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Who is reviewing the performance review?

Performance review

When you start an agency, your people are your most important asset. That’s not a corporate slogan, that’s an empirical truth, because it’s literally the only asset you’ve got.

When you first start, you don’t have a reputation, you haven’t got much in the way of culture (talking about culture is not the same as having one), you probably haven’t got much in the way of tools, process or infrastructure (if you do, be careful your spending is getting way ahead of your revenue curve). Advertising is a people business, so people is what you got.

Why, then, do we think that ‘talent management’ is only for the big end of town?

A year into our new agency startup, we wanted to put some process around how we manage and develop our talent, but shuddered at the thought of applying the ‘big org’ blowtorch of typical performance review process to our delicate little flower of an agency.

For a start: how do you sit in a formal boardroom and deliver a mechanical assessment of KPIs, then all walk back to the same shared desk and keep working, side by side, listening along to the same spotify playlist, happily ever after?

We did what we encourage our clients to do: listen to the experts

Simon Lusty is a manager of talent for a business whose sole focus is managing talent. He’s the Managing Director of Aquent Australia (which operates Firebrand Talent, which operates the blog you’re reading right now) and an incredibly smart operator who is nearing the end of an exhaustive process to re-design the dreaded performance review. I asked him to share his secrets for managing talent, particularly in a small organisation and, because he’s such a nice guy, he told me. His process is detailed and thorough, so I cherry-picked the best thinking and applied it to our agency.

Step 1: Ask your team to help define your culture

Whether you workshop it, run a survey, set up a suggestion box or you do it over beers, it’s important to draw your definition of culture from the people whom you expect to embody it. According to Simon, when culture is imposed by management, it becomes almost impossible to cultivate. Better to find the things that are important to your team (as well as the language they use to express them) and create a culture map from there.

Pro tip:

When you assess your team, ask them how they feel they’ve been working to express and build on the culture that they helped define.

Step 2: Align personal performance review to company performance

Just because we’re re-designing the performance review, doesn’t mean we’re going to ignore performance, or reviewing it. In fact, in small organisations it’s vital that the definitions and metrics for performance for the individual are discussed in context of the business. For a young brand, maybe reputation is more important than margin. For a business that has impatient investors, maybe it’s the other way around. So rather than start with the job description, look at the company goals first and set the individual performance expectations through that lens.

One mistake small agencies make is to ignore the fact that everyone has to contribute. So don’t shy away from taking a look at how effective each person is and whether they are making the contributions the business really needs. It’s not easy, but it gets a lot less difficult if you make this regular and habitual.

Pro tip:

Pull the performance part of the review out of the ‘high pressure’ annual event by having short, regular, informal discussions specifically about talent performance.

Step 3: Change the focus from past tense to future tense

If your talent has been expressing and building on the culture (because they co-authored it), and the regular performance catch-ups have all been heading in the right direction, the big sit down can be about where to from here? One of Simon’s main goals was to move his own process away from managing talent to planning careers. While small organisations obviously don’t have org charts for talent to climb, he maintains that many larger organisations now have flat structures that also make traditional ‘promotion paths’ increasingly irrelevant. The solution is to make the ‘future discussion’ less about the path upwards in the organisation and more about a continuing path towards a more relevant career.

Pro tip:

Training, mentoring, travel, exposure and other learning opportunities are good ways to action your talent’s desire to stay relevant. Also, be open to the possibility that your organisation might not be able to help them keep progressing, so you might have to plan (together) on how they make a move that works for everyone.

In the time it took to have a coffee, I learned more about getting more from, and doing more for, my talent than a lifetime of living inside giant agency performance review systems ever taught me. I was only able to apply a fraction of Simon’s thinking to our own agency, but its already delivering results. It’s also just enough to help our small and talented team feel like they’ve still got careers, as well as roles.

If you want to apply a little big-org professionalism to your small-org team, you could do worse than making sure they help author your culture, you keep a regular pulse on their contributions and you provide opportunities to stay relevant to a career they find valuable.

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