Rethinking how to motivate and measure employee performance

By Dawn Kadlec

I’m not a huge sports fan, but occasionally I will see—or some sweet soul will recommend—a sports-related article that interests me and offers unexpected insights.

I was reminded of that by an email I received recently from a co-worker.

“Hi, Dawn. You should read this.” I glanced at the link.

Okay. Click.

It was a story about the upstart Carolina Hurricanes’ surprising run to the National Hockey League’s eastern conference finals.

Evidently, the team is relishing its unofficial epithet as “a bunch of jerks,” after a well-known hockey commentator used the phrase to describe its players and their over-the-top victory celebrations.

That was amusing, but it’s not what stood out for me in the article.

“Culture is maybe the most overused word in pro sports,” the writer observed. “But to the Hurricanes, it meant something.”

That got my attention.

The team’s coach added: “We wanted to raise the bar around here. Part of the change, in my opinion, was changing the way we looked at ourselves and where we wanted to be.”

The quote immediately resonated with me, given that we’re in the middle of a similar transformation at McMillan—one that balances a desire to preserve and strengthen our unique culture and shared values with our ongoing commitment to elevating our overall performance.

Also, like many companies, we’ve flirted with the idea of moving from a family-based culture to one that is more sports team-like, an idea promoted by Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, about a decade ago and widely adopted since.

It’s not a paradigm that’s perfectly suited to our business. Indeed, it’s helpful to look at some of its flaws to illuminate what we’re really striving to achieve.

A question of identity

First, we’re not a sports team. In sports, you have a clear set of rules governing a game and opposing sides whose aim is to defeat the other in an established period. Everyone does more or less the same thing with varying degrees of skill: move a ball or puck or some other object and, if fortune favours, score points. The side with the most points when time expires is declared the winner.

That’s not how we work.

Also, the value of teamwork and individual excellence isn’t exclusive to sports. If a comparison helps, we might instead look to an orchestra or theatre company, also commercial ventures involving high-performing individuals whose aim is to achieve success in their field and satisfy paying customers. (Come to think of it, we often talk about “casting” individuals to suit specific projects.)

So, where does that leave us?

We’re fully aware that we’re not making widgets, as the cliché goes. If we were, it would be easier to quantify performance targets. We could add capacity and modernize equipment and operations to go from producing 1,500 widgets a day to 2,000, for example.

Instead, we work in a creative industry, which is rife with intangibles. Also, while a lot of what we do involves teamwork, a considerable amount of effort is solitary. We’re focused on the customer’s view of our clients, building meaningful brand experiences,  financial matters, strategy, creative services—you name it.

In the end, why can’t we just be ourselves?

Purpose and passion

The answer, of course, is we can. We’ve been well served by the belief that we’re a collective of creative individuals who have chosen to work together on marketing-oriented adventures because we believe that the quality of our efforts together exceeds what we can do alone. The difference for us now is that we want to elevate our collective performance to grow the agency and expand our reach, and for that we need to shake things up a bit.

To start, we need to get to a better understanding of why we do what we do. People need purpose in their lives, and they want to feel that they are doing something meaningful. It’s the best performance motivator I know. It’s something we’re still working to identify, but it will provide the essential foundation on which we can build other things.

One of those is how we will measure performance. For as long as I’ve worked at McMillan (it’s 14 years now), performance reviews have focused simply on identifying areas of strength and areas in which individuals might improve. It’s a narrow approach, and it doesn’t serve management well in terms of providing useful data.

We realized we needed a reset, starting with some fundamental baselines.

Preparing for success

Initially that meant creating job descriptions for every position—something we’d never done formally in over two decades as an agency. It was an arduous exercise, and as soon as they were finished we needed to revise them. But that’s another story. The point is, it was a meaningful first step toward clearly articulating roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

We also developed journey maps. We needed to know what a typical day, week, and month looks like for individuals across the agency. The exercise was rooted in a desire to identify an ideal workflow and tool stack that’s optimized for our needs, but by summarizing the key challenges for each department, the journey maps also offered insights into potential roadblocks getting in the way of performance.

We’d already implemented regular one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports, and we’re moving toward twice-yearly reviews that will continue to be partly peer-based in addition to relying on self-assessments and manager input. Those interactions are intended to work on the no-surprises principle.

Keeping score

One of the biggest shifts is still a work in progress. We’re transitioning to a review model that assigns points to more subjective, anecdotal information and, as a result, puts employees somewhere in a nine-box grid. Those points reflect where an individual sits in terms of performance and potential for growth, from underperforming to future leader. Performance rates ownership, discipline, teamwork, and composure. Growth allots marks for active curiosity, strategic vision, and leadership.

Naturally, our goal is to see as many employees as possible landing in the top quadrants. That will reinforce the importance of fostering a work environment that’s founded on a strong sense of identity and a shared purpose—one that gives people reason to come to work each day and do their best.

As another article I read about the winning formula a hockey team adopted to transform itself into a serious playoff contender put it: “We give them all the tools and then we hold them accountable.”

I might be something of a sports fan, after all.

Dawn Kadlec is Vice President, Operations at McMillan.