A New Perspective on Performance Management

Today’s performance management systems need a more effective approach that aligns with modern workforce requirements, emphasizing the importance of specific, in-the-moment feedback. One of today’s most valuable workplace assets is actionable, in-the-moment feedback, which is too often buried, lost or just not delivered in today’s ineffective performance management systems.

Traditional performance management systems are out-of-sync with the needs of the modern workforce. Employees and managers loathe the use of these systems and HR departments do not derive much actionable information from the reams of data collected along the way. One of the most valuable assets in today’s workplace is specific, in-the-moment feedback, an asset that is buried and often lost in today’s ineffective performance management systems.

What if there was a better way? In examining high performing organizations, we concluded that self-correcting systems have far greater promise. We are evolving the management of performance from a 360° performance management system, through “live 360s,” and now moving responsibility for managing performance into the team, utilizing the work as the criteria for evaluation.

At Return Path, we have worked to evolve how we measure and improve role and work performance, provide actionable feedback, separate evaluative from developmental con- versations, and advance the overall “operating system” of the company. We began this journey 10 years ago, first devel- oping a custom 360-degree performance system, then migrating to a standard com- mercial system as the company grew. This process began to take an enormous amount of time, especially for those who had to provide feedback on a number of people. We began to conduct facilitated “live 360s” for managers in which we would bring together a 360-degree view of a person’s key stakeholders for 45 minutes, resulting in a detailed report that highlighted important developmental opportunities. Yet, as we drove efficiencies into the organization, we wondered how to bring the conversation closer to impacting the work while simultaneously developing a culture of accountability and continuous feedback.

Return Path is the worldwide leader in email intelligence. We analyze more email data than anyone else in the world, using that data to power products so that only email people want and expect reach their inbox. As a val- ues-based organization, we offer a casual work environment, where dreaming up new ideas is more important than following old formulas. Here, employees enjoy being part of a thriving company of smart, hard-work- ing, innovative and passionate people who are committed to individual growth.

Return Path wants all employees to be engaged and satisfied — offering an array of programs to empower employees to acquire new skills, develop as leaders and chart an enviable career. We focus on trusting employ- ees and design all processes to increase freedom wherever possible; we don’t have one-size-fits-all solutions. The impact is that Return Path has been ranked No. 11 in the United States as a Great Place to Work by Fortune Magazine, recognized by Crain’s in New York City, and ranked by Colorado Business Magazine as one of the top three employers in Colorado.

As part of our journey, we spent time in numerous organizations exploring what ideas drive excellence1. We learned that teams fully authorized for managing and measuring their work performed the best. In fact, our own technical departments who had adopted an agile/lean approach stood out as great examples of higher functioning teams. We are in the process of changing how we operate to put the team in the driver seat by:

  1. Asking every team and team member to identify what they are responsible for delivering and to whom in the organization. Once established, team members/teams meet with their stakeholders to negotiate deliverable(s) and determine how performance will be measured.
  2. Establishing personal/team charters in which people/teams commit to delivery within the measures established. These charters will be published openly, amended and commented on by any person who has input or is impacted by the outcome.
  3. Identifying personal and team development needs that will improve performance. Once established, these individual/team documents are published as a development plan.
  4. Measuring performance and publishing these data on company-wide dashboards.
  5. Providing facilitated (teams will ultimately be trained to self-facilitate) feedback sessions to review individual/team performance in short cycles (weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.) much like the lean “sprint.”
  6. Ensuring individual development conversations are continuous among all teammates and, at a minimum, conducted every 60 days.

One of the most valuable assets in today’s workplace is specific, in-the-moment feedback, an asset that is buried and often lost in today’s ineffective performance management systems.

Neither management nor our “People Team” will intervene unless requested. The manager becomes a facilitator, focusing on team performance, coaching teams and individuals, and refining the operating system for which they are responsible. Managers will also receive feedback from their teams and their peers in the same way as described above.

While currently the intent is to allow managers to use this “crowd sourced” feedback as key decision data when evaluating performance and compensation, our hope is to bring the organization to a place where the entire process is transparent and performance, performance development and compensation decisions are solely owned by the team.

We are giving the responsibility for managing performance to where it has the most impact, to the 375 people across our company. We will monitor progress as we evolve our way of operating, allowing Return Path to internalize this new way of working. Our hope is to dramatically improve perfor- mance, eliminate less efficient practices, and move review processes to those who deliver, measure, develop and manage the work of our business.

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