Assessing your own performance as a leader

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I think it’s time for a bit of a confession. I hesitate to say this because I fear there’s a good chance of it coming out the wrong way.

If any of the CEOs/ Exec Directors that I provide coaching support for see this, please don’t take it personally. It’s in no way a criticism of you. You know I’m hooked, and a junkie and all that stuff.

At the same time, this is partly to do with you, because we spend a lot of time talking about your relationships at work.

We all know that leadership is about relationships. No news there.

And yet I’ve got to admit, as someone who’s paid well to spend a lot of hours each week talking about relationships, I think we overdo it sometimes.

What’s the impact?

We can spend so long thinking and worrying about how we can make one person feel a little more secure and affirmed, and help another person manage their tendency to have a bit of a short fuse, and encourage another person to become a bit less directive with those around them, that we almost forget to ask ourselves:

How are these guys performing across their different areas of responsibility? Where precisely are they really good and where – precisely – are they not so good?

What has struck me over some years now is that when I’m talking to a CEO about relations among members of their Executive team, we really can drill down into the detail.

Yet when we come to discuss performance, the discussion tends to remain at a pretty general level unless there’s something very specific that’s rather bugged them, and then we’ll return to that specific incident a few times!

What comes first?  Relationships or performance

So I’ve been thinking more and more that instead of starting off talking about relationships, and then maybe coming on to issues of performance, there’s a lot to be said for going into this the other way round. Let’s find ways of talking more about performance and then come on to issues about relationships.

I’m working on this in different ways with different teams, and my favourite way so far involves all members of the Executive team assessing their own performance as a basis for a one-to-one session with the CEO.

So, I thought I would share with you the outline of the six main questions that I like to use as the basis for a conversation between Directors and their CEO that I suggest should be diarised for up to an hour, with the expectation that it might only need 45 minutes.

Personally, I think this is a good model for CEOs and Executive Directors to use three or maybe four times a year. Definitely no more than that.

 Top performers are the most self-critical

One of the things that I have found wonderfully predictable about this approach is the extent to which it instantly confirms the thesis that top performing leaders are always the ones who are most ready to be most critical of themselves.

This is just one of those timeless truths of leadership that, time and again, has shone through.

The higher performing you are as a leader, the tougher you’ll be on yourself in the way you assess your own performance.

At first, this used to surprise me – and then one day it clicked. Of course! If you’re a really good performer, your inner perfectionist is a key part of the reason why. And your perfectionist won’t let you get away with being too soft on yourself when you are doing the assessment of your performance!

Owning under-performance

What I most love about this approach is the way it encourages greater ownership of under-performance. It is very reassuring to see how manageable under-performance is once it’s been properly owned.

The times when under-performance is most problematic are when no-one owns it. That’s when the problems really kick in.

We all know that one of the defining characteristics of seriously under-performing teams is their capacity for non-ownership of screw-ups!

No more concealing under-performance

This is why we shouldn’t be surprised to find that this exercise triggers a pretty deep-seated defensiveness among some Executives.

They know that there are some areas where they have under-performed for quite some time, and so far this has largely been concealed from the eyes of their CEO.

This approach is about them having to ‘fess up. They’re being challenged to be completely upfront about those aspects of their performance where they don’t cut it, and it’s no surprise that they go a little defensive at first.

That’s precisely why I like this approach so much.

It’s much more difficult to go through this process and continue to blank areas of personal under-performance. Hooray to that!

Performance Self-Assessment for Executive Directors

Please give a brief answer to each question, and then bring this form to your performance meeting with the Chief Executive.

You will retain the form afterwards, because this conversation is about you driving the process of improving your performance, and the CEO and other members of the team supporting you with that.

Q1: What are the main areas of your portfolio of responsibility where you believe you are either over-performing or at least performing to a level that is more than satisfactory?

Q2: What are the areas of your performance that worry you the most, and you regard as less than satisfactory? Please be as specific as you can

Q3: What would you like to happen to enable you to perform better in these areas?

Q4: Is there anything that would you like me as CEO to do differently to enable you to improve your performance in the ways that you would wish?

Q5: Thinking about other individual members of the top team, how might they give you more support in relation to these specific areas?

Q6: Is there anything else that you would like us to change in the ways we work as a top team to enable you to drive up your own performance as a leader?

Relationships and performance – the right way round

Performance comes first, and it’s within this proposition that we discuss relationships. That’s the right way round.

I didn’t quite see this for a long time. Now that I do, it feels much easier to support CEOs in reassessing and reshaping some of your key relationships at work, because we can set these discussions much more clearly in the context of you becoming a top performing team.

Through this process you have a clear framework that enables you to see, and track, the commitment of each member of your top team to driving up their own performance.

If you try it, please let me know how it works out for you. Just think, no online assessments, no special apps, no colour coding, no new system of labeling.

Just a conversation around 6 questions. Your Directors being asked to set their standard and to be tough on themselves.

Who will grow the most quickly through this?

Easy. Those who are already your best people.

Because when you look to those who are your best to let their standard drive the conversation, you can’t go wrong.

A simple choice

Those who have become used to accepting lower standards of performance for themselves have a simple choice.

Use this conversation to get a fresh grip on their own standard-setting.

Or think about having a different sort of conversation with you.

Either way, the quest for higher performance drives relationships at work.

Now we’ve got this relationship the right way round.

Improving top team performance is bound to figure prominently as one of the challenges at our fifth Windsor Experience for Leaders on November 20-22 on Defining Yourself as a Leader. Please click here for the main themes.

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