autumn speharIn today’s episode of We’re Only Human, I talk with Autumn Spehar, HR Director at Stout Advisory, about how her company made a radical change in its approach to performance management. We also talk about how it’s working out one year later and the key lessons learned.

Check out the show below:

Show Notes

Performance management is one of the most hated HR systems in existence. Yet virtually every employer has a need to measure performance, set goals, and give feedback. So, what’s the right balance between a system that meets the needs of business leaders and one that meets the needs of the employees?

In today’s discussion with Autumn Spehar of Stout Advisory, Ben delves deep into this question by asking Autumn to describe her company’s transition from annual, paper-based performance management to a technology-enabled approach utilizing continuous feedback, real-time recognition, frequent check-ins, and more. This conversation is more than theory–it’s based on a year of practice in using the system, including the ups and downs that any company might face in this kind of transition.

Listeners to this episode will not only get to hear about Stout’s new outlook on performance, but they will be treated to some insightful commentary about the connections between culture, behavior change, and other elements that some of the “headlines” on performance management seem to miss. If you’re in charge of performance management at your company or you think your system could use a refresh, this is the episode for you!

power of moments

I’m reading a new book, and it’s pretty amazing. The Power of Moments tells stories and gives examples of how to create amazing moments of value for employees, students, families, etc. Two of the principles from the book can be leveraged for employee reviews and I want to focus on them today.

Assurance + Expectations > Feedback

The first concept is called Assurance + Expectations. Researchers performed a study on students that received graded feedback on their work.

  • In the first group, students received a generic “these comments are feedback.”
  • In the second group, students received “I’m giving you this feedback because I have high expectations and know you can do better.”

After receiving the feedback the students had the opportunity to edit and resubmit their work. A much larger portion of group two resubmitted their work for review. But why?

The concept comes down to Assurance + Expectations. If we provide assurance and give a set of expectations, we can empower individuals to perform at a higher level, provide greater depth, and make the transaction much more of a positive experience. Those individuals in group one didn’t get any positive reinforcement, insight into expectations, etc.

Within the performance process, it’s not enough just to give someone a piece of feedback and move on, especially when it’s critical. We need to provide critical feedback in the context of assurance (you can do great work) and expectations (I expect you to do great work). That relatively minor change shifts the whole context of the conversation from punishing someone for messing up to helping them discover how they can improve.

Backward Integrated Design

The second concept that applies to the performance management process is backward integrated design. This basically means backing out the design process and starting with the outcomes you hope to achieve. For example, many would say the ideal outcome of performance appraisals would be to help employees perform better. But when we look at how they are structured (especially when done once or twice a year), that simply can’t be the case, because we spend our time measuring their old performance, rating it, telling them what they did right or wrong, etc.

Instead we need to think about what actually creates better performance:

  • Recognition
  • Coaching
  • Feedback

By incorporating these elements into the process we can actually improve our chances of hitting the overarching goal of improving employee performance. Our research shows that high-performing companies are much more likely than low performers to use these and other elements in the performance process. You can check out the rest of our findings on the Lighthouse Research website if you’re interested.

This summer at Lighthouse we’ve been working our way through a number of research studies, but to be honest one of the ones I’ve been incredibly pumped about is focused on performance management. It’s probably because I get a sense of the discontent around this practice regardless of where I go and who I speak with. It’s incredibly hated at so many companies by HR, management, and the employees.

But there are also companies that are using it as a kind of secret weapon. In the research (the full report will be published in September) I am seeing some very interesting points on how companies plan to approach the practice of performance management, and it’s encouraging me to focus on it not just as managing or reviewing past performance, but enabling great future performance.

Top 10 Research Highlights

  1. We keep hearing it in the news–performance management is shifting/changing/dying. It’s certainly not staying the same. Approximately 60% of employers have made changes (including both minor adjustments and major shifts) to their performance process in the last 24 months. Another 25% are planning to in the near future.
  2. Despite the common discussion, annual goals still rank as the number one way employers manage performance. This is followed by recognition, coaching, and leveraging strengths.
  3. While performance feels like a drag for many employees (anecdotally :-)), the number one reason employers still practice it is to improve individual performance for workers.
  4. Which seems kind of said, because just 4% of employers say that their approach is highly effective and enables greater employee performance.
  5. Nearly one in five companies say that their performance management technology is clunky and difficult to use, which hinders progress in performance management, measurement, and improvement.
  6. At the same time, two-thirds of companies say that their approach improves engagement levels for their workforce. This is very much split by the kind of culture a company has (more on this below).
  7. High-performing companies are 58% less likely to say their approach to performance management is ineffective.
  8. High-performing companies are 20% more likely to say their performance management philosophy improves engagement rather than diminishing it.
  9. Astonishingly, companies with a competitive or controlling culture were more than three times as likely to say their approach to performance management failed to deliver the results and may actually impede employee performance and engagement.
  10. The performance practice spectrum. We’re analyzing the data through the lens of performance management activities on a spectrum. On one end are the old-fashioned, unpleasant activities like forced ranking and annual reviews. On the other end are more positive, engaging practices such as development coaching, peer feedback, and more.

    What we see in the preliminary results is that companies with a more collaborative culture are more likely to practice on the positive end of the spectrum while firms with more controlling cultures are more likely to fall on the negative end. More to come on this as we explore the data!

These highlights, while intriguing, are fairly high level. Look for additional insights in our upcoming white paper and webinar (to be announced) that focus more deeply on culture, what high-performing companies do differently, and other key insights from the research!

In every company, there comes a time when someone makes an offer to a candidate to come and work for them. What is interesting is the wide variety of advice in the marketplace that advises candidates on how to handle that critical negotiation.

Years ago I got my start in blogging by sharing career advice with job seekers looking for an edge in the hiring process. My peers constantly told people that for the strongest negotiating position, they should hold out as long as possible. In other words, it followed the old adage “the first one to speak in the negotiation loses.”

But that’s not necessarily true.

salary negotiationWhen I was recruiting, I wanted to find out from the candidate early on, whether through a job application question or through an informal conversation, what sort of salary range they were looking for. If it wasn’t offered, I would share the range of the opening early in the process. Was I showing my cards? Yes. But I was also attempting to conserve a valuable resource: time. Continue reading

I was talking with a friend last week about technology–specifically the kind we use in the HR, payroll, and recruiting space. His organization is using an awful tool that costs quite a bit of money. It’s not user friendly. It doesn’t make data easily accessible. And it’s become a running joke that any basic business need will require yet another $20k+ module just to meet that single need. It sounds like they are in the perfect place to be considering other technology, right?

And yet he and I both know that they are not going to make a change any time soon. Despite the availability of various “HR modules” within the system, he uses a point solution to handle recruiting needs and an Excel spreadsheet manage employee data. At some point he’s going to have to move to something else, but he and his organization are just part-way into the HR technology maturity curve. Here’s a look at the curve (in my opinion) and how technology is normally put into place.

The first steps

Diving into HR technology doesn't have to be scary

Diving into HR technology doesn’t have to be scary

One of the first steps most companies take in terms of HR technology typically comes with recruiting. Adding an applicant tracking system to eliminate manual job posting, tracking of candidates, and collaboration with the hiring team. Using a piece of recruiting software (like Recruiterbox, for example), can drastically change HR’s role in the hiring process from administrative to strategic.

I can still remember the before and after look at my recruiting practices when it came to technology implementation. When it was all manual, I was just trying to keep the mass of information organized enough to pick anyone competent and qualified. When we transitioned to using an applicant tracking system, I was able to then spend more time coaching hiring managers, screening candidates more thoroughly, and onboarding new employees.

Another common first step is in payroll. Again, it can be an opportunity to change from very administrative (did we get that person’s dependents right?) to a more strategic focus on compensation, variable pay, and other important elements that fall through the cracks when you’re spending several hours a week reviewing pay stubs.

Next up: performance/learning

Depending on the organization, as they grow there is usually a focus on automating performance management, learning, or both. For instance, when I worked for an organization with heavy regulations around training and staff certifications, our primary system (even before having a good HRIS) was a learning management system (LMS). In another organization, I campaigned regularly for a performance management solution to help alleviate the burden of continuously growing performance management paperwork. This is often seen as less strategic and important than recruiting or payroll, which is why it’s not at the top of the list in terms of implementation priority.

One area I’ve seen grow of late is the set of companies offering performance feedback/employee engagement solutions based on simple surveys and quick “pulse” feedback gathering. These are very easy to implement and don’t require all the trouble of the typical performance management solution.

The later stages

The deeper into this maturity process the company goes, the more likely it will select a suite to consolidate vendors and ensure a uniform data set across the various platforms (learning, performance, compensation, etc.)

One area I’ve been very interested in of late involves the difference between companies that pursue point solutions to solve various problems and those that snag the suite to combine each area. A few questions that have bounced around in my mind:

  • Which type of organization has better performance?
  • What factors play into that overall technology selection choice?
  • Are organizations using data better if the systems are integrated than if not?
  • What about the specific benefits highly targeted point solutions offer that the big suites do not?

What are your thoughts? Where are you in this HR technology maturity curve? 

HR Project Management Skills are Powerful Tools–Do You Have Them?

When you look at a list of key HR competencies, one thing that often is lacking is a good set of project management skills. While it’s easy to try and segment the human resources profession away from the project manager role, I see it as a core part of what we have to do. Today we’ll go over some of the key aspects of HR project management, what it is, where it fits into your career, and how to use it.

What is HR Project Management?

hr project management diagram

It is very much what it sounds like–the use of project management skills for HR projects/purposes. Think about some of the key skills a project manager has that we value from an employer standpoint:

  • Managing a budget
  • Managing a timeline
  • Managing people/resources
  • Ensuring stakeholders are in the communication loop
  • Developing change management plans

It’s difficult for some people to do one of those well, and a good project manager can handle all of that and more. So it’s easy to see how we can use those types of skills to our advantage in a human resources role. The various projects we have to carry out (some examples of those are listed below) need good project management principles to guide them and ensure their success.

HR Project Management Examples

The easiest way for me to understand a concept is through examples of seeing it in action, so I thought we could go through a few to explore the aspects of this competency. These are just a surface glance and not in depth, detailed project plans, but it’s still a good look at how the disciplines work together.

Benefits Change

Scenario: Benefit costs with current providers have become untenable. Management has requested evaluation of other providers to reduce costs, even if it means reducing the level of quality.

HR Project management role:

  1. Work with management to establish specific objectives (how much cost reduction? how much quality deterioration is acceptable? what is the timeline? etc.)
  2. Develop a set of requirements from those objectives. That set of requirements will be the foundation for your RFP (request for proposal) that you use when talking to vendors.
  3. Contact vendors with the RFP, collect bids, and make a selection based on key factors (price is key in this example).
  4. Complete transition to new provider, terminate relationship with previous vendor, and continue post-implementation activities.

HR Project Management RFP Process

HRIS Implementation

Scenario: Your company has been growing and is ready for a new HRIS to help maintain employee records and facilitate some of the HR processes that occur. You have gone through the selection process and are now in the final stages leading up to implementation of the system. You know that it’s critical to get this last step correct in order to hit the ground running. The program will mainly be used for HR purposes (you and one other team member), but there is a manager self service portion as well that you expect to use to reduce time spent answering questions from managerial staff.

HR Project management role:

  1. Work with the provider as soon as you have a working version to learn the ins and outs of the system. If you are doing the training for other staff instead of the provider, make sure you go through the process of using the tool like one of the other staff. For instance, log in as a manager and use the self service portion so you fully understand the capabilities.
  2. Develop a training plan for educating all pertinent staff on the operation of the system, including the need for security and compliance with data.
  3. Work with provider on a launch plan. This could include dedicated support from the provider, especially in the early days when many new users need assistance.
  4. Develop a feedback system so that users can funnel questions, requests, etc. back to you.

Transitioning to Shared HR Services

Scenario:

Your company has had embedded HR generalists in business units for the past several years. Over that time it has become more costly, more difficult to maintain standards, and is a frustration for business units to have that budget “hit.” The leadership has decided to move to a more centralized model of delivering HR services and has asked you to evaluate that proposition.

HR Project management role:

  1. Begin researching the level of staff needed to meet current requirements via a shared model and compare that with existing HR headcount to determine how many will have to be reassigned/terminated. Create a draft budget that will cover running the new HR delivery model.
  2. Lay out a plan for what sort of service will be delivered best by a shared model and which might be more difficult to administer (employee relations, for example).
  3. Determine what other below-the-surface areas will be affected by this. While it will help ensure a specific standard of service, it could also make managers unhappy because they no longer have dedicated resources. These types of items will need to be incorporated into the change management communication plan to ensure they are addressed at some point of the implementation phase.
  4. Prepare a presentation with your findings and recommendations for the leadership team.

As you can see, there are a variety of projects that can use these types of skills. These examples were written with you as the head of the HR team having to carry this out, but in some organizations there are actually dedicated HR project management professionals in place to handle these sorts of tasks. Let’s look at how that works.

HR Project Management Job Description

Let’s qualify the role the same way we start developing our jobs in the workplace–with a description. Now, as I said, we usually don’t see a significant number of dedicated HR project management jobs, but it’s instead part of a larger HR role. The bigger the organization the more likely there is a dedicated position just for managing the human resources projects. Here’s a sample description:

The HR Project Manager is responsible for the management of HR projects to include managing project budgets, resources (internal and/or external), timelines, risks and third party vendors. Responsible for overall direction, coordination, implementation, execution, control and completion of specific projects ensuring consistency with company strategy, commitments and goals.

Responsibilities

Project-Based Customer Relationship Management
• Establish and maintain relationships with the business units and key partner groups to understand their business needs, ensure alignment on objectives, and ensure ongoing buy-in across all project activities.

Strategic Planning and Project Initiation
• Translate business objectives into projects with clearly defined scope, timing, deliverables, resources, and key measures of success.
• Formulate and continually re-assess the appropriate project management approach and project management skill set / resourcing mix across internal and external partners to ensure all project tasks are successfully completed.
• Create project plans, including timelines and milestones.
• Negotiate sufficient resources from HR sub-teams, IT, Corporate Communications, business units, and other groups as appropriate.
• Effectively set and communicate project expectations to team members and stakeholders.
• Define project success criteria and communicate to team throughout project life cycle.
• Manage and coordinate HR-related project activity resulting from business unit acquisitions.

Project Execution
• Manage ongoing project plans, budgets, resources, and vendors.
• Facilitate meetings and drive project issues through to resolution.
• Develop and deliver progress reports, proposals, requirements documentation and presentations.
• Proactively manage and communicate ongoing changes in project scope, identify potential crises and devise contingency plans.
• Coach, mentor, motivate and lead project team members. Influence project team to take positive action and accountability for their assigned work.
• Manage Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) with vendors relating to HR projects.

Change Management
• Identify all stakeholders, both direct and indirect, and determine level of involvement needed for project success.
• Work closely with Change Management Manager and Corporate Communications to ensure appropriate change management activities are defined and included in all project plans.

Post-Implementation Transition and Evaluation
• Support the ongoing development of best practices and tools for HR project management and execution.
• Conduct project post mortems and create recommendations in order to identify successful and unsuccessful project elements.
• Ensure comprehensive and seamless project post-implementation transition.

Qualifications

Degrees/Designations:
Bachelor’s degree preferred with a specialization in management or related field

System Knowledge/Experience:
Minimum 5 years working knowledge of HR systems, processes, trends, and best practices
Previous HR project management experience required, including demonstrated ability to manage multiple projects simultaneously with different stakeholder sets
Advanced experience with HR project management tools and methods to include risk management, strategic planning and change management
Strong interpersonal, organizational, analytical, presentation and critical thinking skills
Demonstrates ability to build mutually-productive relationships and interact with senior management and key partner groups (e.g., IT, Corporate Communications, HR, business units)
HR Project planning and strategy concepts
HR project management skills

HR Project Management Plan

failing to plan planning to failSuccessful projects start with a plan. We’ve all heard the old adage:

Failing to plan is like planning to fail.

So how do we start? Here are the 5 key steps in the management process:

  1. Project conception
  2. Project planning
  3. Project launch/execution
  4. Project control
  5. Project close

While it looks like a short list, it covers a broad and deep set of requirements, responsibilities, and more. Each of the pieces of the sample job description above fit into a piece of this five step process.

Developing a project management plan means that you have taken the time to think through the steps and what resources, time, people, etc. will be necessary to accomplish each. In addition, you’ll need to think about risks to the project and what you can do to mitigate that risk.

Speaking of risk, one interesting idea that my friend Alison Green has discussed in the past is the value of conducting a “pre-mortem” on a project. We are pretty much all doing “post-mortem” reviews of projects (you are, right?!?) to determine what went well, what went poorly, etc. They are great tools for helping to refine our processes over time. However, the downside is that the project is already finished, and any lessons learned can’t help to improve the results.

Enter the pre-mortem.

This is basically a meeting that is held in the middle of the project where stakeholders gather to discuss what kinds of things could hamper implementation or reduce the impact of the intended results. In other words, what could go wrong? This information is then used to improve the project in real time instead of waiting until it’s over to make any sort of adjustments.

Human Resources Issues in Project Management

Let’s take a step back for a second and look at the broader picture of the organization and what sorts of challenges that might present themselves. A specific one that I have observed in the past is the responsibility of a project manager for the results without the accompanying authority over the employees to enforce deadlines.

For example, an engineer reports to the Director of Engineering, but his Project Manager needs him to focus on a specific task. Without that position power of being “the boss,” it could introduce challenges for the project lead to get things done. This could be due to performance issues on the part of the engineer, or it could be due to competing priorities from the project lead and the supervisor.

This is a big reason why I am such a fan of influence and leadership skills (check out the leadership reading list if you haven’t already for more on this topic). A friend of mine is a superstar project manager. I kid him that his life is dictated by spreadsheets. However, that attention to detail allows him to run multimillion dollar projects seemingly with ease. In addition, his demeanor makes him instantly likable, which contributes to the long-term success of his projects because he can easily get along with employees, leadership, customers, and other stakeholders.

I’m describing this because I know that while you won’t find “be nice” on any list of key project manager skills, I know from experience–it’s one that pays significant dividends.

HR Project Management Jobs

While I touched on the availability of these positions earlier, I think it’s important to note the career implications of this specific skill set. For starters, it’s something that HR pros need to understand, especially as they advance up the career ladder (no matter what HR job title they have).

Being able to pull off successful projects is a significant career booster and can help to lead to new opportunities of increasing responsibility. I know that might be understood, but I wanted to be sure and highlight the importance of this specific career skill.

Wrapping Up

Today we looked at a fairly broad slice of the HR project management world. Without extending this to the length of a book, I do want to mention that we didn’t even talk about software or systems that can help with this type of planning. Why? Because laying software over a broken planning process doesn’t solve the problem, and in some cases it can make it even worse.

It’s important to define and understand the key principles of project management and how that ties into HR. Once you have done that you can begin exploring tools to help you accomplish your goals. I’d love to hear from some of you on these questions:

  • What sort of HR projects have you completed in the past?
  • Any specific HR applications of lessons learned that might be valuable to share?
  • What are your thoughts on specific applications of HR project management?