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How to Develop Leaders

What No One’s Telling You About Performance Management

So, welcome to another one of my ToddTalks, which always exist to equip you with ideas you can use immediately to improve your leadership, make a greater difference in the world, and help other people do the same.

Today, I want to share the story of a senior vice president at one of our clients, let’s call him Steve, who helped one of his vice presidents, let’s call him Mark, completely turn his performance around despite being on the verge of firing him. And I want to share this story because it illustrates how small changes in our own behavior as leaders can have a big impact on the people around us.

Here’s Mark’s story in his own words. “Steve was struggling with the high volume of advisory work in his fast-moving role. He was getting frustrated with internal clients and because of that, wasn’t handling people professionally. This meant that I was fielding an increasing number of complaints about Steve, which pulled me away for my own strategic priorities, while his performance continued to drop. This had been going on for six months and I was about done. I was tired of the escalations and I was tired of telling Steve to shape up. And then, I attended the Breakthrough Coaching program. During the program, I had a crystallizing moment where I realized that my attitude and approach towards Steve was likely a big contributor to his lack of progress.”

“And then, I attended the Breakthrough Coaching program, during which I had a crystallizing moment where I realized that my attitude and approach towards Steve was likely a big contributor to his lack of progress. I was so wound up that I made all the conversations about all the things that Steve was doing wrong and what he needed to change. And it’s no wonder why he always closed up because I left no room for any real conversation.”

“So, I decided it was time to try something new. Even though I was pretty sure it would go horribly, I sat down with Steve to talk about the situation. But rather than piling on with a list of all the things that Steve was doing wrong, I honestly asked him how things were going and how he was experiencing his role, and it created an incredible shift, because for the first time he opened up about what was really going on and was finally willing to listen to my side.”

“Together, we were able to explore the problems he was having and the changes he needed to make to solve them. And wouldn’t you know it, he actually changed. After six months of progress in the wrong direction, this single discussion led to real improvements. Very quickly afterwards, internal clients started saying that Steve was changing and they had more confidence in his ability to handle the day to day work. And as a result, the escalations decreased by at least half, and the negative noise I’d been surrounded by for six months was reduced, making it easier for me to focus on doing my own job.”

Huh. Wow. What a great story, and I love hearing stories like this for so many reasons. First of all, because they’re filled with hope, and they at least remind me that people are often much more resilient and adaptive than we tend to give them credit for, and that we can, as their leaders play a major role in helping our people grow and perform.

But the real question is, is who do we need to be, and how do we need to behave to help our people unlock their potential? The story clearly illustrates what not to do; blaming and shaming our people for their underperformance is clearly counterproductive, because all it does is make him feel bad, close up, and stop thinking about how to perform better.

But it also illustrates the power of compassionate and curiosity, because in the next conversation, instead of telling Mark all the things he was doing wrong; Steve genuinely asked Mark how he was experiencing work. And I believe it was this authentic interest in Mark and in the challenges that he was facing that enabled Mark to open up, and that enabled Steve and Mark to figure out what was causing the problem and what needed to happen to close Mark’s performance gap.

And just because I’m emphasizing compassion and curiosity doesn’t mean, I don’t think we should hold our people accountable. We should for their own, our, and our organization’s sake; because our people have a very vital role to play. But I am saying if we’re truly committed to helping our people perform at their best, we need to be as caring and curious as we are critical.

Okay. So, I hope you found this ToddTalk valuable, and I look forward to talking to you at the next one. But in the meantime; be candid, be compassionate, be collaborative, and above all, be curious.

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