Enabling performance and development conversations that count
We know from our research that inspiring and future-focused development conversations are at the heart of an effective career strategy. They impact performance and engagement, enhance career satisfaction and fuel an effective talent pipeline.
The challenge for HR leaders is to build a culture, strategy and processes that enable meaningful conversations to happen and have impact.
We invited Jackie Westerman, Head of Leadership Development-Content Division at the BBC to be our provocateur for this roundtable. Jackie has pioneered the MyConversation strategy at the BBC which aims to build great conversations into the fabric of the organisation. Jackie described why this strategy is important to the BBC, the evidence she drew upon to design the new approach, and how they’ve secured the engagement and commitment of time-pressured managers.
Rosemary McLean introduced the session by highlighting how we keep returning to the topic of effective conversation strategies. This suggests that there’s no quick fix or panacea, and that each organisation needs to create the conditions in which energising and purposeful performance and development conversations can flourish in their culture.
David North referred to multiple research studies indicating the central role of quality career conversations in an effective career strategy. Our own work with clients has revealed the different expectations of a good career conversation between managers and employees. These clearly show that a tick box approach from managers doesn’t tick the box for employees!
“We’ve got everything we need system-wise, but that’s less relevant than the quality of human to human interaction”
We asked participants how well their organisations were enabling consistent, high-quality performance and career conversations. They told us:
- It’s a mixed bag; lots of conversations are happening, but probably not very in-depth on career development
- Building trust and confidence between line manager and employee is crucial
- We continue to be an organisation that shies away from giving honest feedback
- We’ve launched a survey to understand what people want from their line managers
- Equipping employees with the knowledge and skills to help themselves is working
- A lack of role-modelling means that many leaders ‘don’t know what good looks like’
- There’s an appetite for conversations, but people aren’t always clear about our career principles, or who ‘owns’ the conversation
“High-profile success stories demonstrate that internal development and progression is possible; how do we make these opportunities available to everybody?”
Jackie began by explaining how a focus on performance is key to creating a BBC that offers value to all and is fit for future generations. She described how their decision to move away from a top-down, backward-looking, deficit-based annual appraisal process had created other issues. A resulting lack of clarity on goals, reduced feedback, and employee confusion and passivity indicated the need for a radical re-think.
Jackie’s brief was to create a new conversation strategy with the objectives of improving performance, commitment, engagement and involvement. She took an evidence-based approach, reviewing practitioner case studies, motivational theories, and peer-reviewed papers. In addition, she consulted internal stakeholders. A new High Performance and Development Deal emerged from this study, proposing that:
Individuals own performance and career development
Leaders coach, enable and inspire great performance
The Organisation supports with processes and opportunities for development
Two core beliefs are at the heart of the employment relationship the BBC wants to foster:
- Having a sense of purpose, clear goals and supportive relationships help people to perform at their best and feel good about the contribution made
- Working in a hybrid way, it is more important than ever to feel valued, connected and supported in the work that we’re doing
Practically, leaders now have two formal check-in conversations each year. A foundation-setting conversation, when goals are set, feedback shared and learning reviewed, and a mid-year review with the same agenda.
Jackie said that an important outcome has been a shift in how the leader’s role is seen; people understand the manager is responsible for a purposeful career conversation, not fixing people’s careers. She thinks key to a successful conversation is ‘the social context’, and that a high level of trust comes from each party investing in the relationship.
“People want conversations that are open, authentic and candid”
As well as introducing additional ways to measure the quality of the conversation, next steps include leader training in the key conversation skills, and improving the way that poor performance is handled.
Finally, Jackie shared a series of tips for building a new conversation strategy:
- If it is broke – fix it!
- Start with purpose
- Systems approach
- Keep it clear and simple
- Build in reviews
- Get inspired by other organisations, but use the science to build your design
Participants shared their own experiences which included:
- An approach to help employees to prepare for career conversations where employees are asked ‘Where are you in your career and what are you looking for from the next stage of your development?’ Three options are offered to shape their response: To grow in role, a move across the organisation, or upward progression. Equipping people with this kind of self-insight and personal agency can help them to ‘pull’ the performance and career support they need.
- The importance of helping managers to be more purposeful in their conversations. To think about their values and how they want to lead, and what this means for the way they behave in performance and development conversations.
“Careers and leadership are ultimately about conversations, and we must be careful not to over-intellectualise them”
Jackie recommended taking a systems approach, and one person highlighted the connection between reward systems, performance and career development. She asked, for example, whether the system helps or hinders lateral movement?
Another relevant question is whether the reward system encourages a development or performance rating focus in review conversations. It’s worth noting that the BBC do not operate a performance-related pay system. This impacts the exploration of feedback and potentially the climate for development discussions. Ultimately, all effective conversation strategies are designed to reflect the unique context and needs of the organisation.
“You can’t grow your career unless you’re performing”
A recurring theme was the central role that feedback plays in effective performance and career conversations. It’s important everyone understands that ultimately, opportunities for career progression depend upon sustained, strong performance. In this context, we need to equip leaders to provide and explore feedback, and help them understand that being ‘nice’ is not, in the long run, being ‘kind’.
In conclusion, participants shared the ideas they were taking away from the discussion:
- It’s essential to create the conditions for great conversations
- Our processes should be as simple as possible
- Be clear about what you want to achieve from a conversation strategy
- Build your approach on what the evidence suggests works
- Continuously review how effective your conversations are; we have plenty of opportunities to improve them
- Trained in-house coaches and mentors can help everybody get the most from development conversations
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