Question: Performance review with high-performers, without managerial skills

I am sure you have come across my situation before. Half my time, next month is blocked off for performance reviews with my subordinates!

I clearly see the value this exercise adds in helping me articulate alignment issues, but on the recipient side most people link this awkward interaction to just two things — promotion and raise (that is, assuming you still have a job.)

I have in my team, at least 2 people, of extraordinary technical skills and sustained high performance. I am sure they are going to support this with lots of data points (which they should), during the review.

My challenge is to communicate to them that they are not ready to manage their own teams, in spite of their excellent single contributor performance.

What kind of objective discussion can I have to support my case?

8 Expert Insights

Your question is more common than you might imagine.  And it is often awkward to answer in a way that would satisfy the employee.  That said, we live in a bell curve world where we have some folks smack in the middle and extremes on both ends.  Some folks were destined to be on both ends and not necessarily part of the mainstream.

A technique that has always served me well is to explain how the employee is more valuable as an individual achiever than they are as a manager.  Describe to the employee the factors that make them more valuable as an individual contributor and hopefully outline that their compensation reflects that value.  Let's hope it does.

Also, it is critical that performance reviews not take place once a year.  Performance should be evaluated on a day to day basis.  A leader coaches her/his employees in real-time and makes certain that their value is communicated on a daily basis.  In this way, there are never any surprises when the performance review cycle rears its ugly head.

Based on what you've shared I respond by asking you a key question.  Do you know that these individuals WANT to move into management or might that be something you presume they want to do?   And even if they express a desire to move into that arena, it can be because they believe they should want to as so many others around them strive to do that.

In meeting with these individuals I would suggest as a part of their review, you ask them to come prepared with what they see for themselves in their career path within your organization in terms of growth and development.  If they express great satisfaction with the work they do and desire to remain with this as their focus ... it's settled for the time being.  If, on the other hand, they express a desire to advance into a management position, let them tell you what skills they posses that makes them  feel qualified them for that position and what are the skills that they believe they would need/like to acquire in order to be as successful managing as they are proficient in what they are doing currently. You, of course will be able to add to the list of needed skills.   What I believe you will find is that once you have this discussion around agreed upon needed skills, you will be able to help them design the plan to acquire the needed learning that they acknowledge they must have.  

I have coached such individuals and in some cases, the person comes to realize while on the learning path that they really do not want the responsibility and just want to continue to be a contributor as they are currently.  As for performance reviews being annual, the people in question sign on to acquire/learn the needed skills, a more frequent check-in would be very important.  Of course, it they work with a coach, this will become a project built on more frequent focus.

My experience as an executive taught me that performance reviews have a lot to be desired. It is very important how we approach such a review whether you and the person you are reviewing will benefit from it. When I reviewed my direct reports the first question I asked: "What can I do different to make your job easier?" This started a conversation between me and the person I was reviewing that created the desired results for myself and the person being reviewed.

As far as offering a a promotion the individual you are offering this to has to want it. Often people do not want to take additional responsibilities that a supervisory position requires.

There is no substitute for an open discussion that would lead to a decision that you and your subordinate would come to.

Individual contributors with tremendous technical skills and accomplishments do often get promoted to management positions, and sometimes it's hard to tell who hates it more - those individuals or those they manage. Of course you will want to discuss those data points that reflect your people's high performance. Then you might want to discuss where they want to go with their careers and what it will take to get there.

Some individual contributors just don't have an aptitude for management. They should still be able to have a career path, based on continuing development of their expertise, recognition within the industry for thought leadership, mentoring of your employees, etc. Other individual contributors may have the desire and aptitude to pursue a management/leadership path, but they're lacking skills and knowledge. They should participate with you in creating a development plan that helps prepare them to manage/lead well.

Some questions for you:
"How has the company perpetuated the notion that performance reviews are a raise/promotion scenario?"
"What new communication needs to occur so people can distinguish a review designed for alignment from a review designed to assess promotion?"
"To what degree are the employees made aware of what the real criteria and expectations are regarding moving to a position of managing people"
"How much do they know about the distinction between being a subject matter expert (individual contributor) and a people performance expert (manager/leader)?
"What do you need to grow inside your own leadership style that will have these reviews not be a challenge in any way?"
"What conversations have you been unwilling to have with some of them that need to happen with them?"

You raise some interesting points and questions. We just did three Performance Review training workshops for a client last week, so this hot topic is definitely fresh in my mind.

First of all, the "Elephant in the Room" is that almost no one (neither managers nor employees) likes having to go through the performance review process. Therefore, many people approach it with a "let's just get this over with" check-the-box mentality. So step one is to reframe this experience in a more positive and productive way. It should be an open, honest dialogue about the past, present, and future -- focused on the person. That is, a discussion on how things have gone over the past six months (backed up by evidence and examples), how things are going now, and a developmental conversation about the future.

The key thing to remember is that this conversation should be centered on the Person, not on Projects. And it should be developmental and forward-looking in nature. A report card on the past is valuable in terms of lessons learned, but what has been done can't be un-done, so why dwell on it. We use the AID formula when giving this feedback: "Here are the ACTIONS I observed; this is the IMPACT of those actions; and now let's now discuss and explore DESIRED future outcomes." This was a quick and simplified explanation, but it provides a great framework.

One other thing that jumped out at me from your question: If you have superstar performers who are passionate and eager to take on leadership roles and manage their own teams, why aren't they receiving the training and coaching they need to do so? Rather than trying to "support your case," perhaps you should reconsider, and proactively work towards grooming them to take on more challenging, supervisory roles before they get frustrated and bored and jump ship to work for someone else who trusts and believes in them and is more willing to help them to maximize their performance, productivity, and potential.

You have the cart before the horse.  Slow down, think and prepare.

The first step is to set goals and objectives for the year.  Make them specific, measurable, attainable and timed.  These can be performance goals and development goals....especially important for those with ambition who want to learn, grow and develop.
The performance appraisal is the second step in the process.  And it's easy if the goals have been well established the year prior.
The third step is a discussion about career aspirations and development plans.

Your issue now is understandable.  Do your best to provide feedback on these individuals specific performance and behaviors that prove that they are not yet ready.  I would recommend however, focusing on using the time to develop a plan going forward to identify exactly what they would need to do and demonstrate over 2014 that they are ready for a management position.  

Investment of your time now will save you problems in the future.  

They've done some preparing. Now it's your turn.

It sounds like you have a clear understanding of what it would take for them to manage their own teams. It doesn't sound like you've let them in on your thinking.

Evaluation and communication needs to be a two-way street.

Contact me if you'd like to talk.