaders and one for employees. Both contained preparation tips and questions to draw upon during the conversation. They became our most used tools.



Use Your Partners

If you have HR Business Partners (HRBPs) or HR Generalist teams, arm then with tools and guidelines for how you'd like them to coach leaders. Provide them the same tools you offer leaders and give them tips on how to apply them.

Build a module, lunch & learn or meeting just for them. Share with them your expectations of how they can help the process be successful. They are usually well situated within their customer groups and will know how to help tailor the message for maximum stickiness.

If you are collecting metrics, keep them posted on them and engaged in discussing how the process is going. What are you / they seeing that is helping or hindering the effectiveness of the program. What successes are they seeing? Gather testimonials for what's working - you can use those in your ongoing communication strategy.

Further, you'll want to work with your HRBPs or Generalist Team on when continuous performance management becomes performance improvement. That means when a negative performance trend continues over several performance periods and should be addressed. If you don't have an HRBP or Generalist Team, don't forget to address this so that you can coach leaders accordingly.


Offer Continual Support

Give leaders a place to work through situations. One team found that a lunch & learn where leaders can ask questions as a group and you can suggest approaches has worked well. Or what about office hours during which they can reach you or stop by to work through a tough scenario?

Plan to offer these touch points throughout the first year and then at least annually. I can vouch for leaders that we need ongoing reminders and connection to why performance conversations are critical. We need to hear about what's working for our colleagues and how to refine our approach as we try things out.


Quick Summary: Step 6 - Prepare Leaders

A successful performance management process is 100% based on whether you set up leaders well to engage the process. This step - preparing leaders - is worth the time and positive investment in this audience. It's easy to be frustrated with leaders who shirk a hard conversation or muck up a performance conversation, but let's cut them some slack and assume that they, too, need an investment in how to do performance conversations well and that they want to do them well.

As a quick summary, for this step in the process, you're:

  • Setting clear expectations about the leader's role in performance conversations

  • Investing in their feedback giving, conversation having and listening skills, to list just a few

  • Getting them started with questions and conversation starters

  • Utilizing your partners and setting them up to support the process

  • Offering support throughout the process

Next up we'll have a similar conversation about preparing employees. We'll talk about how to support them in adopting the process and taking ownership.