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Are performance reviews losing their appeal? Ways to improve the process

The traditional annual performance review is losing favor with some advisory firms. But without a clear approach to reviewing the performance of advisers and other staff members, how can pay raises, bonuses and promotions be determined?

Therein lies the dilemma some firms face as they head into the employee annual review process. I hear from many firm owners and advisory staff members that they are dissatisfied with the current system, saying it is too time-consuming, produces an awkward dynamic and creates an unhealthy competition among team members.

All of these are understandable reasons to ditch the process altogether. Instead, firm owners should modify how they think about and execute the annual review.

Consider this: The process is not that dissimilar to the planning process with clients. You meet with your clients on a regular basis (monthly, quarterly, annually) to check in and ensure they are progressing along the right financial path. You make tweaks and adjustments to their plan as circumstances and situations dictate. Some clients may require more help as their needs change.

The relationship you foster and grow with your employees is very similar. Treat annual goal setting and reviews with as much rigor, consistency and thoughtfulness as you apply to the client experience.

Specifically: Improve goal setting to make it more flexible and responsive, provide more effective performance feedback by making it part of everyday work and make the assessments more forward-looking.

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Goals link to targeted objectives and reveal to employees how their individual performance contributes to the firm’s overall results.

Without clearly articulated goals, it can be a challenge to motivate employees to attain the best results. Firm-wide goals and objectives are just as important as individual goals.

To remain current, relevant and impactful, goals need to be updated as situations change.

A few goals to spell out: How many new clients is the firm aiming to win? What level of profitability is desired? What kind of experience does the firm hope to deliver — and what does that look like from the client’s point of view?

The work environment today changes too rapidly to set goals only once per year. To remain current, relevant and impactful, goals need to be updated as situations change.

Moreover, a year is too long of a time horizon to motivate action. It’s difficult to set goals with sufficient specificity that cover an entire year for most jobs; in fact, different jobs require goals with different time horizons.

Try breaking down big job functions into tasks that can be achievable and measured in a timely manner.

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This type of relevant goal will keep your employee motivated and engaged throughout the review cycle.

It may seem cumbersome and daunting to create goals and objectives for the different positions in your firm, but the end result will reward these efforts. Some best practices worth considering:

1. Employees and managers should collaborate in setting no more than three to five performance goals that clearly relate to the organization’s priorities.

2. Goals should be brief and include only the most important results the employee is expected to achieve.

To remain current, relevant and impactful, goals need to be updated as situations change.

3. Base the time frame for these goals on what is relevant to the job. That is, what is the time horizon for which the employee and manager have line of sight? When in doubt, quarterly goals can be a good rule of thumb, because three months is enough time to accomplish a significant result, and setting goals that can be achieved or revised each quarter is not onerous if the process is streamlined.

4. Strive for meaningful goals. While some jobs lend themselves to quantitative metrics, measures of success in other jobs are more subjective. Don’t lose sight of what’s most important for your team to accomplish.

5. Ensure goals are sufficiently challenging. A successful goal is one that will push employees outside of their comfort zones so they must put forth a great deal of effort to achieve them. Meeting the goal should be a significant and meaningful accomplishment.

Some firms require performance check-ins once or more during the year. The intent of these meetings is to provide feedback in between goal setting and performance evaluation. It’s an opportunity to check progress and ensure the employee has feedback and a chance to course-correct before year-end.

The level of formality with these check-in meetings varies by firm. In some, a simple conversation is all that’s required. In others, the process is almost as formal as the end-of -year review, and includes a written self-assessment, manager rating, written narrative and performance conversation.

I highly recommend stepping up these efforts and incorporating feedback into part of an ongoing routine. This type of dialogue allows managers and employees to discuss what steps are being taken to reach goals, how far along a project has evolved and what roadblocks need to be removed to finish an assignment.

Frequent, regular check-in meetings make the feedback more relevant to the employee.

You may think more-frequent check-ins with employees will be more work for you. Actually, more-frequent check-ins can save time. It can take several weeks a year to prepare for an annual performance review, and it’s time-consuming to try to remember what an employee did at the beginning of the year.

Frequent, regular check-in meetings make the feedback more relevant to the employee. This will help to correct any issues that come up, and ensure your employees stay engaged.

In addition, ask employees to assess their own performance and focus on accomplishments and areas for improvement. This dialogue creates the opportunity to encourage staff development and continuous improvement year-round. Equally important is asking for input on areas for development and talking about career goals, specifically the employee’s path in your firm.

Today's younger employees may not see their managers as experts the way their predecessors did, because all the information they think they need is readily available online.

Instead, they look to their managers for coaching and mentorship, and find purpose through constantly learning and growing on the job. If you want to develop high performers, you must be equipped to coach and empower them. So stop managing performance and start actually developing it.

Here is an example of traditional versus coachable feedback:

Traditional Feedback: “At the last client meeting, you did a nice job of setting the agenda and kicking things off. However, you didn’t engage Sue [the wife] and you let Jeff [the husband] dominate the planning conversation.”

Ideally, your performance review process should help employees develop and grow.

Coachable Moment: “Let’s discuss how that meeting went. What did you think went well? I agree the agenda was very clear – any lessons learned that would help you continue this habit in the future? What would you do differently the next time? I agree Jeff seemed to dominate the conversation. What techniques will you try next time to keep things more balanced?”

Remember that two-way open communication is essential to an effective working relationship. Also, create a simple system for recording and documenting your employees’ performance over the course of the year. Jot down notes after these informal feedback sessions to reference later as needed for the written review.

As you head into the end of the year and contemplate assessing your employees, ask yourself the following questions: What impact does the performance review process have on motivating, engaging and retaining your employees? What impact does the process have on the firm’s performance?

Ideally, your performance review process should help employees develop and grow, improve communication between employees and managers, align individual work to achieving the organization’s goals, and facilitate individuals and teams to perform to their highest potential.

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