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Managing performance: The right approach


John PopeIn the first of two articles examining performance, John Pope looks at how to take the right approach and overcome any barriers to effective performance management.

There must be many ways of getting high performance in an organisation. Excluding slavery and overseers with whips, I believe that there are two aspects which are important – having the right culture, and having people who continually strive to improve their performance. A strong culture creates the conditions which encourage people to produce the results.

“There are two aspects which are important – having the right culture, and having people who continually strive to improve their performance.”

I have worked as a consultant half a dozen times with an outstanding turn-around manager. He had been brought in, late in the day, as chief executive with very wide powers to revitalise a business which had been sick for years. He had an enormous impact on each of those businesses in his first few days there and quickly raised performance all round and got people to change their approach. How did he do it?

Everyone must know that high performance is important

Each of those businesses had been floundering. Directors and managers at all levels had become content with second best; with deliveries which were ‘only a bit’ late; with quality which was just passable; with works and sales admin which was sloppy, to say the least.

Amongst other things, like clearing accumulated junk out of the previous chief executive’s office, he talked passionately about raising performance, of raising standards, of challenging previously accepted sloppy practices. He was a bit like the headmaster of the school I went to – if you said proudly that you had got 92% in an exam the response would be: “What was wrong with 95%?” and if you then got to 96% he would ask: “What was wrong with 98%?”

Performance is important; managers must show that it is, and that they take it seriously. They have to show that lapses are unacceptable, and they have to talk about it. When the top management behaves like that, the next levels start behaving the same way, and so on down the chain.

Talking about performance is not enough

You have to face up to the reasons why performance is not better. I was once, long ago, a plant manager in an oil refinery. Day hours were 0700 to 1600. I needed to be at the plant by 0640 so that I had the answers to the key questions: ‘how much did we do?’; ‘what are the limiting factors?’, ‘what are you going to do about it?’, which were asked successively by my boss when he came round, and then by his boss, and the next one up the ladder. Now, it’s easier to do that in the continuous process industries than in many others, but similar questions need to be asked of any manager who has some sort of measure of output or achievement.

Understand where performance comes from

If we could measure all the factors which contribute to performance we would find an equation along these lines:

“The job of the manager is not so much calling for greater efforts as it is of getting rid of the restrictions.”

Performance = effort x skill x resources x opportunity

If the skill or resources or opportunities are not present, then performance will be poor however much effort is put in. Of course, when people discover that their efforts are ineffective because of lack of skill, or resources, or lack of direction to profitable opportunities, then it is not surprising that effort is reduced. So the job of the manager is not so much calling for greater efforts as it is of getting rid of the restrictions.

How are we going to measure performance?

Simply, if possible. One or two measures are fine, 10 different targets are not. In some organisations, ‘management by objectives’ has been taken much too far. The phrase ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ has been taken to heart so much that some arms of government are paralysed by the need to reach a whole host of targets, some of which are contradictory and tired by the amount of measurement and, in some cases, ‘re-arranging’ the figures to show that they have been met.

What are the barriers? Where are they? How could we do better?

That first manager I wrote about was very clear that removing obstacles and barriers was one of the most important parts of the manager’s job.

“It is the attitude and leadership of the management which has greatest effect in raising and maintaining high performance.”

Another manager saw it in much the same way. Newly appointed at the end of his first and lengthy meeting of his executive committee, and as everyone was getting up to leave, he said: “Just before you go, I want no more than one minute from each of you on what you have learnt from our discussions here.”

He would ask: “What’s stopping us/you from… and how can we overcome it?” I think he had to warn them only once against saying: “We can’t do anything about it.” That approach got results, but it was not just for the top team – it applied at every level.

Someone, somewhere knows the answers

As is well known, a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time and then walks off with your watch. I like that definition, which to me means that you help the client realise what the position is, and how little time there is to put it right.

There is, of course, always someone in the organisation who already knows the time, and what needs to be done. Most of the answers to the question, ‘what’s holding you back?’ are already known in an organisation. Someone, somewhere knows what the barriers to progress are, and has probably got tired of telling the senior managers. And quite often the managers have killed off new ideas and helpful suggestions.

Getting rid of the barriers

It’s not enough to know what the barriers and restrictions are, it is essential that managers identify what these cost the organisation. This applies to those which are management’s responsibility, but it also applies to those for which the individual is responsible. Barriers do not generally get much attention until people understand how it holds back the business or the individual.

There has to be action: Recognise the achievements

There may have been performance initiatives before – long-serving employees will remember them and how they faded away when senior management tired of them and switched attention elsewhere.

And of course, it is the attitude and leadership of the management which has greatest effect in raising and maintaining high performance.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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