Three Ingredients for Effective Performance Leadership

Yancey_performance leadership September 13, 2023 By: Drew Yancey

Having difficulty navigating performance reviews with staff? Association leaders need to provide the right conditions for staff to take ownership of their own performance. Learn three steps required to create the conditions necessary for successful performance leadership.

“My staff member is not performing. What do I do?”      

It’s a question I tend to get from association leaders as they wade through performance reviews. But the problem often lies with the leader, not the staff. That’s because the leader has not communicated his or her expectations, including objective measurements of what success looks like, nor have quality feedback and coaching been regularly provided.

In trying to assess and optimize employee performance, many leaders find themselves between a rock and a hard place. A recent Gallup study found 95 percent of employees are dissatisfied with their organization’s performance management system. However, employees genuinely desire more feedback on how they are performing, and their engagement and performance levels skyrocket when they receive effective feedback.

How can leaders navigate these challenges and provide their people with the best conditions for success? In my book Leading Performance Because It Can’t Be Managed, I argue that nothing short of a paradigm shift is needed. Historically, performance management systems have deployed a “command and control” approach, resulting in reactive, inconsistent, and punitive feedback.

Performance can’t be managed—it must be led. In other words, leaders must realize it is not their responsibility to manage their people to perform in a certain way. Rather, they need to focus on providing the right conditions for staff to take responsibility for their performance. Here are the three crucial ingredients to create these conditions.

Clarity of Outcomes

Imagine showing up to play a game without knowing the rules or having a scoreboard. Yet, this is how many people arrive at work each day. An employee cannot thrive if they don’t have clear, measurable results that define whether they are successful in their role.

These “performance objectives” are outcome-focused, measurable, and collaboratively created between a leader and employee. The goal is to prioritize and quantify the most significant results a person achieves for internal or external stakeholders. For most people, four to six sets of outcomes are sufficient. Each outcome is scored using a 1-5 scale, with a 3 being the target to encourage high performance.

For example, a staff member in charge of marketing might have monthly website visits as an outcome. We would put the target number as a 3 (e.g., 5,000 monthly visits) and then build high-performing targets (4 and 5) and under-performing targets (1 and 2) accordingly.

Autonomy of Means

Having clear and measurable outcomes enables leaders to provide employees with autonomy. In the absence of providing clarity about what is most important, leaders are liable to micromanage how people do their work.

This type of environment undercuts employee engagement, stunts individual and team performance, and stifles organizational innovation. Building on the marketing example, once the target number is in place, the staff member can determine the best strategies and actions to achieve 5,000 monthly visits and can lean on others in the organization (including his or her leader) to contribute where needed.

Personalized Coaching

Without clarity of outcomes and autonomy of means (i.e. the “rules of the game and scoreboard”), coaching loses some of its power. However, when we provide people with specific performance objectives and empower them to achieve those results in the way they deem best, we open the door to relevant, personalized, and timely coaching.

Effective coaching requires skill and training, but any leader can get started with a basic process. I recommend leaders and employees have standing, 15-minute coaching conversations scheduled every month. At least 24 hours before the meeting, employees should score their previous month’s performance using the agreed upon performance objectives and send the scores (along with relevant notes) to the leader.

The scoring is meant to start a meaningful conversation between the leader and employee. We are not trying to sum up an employee’s worth with a quantitative score. Rather, the scoring provides a reasonably objective reference point to gauge whether someone is on track to achieve their highest priority areas of impact for their role. During the coaching session, the leader can use three simple questions to guide the conversation after debriefing the scores: What went well the past 30 days? What challenges are you facing? How can we help?

Performance management is traditionally treated like a car in need of repair, but what if we could prevent breakdowns before they occur? Performance leadership is like a preventative oil change. Let’s set up our people for success with clarity of outcomes and autonomy of means, then provide personalized coaching at regular points so that they can achieve their highest level of performance and impact.

Drew Yancey

Drew Yancey, Ph.D., is the founder of Teleios Strategy, a leading strategy advisory firm. He has more than 15 years of strategy consulting and executive leadership experience across multiple industries. He has authored two books and is a frequent keynote speaker.