What Good CEOs Do Badly:

Posted January 31st, 2014 in Uncategorized

Give Performance Feedback to Their Staff

One way otherwise effective top people do performance feedback badly is they don’t do it at all. Or they do it on the fly. Five minutes over a beer. It can be so quickly and informally that the recipient doesn’t know that’s what it was, as the HR leader later finds out. A phantom review. It was said about one CEO, “It’s difficult getting him pinned down for reviews.”

Usually there’s no escaping this annual chore, no escaping the iron grip of the performance-management apparatus, fitted out with forms, rating scales, strict deadlines and pesky automated reminders and if necessary the final push from HR. But to skip it is a CEO prerogative, like the use of the company plane.

How are senior people supposed to improve if they don’t know what the boss wants them to work on?

Top people have their reasons. It’s not important—they’ve got bigger things to do. That’s what they say or that’s the way they act.

It’s not necessary. “Comp treatment is message enough.” “My direct reports are big boys and girls who by now know their strengths and weaknesses.” “When you’re paying people a lot of money I don’t think you have to manage them like $75,000 a year managers.”

Growing up you could get grounded for not doing your chores. CEOs have no parent-equivalent when it comes to doing performance reviews. At the end of the day the head of Human Resources, who carries ultimate responsibility for the performance management process, can only nag.

A workaround: You can have the HR executive carry the message for you. But inevitably something is lost in translation and the force of the impact can’t possibly be as great.

Another way CEOs do it badly is they’re not direct enough. They conduct the appraisal but so tactfully that the message is lost on the other person. They sugarcoat the criticism. They think they’ve carried the message. However, HR leaders following up discover that a message was never sent or it was transmitted with such a light touch that the seriousness of the issue didn’t come through. It was said about one such top person “his criticism is too mild;” “he’s too accepting when people don’t deliver.”

What’s the reason? It’s uncomfortable. You don’t want to upset the other person, demotivate him or her. You don’t want to violate the high value you place on treating people well. The truth is for all of us, CEO or not, manager or not, it’s a hot seat. That’s the other reason why CEOs skip out on it. We have met icons whose organizations did astonishing things but when it came to a came to sit-down they were literally handicapped.

Work-arounds: if you don’t trust yourself to be direct, you can put the appraisal in writing and hand it to the individual, then discuss. Or you can get the views of a few key coworkers and use that input to bolster your case and comfort level. Also, don’t put the burden of making the case entirely on your shoulders like a litigator making a closing argument; you can begin by telling the person, “there’s a problem with your performance” in a particular area or in general. And then ask, do you know what I’m referring to?

A watch-out: CEOs who can’t bring themselves to be direct are often also reluctant or slow to take action on sub-par performers. These leaders are too accepting of both less-than-the best performance and performers.

There can be a saving grace to the gentle approach if the executive invests in the person’s development—some people, even those in the dog house, come around.

The other basic way that CEOs mishandle performance reviews is by being harsher than called for. The antithesis of the former type, they would never be described as “too nice.” Rather than inhibit themselves, they are all too free with criticism. Rather than overly considerate, they lack all consideration for other people’s feelings. One such top person was characterized as “rough on people” and as “scolding his people and making them feel stupid;” “she has no idea what it’s like on the receiving end.” Nothing good came from her wantonly negative approach.

There can be redeeming value to the tough approach if the CEO’s true intent is to hew to the highest standard. It’s the upside to the leader who is “never satisfied.” Along with the collateral damage he caused, Steve Jobs as CEO settled for nothing less than talented people on his team who cooperated with each other and worked their asses off.

Of course, the ideal is to tell your people when you’re dissatisfied with their work, constructively. To combine in a single act the right amount of toughness and of love.

Countermeasure: survey your direct reports anonymously on your review—were you clear, helpful, did they learn anything?

A final note: no CEO anywhere knows the power of praise. They don’t need praise so they think that their people don’t need it. Or they are afraid that praise breeds complacency. Or, like all managers, they believe that it’s criticism that improves performance. It’s lost on them that positive feedback is an equally potent remedy for inadequate performance. Take the up-and-coming business head who, though he possessed strategic ability, didn’t think of himself as strategic and therefore failed to lead strategically. When we provided proof positive to him that he was strategic, it gave him the confidence to assert himself strategically with his own team, and to stop overrelying on his team to do it.

A note of caution: praise usually doesn’t penetrate. As consultants we have to arm-wrestle our CEO clients into letting the affirmation sink in.