Three tips for good performance feedback

dreamstime_m_37755817Many are considering abolition of the dreaded annual appraisal – what could possibly go wrong?

Microsoft, Adobe, Accenture and now a host of professional firms have decided to embrace the brave new world of continuous feedback – and not before time.  Too much has been vested in slow, cumbersome, infrequent, and often poorly implemented annual appraisal systems that leave a significant population of participants feeling less than motivated.

However, it is often easier to state an intention than it is to implement such a new ‘way of working’ successfully. Why? Because providing more communication requires more of everybody if it is to be effective – a fact that we need to recognise and act upon.

Here are three observations that can help guide all performance conversations – whether you are giving or receiving them.

Do the 3is.  These are some of the new ‘asks’ if you are engaged in continuous feedback.

  • Interest – for some, annual appraisal meant being able to ignore people (as opposed to task) dialogue until absolutely necessary, usually when the paperwork arrived.  The new expectation involves demonstrating ongoing interest in your staff, what/how they do, and acting upon it in real time – e.g. providing immediate recognition for a job well done, without waiting for a “scheduled” discussion.
  • Invest – so explicitly, leaders need to invest more time and effort in the conduct of performance management – talking regularly with staff and providing coaching-style inputs for which some may need skills development help. Hoisting the “I’m too busy” flag will not wash.  Nor will exhibiting “Why are we doing this? – I didn’t need to be told” attitudes.
  • Inspire – team members will expect their leaders to prepare and provide positive developmental inputs that motivate them.  “Employees appreciate the conversation when it’s done right…where it is rushed and formulaic and is in quick messages that haven’t been thought-through, that doesn’t work.  But where there’s preparation, thought and intent behind it, it’s really positive”**.

Share ownership.. for the process and its outcomes with team members, making the new nature of what happens clear to them – and that they need to be thinking about and contributing actively to the dialogue and actions that you agree together going forward.

Don’t ignore metrics.  Measurables are still important to any organisation, appraisal or no appraisal.  But these are only part of the equation which should focus on the specifics of how the individual can develop and improve their performance.

** 2015 Performance Management Research, PwC

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones.

Three more plan tips


There are indeed a lot of cunning planners out there.  So for you, and having written or reviewed a lot of these docs (the good, bad and the ugly), here are three more guide points to help make them work to the max.  This is important.  Well-written ones get read and have a far better chance of being acted upon.  Bad and ugly ones get condemned to the (digital) closet.

SWOTs that (again)?  Last time, I looked at how distilling key issues from SWOT content is crucial (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).  But what if the content itself is less than perfect, ambiguous, or even confusing?  Ever read one in which the same issue or factor appears more than once e.g. it is both a Strength and i) a Weakness or even ii) an Opportunity?

For i), you must make a judgement call – decide which it is on the weight of evidence and impact and stick with it.  In ii), the most frequent reason for such a mix-up is unclear understanding of the differences between SW and OT.  SWs are intrinsic issues that fall largely under your or the firm’s control or ability to influence; OTs are extrinsic issues largely beyond your control/influence.

SFA your options   Once the plan has generated a number of real strategic options, choosing which is best to pursue becomes critical. The one that seems to deliver most financial ‘bang’? Or that you are personally most vested in? Here, the three classic strategic SFA option criteria* and appropriate analysis tools for them need to be used:

  • Suitability (would it work?): whether a strategy addresses the key issues identified in the plan
  • Feasibility (can it be made to work?): whether the resources required to implement the strategy successfully can be made available, developed or obtained.  These include funding, people, time and information.
  • Acceptability (will they work it?): whether the expectations of the various stakeholders will be met so that they buy in and better ensure success.

Monitor, review and update  I have jested about plans never seeing the light of day because they are too long.  But even if they are OK as a ‘product’, they can still not be used once formal acceptance has occurred: so into the dark recesses of the cupboard they also go.  This tends to occur in organisations where there is no real buy-in to the need for planning and thus no real importance attaches to its achievement.  It is just a “paper exercise”.

Good firms ensure such importance by adopting the maxim: “what gets measured and rewarded gets done”.  Performance against plan is tracked and monitored rigorously by senior management; partners and teams are held directly accountable for what happens (or does not happen) and what is (not) achieved.  As a result, funnily enough, plans tend to get reviewed and updated regularly by their originators and users.

* ‘Exploring Strategy: Text & Cases’ (2013) Johnson, Whittington & Scholes

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones.



Three tips to help your plans work


It seems that everybody is doing it now: from big ol’ firm, departmental or sector business plans all the way to personal business development ones.  More or less formal planning has become popular with professionals.

But, as the saying goes, popularity does not equal success.

Getting your plan right – by avoiding the major pitfalls – can make all the difference between achievement and under-performance.  From experience, here are three things that can help.

Beware the missing – or illusion of – choice.   Having analysed thoroughly, a good plan needs to properly assess more than one way to achieve its aims.  Many do not.

Either such options are absent altogether – having started from a desired end-point (“that is what I/we must do”) and worked backwards – or they are perfunctory inclusions to create the illusion of choice.  Almost inevitably, the result compromises the quality of what will happen because these end-point assumptions remain un-examined.

SWOTs that?  SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) are a staple of nearly every planning process.  They are meant to be the encapsulated result of all your hard-grafted digging and examining.

But there are a number of things that can lessen the value of doing them.  One being that the analysis presented is simply a long, not very useful listing of factors – and nothing else.  Effective SWOTs must also identify the (maximum six) key issues that your plan has to address. This sets up what follows clearly and purposefully.

Big is not beautiful – aka plans that are measured by the pound or kilo.  Much as though you may have enjoyed detailing and crafting your beautiful vision of what should happen, sadly, not everyone who has to read the multi-page tome that results will necessarily share your delight.

Of course, there has to be evidence for the chosen direction, but the essence of a good plan is something readable in no more than two pages…..presented at the beginning.  The rest is what appendices are for.

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, interim, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones.


Three things to help you delegate and be more productive


Delegation increases average professionals’ earnings by 20% 

Almost anyone with a job and colleagues can delegate… theory.  In practice, the picture is not so rosy.  Those who can’t or won’t because they believe “it’s quicker to do it myself”, are overly insecure, or who enjoy ‘doing’ too much and the task of efficiently running their departments or work portfolios too little.

Which is a shame because delegating well can make a big difference – up to 50% in improved earnings for the most highly-skilled senior individuals willing to take the plunge*.  Not to mention a beneficial reduction in the number of stressed-out task junkies, frustrated juniors who are not allowed to develop (and so leave), and in the worst cases, clients who are also dissatisfied and go elsewhere.  The strong desire of professionally-trained people always to want to do the best possible job is perfectly understandable.  But there should be no dilemma if this is at the expense of personal, business or staff health.

Here are three tips that can help your delegation work properly – and more profitably.

It’s not an egg… of the biggest sins is to sit on a piece of work, perhaps for days or weeks, only delegating at the last moment.  This presents the recipient with a double challenge: coping with the work delegated and juggling their often heavy existing workload and commitments.  Reluctant delegators sometimes perceive that such a tactic will somehow stimulate the poor recipient into glorious action as “it’s an emergency!”.  It won’t.  More likely, it will only inspire future dread of the same thing happening again and a ‘run for the hills’ response.

Be SMART  Assuming that a task has been appropriately delegated, nine times out of 10 it will only go wrong if instructions are not made clearly or comprehensively enough.  Here, the old management saw of SMART needs to be applied.

Make sure first that you are Specific – it is very easy to give vague instructions that can be misinterpreted. The task must also be Measurable, so define clearly what successful performance will look like and result in; then Agreed (the recipient contributing to what is agreed rather than being just told); Realistic (giving unreasonable targets does not set people up for success: it is what is realistic for THEM not YOU); and finally Time-bound, with clear, specific deadlines and milestones.

Take the buck  You can delegate authority but not responsibility.  Overcoming the psychological barriers to delegation is the biggest challenge.  Doing it is the second.  Then recognising that we must still take responsibility for what is delegated is the final achievement – whether the job is successful or not.  If it’s a success, take and hand out the plaudits; if not, be brave enough to take the rap (rather than pass it).

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones.

* Harvard Business Review, “Research: Delegating More Can Increase Your Earnings”, Thomas N. Hubbard, August 2016


To appraise or apprize?


appraise [15th century. Alteration of apprize, after praise]

“But 37% of staff thought their annual appraisal was a waste of time”  from CIPD report on PwC Performance Management Research, 30 July 2015

These days doing the annual appraisal is pretty widely criticised and more and more condemned outright.  But, whether you like it or not, it is still with us in many organisations and will remain for some time to come.

Much of the criticism is levied at poor practice. For there are those appraisers who forget the origin of the word, embarking solely upon a ruthless dissection of just what is wrong with the individuals they assess. If they ever get around to conducting them, there are others who just treat the process as an annoying, time-consuming distraction from “real work”. Either way, the result can be dysfunctional to job, personal improvement, and motivation.

From the archive of “appraisal systems we have known (but not loved)”, here are three observations to help them go better…assuming they are still with you.

Not scoring the ‘own goal’   Let’s start with a modest assertion of opinion. Any appraisal system that has a detailed method of scoring people performance (one to 5, one to 10, one to 100 etc.) is probably doomed to failure. No doubt someone somewhere thought it was a good idea to put numbers on it, to make this touchy-feely stuff more concrete, to have a ‘real’ basis for salary or bonus awards etc. In practice, all it does is highlight the essential subjectivity of people assessing other people – in a way that can be fundamentally divisive (“Why did she get 3.5 and I only got 3? I’m much better than her at it!”).

No specifics   Nowadays, firms have their competency frameworks that appear to highlight the issues to be covered; except that participants can then fall prey to the phenomenon known as Woolly Aims.   To succeed, any development aim must at least be specific and measurable enough. It’s the difference between these two: 

“Attend more seminars and networking events” 

“Attend at least six networking events over the next six months to generate at least nine new meaningful contacts”   

Remember…it’s apprize   It is what happens after praise that is as important as the appraisal itself – maybe more so. Too many appraisers can treat appraisals like the drawing up of business or marketing plans – once a year phenomena that are left to gather dust until the ‘season’ comes round again. Even if your system contains review stages built in, they are ignored. The best appraisers can see (or are shown!) the consequences of their inaction in this respect, and build in an interest in their staff and what specific aims they have been set on a frequent, regular basis.

James Newberry is a coach and trainer who helps professionals lead and manage better and do more business.  Have a look at to know more.

Getting the professional leadership “thing”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most professionals are employed and achieve success primarily for their technical expertise.  This can make leadership and other skills “nice to have” rather than essential.  If it occurs at all, leadership development can happen only by accident.  As a result, sadly, some firms get the leaders they deserve.

“The process of influencing others to achieve their and the firm’s goals successfully” 

If this is an accurate definition of leadership, then it is a skill required not just at partner or director level, but for anyone in an influencing position or role throughout your firm – including you? Here are three tips that focus on simple, practical issues that leaders at all levels must address to be a more positive influence.  Of course, we all know that leadership is about many other things…

Do what made Alexander great  Now we are not suggesting that warfare is an exact model for business or professional services!  The point is though that Alexander the Great inspired the fiercest devotion in his soldiers (and achieved the unachievable as a result) by sharing some of the burden and privations of his armies personally, especially when things got tight. We contrast this with numerous war stories we have listened to of senior personnel in firms regularly leaving the long hour, tough deadline assignments entirely to junior staff – all of whom were suitably inspired as a result.  Not.

You are in a goldfish in a bowl.. Interviewing staff at all levels in a major firm a few years ago, we were struck by how many negative myths were created and perpetuated by the day-to-day (mis)behaviours of certain leadership figures; sometimes for only trivial (to them) but important things (to others).  These leaders seemed blissfully unaware of what they were doing and its impact on the people that they were supposed to be influencing positively.  Remember that as a leader in any context, you are being watched all the time.  You are a bit like a goldfish.  Except that some people observing you closely will take their lead directly from how you (mis)behave.

Adapt or stay frozen with CJ  It is a common myth (perhaps attachable to stories about historical figures like Alexander the Great) that there is one right way to lead.  There isn’t.  Good leaders adapt their way of influencing others according to the relative ability and willingness or motivation of those they seek to influence.  Less effective ones stick rigidly with their preferred style, the style “that got them where they are today”. We call this the ‘CJ Syndrome’, after the less-than-inspirational boss in David Nobbs’ very funny satire of business and working life: “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”.

Don’t be CJ.

If you want to sign up to hear more, free pithy stuff about professional services best practice, go to