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Why Your Performance Review Won't Work for Senior Employees

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Everyone needs a performance review, right? Well, we all need feedback—and annual performance reviews are just one way to do that (albeit not a perfect one). The annual review (hopefully in addition to regular feedback) gives us at least one time per year when everyone knows where he or she stands and what the manager expects for the next year.

This works pretty well for entry-level employees. But what about people in the executive suite? It's not such a simple review process when it comes to executive performance—while it's relatively easy to set benchmarks and compare results for account manager Jill and account manager Joe, the C-suite is made up of unique responsibilities, metrics of success and leadership requirements. You can't really compare the Chief Marketing Officer to the Chief Financial Officer the same way you can compare two Account Managers.

So, how should the "review" process work for senior employees?

A Different Set of Expectations

The expectations for executives are not only different from each other, but also different from the rest of the company. In a recent article, Dave Girouard, CEO of personal finance startup Upstart, outlined six things he expects of his senior team.

  1. I have a high degree of confidence that [your function] will consistently execute well.
  2. You have the skills, commitment and leadership necessary to lead your team for the company we aim to be in two years.
  3. You're chronically discontent with where the company and your department is today. I don't spend a lot of time challenging you to do more or to do better—you're the challenger. I more often find myself at the receiving end of aggressive plans from you to do more, to take your department—and in fact the whole company—to the next level.
  4. You exercise great judgment and wisdom when it comes to what's critical to our business.
  5. You have a paranoia and sense of urgency matching my own.
  6. I'd trust you to meet one-on-one with our most critical constituencies on the most difficult topics.

These things are substantially different from the expectations of everyone else in the company. We don't expect the customer service rep to devote her whole life to the company, but, in a way, we do expect the Senior VP to. (Not that work-life balance isn't important for executives—it is, but there are tradeoffs in obtaining power, prestige and high salary, and a loss of some work-life balance is one of them.) You don't treat a Senior VP the same way you treat a Junior Analyst.

The Executive Team needs the ability and the authority to change on a dime if they determine a change is needed. This doesn't mean they shouldn't check in with the CEO and the Board of Directors, but they need that freedom.

How Executive Freedom Impacts Feedback

How does this weight of responsibility impact how companies should provide feedback to executives? While senior people need feedback and mentoring, most of their feedback should come through the results that they see and analyze themselves. For instance, the CHRO shouldn't need the CEO to sit down with her and say, "I see that turnover is up. Here's what you should do about this." Instead, she should be going to the CEO and saying, "Turnover is up. Here is what I'm going to do about it, unless you have any objections."

In reality, this should be the way that most reviews are done for senior employees. Executives should be self-sufficient workers who determine the best way to do their job and are constantly looking for ways to do it better—which can be a lonely role.

CEOs should have one-on-one meetings with each member of the executive and senior team. The senior employees should proactively bring up problems with the CEO and the CEO should provide feedback on the executives' recommended solutions. The Board needs to be apprised of what is going on, but the responsibility for goal setting and measuring those goals falls squarely on the department head's shoulders.

This means that executives need to be different than regular employees—even the best of the best regular employees—and their feedback process needs to also be different. While senior employees should have a listening ear and support when necessary, they also need to be their own best critic.

Photo: Shutterstock

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