Episode 5: How to have better performance management conversations, an experienced leader’s perspective

This month Craig Howells from Let’s Talk Talent interviews Richard Sinclair MBE, the Chief Operating Officer at Zzoomm for his perspective on how managers and leaders can have better performance management conversations.

In this episode of the Let’s Talk Talent HR podcast we discuss:

  • What should we call performance management in organisations that have anxiety around those conversations?
  • How frequently should we be having performance management conversations?
  • How to unlock the passion in your people to keep them motivated?
  • How leaders can navigate hard-constraints and the limitations whilst keeping teams engaged?
  • What are some of the key skills you need to have better performance conversations as a manager?

Podcast Transcript

Craig Howells
This is let’s talk talents podcast where we talk with inspirational leaders from the world of HR and beyond all with the intention of making your organisations’ irresistible, and hopefully sharing insights that will help you unlock people’s potential. Welcome to Episode Five, where we will be discussing performance management from an experienced leaders perspective. I’m your host today, Craig Howells. And I’m the client partner here at Let’s Talk Talent. I’ve been really looking forward to today’s podcast and I feel that it’ll be a really interesting topic of conversation. Taking a deep dive into the world of performance management, from a senior leaders perspective, bringing together key learnings, experiences all around this topic. So I’d like to welcome today’s guest.

And I’m really excited to be joined by Richard Sinclair, COO of Zzoomm.

Richard Sinclair
Thanks, Craig. It’s great to be here.

Craig Howells
So Richard, it’s really great to have you joining us today. And I’m sure some of the listeners will be fairly familiar with your background. But it would be amazing if you give us a little bit of background as to who you are, and your leadership experience apologies for that if it sounds a bit more like a formal interview process?

Richard Sinclair
Well, I hope I get the job, Craig, thank you. And thanks again for your time.

My first experience really was forged in the military, I had a very great military career. And I had a commission in the Scots Guard. And I guess they taught me the basics of leadership and some fairly arduous and difficult environments.

But I had a second career in telecoms, where I’m a passionate believer in connectivity. And my aim is to make Britain faster. I think it’s ironic that Britain is somewhere on about the third most prolific user of broadband certainly was pre COVID, if anyone could remember that far back, but yet our infrastructure speeds at about 43rd in the world. And being a strong Patriot, I find that something that really needs addressing, and I’ve been addressing it for a number of years now most recently, obviously at Zzoomm, but before that i was at Virgin Media, where I was the executive director of connectivity. And then before that TalkTalk, where I was the general manager responsible for all things, ultra fast.

Craig Howells
Brilliant, and absolutely, I think broadband is gonna be key to everyone’s world at the moment. And I’m sure many of us listening today, or many of our listeners have probably experienced the drop out so can actually vouch and be with you on that journey and and wish you all the best at bringing that connectivity and pushing your speeds higher. So thanks, Richard.

In my role in Let’s Talk Talent, I spend a lot of time speaking with clients and their employees. And when speaking with leaders and managers, it’s always a big challenge in their world, about getting the best out of their people. I’m sure you’re experiencing something similar at the moment, and it’s coming up in my conversations time and time again, all around this leadership, development, Management Development. And it seems to be a particularly hot topic at the moment. So I’d like to really start from the beginning the foundation.

So what do you see is the role of performance management in an organisation and what is the role of a senior leader or manager in the process.

Richard Sinclair
So for me, it’s about unlocking the passion that our team members have, you know, all too often we come to work. And we find that the constraints and the limitations make us suboptimal in our performance. And for me, great leaders allow you to share your passion and be freed up as much as possible from the constraints to be able to deliver excellence. And I really appreciate the opportunity to turn conversations on performance on the head when people are talking about minimum requirements, the things that they they must do into things that they really want to do and love to do. And try and free them up from those budgetary constraints or headcount restraints or whatever problem it is that people are facing on a day to day basis, and find a way of them to be able to release their passion, because that’s certainly how I get great performance for myself. And I’ve seen it in others.

Craig Howells
That’s really, really great to hear and passion I think is a key driver for many people, but I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that, for some members and some organisations, performance management is probably considered quite a dirty word and people may even experience it or see it as a way in which moving people out of business or being managed out of the business, rather than attempting to maximise that individual’s value or performance to ensure they’re actually contributing to that business objective. And, as you say, unleashing that passion.

So how does the senior leadership team change this stigma attached to what should be a really beneficial concept to this individual?

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, I think I think you’re right, the terminology is difficult, everyone understand what performance management should mean. But it is a euphemism, they are often for performance management as the first stage in the exit conversation. So you know, I think I think we should try and change the nomenclature.

And I always joke with people in my team that actually the performance management conversations are bonus conversations, where we talk about how you can unlock that passion, and genuinely improve people’s performance for their benefit. And of course, if bonuses and targets are aligned, work correctly with the performance of the individual, for the companies and for the shareholders benefits. And I think really changing performance, the word performance management to bonus conversation or success based metrics, it just goes one small step towards diffusing that word, or those words performance management conversations, which as you quite rightly say, are often euphemisms for how do I get rid of this person? That’s a burden on the team.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. So with regards to having sort of bonus conversations, which is a much nicer phrase, I know that I’d much rather be having bonus conversations than performance management conversations. Would you see that almost on a monthly basis, or adopted by organisations and teams on a weekly basis, monthly basis? annual basis? What What was the cadence of those conversations look like?

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, I think businesses are slightly cyclical, either because the products are seasonal, or the sales cycles, seasonal, or indeed events, you know, following Zzoomm has significant investment, you’ve got to try and get that capital work to work and get a return on investment quickly. Other companies are perhaps in a period where they’re trying to restrain CAPEX and shift over to OPEX. The timing is incredibly important. And therefore the tempo that you’re trying to create in a business can be different month to month, week to week. But as a rule of thumb, I like to be having a quarterly, a formal quarterly assessment against bonuses, against performance. But it certainly at every one to one, and I think, you know, one to one should happen every second week, and the longest, sometimes every day, but every second week, where one of the questions that I would like to ask and I would like to be asked, is how are we with objectives? And I think, you know, that should be the conversation where you might need help to unlock something. Or you may have a problem or a challenge that you’re able to foresee in a quick management conversation to say, Look, I’ve got this issue on the horizon, and here’s how I think I’m going to deal with it can really unlock performance. So certainly, in summary, quarterly is a must, with a sit down against the figures. But every every two weeks at a minimum, for those more Well, I would call them softer conversations where you might just be putting a light touch on the tiller.

Craig Howells
Yeah, and I absolutely agree with you that actually, those biweekly conversations, especially as people working more virtually, is fundamental to that individual performance and having those touch points where it would have been like a water cooler moment with their manager sort of using that that time to have a conversation, we almost need to bring that back into that world of what it looks like now and bringing it in bi weekly. I think it’s a great option.

Now, from looking at the the structure, the cadence of those conversations, what are the key principles that should be in a good performance management conversation?

Richard Sinclair
I think for me, you really got you really got to understand what that person’s passion is. I was lucky enough before this podcast to have a one-to-one was with someone in my team. And the question I was really asking was, how can you put your personality into this piece of work? There’s, you know, there’s a board paper that’s being produced. And how do you turn it from being something that’s very black and white, very metric orientated into something that conveys your personality, and everyone leaves a busy life, but particularly senior leaders and board members, they need to be able to get all the information that they need, summarised on a single slide or maybe in a couple of slides at the very most. And I think that is the key question, how can you put your personality on the page and convey what, what the reader needs to understand? Whilst, you know, I think video conferencing is as a tremendous thing. And it certainly helps us get through COVID. It doesn’t take away from the fact that there are those set pieces and formal processes that can really change your performance in a quarter where everyone comes up with a plan to amend sales figures, or perhaps to change the customer service, or do something slightly different. And they often need to be conveyed in the written word, or dare I say on PowerPoint? And it’s, it’s really important to set the stall out to say, how do you convey your personality into those conversations? And how do you convey the ability to deliver that passion for change? Because most of the things we do, let’s be honest, we’re changing direction, because, you know, there has been a business reason, or a business impediment that we’re trying to get over or get round. And that’s what it’s all about really, is trying to be able to articulate why people should change why we should ask people to do things differently. And what that means on on both the top line and the bottom line.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. And just building on your point there Richard my, my experience in managing teams and speaking to individuals that from an employee perspective, so that individual who’s coming to that performance management conversation, there needs to be clear, concise messaging and honesty in those conversations. I mean, there may be a time that the employees actually may feel a bit nervous, but the thought of upon was management conversation is quite an emotive subject sometimes, especially if there is a culture within the business that has that sort of anxiety around those types of conversations. And having the message clearly delivered without the the fluffy added bit really helps for understanding of what’s required. And and I think is fundamental with with performance management conversations at all levels. Really.

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, I think, you know, one of the things that causes that anxiety that you mentioned, Craig, is the fact that people feel under constraints. And those constraints can take, you know, can be existential or internal. They can be things that are happening at home, they can be things that are happening at work, they can be resources that are there that can be budget that isn’t there, it could be a perception that something isn’t there. And it’s really important to be able to say what are the constraints, which are real, which are not imagined, but which are subconscious? And to try and identify what are those the management team can remove, and what of those are, you know, hard constraints that have to be worked around. And we all know that, you know, we can spend days when, in the days when travel were, you know, was commonplace, we could all jump on a on a first class train, and we could afford it. But actually, there might have been cheaper ways to get there. And that’s really sometimes the crux of people’s inability to perform at the very best of their game, is because they’re trying to operate against the backdrop of constraints. And the management sometimes can can free things up either by changing policy or by allocating resources from somewhere else, or perhaps removing constraints that are self imposed deadlines, perhaps.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. And and just reflecting back to one of your comments around reporting and putting that passion on the page. And having that going back up to the to the senior leadership team. I’ve actually had a recent conversation where I was discussing work with a company, where does the company values and the ethos come into those types of conversations? So the performance management conversations do they play a role in those conversations and having the value of the ethos and the culture of the business, almost input into those conversations?

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, I really believe in that, you know, I came from my career in the military, where integrity was the watchword and you know, you were allowed to make mistakes, as long as you put your hand up, and said you’d made those mistakes. And, you know, they weren’t the same mistake three times. But I’m really lucky to watch and learn at Zzoomm where we’ve we’ve got a culture that’s around, we call a roar, where, for me, the most important thing is that openness, being being responsive, as you know, is important too, and the agility is good. But it’s the openness to have those difficult conversations, particularly when it comes in performance management conversations, where you have to be able to articulate exactly what it is that a good outcome would look like. And you also be able to have to be honest and say, here that here are the constraints that you have to operate within. And if everyone is able to have those open conversations without fear of repercussion, then I think it makes everything so much easier. I have worked in places where the culture has been very misogynist, where it’s been difficult to get diversity, and to get all of the rich content that comes from having a diverse team. And it was very difficult. It was very difficult indeed. But now I’m at Zzoomm, I really find that, you know, that open culture is making a step change in people’s performance.

Craig Howells
And just just to build on that point, again, the the nuances around company culture, ethos, vision values, how does the senior leadership team measure someone’s performance against those types of behaviours? Because sometimes it can be quite subjective around how well someone is or isn’t achieving against those elements. How was the senior leadership team? Would they measure those? And those nuances?

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It is hard. And there are many better people qualified on how do you measure some of those softer, softer metrics. Yeah, what I find in the conversations I’m have with my team is, okay, once you understand what it is that you that you’re, you have to do or what it is we have to do? How have you done that thing. And spending as much time talking about how you’ve done it as the end state normally gives you a good indication of whether or not you’ve done it in a way that is aligned with the values. And I think that conversation works works for me, and it may work for others. But it’s worked for me in a variety of situations where, when you ask people, how have you done that, you often get a feel from them whether or not they’re happy with the way in which they’ve done it. And if they are, it tends to mean that they have been aligned with their values. And if it’s aligned with their values, you can be pretty sure it’s aligned with the values of the company.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. So that was probably a little bit of a curveball coming at you there with regards to measuring something so difficult, but I think you’re quite right, and you’ve hit the nail on the head, because it probably stems from how you recruit people in the first place, and how they come into the organisation. And whether they align to the values of an organisation, that’s probably a key thing that people should consider as early on as the recruitment stage or even setting up their strategy and people strategy.

Richard Sinclair
I’ve really enjoyed listening to some of those podcasts, and the Lotus performance podcasts, particularly over over lockdown. And some of the things you know, that I’ve been learning, there really is this ability to draw, you know, you choose your own family. And the family that comes and sits around the table and Christmas, may be the, you know, the closest part of your family. And and I find that at work, you know, we draw our closest sources in the business in the same way that we take a view on family. And I try and make it very clear to new joiners when I’m when I’m doing induction, that they are part of the family. And in families, you can have arguments, you can have discussions. But you do that with integrity and knowing that, you know, the end of those discussions, you’re still part of the same team. And that is a way in which I try and explain what I mean by openness. And and therefore when you’re having those discussions about whether someone has done it, well, the how they’ve done it, you know, can they still be part of the family and be proud to be part of the family when they’ve achieved this great thing? And if the answer to that is yes, then absolutely. They’ve done it in an open and inclusive way.

Craig Howells
I really like the concept of family and I can imagine you’ve probably had a conversation with Joker, she explains it exactly the same way in in let’s talk talent around our core family and having that integrity piece together, which I think is really valuable and it makes you feel some part of something bigger. And now I would like to move the conversation more on to more topical basis and things that are happening at this moment in time and I know now that some people may be sick of hearing about it. I think we need to address the elephant in the room. The pandemic has put a lot of pressure on everybody, employees, managers, leaders throwing new challenges that people would never even comprehend coming into their lives and world. So, from my experience of performance management conversations, as I mentioned before, they potentially can be quite emotive, depending on how they’re phrased, throw in those extra complications of home working, home schooling, mental health and wellbeing. I’d love to get a feel of your perspective on how to address these conversations. Surely, you can’t hold someone to account for something or not achieving their goals and objectives for a situation that is completely outside of their control.

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, yeah, I mean, there’s so much isn’t there, I mean, lockdown has been a massive challenge for so many businesses up and down the country. And it’s certainly impacted every single family in the land. And, you know, whatever plans we had before loved, and they’ve all been thrown up in the air. But I would say that, certainly, you know, my personal experience has been that we’ve modified our objectives, modified our goals, in the periods, to try and accommodate what we know at any given time. And that means we’ve had to be a bit more dynamic than we would have been with our goal setting to adopt and adapt to changes in the environment. Again, you know, I was talking on the last night to a friend in the hospitality industry, and you know, he’s doing something quite different during this period, because, you know, he certainly hasn’t been able to find work for you know, about a year now, because of all the necessary preventative measures with lockdown. So it’s being double, a triple A quadruple a versatile, and being able to deliver those, you know, those changes. That said, once we’ve agreed, mutually agreed what those objectives are, I think the trickiest conversation that I’ve had with my team during lockdown has actually been holding people back from working too hard and burnout. You know, it’s not uncommon for all of my team to be online at half past seven, quarter to eight in the morning, and still be on there at seven o’clock, half by seven, at a nighttime. And when you’re starting to get emails and text messages over the weekend periods, it’s perhaps a warning sign that, you know, we might just be overdoing it. So I would. And it’s one of these things, that’s easy to say and very difficult to do. But I would encourage everyone that’s listening, and indeed, my team to make sure they try and get a balance where they programme in time for themselves, same for their families. And most importantly, as you’ve already suggested, time for their well being, we’ve all got different hobbies, you know, I’ve been renovating a rowing boat that I that I found abandoned during lockdown. And you know, it’s pretty mind numbing and cold work. But it gives you a period of reflection and gives you a period of wellness, which certainly helps my mental health and stability. So I’m not suggesting everyone has to go out and renovate a boat, far from it. But there will be things that are particular and peculiar to your lives that you can enjoy, make some time in their diary, and go out and do that. And just put that, you know, put that laptop off for a moment if you have you possibly can, now, it’s a different story when you’ve got children in exam years. And I’ve got that I’ve got that benefit too. And they obviously, you know, they’ve got a tougher than the vast majority of people aside from those who have lost or are suffering from from COVID. At the moment, you know, they’ve got lots and lots of worries and lots and lots of pressure. But you know, my daughter she needs to take a break just as much as I do. And trying to engineer that into her schedule, as well as exercise as well as proper nutrition really makes us have to think twice as hard at time management than we’ve ever had to do before.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. And I could not agree more that I totally am seeing exactly the same thing. Emails come in at weekends, evenings, five o’clock in the morning, it is like nothing else because people aren’t commuting anymore. They’re they’re seeing that time as working time to be at their desks. Now that you’ve quite rightly addressed a lot of points in there. If you had to summarise it down to three main points for individuals to take time out. How would they do that? Is it scheduling times in their diaries is it have it as a senior leader but getting them to almost dilate down through the business that actually Outside, their operating hours, they used to do X, Y, and Z, what would it be?

Richard Sinclair
I think it’s such a personal thing is really difficult. And it’s I think it’s a little rude or imposing to be able to say, you know, here are the things you guys need to do in your, in your personal life. What I do, and what I can do is share my own experience and thoughts. One of it is is to take some time out in the diary to do that time management, and make sure that you understand what’s coming up what your objectives are, I think that’s really, really important. And number has been more important. The second part is to enjoy whatever your passion is, in moderation. In a way, if it’s a glass of white wine on an evening, then, you know, enjoy that glass of white wine, but just be careful, it doesn’t turn in to the whole bottle. And the third thing is, is try and get some exercise. I know it’s very difficult for some people to be able to get out and about particularly those that suffer for ailment ailments that, you know, are more difficult to cope with with COVID. But, you know, do try and get some exercise, whether it’s a walk around the block, whether it’s, you know, a run, a game of basketball, whatever it is that your thing, really, really make time for that because you know, time doing exercises, I know, you know, Craig really helps your well being but it also helps with creativity. And the best ideas often come in the time that you’re least expecting because you’re busy doing something else. And your subconscious is working. It’s magic.

Craig Howells
Absolutely, I think, I mean, one thing that’s kept me particularly going is is getting out the house and whether that be going out for a run. I know it’s quite difficult, specially anywhere in the UK at the moment with the changes in weather it’s looking a lot milder, which is great. And but just getting out and getting into that fresh air. I know that I’ve seen it on LinkedIn and I do would say to anyone, just encourage other people to get out and around. I mean, just from looking at my LinkedIn feed today I’ve got the sales director from Wagestream saying that he gets out when he every day at lunchtime, religiously to try and get him out doing that. And what am I think the MD from Cocredo actually sharing struggles that he’s had. And actually the the benefits of his routine and taking time away from his work is really, really beneficial. And again, I echo your, your your thoughts there.

Now, I think a really nice conversation I had with someone actually this morning, around what people can do differently in regards to those objective settings, particularly around performance management conversations, is they almost scrapped the objective scheme. And they almost overnight when the pandemic kicked off. And they’ve actually adopted a different approach at the moment. And they suggested their managers focus on three priorities for a month or months goal. And those three priorities need to be something that’s within someone’s control, and have elements of personal development within there. And also an element of mental health and well being incorporated, which I think was actually when I heard it this morning, a really nice way to put it, because it keeps people on track keeps individuals developing and also focused on that key issue of, of mental health and well being at this moment in time. Now, it’s without question, I know we’ve discussed it over and over again, that this this year, last year, has been a really difficult time for all of us, and especially been difficult for those who have stepped up into their first managerial role or starting with a new team with a new company. And I just want to summarise at the end end of our discussion today, what advice or guidance would you give aspiring leaders as a with a leader with all of your experience? When they’re having these performance management conversations? Is there any particular types of skills or attributes that they should develop to make sure that they are having the best possible conversations that they can have?

Richard Sinclair
Yeah, I think, I think is almost counterintuitive, because most of the people that are new management situations, by definition got the drive and energy and dedication to their role. And they want to, you know, they really want to drive on with their careers. And I think, you know, one of the things that perhaps a few grey hairs brings you, is perspective on patience, and making sure that you are in fact, patient when it comes to achieving your objectives, either because of those constraints that I’m kicking in. It means that you haven’t got the resources to do it this month, and you have to sequence it so you do a bit this month and a bit next month or whatever it may be. But equally, you often have to be patient, because other people in the team are going through challenging times, particularly at this challenging time, there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on in other people’s lives. So you do have to be able to have the dialogue, articulate what it is, that is required in terms of outcomes and objectives. You need that conversation about how you deliver it, those outcomes. But the third one is perhaps having a conversation about when that needs to be done, and how you can sequence it in with the other things in your life. And as you say, with new and aspiring managers, everyone is so eager to please and that’s fantastic. We all love that energy that comes with someone who’s at the top of their game. But occasionally you can do the team a little favour by just reminding them that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that you can achieve that you can achieve greatness, provided you sequence it and schedule it in. Maybe it goes back to the time management conversation I’ve just been having with you. But either way, I call it patience.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. And I think that really ties in nicely with with the time management and scheduling and, and almost ensuring people that even though they’re not in a physical office, they don’t have to be running 10 times faster, because they’re not being seen every day. I think that’s a really, really strong key message. I’d love to take the time to the time to thank you for joining us today, Richard, and thank you for everyone listening on joining us on the latest Let’s Talk Talent podcast. It’s been really great to hear your thoughts and opinions, Richard, and I know I’m definitely going to take away the bonus conversations, because that makes me feel a lot more excited to have those conversations.

Richard Sinclair
Great. Well, thanks, Craig. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you today. And hopefully we both learned something.

Craig Howells
Absolutely. And to everyone listening if you enjoyed this podcast, please do rate us and subscribe to be the first notified about our next podcast. Thank you.