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Appraising: what's your score?

14 November 16

The Word of Gold: giving marks out of 10, how well do you review others?

by Stephen Gold

There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organisation’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. It goes without saying that no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energised employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it. (Jack Welch)

As law firms battle to recruit and energise the best talent, finding the right formula for appraisal and reward is a perennial concern. In our careers, two questions dominate: “How am I doing?” and “Where am I heading?” The annual appraisal is supposed to give good answers, and sometimes it does. Often, though, it is little more than a sterile box-ticking ritual, approached by both sides with a mixture of dread and ennui.

Having helped firms large and small to find their solution, here are my 10 essentials for successful appraisal.

1. Think of it not as a once-a-year event, but a year-long process, which starts with agreement on clear, unambiguous objectives, designed to develop the individual and meet the needs of the firm.

2. If each person’s objectives are made public, they are more likely to be achieved. It’s human nature that we are inclined to let ourselves off easily, but will persevere if we have made a public commitment to colleagues. “Public” means different things in different contexts. In small firms, it may mean that everyone’s objectives are shared. In larger firms, at the very least, objectives should be shared between team members, as well as with the leadership.

3. You can’t just agree people’s objectives and leave them to it for a year. Every quarter, sit down and discuss how things are going: the successes, the reverses, the gradients that seem steeper now than they did at the beginning and how to power up them. Are these precious objectives still right, or should they be adjusted, or even abandoned? The sign of a good process is that by the time of the annual review, the past is largely a matter of agreement, and the focus is on the future.

4. If a firm proclaims that people will be assessed on their all-round contribution and that billing is not the be-all and end-all, it has to walk the walk. It is very much in its interest to do so. “What gets rewarded is what gets done” is a cliché because it is true. Developing talented leaders, business winners and managers means creating the space and resource for them to develop without always being under the lash of the six-minute unit. There is a profound difference between “not chargeable” and “not valuable”. Appraisal and reward must reflect this. Weight different criteria appropriately by all means, but don’t ignore them.

5. Where people are a firm’s leaders, team performance, not individual performance, should be the paramount measure of assessment. I have seen more than one talent burn out because they were given significant leadership responsibilities, but were still expected to bill as much or more than they did before. There are only losers in a regime like this.

6. Candour is everything. Often, appraisals achieve little or nothing because difficult issues of performance, behaviour or relationships are danced around in the interests of peace and quiet. Of course, criticism should be measured and constructive. Every person deserves to be treated with tact and respect. But not at the expense of leaving them ignorant of where they stand.

7. Appraisal should be a two-way conversation, and in a good process, candour works both ways. There are obvious difficulties with imbalances of power, and some leaders are better at dealing with pushback than others. But the kind of leader who is big enough to encourage staff to speak their mind constructively and act on what they say will have an immeasurably better business, and a more motivated team than the dictator.

8. Place a high value on what people have done for others as well as themselves. Appraisals are important opportunities to reinforce the values of “clients first, firm second, me last”, by tangibly recognising the achievements of people who have introduced business, created opportunities, or mentored or otherwise helped their colleagues to succeed.

9. Invest in systems that produce high-quality performance data. Appraisal is an art, not a science. Inevitably, to a degree, it is subjective, but it should always be conducted with the benefit of accurate facts and figures, which support the conclusions. Staff may not always agree with those conclusions, but to retain trust in the process, they must be able to see how you reached them.

10. Finally, build in a swift, fair, confidential and effective appeals process to deal with anyone who feels they have been unfairly treated – unbelievable as that may be!

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally.
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