When your team lacks clarity no approach to talent development -however traditional or modern- will work.

The 4 things any team high performing team needs

You want your company to be a place where teams flourish, talent can develop to its potential and all team members constantly exchange feedback that enables personal growth, right? In pursuit of this goal, many companies have started to doubt the value of the traditional annual ‘evaluation-talk’, dread the hierarchical feeling of it and have moved on to a different, more modern approach. The question is: is abandoning the traditional performance cycle actually working? When is less structure too little structure?

Having been an employer for 10+ years I can wholeheartedly say: I get it. 

Although supporting your team members' growth is a noble goal, in practice it can be dreadful. Not only is it time-consuming (and sometimes downright awkward), you’d rather spend your time and focus on the actual business, right? And so I hear entrepreneurs say: ‘Can't we just hire great people and let them do their thing?’  Well honestly: no, you can’t. 

Sure, hiring great people definitely is a good idea. But even when you successfully do so, things don't just magically work out. You still need to have some things and practices in place for a team to rally around one shared mission. So that each team member can unlock their full potential.

For the last 2 years I have supported several (mainly mid-sized: between 20 and 80 employees) companies setting up their People and Culture practices like hiring, onboarding and evaluation-cycles. And one recurring topic stands out: almost all of these companies dislike the whole vibe of the traditional annual performance review cycle. In fact, several have ditched the annual performance review entirely.

But here is the issue: none of the companies that have moved away from it entirely have found anything to replace it that actually works better. 

These companies have ditched the timed cadence of formal moments and switched to an approach that basically relies on personal goal setting and continuous ‘on the job’ feedback. Sounds great right: asking your people to set their personal growth ambition obviously is a good idea. And ‘in the moment’ feedback is far more valuable than having one, poorly informed annual meeting in which someone tells you what you should be doing differently.

Then why isn't it working?

Because things just don't magically happen: for people to start setting goals and start giving each other feedback, certain things need to be in place 

Even the most motivated and close-knit teams in the world need clarity and rhythm to function and develop. In fact, it is almost certain that those two things are what made them so effective and motivated in the first place. 

Because: for people to set personal goals they need to know what the overall goal of the team as a whole is. For people to start giving feedback on each other, everyone needs to know what they can expect from one another. And it is the job of the employer/leader to provide this clarity.

Just think of any successful team, whether it is in sports or in business: focussing on clarity and rhythm is what they do.They make sure everyone knows what the team is after and who does what. And they are crazy-disciplined on reminding themselves and each other of what they are aiming for.

And this is what I see employers struggle with: providing clarity is easier said than done. Often, I talk to founders/leaders that honestly believe they provide their people and teams enough clarity to be able to perform well. When just asking some team-members directly clearly shows the opposite. This isn't because these leaders don't know what they are doing. Providing clarity is a lot harder than it sounds. But when there is a lack of shared understanding no approach to talent development -however traditional of modern- will solve your problem

So if you are ready to rethink your approach to talent development, be aware not to throw out the child with the bathwater. What problem are you actually fixing: is the traditional approach with the planned review-talks causing you issues? Or is it the fact that team members and managers don't share an understanding of what they can expect from each other?

The 4 things all high performing teams need:

The real question to ask is: how can I provide my team members with the clarity and cadence they need in order to take ownership of their (and each other's) personal growth? And to answer that question: there are 4 things every team needs.

1. Shared rules (aka: Cultural Values)

The first and most crucial thing no high performing team can go without: knowing what we can expect from one another. How? By defining a set of rules that apply to the entire team. Sounds pretty basic right? Well you’d be amazed how often this foundation is lacking.

So what makes rules work? First of all: they need to be real, meaning truly apply to everyone and there are consequences when someone discards them. Secondly, they need to be linked to your business goal, so everybody gets why they are important. And lastly, they need to be easy to understand so everyone in the team can apply them. 

2. Clear roles:

In order for people to set their own goals and to provide each other feedback, everyone needs a shared understanding of both their own role and those of the people they work with. These roles  need to be clearly defined and easily accessible to everyone. An old job description in a forgotten word-file somewhere won’t cut it. Make sure everyone knows where to find but their own role and responsibilities and those of others.  

3. Goals to aim at:

It’s called ‘personal’ growth for a reason, so you indeed want people to take ownership and define their own ambitions. Using your shared Cultural Values and role definition as guidance, now you can enable your people to set up their development goals. And make sure the sum of all these personal ambitions actually line up with your overall business objective. 

4. Moments of reflection:

Getting feedback in the moment is great. Yet besides that, people need moments of reflection. Ideally with some other, more senior person that is aware of your growth goals, has access to the continuous feedback you have been receiving, has an up to date 360 view on how you are developing and that understands what her/his role is. Someone that can help you focus, reflect on what you need and -when needed- give you the right nudges you need to grow. These moments of reflection are best done in a pre-set cadence. Have these moments once a quarter, or at least twice a year. And be disciplined about it: set dates, prepare and document what was discussed. 

So what does the ideal approach look like?

Entire libraries have been filled with ideas and opinions on how to best support your people and their growth. Is the modern, less hierarchical way superior? Is the traditional annual review still the best way to do it? Personally, I can't be bothered too much with debating all the frameworks out there. But I do think we can conclude a few things:

  • Every team needs clarity on the rules. So set up your set of cultural values and make sure they are absolutely clear and owned by everyone.
  • Everyone needs to know who is supposed to be doing what. And while you define these roles: apply your set of Cultural Values both in how you describe responsibilities and how they work in your rituals (like team feedback, review moments, etc)
  • Feedback and reflection are not the same thing. Constant feedback is absolutely great. Stimulate it as much as you can! Yet it does not replace a steady rhythm of moments of reflection. In fact: if you manage to make them fit together seamlessly you are doing great!

Lastly, whatever approach you choose, consistency really is the key. Talent development requires making a true effort. And keeping things as simple as they can be will help you to stick to it and get others within your team to follow your lead. And when you get it done: the effect your team will make on your business will be truly tremendous.

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