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Jane Sunley

Purple Cubed

Founder and chairman

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HR, it’s time for the tail to stop wagging the dog


Jane Sunley is a UK best-selling business author of  ‘The People Formula: 12 Steps to Productive, Profitable, Performing Business’ and Founder and Chairman of employee engagement expertise and tech provider, Purple Cubed.

Few would argue that the delivery of business strategy is dependent on people; providing a set of circumstances whereby people can do this well and willingly is a business imperative.

A key part of this is performance management and career planning which, in the 21st century, should be a positive, forward thinking excercise yet is so often far from that…

I recently enjoyed speaking on the topic of Employee Engagement to a large group of senior finance people in London. I’d suggested a simple definition to cut through the misunderstanding, ambiguity and confusion around the term ‘employee engagement’:

Employee engagement:
the right people, doing the right things, exceeding expectations, enthusiastically.

A delegate commented that this could never work because it wouldn’t fit with his organisation’s performance ranking system. I guess he was referring to the bell curve or forced rankings system whereby a small percentage of top performers are rewarded, the majority (in the middle of the curve) are encouraged to do better and the lower end are either laid off or otherwise ‘dealt with’.  

When this system was introduced over 20 years ago, many believed that maintaining this pressure would encourage employees to perform better. At the same time many regarded the Internet as a fad, a passing phase that was unlikely to go anywhere…

A different perspective

We live in a very different world today. A more modern and positive approach would be to encourage great performance by putting into place a set of circumstances whereby people want to deliver, rather than being afraid not to.  One where they’re able to self-assess, communicating their aspirations and development needs, the permissions and systems in place to enable them to ask for the support to get them there.

Of course it still rings true to reward the top performers and encourage the mid performers, and yes, deal with the underperformers. Though not through a performance management system.

If people have clear goals, aligned with overall business strategy, with well-defined outcomes and a good system in pace, then it’s fairly straightforward to manage themselves.

Retain the once a year appraisal

Which leads us nicely to all this talk of organisations binning their annual appraisal in favour of an ongoing dialogue. They shouldn’t be so hasty in my opinion. 

By its very nature, an ongoing performance review will inevitably focus on the day-to-day; the company, the role and its outcomes. No matter how skilled the manager is in the art of performance conversation. And so, what will be lost along the way is the vital opportunity to discuss the individual’s ambitions and career plans. And for the business, the chance to succession plan, create a leadership pipeline and make sure you have the right people, in the right roles, at the right time.

This is where the big engagement points are scored – because this is exciting: it presents opportunity for your people. Don’t let it get lost among the mundane day-to-day chat.

Time for change

In a fast-moving, volatile and uncertain climate, where change is the norm, to engage and retain talented people, businesses must manage aspirations fully and transparently.

The solution is, therefore, to find the perfect talent formula. Talent management requires a combination of said ongoing dialogue backed up with formal career planning conversations. There simply must be a formal mechanism for having a rich and forward focused one-to-one about a person’s future.

Though to achieve this, HR must start to divest the people management stuff to the people who work with the people – operational leaders and managers across the organisation; providing the tools, technology and know how to make it work. 

And not just for performance, for all transactional aspects of people strategy. Businesses need an approach which anyone could follow – from start-up to corporate, head of finance to operations director to business owner and head of marketing.

HR isn’t just an HR game anymore. The sooner this is realised and action the better, because only then will the tail stop wagging the dog…

Author Profile Picture
Jane Sunley

Founder and chairman

Read more from Jane Sunley

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